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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Majestic Phnom Bakheng

Majestic Phnom Bakheng

"Every haunted corner of Angkor shares in the mystery of the Khmers...Here the

shadows seem to lie a little deeper, for this hill is like nothing else in the district".

The temple of Phnom (mountain) Bakheng stands in grandeur on a natural hill sixty-seven

meters (220 feet) high north of Angkor Wat. If you arrive at the summit just before

sunset it affords a spectacular sight and a panoramic view of Angkor and its environs-the

five towers of Angkor Wat in the west, Phnom Krom to the south-west near the Grand

Lake, Phnom Bok in the north-east, Phnom Kulen in the east, and the west Baray. Until

the 1970s this temple was accessed by elephant which a French visitor described as

a promenade classic and very agreeable.

Yacovarman I built the temple of Lolei in 893 and then moved the capital from Roluos

to a site he named Yasoharapura, or Angkor as it is known today. This area remained

the heartland of the Khmer Empire until its demise 500 years later. Here he built

Bakheng as his state temple. For this reason Bakheng is often called "the first

Angkor". It was previously believed that the Bayon was the royal city but later

an inscription identified the location of Bakheng as the royal city. French archaeologists

first doubted the assignation of the Bayon because the reliefs were mainly Buddhist

in inspiration. The center of the city and its ancient boundary walls were discovered

by the French through a detailed study of maps of the region.

Like his predecessors, Yacovarman I constructed the East Baray fed by the Siem Reap

River to insure an adequate supply of water for the cultivation of rice. Then he

built the temple mountain of Bakheng, one of the great monuments of the Khmers. The

inscription identifies five other temple-mountains built by the same king but only

three have been found-Phnom Krom, Phnom Bok, and Phnom Dei.

Bakheng is clearly in the style of Bakong, the temple-mountain at Roluos. It is built

on a square plan surrounded by a wall of four kilometers on each side. This was originally

surrounded by a vast rectangular moat. At the summit, instead of a single tower as

at Bakong, there are five towers arranged like the dots on a die with four in the

corners and one in the middle. They stand on a base with five tiers. The central

sanctuary is of sandstone whereas the surrounding towers are of brick. This combination

signifies the decreasing use of brick and the increase of sandstone as a building

material. The central sanctuary and the four towers originally contained a linga

the symbolic symbol of Siva to whom the temple was dedicated. The sanctuary is open

on all four cardinal points.

The five tiers of the square base are intercepted with a steep stairway on each side

corresponding to each of the four cardinal directions. Seated lions flank each side

of the steps on the five tiers. Small brick sanctuary towers occupy the corners of

each tier and each side of the stairway.

The decoration at Bakheng gives its name to an art style. It is a continuation of

the style set out at Roluos. The carving is luxurious and detailed. A finely carved

scroll of foliage provides a sumptuous background on the central sanctuary. The foliage

theme continues on the lintels and is dotted with small figures. The sculpted figures

at Bakheng are formal and facing forwards. The female divinities in niches at the

corners and celestial nymphs with delicately carved bands of foliage above are noteworthy.

An inscription is visible on one of the pillars of the central sanctuary and below

it is graffiti written in Vietnamese, reminiscent of its recent history. Inside the

central tower there is a square crypt which is explained by a legend, The Twelve

Young Women of Angkor.

A woodcutter and his family were hungry and he needed to sell his goods. He had twelve

daughters and they were all "good, strong, healthy girls who seemed to have

been born hungry" He heard that the price of firewood was good at Angkor Thom.

He wanted to go there to sell his wood but could not find anyone to transport it

to the Royal City because everyone was busy moving stone from the quarries to temple


He decided he would have to get rid of his daughters so he took them to the forest

and left them. But Neang Pou, the youngest, led her sisters home again. The father

was distressed and took them again to the forest where the starving girls were discovered

by Santhomea, the Queen of the Ogres. She took them to her palace and raised them

to adulthood. But the girls were unhappy and one day they ran away to the forest

where they survived on fruits. A guard of the King of Angkor found them sleeping

in the branches of a fig tree and took them to the great royal city of Angkor Thom.

When they arrived it was the day of a festival with a bullock race, elephant fight,

and polo and the Great Square of Angkor Thom was alive with activity. Men and women

were dressed in brightly colored clothes. They rode in painted carts pulled by water

buffaloes whose "horns and hoofs were gilded."

The guard presented the sisters to the king who told him their story. "You are

all wonderfully fair," he said. "It would be impossible for me to choose

only one of you to be my wife so I shall marry the entire dozen of you."

The king and his wives lived happily until they were discovered by the Ogre Queen

Santho-mea. Stealthily disguised as a beautiful woman she went to the city of Angkor

Thom where she presented herself to the king as a queen from a far away land. The

king invited her to stay in the palace as his favorite wife and she consented. He

was enamored with her beauty and willing to do anything for her. She demanded that

the eyes of the sisters be removed and that they be banished from the palace. But

only 23 eyes were removed by error and the girls were taken to a cave on Phnom Bakheng

where they were left to starve.

They managed, though, to survive by finding morsels of food. All of the sisters gave

birth to a son. After childbirth the girls died except for Neang Pou, the youngest

and the one with the eye that was not removed.

Her son, Rosthisen, wandered about Angkor and his resemblance to his mother eventually

caught the eye of the king and the ogre queen. In revenge the queen wrote a note

to her daughter with instructions for Rothisen to be executed immediately. She instructed

Rosthisen to deliver the message to the northern palace.

On the way Rosthisen stopped to help a hermit and as he was sleeping the hermit read

the letter. He substituted it with another letter and advised the girl to marry Rothisen

at once.

Rothisen was happily married to Neang Kangrey and lived with her in the palace of

the ogre until one day he opened a sealed door and saw 23 eyes looking at him. One

eye seemed more reproachful than the rest. He realized for the first time what had

happened to his mother and aunts.

He returned to Angkor with the eyes and revealed the disguise of Santhomea and restored

the sight and youthful beauty of his 12 aunts. The woodcutter's daughters returned

to the palace. Even though they found the king elderly and quarrelsome they had regained

their eyesight, youthfulness, and freedom. Standing at the summit of Bakheng one

conjures up the story mindful of the ghosts of the sisters and the ogre queen.

Bakheng is highly symbolic and conforms to the laws of Khmer cosmology. Its position

nearby the Siem Reap River symbolizes the sacred Ganges River. Originally 109 towers

in replica of Mount Meru adorned the temple of Phnom Bakheng but many are missing.

The total includes five towers on the upper terrace, 12 on each side of the five

tiers of the base, and another 44 towers around the base. The brick towers on the

tiers represent the 12-year cycle of the animal zodiac. Excluding the Central Sanctuary,

there are 108 towers symbolizing the four lunar phases with 27 days in each phase.

The levels (ground, five tiers, upper terrace) equals seven and corresponds to the

seven heavens of Hindu mythology.

Even deserted the temple is "Angkor's principal monument to beauty...Phnom Bakheng

is worthy of its shrines."

"The sun is dropping into the Tonle Sap, whose glint is visible through the

thinning trees beyond the old Western Baray, and Phnom Bakheng stands against a halo

. . . mysterious gate to a whole procession of mysteries."



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