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Before Angkor: The Temples of Roluos

Before Angkor: The Temples of Roluos

Title: A Visitor's Guide to Angkor
Author: Dawn F. Rooney
Publisher: The Guidebook, Hong Kong

In the first of a series of articles contributed to the Phnom Penh Post, author Dawn

Rooney presents excerpts from her new book "A Visitor's Guide to Angkor. Rooney

holds a doctorate in art history and has written numerous books on the subject.

An ancient Khmer capital built nearly 300 years be fore Angkor Wat is an accessible

and pleasurable visit. The site of Roluos is located 11 kilometers south-east of

the Siem Reap market and comprises three temples-Prah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei-clustered

on a plain. The Roluos group dates from the late Ninth Century and is among the earliest

sites of the 600-year history of Angkor.The beginning of the art and architectural

styles that culminated in Angkor Wat are revealed through the monuments.

Roluos is a modern name for the ancient center of Khmer civilization called Hariharalaya

("the abode of Hari-Hara"), which served as a capital of Jayavarman II,

the first king of the Angkor period. Some 80 years before the temples of Rolous were

built, Jayavarman II united the Khmer civilization into a cohesive unit for the first

time and marked this historic period with the inauguration of a state religion known

as the Devaraja cult. This consecration rite took place in the year 802 on the mountain

of Kulen, north of Roluos and east of Angkor Thom.

Although evidence of this early site scarce remains of several brick temple-mountains

at Kulen have been found. The exact chronology from the beginning of the Angkor period

to the construction of the temples at Roluos is unknown as no inscriptions from Jayavarman's

reign have surfaced. After its foundation in 802, though, Jayavarman II moved the

capital several times, perhaps for economic or military reasons. The final move during

his reign was to Hariharalaya where Jayavarman II ruled until his death in 850. The

temples of Roluos date from 879 to 893 and were built by his successors. Afterwards

the capital was moved to Angkor where it remained for the next 500 years.

Like all Khmer temples, the art and architecture of the Roluos group were governed

by religious principals and the monuments were dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. The

Khmer temples have similar characteristics of materials, methods of construction

and decoration. These features reveal a vitality and an energy that becomes more

formalized in later examples.

Art historians have called the decoration on the lintels at Roluos the most beautiful

of all Khmer art. The head of a monster known as a Kala is a prominent central motif

on the lintels. The creature is readily distinguished by round, bulging eyes, a lion-like

nose, a grinning expression, and two horns. The strongly modelled Kala stands out

against a background of a rich and full melange of leaves and floral pendants.

According to legend, Kala had a voracious appetite and asked the Hindu god Siva for

a victim to satisfy him. Siva, angered by the request, ordered the Kala to devour

itself. Kala consumed his body but not his head. When Siva heard that Kala had followed

his order, he had his head placed over the doors of temples as a reminder of his

"terrible and beneficent" powers.

Male and female guardians stand in niches in the corners around the outside of the

temples and lithe celestial nymphs float in the background. These figures are modelled

with breathtaking beauty and grace. A visitor in the 1920s wrote of the artistic

features of Roluos that "...one is conscious instantly of a strange combination

of delicacy, finely wrought detail, and terrific immensity, a conception that is

peculiarly typical of the Khmer arts."

The architecture of Roluos is characterized by tall, square-shaped towers on pedestals.

They have one door opening to the east and false doors on the other three sides.

The positions of the four doors correspond to the cardinal directions.

Bakong was the state temple of the capital of Roluos. The most imposing of the

three monuments, it stands on top of an artificial mountain and was built in replica

of the cosmic mountain Meru. A central sanctuary is at the heart of the temple.

The central sanctuary and its base are enclosed by two rectangular walls separated

by a moat for added protection. A long causeway flanked by a serpent balustrade spans

the moat and leads to the first enclosing wall. At the beginning of the causeway,

multi-heads of the serpent spread to form a majestic hood. Long halls, probably for

resting and meditating, parallel the eastern wall around the temple. Two square-shaped

brick buildings in each of the corners along the enclosing east wall continue to

puzzle archaeologists.

Prah Ko ("the sacred ox") built in the year 879, is the earliest of the

three temples and is located midway between Bakong and the road. It was a funerary

temple dedicated to King Indravarman's parents, maternal grandparents, and to the

founders of the Angkor period, Jayavarman II and his wife. The idea of dedicating

a temple to ancestors stems from ancient animistic beliefs. It was an earthly representation

that assured a king the continuation of his royal lineage.

Three towers in the front row were dedicated to paternal ancestors and are protected

by male deities. In contrast, three towers in the back row were built in honor of

maternal ancestors indicated by female divinities on the exterior. It has been suggested

that these two towers placed close together may signify the two ancestors loved each

other during their earthly life.

The central area has a base with three stairways on the eastern side. The landings

are decorated with male and female figures. Sandstone lions on the stairways guard

the temple. The central towers are rectangular on the lower portion with a porch

in each of the cardinal directions. They originally contained an image of a Hindu

god with whom the deceased was united.

The columns by the doors of the towers at Prah Ko are "incontestably the most

beautiful of Khmer art" according to French conservators. Areas of the round

columns are defined by bands and decorated with a motif of alternating leaf and floral

pendants.

The sandstone lintels above the doors of the three towers in the back row are decorated

with small horsemen and figures mounted on serpents. The corner niches of the central

tower in the front row are decorated with male guardians in niches carved in sandstone

and encased in brick. The back row has female divinities. Each tower originally contained

an image of a Hindu god with whom the deceased was united.

Lolei is north of Bakong and distinguished by a modern Buddhist temple on the grounds

near it. The temple was built in 893 and the last one constructed at Roluos. It was

dedicated to the king, Yacovarman's father. Lolei forms an island in the middle of

a man-made lake, although it is dried up today. According to an inscription found

at the temple, the water in this pond was for use at the capital of Hariharalaya

and for irrigating the plains in the area.

Four brick towers arranged in two rows on a terrace comprise the central sanctuaries.

The original plan probably had six towers. The upper portions of the towers are a

series of tiers. The entrances to the towers are cut from a monolithic block of sandstone.

The three temples of Roluos-Bakong, Prah Ko and Lolei-are testimony to the artistic

genius of the Khmers. The methods of construction and sophisticated decoration of

Roluos make one wonder how the artists achieved such a high degree of skill at such

an early date.

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