"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
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."