At an ancient Chenla site, a series of carvings depict men who appear to be foreigners. Their identity has confounded, and divided, archaeologists and historians and raises questions about the interactions of the Khmer empires with the outside world.
Leading off of the main highway 10 minutes north of Kampong Thom city, the road to Sambor Prei Kuk is seldom travelled by tourists. But after 16 kilometres, the road reaches an ancient temple at the site of the former capital of the Chenla Empire.
The ruins provide not only a glimpse of the Pre-Angkorian period, but of a mystery that has confounded researchers – one that, if solved, could shed light on the people and cultures that interacted with ancient Khmer civilisation.
Amid the dense tropical rainforest and bomb craters left by American attacks in the 1970s lie 150 ancient sandstone temples, all pre-dating the Angkorian era. Constructed on an area of 4 square kilometres, the temples are divided into three clusters: the North Group, South Group and Central Group.
The southernmost is the home to the puzzle.
Facing the main temple, Prasat Yeah Poun, is a derelict construction called Kda Ouk. Its architrave – the beam above the columns – bears the carvings of 12 men. Each is different – some with strong, chiselled features, and others more delicate – but they have notable characteristics in common, including moustaches, long curly hair, big eyes, thick eyebrows and pointy noses.
The unique features of these men do not fit with the statues and engravings at the rest of the temples – nor, researchers say, with the physical appearance of Cambodian people. This has led to speculation that they are the portraits of foreigners. But who were these outsiders and why, in the seventh century, would they have been important enough to the Khmer people to have been literally put on a pedestal?
Chiv Heng, a 52-year-old farmer who has lived near Sambo Prei Kuk for his entire life, said he has always wondered about the identities of the men since he was a boy, but no one in the area had any answers for him.
“Some elderly people told me that they were Indian, and some said they were religious idols, but no one is sure,” Heng said. “But, when UNTAC [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] came to Cambodia to organise the election, I noticed that the faces looked similar to the face of the UNTAC’s barang [Western] staff.”
“Although I stayed in school for only five years and do not know much about Khmer history, I could tell that the heads must have been the copies of barang men who came to Cambodia in the past.”
Smey Smak, 59, a tourism police officer born in Kampong Thom and stationed in Sambor Prei Kuk since 2004, shares the same hypothesis with Chiv Heng.
“I usually hear the tour guides explain to the tourists that they were Indian, but I do not believe that,” he said. “The busts look like the Spanish people, if one asks me, but I never learned that Spanish people came to Cambodia in ancient times.”
A foreign concept
Given its decay and remoteness, today it is easy to forget that Sambor Prei Kuk was the capital of the Khmer Empire during the Chenla period, beginning during the reign of King Isanavarman I between 616 and 637 AD.
The South Group of the site dates from 600-635 AD, with the presence of lingam and yoni sculptures – anatomical representations of male and female reproductive organs – proving the builders’ dedication to Shiva.
Dr Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist and the founder of the Khmer Heritage Foundation, has been studying the site for years. He said that no documentation or inscriptions exist explaining the purpose, or the dedication, of Kda Ouk Temple, nor of the potential foreigners’ portraits.
“Some French archaeologist conducted research on this cluster during the colonial period but it produced very little detailed results due to the lack of documents,” Chanratana said. “But it is not impossible to create a hypothesis about it based on some physical evidence.”
According to Chanratana, studying the site has been complicated by a combination of age and the destruction of war. Nonetheless, based on archaeological excavations elsewhere in the former lands of the Khmer Empire, he concluded that the reliefs depict men from either the Roman Empire or Persia – two of the Chenla Kingdom’s trading partners, along with India and China.
Archaeologists have found Roman coins at the O Keo archaeological site, in modern day An Giang province in Vietnam, which once functioned as a busy port for the Khmer Kingdom. They have also found Persian coins in Angkor Borei district, in what is now Takeo province. The findings date back to the first century.
“Most Cambodian sculptures and carvings receive influence from India, but the busts at Kda Ouk Temple do not possess their features. Therefore, they can only be Roman or Persian,” he said.
He postulated that the men were merchants who came to the Chenla Kingdom by ship to trade with Khmer people. To have their faces carved on the temple, Chanratana added, could be the result of their contributions to the king or senior officials, or even their financing of the construction of Kda Ouk.
“Today, people who pay for the construction of a pagoda’s wall have their names on it, and it could be the same during the Chenla period,” Chanratana said. “No matter what, there is no way that a peasant or ordinary citizen could have their portrait on the sacred temple without doing anything significant.”
A chess match
While accepting the basis of Chanratana’s argument, and his proposed nationalities of the men, Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist who has also studied Sambor Prei Kuk, believes that the temple was not a religious structure, as others claim.
Manara instead thinks it was a place reserved for the game of chess, especially between the king or high-ranking officials and the Persian or Roman merchants, since its name translates to “chessboard” in Khmer. The carvings, therefore, could have been made as a dedication to those merchants.
“The oldest form of chess was chatrang, which dated back to second or third century AD, and was brought to the Western world [including to the Romans] by the Persians,” Manara said. “Meanwhile, the term chatrang has also been used to refer to ouk [Khmer chess] in Cambodia.”
Whereas the Khmer people were religiously and culturally connected to India, those who came from Persia or Rome had a purely mercantile relationship.
“It could also be possible that they brought chatrang to Cambodia,” he said, adding that records show that the king and senior officials played the game. This interaction, Manara speculates, is indicative of the importance in the world of the Khmer people at that time.
During its peak, the Chenla kingdom stretched from what is today Cambodia all the way to southern China, covering the majority of modern day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The temples it left behind are the remaining symbols of its wealth. During the same period, the Sasanian Empire of Persia and the Roman Empire were two of the world’s leading powers, reaching far and wide to trade silk, hides, pearls and other goods.
“People from those empires would not have played chess with Cambodian players unless they had seen them as equal to themselves,” Manara said. “Therefore, this argument could confirm the long-standing speculation about the prosperity and greatness of the Khmer Empire.”
Right idea, wrong temple
Not everyone agrees that the 12 figures on Kda Ouk’s architrave bear the faces of foreigners. Dr Michel Tranet, a well-known expert in Cambodian history, culture and civilisation, as well as the former deputy minister of culture and fine arts, studied and wrote a book in the mid-1990s in French about Sambor Prei Kuk. He dismissed Chanratana’s and Manara’s hypotheses, saying the unique reliefs do not imply anything but “aesthetic influence in art”.
“Long curly hair, pointy noses and especially moustaches were the accessories for human sculpture and engraving from south India,” Tranet said. “They were the symbol of manliness and charm, so it is not strange to even find a Buddha statue with a moustache.”
Tranet believes the reliefs may not represent any actual individual. Instead, they may just have been meant to add aesthetic value to the temple.
“Kda Ouk Temple could be the only temple to have these carvings, but it could be simply because King Isanavarman I wanted it to be like that,” he said. “Some Chinese records and the inscription in the site state that one of the king’s wives was the daughter of a king ruling in south India. He could have built the temple in her favour.”
Nonetheless, Tranet agrees that there is likely Persian influence at the site, just not in the southern group. In bas-reliefs in the northern area of the site there are men depicted whom he said resemble – in both appearance and dress – the Persian king shown on coins found at Angkor Borei. Those features include a long beard, a triangular hat and a trident. These men, he thinks, are the real foreigners at Sambor Prei Kuk, despite the focus elsewhere by archaeologists, tour guides and the general public. He believes there may have been more of these carvings destroyed by the American bombing.
“But, who they were will always be a mystery,” he said. “All I could say is that they must be someone important, at least close to the king or a senior official.”