Ancient Angkor Temples – Day Three

Ta Prohm Temple-Day 3

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple

On day three after a warm breakfast of stir fried rice noodles and eggs, we headed to Ta Prohm (Ancestor of Buddha, in Khmer), located about 1 km east of Angkor Thom. Ta Prohm was built in the late 12th to early 13th centuries, during King Jayavarman Vll’s reign, and dedicated to his mother. It served as a Buddhist monastery for the wealthy. After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. Since its “discovery” by European explorers in the 19th century, little restoration of the temple complex has been done.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple

Thus, it remains the way the explorers found it, giving it a natural look, overgrown by nature (although many locals wanted to reclaim the temple), with its crumbled walls, galleries and rooftops, and intertwined with tree roots of giant banyan trees (also called strangler fig trees) and silk cotton trees.

(Note: when the seeds of these trees germinated in the cracks and crevices of the temple, its roots extend downward into soil and work their way into the stone structures. As the roots grow thicker, they wedge open the blocks and bricks…and eventually become a support for the building. But, when tree dies, the loosened blocks collapse, and the structure is destroyed).

Ta Prohm Temple

Silk Cotton tree root over entrance

These huge trees tower above Ta Prohm looked amazing! Their trunks soar toward the sky and provide shade from the strong sunlight. Their gigantic long trailing roots coil like reptiles, cleaving into stone structures, snaking over bricks and growing out of the ruins. The roots of the larger silk cotton tree (with thick and pale brown knobbly roots) and the strangler fig tree (smaller with thinner and smoother grey roots) have ‘wormed’ their way into entrance walls, enclosures, and galleries and many cascade down over entrance doorways. They looked spectacular!

One of these famous tree roots was shown in the movie, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie emerging from an entrance doorway, framed by gigantic roots that protrude from the base of its trunk.

Fig tree over doorway (Lara Croft Tomb Raider film)

Fig tree over doorway (Lara Croft Tomb Raider film)

It looks like a cascading waterfall. Of course many tourists enjoyed posing in front of it and having their photos taken…including us!

We entered the temple complex from the east gopura (entrance) through a cleared forest area. We walked through a terrace that looked like a cross. There were tall bas reliefs with scenes from the life of Buddha along the walls. Then we passed by many dancing apsaras on pillars and corner walls of a gallery.

Fig tree over tower

Fig tree over tower

At times I looked up to see the light shimmering through the leaves of the silk cotton tree that rose above the towers.

As I passed by the inner enclosures, I saw many beautiful devatas carved on the corners and niches of walls and on pillars, and came to a gallery where the roots of the silk cotton tree had cascaded over its roof.  On other gallery walls are images of real and mythical animals, and fragments of lions, garudas (half bird and half man) and serpent balustrades are all over the place. There are 39 towers connected by galleries that had dark and narrow corridors. I was a bit nervous to venture into the narrow dark passages, where you can get lost (as we learnt from the locals). There were beautiful carvings of Buddha all over, and images of Buddha on many walls and galleries.

I wish I could have sat there and sketched these twisting and trailing thick roots interlacing the ruins, and spreading across the enclosures and pillars. I felt tiny next to these gigantic roots coiling through roofs, walls, pillars and floors. They were immense!  

Silk Cotton tree root over gallery roof

Silk Cotton tree root over gallery roof

As I walked around the temple, the atmosphere felt haunting, with the roots wound around the walls and towers.  I sat down on a fragmented pillar at the central sanctuary, and stopped to look at the roots cascading over the walls and clasping the pillars and spreading over the floors and ground. I was enthralled! They were still and silent… yet, were engaging me. I felt being transported through the centuries. It was mesmerizing!

Then I was suddenly ‘woken’ from my deep thoughts by a tap on my shoulder and a friendly tourist handed me my camera. I was so lost in my thoughts that I had forgotten my camera at the previous stop of cascading roots!  We next made our way through a cleared forest path and exited the temple complex through the west gopura, passing by a huge face tower.

Tree roots sprawling on ground at back exit of Ta Prohm temple

Tree roots sprawling on ground at back exit of Ta Prohm temple

Roluos Group Temples

Preah Ko temple

Preah Ko temple

After Ta Prohm we made a short rest stop and enjoyed few local snacks and refreshing coconut water. Feeling refreshed, we drove to the Roluos Group temples that include Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong. It was a scorching afternoon and our driver gave us umbrellas to help us stay cool as the temples were wide open to the baking sun and there was little natural shade along our walk. The Roluos Group was among the first temples erected in Angkor, built during the 9th Century. Their name comes from the small town, Roluos, located about 8 miles east of Siem Reap. Lolei, the northernmost and the last of the three temples to be built, stands in the middle of a small reservoir, and has four central brick towers, surrounded by a laterite wall. It was dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god.

Preah Ko temple- me standing next to Nandini, Shiva's messenger

Preah Ko temple- me standing next to Nandini, Shiva’s messenger

Preah Ko, located south of Lolei, was the first temple to be built in the ancient city of Hariharalaya, and is also dedicated to worship of Shiva. It has a central sanctuary of six towers and three large statues of the kneeling sacred bull, Nandi, Shiva’s messenger.     Nandini the bull, messenger for god Shiva

Preah Ko in Khmer means Sacred Bull; thus, this small brick temple honors Nandi. As we entered this area we could only see the towers and statues of the bulls facing three of them.

The rest of temple complex remains are mainly in ruins.  Lions guard the towers and there are carvings of mythical land and sea animals: kala, makara and garuda. Doorways to the shrines had dvarapalas (fierce looking lions placed as guardians in corner niches at entrance doorways of the towers), while the pillars and columns had intricate carvings of dancers (apsaras) and female devatas.

    Lions guarding Preah Ko temple

Male devata on temple wall

Male devata on temple wall

  

Bakong, located beyond Preah Ko, is the largest temple of the Roluos group, and is really an interesting temple. It was the first temple made of sandstone. The central sanctuary is surrounded by eight brick towers with beautiful carvings, although most of them have been severely damaged or destroyed (the sad enterprise of earlier looters and avaricious Western “art collectors”).

Bakong Temple

Bakong Temple

At the summit of the central sanctuary is a lotus shaped tower. Bakong served as the official state temple in late 9th century during Indravarman l’s reign, and was the first “temple mountain”, symbolizing Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods. It was also dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, but later became a Buddhist monastery. It looked amazing from afar. We walked from the east entrance along a narrow pathway that was lined with pretty bourgainevillas and other flowering bushes. Then we crossed a moat that surrounded the complex by way of an earthen causeway that brought us to the temple’s entrance. It is protected on each side by a seven headed naga or serpent balustrade, after which, you come to the inner sanctuary with monastery buildings on each side.

Bakong temple is built on an artificial mound and has three enclosures, the innermost containing a five-tiered pyramid, and which is surrounded by eight brick towers and other structures. At the top of the pyramid is a central tower that was added to the original structure, so its design resembles Angkor Wat. Dvarapalas and devatas guard doorways and corners of this pyramid.

Devata on temple wall niche, Bakong Temple

Devata on templew wall niche, Bakong Temple

The first three levels of the pyramid are flanked by stone elephants at the corners while lion statues guard each side of the central stairways.

Bakong Temple- stairs leading to lotus shaped tower

Bakong Temple- stairs leading to lotus shaped tower

As we climbed the steep steps to the top tower, we walked by worn-out statues of the Hindu gods, Shiva dancing and Vishnu reclining, as well as scenes from The Ramayana. It was hard work climbing these stone stairways, but it was worth it since the view from the top was beautiful!

We then stayed there for a while to take in all the wonder and beauty around us.  Even though much of the temple is in ruins it was still mystical and awe inspiring. As we exited from the bottom of the stairs we encountered Khmer children asking for donations to help support them in schools.

Khmer children at entrance of Bakong Temple tower

Khmer children at entrance of Bakong Temple tower

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