Ancient Angkor Temples – Day Four

 

Kbal Spean Shrine- stone carving of god Vishnu reclining

Kbal Spean Shrine- stone carving of god Vishnu reclining

Kbal Spean Shrine

After a light breakfast of fruits and croissants, we headed for Kbal Spean. It was about an hour ride from Siem Reap but was told, worth the journey. Kbal Spean is one of the most ancient Hindu shrines in the Angkor area, and is famous for its depictions of Hindu Gods, including the 1000 lingas (phallic symbol of Hindu god Shiva). Along the trip to Kbal Spean, we immersed ourselves in the passing scenes of local Khmer life along the way, including traditional Khmer homes (which remeinded me of village homes in Malaysia), snack vendors, children sleeping in hammocks and Khmer women working in stretches of gorgeous green padi fields.  Once we stopped by the roadway to examine closely tapioca strips (spread on mats) being dried.

Khmer women working in padi fields

Khmer women working in padi fields

Kbal Spean (“bridge head” in Khmer) is an archaeological site set deep in the forest which covers the southwest slopes of the Kulen mountain range, located  northeast of Angkor.

Kbal Spean was an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site and spreads along a 50 meter (160 ft) stretch of the Kbal Spean River, which originates high in the Kulen mountains, and flows into the Siem Reap river, which drains into Tonle Sap lake. This river’s bed and bank have numerous sandstone carvings of lingas, from upstream to downstream.

Kbal Spean-lingas and god carvings on river bed

Kbal Spean-lingas and god carvings on river bed

Because of the presence of these religious symbols, Kbal Spean is commonly known as the “Valley of a 1000 Lingas” or “The River of a 1000 Lingas”, and in Sanskrit, referred as Sahasralingas. During the 11th to 13th centuries Kbal Spean was a hill retreat for Hindu hermits, who carved the sacred lingas into the river bed and, scenes and images of other Hindu gods into the rocks lining the riversides. The flowing river water continuously washes the 1000 lingas and thus is blessed, before it flows into the Angkor area.

Walking up Kbal Spean

Walking up Kbal Spean

When we arrived at the foot of the Kulen mountains, below the shrine, our young driver, who became our guide for the day, told us we had to climb a mountain to get to the shrine. I was excited, yet worried as I had not climbed a mountain before. But as I looked ahead at the well-kept traiI leading into the jungle I thought to myself, “this looks like an easy climb”! Well, it started out easy as we strolled along a stretch of sandy path that lead from the roadside and into the forested area. But soon the sandy path disappeared behind us and the huge rocks and boulders engulfed us.

At times we faced steep vertical climbs. With no steps in sight our “stairs” appeared to be a jumble of rocks and boulders. It was tricky at times but our guide took us along some easier paths, and we held on to the huge protruding roots to help us climb up through crevices and over rocks. the gnarled wandering roots crept through the cracks between the rocks waiting to trap you! So I had to carefully place my feet inside these crevices as I climbed up. Of course at times I could not keep up with our young guide, so I just stopped and sat on a rock to look at the immense, awe-inspiring trees that seem to never age. Many a  times, we held on to their strong branches as nature’s handrails. They also offered slender and powerful vines that our guide swung from, from one part of the forest path to another, over some  huge sharp rocks. It looked easy and light… but…I did not feel like being Tarzan!

Kbal Spean-tree vines

Kbal Spean-tree vines

I continued to climb over steep and at times, sharp rocks (my knees were not particularly strong!). The slowly passing trail markers (500 meters, 1000, meters, 1500 meters, etc) made our climb seem even more exhausting. But, overall, it was an interesting hike through the forest (did not seem dense to me like a forest in Malaysia, but more of a wooded look with huge rock formations). Our young driver had a wealth of information on the plants and trees. He had spent years in the Cambodian jungles as an army conscript. He and his comrades in arms were required to survive on whatever food and natural medicines that the jungle offered. His sharp, experienced eyes quickly picked out roots, bark and leaves that were eaten or taken to treat bites, beat fatigue or, as food. He then would explain how he could extract medicinal value from a tree’s root or leaves to cure sickness and treat wounds and other injuries.

For us, the climb was hot, humid and exhausting, taking about an hour and a half uphill before we reached the riverbank. But the climb was well worth the effort as it was so picturesque.  When we reached the top, a waterfall waited us!

Waterfall at top of Kbal Spean

Waterfall at top of Kbal Spean

Our friends from our hotel who passed us much earlier on along the trail, were already there enjoying the waterfall! Ah well! slow but surely! We walked over some smooth rocks and stood under its cool, rushing waters. It felt so refreshing! As I looked around…it felt peaceful….with the awesome trees, the beautiful rocks and the sound of the gushing water as it flowed over the river bed and bank.

As we walked along the bank, we saw nurmeous neatly arranged rows of stubby lingas on the bedrock, and some lingas are in a square shaped stone enclosure with an opening out, that represents the yoni (female symbol of goddess Shakti, also referrd as Uma or Parvati).

Kbal Spean-lingas and yoni along river bed

Kbal Spean-lingas and yoni along river bed

We were able to see these lingas and carvings clearly on the riverbed as it was the dry season.

We continued our walk further along the riverbed and I enjoyed examining the many carved sculptures of Hindu gods on rocks, and the lingas and yonis. This natural oasis filled with sacred images truly felt spiritual for me. 

What interested and intrigued me most are the many stone carvings on the riverbed and the banks, of the Hindu gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama, and Hanuman, as well as many animals (crocodiles, cows and frogs).

Kbal Spean-Hindu god Vishnu reclining on a serpent

 The most attractive of these was a big stone carving of the Hindu god Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, and with his consort Lakshmi at his feet, and Brahma on a lotus petal over a plant stem arising from Vishnu’s navel.

The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva on a lotus

The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva on a lotus

I was amazed to see a carving of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva on a rock nearby. As we wandered along the river path we saw other stone carving of god Shiva and consort Uma seated on the bull, Nandi, along with carvings of Rama and Hanuman. Further down the river bank were several large lingas in yonis, and water gushing over them.

I sat on a nearby rock and just drifted away in my thoughts…. of how these sacred images were carved and how long it took them. Then I closed my eyes and quietly began chanting some mantras I knew to Shiva and Vishnu. It felt natural to chant here…. with the backdrop of the flowing water over the lingas and the beautiful carvings of the god images all along the river bed and banks. Just as I was beginning to float back to the ancient time when these images were created, I was jolted back to reality by a group of tourists as they swarmed toward the riverbank, chattering loudly and breaking the lovely silence!

We then headed back downhill, but it somehow seemed easier than the climb up. We arrived at the main road sweaty and exhausted… but happy!

Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei temple

Banteay Srei temple

After lunch, on our way back to Siem Reap, we went to explore the small beautiful pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srei (Citadel of Beauty in  Khmer) located more than 20km north of Siem Reap, near the foot of the Kulen mountains.It was built mid to late 10th century by one of the King’s counselors, so it was not a royal temple as the other temples around Angkor.

It is the most artistically carved temple of the ancient Angkor temples. The central sanctuary is dedicated to Shiva and has ornate shrines, with beautifully etched scenes of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabarata on the pediments (triangular shaped structures above the lintels ( horizontal beams connecting 2 vertical columns or posts, between which runs a door or passageway) at doorways. 

Banteay Srei-Ramayana scenes on tower

Banteay Srei-Ramayana scenes on tower

 

The temple site has 3 concentric enclosures with 4 entrances (or gopuras), guarded by garudas, elephants and lions. We entered from the East end 4thgopura,which had a sandstone carving of Indra god on a 3 headed elephant guarding the entrance. Then we walked along a long causeway (about 70 m) lined with stone posts and remains of galleries on either side.

Banteay Srei god carvings on pediment of gopuras

Banteay Srei god carvings on pediment of gopuras

One pediment on a long gallery shows god Shiva and his consort Uma riding the bull Nandi, while on another pediment on the other side of the causeway has god Vishnu in the form of a lion (Narasimba), ripping off the chest of an asura (demon king). At the end of the causeway we came to the 3rdgopura flanked by lions, and opens into a narrower 3rdenclosure with long galleries and to the temple itself.  There are many scenes of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata on the pediments. Then we walked to the 2ndgopura which is double tiered with a  magnificently designed pediment, opening into the 2ndenclosure, This  had long galleries along its’ sides, and, leads to the 1stgopura which is the entrance to the central shrine. It is a smaller entrance than the others. 

The innermost enclosure is small with many remains of beautifully carved structures on pediments and lintels and some fragmented, on the ground. I was attracted to the beautiful dancing figure of Shiva Nataraja performing his dance of rhythm of life (which culminates in destruction at the end of a world cycle), on a pediment on one side, while on another, the goddesses Durga dancing on her lion.

Banteay Srei-Ramayani scenes

Banteay Srei-Shiva Nataraja dancing

The innermost enclosure has a brick wall protecting the  shrines (small compared to the other temples), 2 stylishly carved libraries, and a central sanctuary with 3 towers, close to each other (the central and southern tower dedicated to god Shiva while the northern to god Vishnu). These buildings were ornately carved of red sandstone and depict  many Ramayana scenes ,  One pediment had a carving of Shiva on Mount Kailash, his mythical abode, with  his wife Uma sitting on his lap.

Stone carvings of animals from Mahabarata

Stone carvings of animals from Mahabarata

On the slopes are many figures of bearded wise men, animals with human bodies including monkey, garuda and yaksha, and animals —lions, bulls and deer. The pediments and lintels had scenes from the Ramayana— Ravana abducting Sita, (wife of Rama), Krishna (avatar of Rama) killing a demon, and another of Vishnu riding his garuda.

Banteay Srei entrance(gopura)

Banteay Srei entrance(gopura)

As we looked around, it was sad to see that many of the architectural structures were missing (many have been stolen or removed for show in museums around the world) or destroyed.

Banteay Srei is not as big as other temples but unlike them, its carvings are exquisitely designed with such fine details. This temple is a  work of art. The borders had elaborate floral and other religious motifs, artistically carved on pediments and lintels. The tower niches have intricate carvings of the Hindu gods and goddesses in fine jewelery, and flowing decorative skirts.  

Banteay Srei-beautifully carved devata on tower

Banteay Srei-beautifully carved devata on tower

I was   captivated by the beautifully finely carved figures of the devatas on the walls. The flame like motifs on the doorways (present also in other temples) I was told, were to “purify” those entering the temples.

Lotus plants growing outside Banteay Srei temple

Lotus plants growing outside Banteay Srei temple

As I came out of the central shrine I saw a little moat (what is left of the surrounding moat) on the side with lotus plants. It looked peaceful and serene even with the fragments of bricks and stones around it.

As I stood gazing at it…I thought ” it must look lovely when the lotus flowers are in full bloom”.

Banteay Samre  Temple

Banteay Samre temple

Banteay Samre temple

Our guide suggested we  see one more temple nearby before we head back.  We passed by villages and stretches of green padi fields to get to Banteay Samre (Citadel of Samre in Khmer). It is located on the south east corner of East Baray, and about 27 miles from Siem Reap. It was built during the early 12th century in the style of Angkor Wat and dedicated to the Hindi god, Vishnu. Again, similar to Banteay Srei it was not built by a king but a court counsellor. Named after the Samré, an ancient people of Indochina (considered pre Khmers) who inhabited the base of the Kulen mountains.

Inside temple

Inside temple

The area was quiet as there were not many tourists (being farther out from Siem Reap). As I looked up over its high wall (6 m high) I could see its lotus shaped tower over its shrine. The temple is made from sandstone and laterite, and is enclosed by galleries with four gopuras (entrances) and a surrounding courtyard with a shrine at the center.

We walked along a long laterite causeway (about 200 m) to the eastern entrance, bordered by pillars and naga balustrades (most of them destroyed and pilfered) like the Angkor wat.

Entrance to temple

Entrance to temple

We came to the steps of the gopura (entrance) guarded by stone lions. As we passed the small entrance to the inner enclosure, we came to connecting corridors and concentric galleries and a couple of libraries. The entrances had beautiful bas relief carvings, and as

Ramayana scenes on pediment

Ramayana scenes on pediment

I walked the hallway to the central sanctuary saw again many scenes from the Ramayana on the pediments—Hanuman (monkey god) and his monkey troupes fighting the demons, and Rama and Lakshmana surrounded by the monkey army. One entrance panel had Rama and Ravana fighting from their chariots. It appears that once there was an inner moat surrounding the shrine.

Tower of central shrine

Tower of central shrine

The pediments and lintels had more elaborate scenes from the Ramayana and of the many Hindu gods. One library lintel has a small carving of Vishnu reclining on a serpent with a lotus plant growing out of his belly.  

Banteay Samre is a smaller replica of the Angkor wat although its tower appears to be in better condition than Angkor wat.

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