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Resonating Cultures: Jayavarman’s Sacred Landscape for Shiva Bhakti at Koh Ker in Early 10th Century Cambodia


The urban ensemble of Koh Ker, lies about 80 km to the south-west from the more famous monuments of Angkor. Koh Ker was the capital called Lingapura, abode of Shiva, set up by Jayavarman IV in 921 C.E., when he moved from Angkor. The city was founded at a very strategic geographical setting with the intention to make it an economically throbbing capital, facilitated by its the presence of copious water supplies and rich iron mineral resources as well as connectivity with important trade centres through the Royal Road from Angkor to Vat Phou, which passed along its northern edge. The Royal Road connected Koh Ker not to other centres within the Khmer Empire, but also to sub-continental Asia, both via land and by sea routes through the coast of central Vietnam (Hendrickson 2010). The location was also strategic considering that it was surrounded by hills, giving it natural defence against any attack, and it could control trade and access into Angkor from the Royal Road.

Today an archaeological site, where ruins of various temples centred around a rectangular man-made pond, called Rahal stretching along the north-south direction are seen. The central ceremonial temple complex of Prasat Thom, features a seven-tired stepped-pyramid temple, called “Prang” which is the most important monument at the site. The ancient site is conceptualized on Mount Meru, the centre of the universe. The pyramidal structure of the Prasat Thom resembles the holy mountain, and the moat around the site as the ocean of milk.

The spatial organization of the site may appear sporadic at first, but is well-planned with a defined geometry composed of several alignment systems centred around the central and ceremonial Prasat Thom complex. The primary axis through the site connects Prasat Thom to other important temples and features on site.

Other than the temples adding to the architectural and aesthetic value of the site with their magnificent construction system and elements, the hydraulic system of the site and its water structures centred on the Rahal, is also particularly sophisticated. Its exquisite engineering demonstrates an impressive modification of the natural environment to modulate the hydrology of the place for utilitarian, ritualist as well as protective purposes. The natural terrain of the site allows the use of water for its religious symbolism. Temples were strategically placed so that the water flows over the Lingas and carvings of gods into the ceremonial water tank in front of Prasat Thom manifesting the concept of sanctification of the water at the site, drawing parrel between the flow of Ganga from Shiva’s hair.

Figure1: Source: NAPV 2020 – Rock Carvings at Trapeang Ang Khna pond)

Links between India and Cambodia

The first contact of Khmers with Indian culture was perhaps when they connected with the Mons of South Asia, who were already influenced by Buddhism in the century 1st century C.E. (Snellgrove 2004). However, Brahmanism as well as Buddhist influences from India started to permeate Khmer culture from the 3rd century C.E. (Vickery 1998), due to trade linkages through maritime and land routes. It is widely believed that the major event in what has been termed the ‘Indianisation’ of Khmer culture started in the 5th century C.E. when, according to Chinese sources, an Indian Brahman married a Funan princess and became the king (Higham 2001).

One of the first and main means of Indian influence in the region was the introduction of Sanskrit, as seen from Funan and Champa inscriptions from the same period. The use of Sanskrit was so extensive that the influence from India is sometimes referred to as ‘Sanskritization’. (Cedes 1968)

This ‘Sanskritization’ brought with it the vast body of Sanskrit literature, including Shastras, Vedas and Puranic mythological narratives of Hindu philosophy and religion to Cambodia. This finally led to the acceptance of Hindu Gods within the Khmer fold. However, influences from India were not forced, and Khmers seem to have been selective in their acceptance of Indian traditions. The Indian gods – Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma were treated as a Hindu Trinity, which is called the Trimurti in Cambodia, with each having a place of their own.

Considering the similarities in early temple architecture in Cambodia it is also likely that initially the Hindu treatises on town planning, building construction and iconography, such as Vaastu Shastra, and Shilpa Shastra, played a role though the evolution of temple architecture in Cambodia also showed indigenisation of these Indian concepts. With Buddhism becoming the state religion in 11th century C.E., its influence was also amalgamated into the existing religion as well as into the architectural vocabulary, and this co-existence can be seen even today.

The sampradaya of Devaraja or Rajaparameshvara (God King) which developed in India during the Gupta period in 5th century C.E. also had profound influence in making the Khmer Empire. This concept initially meant God as king, where the king represented God on earth and ruled in his name. However, this concept soon transformed into Devaraja or God-king, where kings started to project themselves as divinity. (Kulke 1978). Related to this sampradaya emerged the concept of royal or state temples, the gods presiding in these temples were either Vishnu or Shiva and were even named after the king himself. Thus the state temple built in 720 C.E., by the Pallava King Rajrajeshwar, called Kailashnath Temple at Kanchi, was presided by Shiva named Rajamaheshvara.

Around the 10th century C.E. some influence of North India in form of mythology of Ganga also entered Cambodia. The water of Ganga considered holy and even therapeutic and an essential for all rituals even today, seems to have influenced the widespread practice of sanctifying water in Cambodia.

Koh Ker in history

Koh Ker maintains one of the most intriguing histories of any settlement within the Khmer history. An expansive city housing a large reservoir (the Rahal) and a number of impressive temples, including the grandiose stepped pyramid associated with Prasat Thom, known as Prasat Prang, reflect Koh Ker’s opulence and its position within a kingdom of growing prosperity. Moreover, Koh Ker’s interlude as the royal capital, which lasted only for a very brief period of 23 years led to the gradual expansion of the Khmer Empire beyond the Dangrek range, with present day Thailand and Laos.

The conventional narrative describes King Jayavarman IV selecting Koh Ker as an alternative capital for the kingdom in 921 C.E., and it remained so until the onset of the reign of Rajendravarman II in 944 C.E., when he returned his court back to Angkor.

In a partly illegible inscriptions dated 912 C.E at Vat Chakret pagoda, in Ba Phnom district of Cambodia, refers to a prince called Sri Jayasimhavarman, who is identified as Jayavarman IV. According to this source, Jayavarman IV revolted and carried with him the sampradaya of Devaraja which had been the ritual sacred object since the days of Jayavarman II (802 C.E.). After taking with him the royal god and its chief priest, Ishanamurti, he set up a new capital at Koh Ker which he named Lingapura in Sanskrit and Chok Gargyar in Khmer.(Cedes 1968) It is for that reason that some historians have unfairly called Jayavarman IV to be a “usurper”. Though it is true that his actions caused a sudden downturn in the fortunes of Yashodharapura (Angkor), the imperial city at Angkor at that time, as the focus completely shifted to Koh Ker, albeit for a brief period.

It is speculated that a dispute in the royal family regarding the accession to the throne emerged when Jayavarman IV also laid claim to the throne of Angkor, but instead of waging any war he left the City of Yasodharapura to establish his own capital at Koh Ker. Due to this political situation, there were two kings and parallel capitals at one point in the Khmer Empire’s history. In this context, the grandiose temples, the hydrological engineering and the artwork, at Koh Ker have a streak of competitiveness; reflecting Jayavarman IV’s assertion to legitimize his claim to the throne. This can be clearly interpreted from his bold changes to established scales and aesthetics, as well as localisation of Indian influences, including use of the Khmer language in both naming the new capital as well as in its inscriptions. Symbolism, dynamism and grandiose monumentality come across in full force at Koh Ker. This style in art and architectural produced by Jayavarman IV at Koh Ker though may have meant to prove his supremacy but it led to creating a unique ensemble expressing his devotion to Shiva, which at that time was unparallel, not only in Khmer history but perhaps even in the world.

His bid to establish Koh Ker at the centre of Shiva devotion and Hindu cosmos is manifested in the distinct sacred urban design, using sacred symbolic mandala plan monumental structures and infrastructures, such as the tiered pyramid temple dedicated to Tribuwaneshwara, lord of the three worlds, Rahal – the large man-made tank, and more than 100 big and small temples and water structures.

 Koh Ker, a sacred city of Shiva

When Jayavarman IV was embarking on his ambitious project in 921 C.E at Koh Ker, the centre of the Hindu realm and Shiva worship was securely in India. The main centres of Shaivism at those times were Varanasi, Somnath, Jageshwar, Ujjain, Kanchi & Kumbakonam, Ellora and amongst few more, but besides ones in South India, most of the other sites have drastically changed today. The Cholas, with whom epigraphic evidence shows the Khmer Empire had strong trade and diplomatic relations at the time and perhaps knew of the developments at Koh Ker. Jayavarman IV’s creation at Koh Ker not only overshadowed the existing Kailashnath temple at Kanchi, or Nagaanatha Temple at Kumbakonam, (also referred as Dakshin Kashi), but perhaps would have given a stiff competition to their status as the accepted centre of Shaivism in south India.

(Figure 2: Source: Guimet Museum in Paris – Statue of Jayavarman IV from Prasat Thom, Yama court)

Thus, perhaps it is no coincidence that in 1000 C.E. the Chola king Raja Raja Chola built his grand Bridheshwara Temple at Tanjore, perhaps also in an attempt to regain that status, as did several other rulers, like the Bhoja of Bhopal and Chandelas of Khajuraho, in central India, Lingaraja of Somvanshis of Odisha who also attempted to establish their new capitals as the centre of Shiva worship and the Hindu cosmos through their own grand edifices.

Jayavarman IV innovatively used the Devaraja sampradaya in the pursuit of his ambitions of kingship and to remove any opposition by constructing Prasat Thom, the highest temple mountain built at that time, the architectural austerity of which generates a stark monumentality that was not exceeded even by later buildings. However, unlike his predecessors, he does not name the Linga of this temple after himself, (Indreshvara of Bakong, Yashodhareshvara of Bakheng, Rajendreshvara of East Mebon,) instead he dedicates it to Shiva as Tribhuvaneshvara, ‘lord of the three-fold worlds’, and the city was also not explicitly named after him but was rather called ‘Lingapura, the city of Lingas, i.e., the abode of Shiva’.

To Shiva, Jayavarman IV gave veneration as the supreme lord of the worlds and thereby attributed sovereignty to it so that he could rule as part or participant of Shiva. So, as a Shiva Pada’ or ‘deputy’ or servant of Shiva, he was accountable only to God and any attack on the king would tantamount to the attack on the rule of Shiva. Thus, Jayavarman IV was trying to derive the legitimacy of his rule directly from Shiva, asserting a higher legitimization than his opponents at Angkor. The Khmer inscription at the Koh Ker praises the god, as ‘vrah kamraten jagat rajya’ – the divine lord who is the lordship of this kingdom, and Jayavarman IV bestows on himself the title of ‘vrah kamraten jagat ta raja’ (the lord of the world who is king) (Kulke 1978).

By this interplay of titles Jayavarman IV went a step further from ‘Cakravartin’ (king with unlimited domination over the earth) to Shiva ansha or part of Shiva as seen from his posthumous title of paramshivapada (supreme devotee at the feet of Shiva) (dhuli vrah pada dhuli jen vrah kamraten dau paramshivaloka), (the dust at the feet of Lord Shiva, who has attained the abode of Shiva) and thus a cosmic divine king, whose rule is spread over the universe, like that of Shiva.

Such parallels also exist elsewhere in the work, as when King Kapilendra usurped the Odisha throne in 1435 C.E. by transferring the sovereignty to the state god Jagannatha.

Jayavarman IV was perhaps compelled to use a completely new architecture and design aesthetics for his capital city, breaking away from established norms to legitimate these tall claims.

Figure 3: Source: NAPV 2021 – Graphic re-creation of the dancing Shiva statue found at Prasat Kraham (under restoration at National Museum of Cambodia)

(Figure 4: Source: NAPV 2020 – Prasat Prang, the largest stepped pyramidical Hindu temple in South/Southeast Asia)

Symbolism of the site

Koh Ker can be understood as an amalgam of three fundamental overlapping concepts: The association of the Linga at Prasat Thom with the Devaraja sampradaya and king; the recognition of the royal temple as a dual representation of Mount Meru and Mount Kailash, thus both at the centre of the three worlds, as well as the earthly abode of presiding deity Shiva; and the form and symbolic imagery of the site embodying, the perfect Hindu cosmos, or the universe.

The city and its temples reflected concepts related to power and cosmic order attesting to the greatness and symbolic divinity of the king himself, as manifested by the Devaraja sampradaya (Bourdonneau 2011).

Jayavarman IV, who needed to prove his supremacy in order to justify his kingship, expressed his own glory and devotion to Shiva and manifested these concepts in his city design, landscape, monumental structures and artistic expression. It was through this design that he projected the idea that his terrestrial realm of Khmer empire intersects with the celestial realm of Shiva, who was also considered to be the defender of kings, his people and his territory. Jayavarman IV adopted and greatly extended the sampradaya of Devaraja, already established by the founder of the Khmer Empire in 802 C.E. (Bourdonneau 2011). By dedicating the greatest Shiva temple of its time to Devaraja Tribhuvaneshvara, Jayavarman IV was transacting Devaraja for divine sanction and projected his own divine status, in the most visible, public manner possible at that time. A further link between the world of Khmer court of Jayavarman IV and that of the celestial realm of Shiva was achieved through sculpted imagery on the temples. Many of the divine icons portray the gods in Khmer royal costume. For the first time sculptures and wall paintings depicts gods and other celestial beings attired in rich decorated costumes, jewellery, accessories and hairdo in styles that would have been familiar at that time in the region. He extends the symbolism by creating the first portraiture (his own sculpture) in Khmer history and placing this figure amongst the gods within the sculpture arrangement of Yama court in the second eastern gopura of Prasat Thom. A Shiva Skhanda sculpture believed to have been originally housed in PrasatKrachap, (the second largest temple on site) is modeled on Jayavarman IV and his son Hashavarman II in a very humane and playful mood.

(Figure 5: Source: Bunker and Latchford 2004 – Shiva Skanda ( recently repatriated to Cambodia) shows God Shiva as a family man playing with his son Skanda, perhaps modeled on Jayavarman IV and his son, Harshvarman II)

The iconography of various mythological tales and epics, which were charged with influence from Indian sub-continent, are uniquely represented at Koh Ker. Temples have statues which depict episodes from Hindu mythology including a rare Khmer depiction of Ganesha, the god considered as a remover of obstacles. There are doorframes and lintels with relief and carvings of figures from Hindu mythology, selected carefully to continue the narrative of symbolism of supremacy, power, authority and winning of the righteous in a fight between good and evil family members. Thus, were depicted the Yama, Vali & Sugriva and Bhima & Duryodhana fighting scene, Yama’s Judgment court, Indra as the god of devas. Some of these are rare representations from Hindu mythology in the world.

There are also numerous examples of dance figures and representations of pseudo-movement at Koh Ker, the most remarkable of which is the discovery of the fragments of the dancing Shiva at Prasat Kraham in the Prasat Thom complex, (currently under restoration at the National Museum of Cambodia). This is the biggest dancing Shiva in Southeast Asia and is the most spectacular manifestation of the acceptance of the Indian theory relating to Shiva as the source of the five powers of creation, preservation, destruction, illusion and liberation from suffering. The same is interpreted at Koh Ker as a five headed Shiva in form of a Nataraja or ‘king of dance’.

Another potent symbol that dominates Jayavarman IV’s conception at Koh Ker is the notion that Prasat Thom and Prasat Prang are Mount Meru and Mount Kailash. In Hindu mythology, especially the Shaiva Agama text of 6-8th century C.E. from South India, includes description of a mountain peak called Meru, located at the centre of the universe, surrounded by the sea of milk, from which Amrit or ambrosia was churned. The only other mountain that could have been considered loftier was the mountain peak of Kailash, part of the actual Himalaya range in North India, where Shiva has his earthly home.

Prasat Prang, the largest tiered pyramidal temple ever constructed in Khmer history, is dedicated to Shiva in form of Tribhuvaneshvara, or the lord of the three-fold world, which in Hindu mythology are Earth, Under-world and Heaven. This is quite literally expressed by creating a shaft within the pyramid, leading down into the underworld, whereas Prasat Thom or the base of Prang represented the earth and the top of pyramid the abode of the gods in heaven. This is the only such instance of such a literal representation of this concept in south/southeast Asia, including India. It was later developed into temples with three sanctuaries at different levels as at Prasat Takeo and Prasat Angkor Wat. Although highly rare, the concept of three sanctuaries one on top of each other had been developed in India, the most important example of which is the 8th century C.E. Kailashnatha temple dedicated to Shiva at Kanchi in south of India.

The concept of Param Akasha or Hindu cosmos in perfection is epitomised by several geometric and numerical systems represented at the site. The three lokas or essential worlds, as represented by the pyramidal temple of Prasat Prang, the three temples dedicated to Hindu Trimurti, the five fundamental elements as depicted in the five headed 6-meter monolithic dancing Shiva the seven levels of the tiered pyramid of Prang and the nine planets as carved on the rock of Trapeang Ang Khnar pond.

Temples at Koh Ker are dedicated to most Hindu gods signifying the site as the abode of all important gods and goddesses of Hindu pantheons.

Figure 6: Source: Gupta on NAPV Map 2020 – Symbolic and sacred imagery in the urban design of Koh Ker)

The mathematical and geometric precision in alignments of various features of the site including in the planning of Prasat Thom, forming a mandala (cosmogram) with triangles, squares and circles makes the site astral, linking it with the cosmos. The Indian shastra identifies the various types of the mandalas as a city plan with square, circle, triangle or radial symmetries. These geometries are the means for connecting a terrestrial urban space with astral cosmos. This is achieved through an urban design concept where sacred geometry is created on the site topography. Temples, water structures, even stone posts are united and are used as reference points in creating a symbolic city plan overlaid with sacred imagery of the star shaped Shiva Shakti mandala, with two intersecting triangles.

The Vaastu Shastra mentions several shapes and sizes for a city including a Padmaka or lotus/star shaped plan as mentioned by Varahmihira in 6th century C.E. (Vasudev). It is a city with an empty centre expanding outwards and looks like a fully bloomed lotus or a star. This shape is derived from the Shiva Shakti mandala, with roots in Vedic altars and tantric worship, represented by inverted triangles forming a star shape. The planning at Koh Ker has the strong possibility of being influenced by this concept. This concept is also seen in the cultural landscape of Khajuraho in India (Vinakya 2017). Each of these important nodal points are marked on the ground by either a temple, water structure or a boundary stone-post confirming a deliberate attempt in marking this plan on the ground at Koh Ker.

(Figure 7: Source: Vibhuti 1998 – Geometric perfection in Mandala planning as per Indian Vaastu shastra as seen in plan of Prasad Thom)

(Figure 8: Source: Gupta 2020 on Base Map of Shimoda, I. & Sato, K. 2011 – Map showing the placement of the temples and pedestal, detected alignment among temples (shown as red squares), pedestal on platforms, and boundary stones (shown as black dots))

(Figure 9: Source: NAPV 2020 – Boundary stone post on embankment at west side of Prasat Thom)

Boundary stones which have some common characteristics, acquire a very high significance at Koh Ker as from their placement, it is clear that they acted as reference points for the overall urban design at the site. Most of these stone post act as reference points as determinants for positioning, aligning or sizing the various temples and water bodies at site. (Shimoda and Sato 2011).

The placement, proportions, inclination and width of temple complexes seem to have been calculated from detailed mathematical precision and astronomical proportions. There is also strong evidence of the use of the Khmer measurement unit of yoch at Koh Ker, as is clearly evident from the proportions and standardized measurements used in the city planning and its monuments (Evan 2009). Yoch equals about 16 km which is curiously about 5 krosh.

Figure 10: Source: Gupta 2020 – Image showing the geometric perfection in planning of Prasat Thom complex)

The four Linga shrines and Prasat Sralau stand in near-perfect symmetry with the eastern edge of the reservoir and perpendicular to the axis of Prasat Thom. The axis joining Prasat Thom cuts through the Rahal diagonally at 14° angle and intersects Prasat Damrei and Prasat Kok Krong, the highest temple on the peak on south of the Rahal. Prasat Chen is located across the southwest and Prasat Banteay Pir Choan is located across the southeast corner of Rahal which is parallel to the axis of Prasat Thom and Linga terrace. With Prasat Thom dedicated to Shiva, Prasat Chen dedicated to Vishnu and Prasat Banteay Pir Choan dedicated to Brahma, the symbolic Hindu Trinity lies on an equilateral triangular formation.

This was clearly an attempt of Jayavarman IV to symbolise the entire city in the image of the celestial realm of the gods, particularly Shiva. Jayavarman IV’s authority, thus, would have been augmented by this association with divinity, thereby elevating his position to that of Devaraja or god-king, securing his claim to the Angkor throne. This was unprecedented in Khmer history and ushered the concept of religion-based urban planning in Southeast Asia.

The unique orientation of the site

The main temple being the centre of the city, is rotated 14 degrees towards north from cardinal east, along with several other associated structures like the Rahal and Prasat Krachap, though this is highly unusual for Angkor planning and is also a first and a rare instance where this is done for any capital city in the region. However, several Shiva temples in India were also rotated towards the north, because it is the true east or Ishan, that is regarded as the most auspicious direction, as against the cardinal east, as also elaborated in the Vaastu shastra. By orientating the entire city, like at Kanchi (6th century C.E.) and Kumbhakonan, (8th century C.E.), Madurai (13th century C.E.) and temple of Kashi Vishwanatha at Varanasi were perhaps also determined. Such orientation is also seen later in Hampi in 15th century C.E. and Jaipur in 18th century C.E., where temples were dedicated to Vishnu, while similar orientations.

This curious alignment also provided a dynamic movement to the site and makes it appear to expand endlessly beyond the site boundary like the cosmos or mandala. The orientation also seems to point towards the earlier capitals at Angkor, Sambor Prei Kuk and to the sacred geography of Mount Kulen and Dangrek. However, at Koh Ker, another reason for this unusual alignment is also astronomical as many of the temples including the Prasat Prang are aligned to celestial events of sun and moon rise on equinox and other ritualist days. This is in continuation with Jayaraman IV’s ambitious attempts to link himself to the cosmic.

The main axis of Prasat Thom and several other associated temples is quite precisely oriented to the rising sun on the day of Khmer New Year, which for Koh Ker falls on 13th April, the only fixed date in the Khmer lunar calendar. His explicit connection of the axis of the entire city along with its state temple with the rising sun on the days of its zenith passage is indeed a remarkable planning and design feature of Koh Ker. (Kak 2008)

As a result, a city based on these sacred geometries becomes true cosmos, in which all its major features are symbolically interconnected. The design of Koh Ker clearly bears such a concept, proclaiming the kingship of Jayavarman IV.

Through this unconventional orientation, the site is also trying to respect and incorporate the natural features in its overall design. The hybrid water structure is an indicator of utilising natural topography in the overall design. The location of the water structures and surrounding temples is superbly organised so that the rain water flows naturally through the Lingas in temples and natural rocks carved with sacred iconography, and is ultimately collected into the ceremonial water tank in front of Prasat Thom and the Rahal. This is the way of sanctifying rain and ritualistic water, making it symbolically sacred, which was a means of indigenization of the Indian religious concept of sacred rivers. The four sacred rivers of India are symbolized in four Linga temples, from where the water flows directly into the ceremonial square tank. This concept is a highly significant and original planning principle at Koh Ker, which was later used as a central theme in the city established at Phnom Kulen by Udayadityavarman II in 1050 C.E, where thousands of Shiva Lingas and other Hindu gods were carved on rocky bed of the river.

Figure 11: Source: Gupta 2020 – Geometric plan of Koh Ker)

(Figure 12: Alignment of main temple and other structures to astronomical phenomenon like equinoxes, sun set, and moon rises too. Similar pattern has been found at Angkor Wat too)

Temples of Koh Ker

There are several conceptions of a temple in Hindu mythology and tradition. The most predominant is the link between heaven and earth, which is interpreted in portals or vehicles which can transcend space and time (Michell 1988). Thus, the Indian temples were considered as representatives of Mount Meru, or Axis mundi of the world. The canons of Hindu temple architecture like Vaastu Shastra and Manasara prescribe high or tiered plinth temples. However, they are rarely seen in Indian temples, though it is common in the 17th century C.E. temples of Nepal. Few examples of high plinth temples in India are of, Matangmeshwar at Khajuraho, Bhoja temple at Bhojpur, a stepped pyramidal temple or Surang Tila of Sirpur in central India, all of which were built in 11th century C.E., though none of them are at the scale of Koh Ker. Based on spatial planning, and symbolism of the site, temples, can be grouped in three main groups based on their associations and alignments,

  • Main ceremonial central temple complex: The complex comprises of Prasat Thom and its nine sanctuaries on the plinth, and gopura, the palace buildings, the ceremonial square tank, the four Linga temples and a pedestal, and a mound locally known as the tomb of the white elephant. This covers a distance of 1.17 km. Prasat Parag with a pyramidical plinth of 35 meters, is believed to have 30 meters high shikhara on its top, with a Shiva Linga of 4.05 meters, making it the largest temples of its times, even bigger than the Great Chola temple at Tanjore which measured about 30 meters in width and 100 meters in length with its shikhara rising to a height of 66 meters.

(Figure13: 3D View of Prasat Thom complex by EFEO)

  • Marker Temples: These are the main temples which are directly aligned with the Prasat Thom and forms geometric formulations due to their placements. They act as markers or reference points for the overall urban design of the site, as well as determine the size and shape of Rahal and other water structures and other associated temples on the site. Prasat Chen dedicated to Vishnu along with Prasat Banteay Pir Choan dedicated to Brahma and Prasat Thom to Shiva forms the Trinity temples of the site. Both Prasat Chen and Prasat Banteay Pir Choan are equidistant from centre of Prasat Thom. Prasat Chen itself is equidistant from Prasat Thom creating a symbolic equilateral triangular formation, establishing their central importance in the planning of Koh Ker. Interestingly similar triangular formulation is seen at Kumbakonam between Adi Kumbeshwara(Shiva) Sarangpani(Vishnu) and Prajapati (Brahma) temples there.
  • Associated Temples: These are temple with third hierarchy than of Prasat Thom, and include several temples in the hinterland. Though these temples do not act as reference points directly in determining the overall design at Koh Ker, they are associated with the marker temples and indicate the vast spread of more than 35 sq kms, the capital city of Koh Ker in 10th
  • Temple Inscriptions: Koh Ker is also a rare site where most of the events related to the history of the site can be dated based on in-situ inscriptions, shedding light on the social, economic, cultural and religious condition of ancient Cambodia. These inscriptions are scripted on the walls, columns, and doorframes of temples in old Khmer and Sanskrit. The inscriptions explain how manpower was organized: taxes in the form of rice were raised in the whole country and served to provide for the workers who came from different provinces. Very similar to the inscription found at the great Chola Temple at Tanjore. An inscription at Prasat Damrei says that the shrine on the top of the state temple Prasat Prang houses a Linga of about 4.05 meters high and that the erection of this Shiva-symbol gave a lot of problems initially. A Sanskrit inscription at Prasat Thom gives evidence of the consecration of a Shiva-Linga in 921 C.E. which was worshipped under the name of Tribhuvaneshvara (“Lord of the Three-fold World”).

(Figure 14: Colossal Linga of Prasat Balang Cheungone of the Linga terrace temples in strainght alignment of Pr. Thom)

(Figure 15: Plans showing multiple alignments of each trinity temple creating its own ‘mandala’)

(Figure 16: The gallery inside Prasat Thom, Koh Ker. In background is Prasat Kraham where the collosal dancing Shiva sculpture once stood)

(Figure 17: Prasat Chen is dedicated to Vishu and is one of the Trimurti temples at Koh Ker)

Koh Ker after Jayavarman IV

After Jayavarman IV’s reign over the Khmer Empire was taken over by his son Harshavarman II in 941-944 C.E., however very little is known about him and his reign seems to be short and uneventful, although he seems to have attempted to add or make minor modifications to his father’s creations. A few years after the death of Harshavarman II in 944 C.E., his cousin, Rajendravarman II, took over the throne and immediately shifted the capital back to Angkor. It can be assumed that he carried back the Devaraja sampradaya, which at that time was being presided by Tribhuvaneshvara at Koh Ker. He went on to create almost a replica of Prasat Thom at Banteay Srei, which was also dedicated to Tribhuvaneshvara.

Rajendravarman II initiated the building program to renew the supremacy Angkor, which after him lasted for centuries though he also contributed to some construction work at Koh Ker even after he abandoned it as a capital.

Shaivism declined in Cambodia in 1177 C.E. when Jayavarman VII came to power and declared in his inscription that the mountain of Shiva had been uprooted, as a new king had ushered in Mahayana Buddhist sect of Lokeshvara in place of Shiva (Evans 2009). One can only speculate if the mountain of Shiva in his inscriptions perhaps refers to Prasat Parag of Koh Ker.

After the decline of the Khmer Empire in mid-15th century C.E., and with the subsequent shifting of the capital further south, to Phnom Penh, the city of Koh Ker went into oblivion. Thereafter the site seems to have been taken over by the forest and its grand monuments built by Jayavarman IV, remained obscured for almost four centuries, till their rediscovery in 1873 by French adventurer Louis Delaporte.


Study and research of the site reveals that the city was founded and located strategically around a geographical setting with an intention to make an iconic city mainly to justify the kingship of Jayavarman IV. He used an emboldened and rebellious style to fulfil his personal ambitions. The innovative architecture which developed at Koh Ker produced a distinguished style, which had never been seen before in the Khmer Empire. The site is an exceptional example of how influences from Indian town planning, architecture and artworks were adapted, assimilated and refined into a distinctive local style, later called “Koh Ker Style”. The influence of ancient Hindu town planning based on religious philosophy found in ancient treatise of Vaastu Shastra is seen for the first time in Southeast Asia. Interpreted in light of the shastras, the Koh Ker mandala plan is a judicious adaptation of the form on the selected topographic terrain of the site.

Indian concepts were modified to meet the specific needs of Jayaraman IV’s claim to the throne of an emergent empire. This particular interlude in the Angkor Empire ultimately inaugurated a distinct Khmer aesthetics that constitutes a milestone in urban planning, architecture and aesthetics in Southeast Asia. Koh Ker was envisaged and planned in a single phase in the early 10th century C.E., combining a grand urban design and Hindu religious concepts integrating most of its constituents into a single sacred ensemble. Interpretation of the symbolic Devaraja sampradaya was manifested in architecture for the first time as seen in the largest tiered pyramidal temple dedicated to Shiva in the form of Tribhuvaneshvara, as well as in a city where temples, water structures and civic infrastructure were visually interlinked to create a sacred geometry as part of an overall integrated urban design.

The uniqueness of Koh Ker is credited to the rebellious, competitive and yet innovative spirit of Jayavarman IV – a genius to whom history has not given due credit. It is hoped that the sites which now aspires to become part of the World Heritage will be able to correct that and make this unique and exceptional site, unknown and forgotten beyond Cambodia is brought to the notice of the world. As certainly, the towering monument that Jayavarman IV built rose higher than other previous kings, but his ambitions seem went much further, where he seems to have attempted to place his capital at the centre of Shiva’s cosmos, as his prime devotee or Shiva pada, as per one of his royal titles.

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 (Note: All photographs and illustrations are by the author unless otherwise specified)

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