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Preah Pithu


The German Angkor Illustration Project

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Preah Khan

Preah Khan is huge, unbelievable huge. It seems to be an endless labyrinth of rectangle courtyards and dark aisles. Outside Cambodia you will not find a wooded area of closely packed ruins as vast as Preah Khan. This temple complex is Angkor's largest flat temple (all structures on ground level, no pyramid). Thus it is even bigger than the similar flat temple Ta Prohm, which is Angkor's most famous "jungle temple". As in the case of Ta Prohm, achaeologists decided wisely not to remove the big trees unless it becomes unavoidable in favour of visitors' security or heritage conservation. Admittedly, there are less of those gigantic trees growing on the buildings of Preah Khan than in the compound of Ta Prohm. Nevertheless, the biggest stone-covering tree at Preah Khan is of magical beauty beyond imagination, a poem and a fairytale and a true story at the same time.

Though included in most two- or three-days Angkor tourist packages (and this means: visited by busloads day in and day out) Preah Khan is big enough to allow you to find an idyllic spot for yourself, undisturbed by noisy groups. The ruins of Preah Khan then will be an ideal location for your Indiana Jones phantasies.

Preah Khan was not only a temple. It was a Buddhist monastery, en ensemble of shrines for 430 Hindu gods, a Mahayana university with over 1000 teachers, an agricultural administration headoffice, and a whole city. Preah Khan covered 56 hectares and had 100,000 inhabitants, as many as the contemporary biggest cities in Western Europe. For a short period Preah Khan was even the capital of the Khmer empire, as at the end of the 12th century King Jayavarman VII resided here during the construction of his future and much vaster capital, Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan's original Sanskrit name was "Nagarashrijaya" meaning "city of glorious victory", a reminder that Jayavarman VII had repulsed the foreign invaders and defeated the arch enemy, the Cham from present-day central Vietnam. "Nagara" is the Sanskrit name for "city" or "capital", its Khmer derivation was: "Angkor". "Shri" or "sri" means "bright" or "shining", and "holy". And "jaya", a short form of "vijaya", is "victory". The modern name "Preah Khan" (with an audible "h" at the end of "Preah") means "sacred sword". "Preah", sometimes translitereated "Prah", is the modern Khmer word for the ancient Khmer "Vrah", meaning "holy". In Angkorian inscriptions "vrah" was reserved for things, persons or institutions that were of foreign Indian origins.

In 1191 Preah Khan was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's father, the central statue was called "Jayavarmeshvara", meaning "Jayavarman, Lord of the world". Jayavarman's father was worshipped as a personification of the universal Bodhisattva of compassion and loving care, Avalokiteshvara, while the five years older temple Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother as Prajnaparamita, female embodiment of perfect wisdom. Care and knowledge are the bipolar interpreted central terms in the salvation doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, which Jayavarman VII introduced as the new official cult of the Khmer empire, by the way, without suppressing the former Hindu believes: Temples for Vishnu to the west and for Shiva to the north, accompanying the central Avalokiteshvara shrine, are integral parts of Preah Khan's layout right from the beginning.

In place of a longer discussion of the architecture and the works of art at Preah Khan here is only a long list of special attractions of this site and some features of note.

Right in the centre of Preah Khan, where once the Avalokiteshvara statue stood, there is now a stupa built in the 16th century.

The interior of the central sanctuary, as well as the walls of the inner enclosure gallery are covered with holes. They served for fixing bronze plates covering the walls. 1500 tons of bronze are claimed to have been used at Preah Khan.

Some Buddha carvings in the central corridor have been crudely carved over with Bodhisattvas, and a lotus flower and even a Linga.

As in the case of most of Jayavarman VII's monuments, many more Buddha images were vandalized in the later Hindu resurgence under Jayavarman VIII. This is why so many figures are without head, but one standing Buddha is intact and in situ.

The first (inner) enclosure is divided into four parts by a cruciform gallery, each part almost completely filled by later irregular additional buildings. The north-western and south-western courtyards have central pillars with a peg on top, a symbol of unknown meaning. The edifices of these two courtyards are richly decorated with patterns of leaves and volutes, and rows of hermits seated with their legs crossed.

The eastern gate of the first enclosure is one of the few Angkorian Gopurams with internal decoration, friezes with winged females called Kinnaris and male Garudas are on the corners of the cornices. Buddhas on the columns were transformed into hermits during the period of Hindu reaction.

On the eastern side, between the first enclosure wall (62 m by 55 m) and the second enclosure wall (85 m by 76 m), is a row of later additions which impede access and hide some of the original decoration.

The south wing of Preah Khan is broken and not accessible. The adjoining satellite temple behind the second enclosure is a cloister under renovation (2013). It was dedicated to the deceased Khmer kings. Its surrounding is almost certainly without visitors. Here you can listen to the sounds of the jungle when walking to the unrestored southern gate.

The third enclosure wall is 200 by 175 metres. Its western Gopuram, leading to the western sattelite temple of Vishnu, has many pediment carvings, depicting a chess game, Krishna raising Mount Govardhana, Shiva cremating the god of love Kama, the battle of Lanka, Rama and Ravana, the latter one easily recognizable by his ten heads and twenty arms. The massive guardian Dvarapalas in front of the gate are decapitated.

In a courtyard of the northern cloister dedicated to Shiva, there is the best example of a pediment carving depicting Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, and to the east the Hindu Trimurti of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Furthermore, there is a carving showing the dancing Shiva in this northern satellite temple. An unusual reference to Shiva inside the shrine are two feet on a pedestal.

The hall of dancers to the east of the temple proper has wonderful carvings of groups of dancing Apsaras. By the way, according to the detailed account of the famous Preah Khan inscription, there were 1000 dancers employed at Preah Khan.

Just north to the hall of dancers, there is one of the most unique and mysterious structures. It is a two storey structure, the only one of its kind in Angkor. Furthermore, it is the only example of a major building in Angkor with cylindrical columns. It is said to have housed the "Sacred Sword" ("Preah Khan").

To the east of the hall of dancers is the East Gopuram of the third enclosure. It is the southern wing of this Gopuram that bears the celebrated couple of silk-cotton trees, one dead, one alive, with their roots at the same time destroying and, becoming a part of the gallery columns, supporting the roof of the sacred monument. A roaring lion in front of the gallery stairway protects the incredible scene of marriage of wood and stone, symbol of the power of life, in reality only for a period of time, but long enough to appear as a moment of eternity, emblematic of Angkor.

Halfway along the path leading from the third enclosure to the exterior gate, there is a structure to the left considered to be a Vahnigriha, a "fire-house", nowadays also called Dharmasala "teaching-hall". Vahnigrihas were a kind of post relay stations along the mainroads of the empire.

The outer laterite wall of Preah Khan (fourth enclosure) bears 72 Garudas, at 50 m intervals. They are 5 m tall, at the corners even taller. Vishnu's mythical sun-eagles hold Nagas in their claws. By the way, a fourth enclosure, instead of the common three of a Khmer temple, indicates that the outer walls served a second purpose. They were city walls as well.

The avenues in front of the east and of the west entrances are flanked by rows of richly decorated pillars. Each entrance has a causeway over the moat with Naga balustrades, smaller but similar to those at the future capital Angkor Thom, another hint that at Preah Khan the city element was more significant than at other Angkor temples.

There are so many different parts of Preah Khan that you will find something in the best sunshine at any time of the day. The best time for a photo of that enigmatic couple of trees strangling the roof of the eastern gate is the hour between 10.00 and 11.00am.

Ernst Ando Sundermann

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