Magical Banteay Srei
Known for its exceptional beauty, intricate carvings, and fine workmanship, Banteay Srei is a gem among hundreds of temples that dot the Cambodian landscape. Located 16 miles northeast of Siem Reap, it is relatively a small temple complex containing multiple single-story structures. Unlike many other temples in Cambodia, it is not built like a temple-mountain.
Dedicated to Shiva, the Banteay Srei Temple has some of the stunningly beautiful bas-reliefs that depict gods, demigods, and scenarios based on the episodes from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The bas-reliefs, most of which adorn the pediments, are deeply cut and finely carved. Even after 1000 years, most of the sculptures and bas-reliefs have retained their original sharpness.
Unlike some of the other Cambodian temples, Banteay Srei is built mostly using red sandstone. Because of the color of the sandstone, bas-reliefs and sculptures appear colorful.
Banteay Srei is unique in that it is commissioned not by a king (like many other famous temples in the region), but by the courtiers of a king. The temple was built by Yagnavaraha and Vishnukumara who were courtiers of King Rajendravarman who granted them the land to build the temple. According to an inscription, Yagnavaraha is the grandson of King Harshavarman and the teacher of the future king Jayavarman V. He was known to be a great scholar, philosopher, and philanthropist who fought for justice.
The building of this temple started in 967 CE. The name Banteay Srei is recent, which in Khmer means Citadel of Women or Citadel of Beauty. The name could be referring to the beautiful carvings of women (apsaras and devatas) on the bas-reliefs.
The original name of Banteay Srei was Tribhuvanamaheshwara, which refers to Shiva as the Lord of the Earth, Heaven, and Hell. Note: In Sanskrit, Tribhuvana means three worlds or realms consisting of earth, heaven and hell and Maheshwara means great god.
The town surrounding the temple used to be known as Isvarapura, which in Sanskrit means Isvara’s town. Isvara is another name for Shiva. After the temple was built, Isvarapura became a town having residents for supporting the temple.
Discovery and Restoration
Many visitors who come to see Angkor Wat miss the Banteay Srei Temple because it is not in Siem Reap where many of the famous Hindu/Buddhist temples are located. It is located 16 miles northeast of Siem Reap and is on the way to the Phnom Kulen mountain range.
You can combine visits to Phnom Kulen and Banteay Srei into a day trip.
As mentioned earlier, the Banteay Srei Temple was surrounded by a town. The entrance to the temple is through the town gopura (gate) located on the east side. The town gate opens into a long causeway that leads to the main entrance of the temple.
The Banteay Srei Temple complex has three rectangular concentric enclosures built on the east-west axis. The innermost enclosure contains the main temple structures. The innermost and the middle enclosures are close to each other and are surrounded by brick walls. The outer and middle enclosure are separated by a moat.
The entrance to the temple complex is on the east side through a gopura that has a doorway and a beautiful pediment on the top. The door opens into the causeway that leads to the east entrance of the outer enclosure.
The gopura (gate) is mostly made from red sandstone. The door frame and the pediment are beautifully carved. The bas-relief on the pediment depicts Indra riding his vehicle three-headed elephant called Airavata. At each end of the pediment is Makara, a mythical sea creature, spewing multi-headed naga, a mythical serpent.
The gate at the eastern entrance of the temple
According to an inscription, this gate used to be the entrance to Isvarapura. It is likely that a wooden wall existed surrounding Isvarapura.
The causeway that leads to the outer enclosure is about 67 meters long. There are 32 boundary marking stones lined along the path.
The outer enclosure measuring 95 x 110 meters is surrounded by a laterite wall connected to the structures of the gopuras that existed on the east and west side.
Missing at the entrance of the outer enclosure is the gopura that existed in the original structure. The east-facing pediment of this gopura is on the ground where the gopura originally stood, and the west-facing pediment is on display at a museum in France.
Lying on the ground is the east-facing pediment belonging to the gopura once stood at the entrance of the outer enclosure. As seen in the image above, the bas-relief on this pediment depicts Ravana abducting Sita, a famous episode in Ramayana in which Ravana, a rakshasa and the King of Lanka, kidnaps Rama’s wife Sita.
The bas-relief on the pediment of the gopura shown in the above image depicts Shiva sitting with his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) on his vehicle Nandi the bull. Under Nandi is Kala, the time demon associated with Shiva. Surrounding the bas-relief is the decorative carving of Makara, a mythical sea creature, with a head each on the left and right end spewing a yaksha.
Note: Yakshas in Hindu mythology are the demigods who protect the natural treasures, such as water and forests.
The middle enclosure measuring 38 x 42 meters has gopuras on east and west side connected by a brick wall, some parts which have collapsed. The gopuras on the middle enclosure are designed with beautiful and creative patterns and have finely carved bas-reliefs.
Each gopura has two facades, one facing east and the other west. The image shows the east-facing façade of the gopura and part of the wall surrounding the enclosure. The gate is flanked on either side by a false window and a door. Behind the gopura, you can see two structures, which are libraries on the inner enclosure.
As seen in the image above, the bas-relief on the east-facing pediment depicts Kala, a time monster associated with Shiva as he is the time-keeper of the universe, and an unidentified deity above Kala.
The west-facing pediment depicts Gaja Lakshmi – one of the eight avatars of Lakshmi- sitting on a lotus flower flanked by two gajas (elephants ) performing abhisheka (showering with water and food) and riding Uluka the Owl. Uluka is often associated with Lakshmi, but not always as her vahana (vehicle).
Lakshmi is Vishnu’s wife and goddess of wealth in Hindu mythology. She is known as Ashtalakshmi because of her eight avatars (manifestations), each symbolizing an aspect of wealth. The Gaja Lakshmi avatar symbolizes wealth through strength. According to a myth, Gaja Lakshmi is a by-product of Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk).
Gopura on the west side of the middle enclosure
The pediment depicts the fight between the brothers Vali and Sugriva and Rama is trying to help Sugriva. This popular theme from Hindu epic Ramayana is portrayed in many Hindu temples in India and Southeast Asia.
The inner and middle enclosures are much closer than the outer and middle enclosures. Both the inner and outer enclosures are surrounded by brick walls. As seen in the image below, a narrow empty space separates the enclosures.
This is where the main temple structures are located. The enclosure measures 24 x 24 with a brick wall surrounding it.
Inside the enclosure, there are two libraries, three sanctuary towers and an antechamber called mantapa which is attached to the middle sanctuary tower.
The image above shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the northeast side. The rightmost structure is the north library and next to it is the east gopura. The structure that has two kneeling dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) in front is the mantapa.
The image above shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the southwest side. The leftmost structure is the south library and next to it is the east gopura. The view shows the west-facing facades of these structures. The three sanctuary towers are in the front.
The image above shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the northwest side. The rightmost structure is the north library and next to it is the east gopura. The view shows the west-facing facades of these structures. The three sanctuary towers are in the front.
The image shows the east-facing facade of the east gopura. The door frame and the pediment of this gopura are beautifully decorated.
The pediment depicts the scene Shiva Tandava Nritya, i.e., Shiva performing his cosmic dance of creation, preservation, and destruction.
The lintel depicts Indra – who is the dikpala (guardian) of the east – riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. Each Airvata head is shown as a monster-like figure attached to the elephant head. As you can see from the image below, Indra, whose head is missing, is holding the elephant trunk with the right hand, and the monster head with the left hand. The other two Airavata heads are at the ends.
A damaged statue of Nandi the Bull is in front of the gopura.
Libraries are a common feature in Khmer architecture. Although their exact purpose is not known, they were likely used for storing religious manuscripts. They are typically located near the entrance of a temple.
The library structures of Banteay Srei are located near the entrance of the inner enclosure; one on the north and the other on the south. They are aligned along the east-west direction and have facades facing east and west. Each facade has a beautifully decorated door, lintel on top of the door and pediment on top of the lintel. The bas-reliefs on the pediments depict stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The south library is dedicated to Shiva. Both the east and west facades depict stories about Shiva.
The east-facing pediment depicts an episode from Ramayana in which Ravana with his 20 hands tries to lift Mount Kailash, the heavenly abode of Shiva and his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) as Shiva sits calmly with his consort Parvati on his lap.
Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash
According to the story, Ravana was enraged by Shivas’ vehicle Nandi who did not let Ravana’s plane (Pushpak Vimana) to pass over Shiva’s abode. When Ravana tries to lift Mount Kailash, Shiva holds it down, which enrages Ravana further and he starts shaking the mountain.
The west-facing pediment depicts a story from Shiva Purana in which Kama (a.k.a Kamadeva), the god of love and carnal desire, strikes Shiva with Kamabana (Kama’s arrows) to arouse passion and desire in Shiva, who is in the state of meditation.
According to the story, after the death of his wife Sati, Shiva goes into a state of meditation to grieve her death. This results in a great imbalance in the world. Meanwhile, Sati is reborn as Parvati, and all the gods want Shiva to marry Parvati. Sensing this need, Indra sends Kama to arouse passion and desire in Shiva for him to be interested in Parvati.
West-facing south library facade
The north library is dedicated to Vishnu. Both the east and west facades depict stories about Krishna, who is one of the avatars (manifestation) of Vishnu.
The east pediment shows a detailed and beautiful carving of the Burning of Khandava Forest episode.
Burning of Khandava Forest
The Burning of Khandava Forest is a story from Mahabharata. According to the story, the fire god Agni wanted to burn the Kandhava Forest because of a stomach ailment. Disguised as a brahmin, he goes to Arjuna, who is one of the Pandavas, and makes a request that he is hungry and needs to be satiated. Since Arjuna could not refuse a request from a brahmin, he agrees to Agni’s request. Agni then reveals himself and tells Krishna that he is hungry and the only way he can satiate his hunger is to help him consume the Khandava Forest by letting him burn it. Arjuna reluctantly agrees to help him.
The Kandhava Forest was also the home of Takshaka, the king of nagas (snakes) and Maya, the architect of asuras. When Agni starts the fire, Takshaka was not in the forest. Because Takshaka’s family is inside the forest, he begs his friend Indra to help them to escape the fire. Indra agrees and uses his power to bring rain to the forest to douse the fire. Arjuna stops the rain by creating a layer of arrows. Krishna helps him by staying on the other side of the forest. Agni then consumes the forest. The story ends with Takshaka’s son Avasena escaping the forest and Maya seeking asylum from Arjuna.
This is one of the most beautiful and detailed bas-reliefs in the temple. As you can see from the image, Indra is at the top bringing down the rain. Arjuna on the left is firing arrows to stop the rain. Between the forest and Indra, there is a layer of arrows created by Arjuna. On the right is Krishna, who is holding his signature Sudharshana Chakra, helping Arjuna. Between Arjuna and Krishna, there are animals, Takshaka’s family, and Maya and other asuras, who are trying to escape the fire.
The west pediment shows Krishna killing Kamsa, a popular theme portrayed in many Hindu temples in Cambodia and Indonesia (See Prambanan).
West-facing north library facade
Sanctuary Towers (Prasats)
Each sanctuary tower has four facades, each of which has a door with multi-level pediments and a lintel. The entrance is only on the east side and the rest three facades have false doors.
South Sanctuary Tower
The east-facing facade of the south sanctuary tower facades
The images show the east-facing facade of the south sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment depicts Shiva and his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) sitting on his vehicle Nandi. The lintel shows Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. The doorway is beautifully decorated. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door and in the front two dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) guard the door. The entrance to this structure is on this facade and the facades on the other three sides have false doors.
The image shows the south-facing facade of the south sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment and the lintel depicts Yama, the god of death and justice, riding his vehicle male buffalo. The doorway with a false door is beautifully decorated. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door.
Central Sanctuary Tower
Dedicated to Shiva, the central tower holds the Shiva Linga inside the inner chamber. It is taller than the other two. There is a mantapa in front of it on the east side. The pediment on the west side depicts Varuna riding three hamsas (sacred swans), the north side depicts Kubera, the south side depicts Yama riding a buffalo and the east side depicts Indra riding Airavata.
North Sanctuary Tower
The image above shows the east-facing facade of the north sanctuary tower. The bottom-most scene on the pediment most likely depicts Bhima killing Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, by splitting his body into two. The lintel shows Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. This is the only entrance to the sanctuary tower and the other three sides have false doors. It is guarded by two squatting dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) who have human bodies and faces of mythical bird Garuda who is Vishnu’s vehicle. The door frame is beautifully decorated and it is flanked on either side by devatas standing on top of hamsas (swans).
The image above shows the north-facing facade of the north sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment depicts Kubera carried by yakshas and the lintel shows Bhima killing Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, by splitting his body into two. The doorway is beautifully decorated and the door is a false door. On both sides of the door, beautifully sculpted devatas are guarding the door.
The image above shows the west-facing facade of the north sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment depicts Varuna riding three hamsas (swans) and the lintel depicts Kubera carried by a yaksha (Kubera’s vehicle is a man or yaksha). The doorway is beautifully decorated. The door is a false door. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door.
The mantapa is a porch that leads to the central sanctuary tower and is on the east side of the sanctuary towers.
The image above shows the north-facing facade of the mantapa guarded by two squatting dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) who have human bodies and monkey faces. The dwarapalakas on the right side belong to the east-facing entrance of the north sanctuary tower.
The image above shows the south-facing facade of the mantapa guarded by two squatting dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) who have human bodies and monkey faces. The pediment on the door depicts Kaala (time monster) devouring an elephant, and there is an unidentified deity on top of Kaala. The lintel also shows Kaala.
Note: Kaala is associated with Shiva as he is the time-keeper of the universe who controls the time cycles by creation, preservation, and destruction.
The dwarapalakas on the left side have lion faces and belong to the east-facing entrance of south sanctuary tower.
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