the Terrace of the Leper King

Date late 12th
King Jayavarman VII
(posthumous name: Maha paramasangata pada)
Clearing de Mecquenem in 1911 and H. Marchal in 1917

The terrace of the Leper King lies just to the north of the Terrace of the Elephants, aligned with it but standing separate..(13) A mound of masonry about 25 metres across by 6 high, it is formed as a redented bastion with sides that are lined in sandstone and entirely sculpted with figures in a high relief, juxtaposed and separated in seven registers - the uppermost of which has almost entirely disappeared. Although now standing isolated - joined only at its north and south by the start of some returning walls - it is probable that this motif was previously but one element in a vast composition, perhaps complemented with pools, that has evidently undergone alteration.

The clearing work has revealed the existence, at two metres behind the outer face and following its line, of a second system of walls, also sculpted in bas-reliefs that are identical in composition - the void between them was filled with laterite that had to be extracted by pick. The fact that some of the sculptures on the internal wall remain in rough form and that the start of its north-south return towards the Elephant Terrace seems to align with it leads one to suspect that there must have been a simple modification to the plan, perhaps decided during the course of the work by a sovereign who was little concerned with practicalities of construction. It is not impossible, however, that this curious arrangement was a response to some symbolic preoccupation with the concept of Mount Meru, - with the buried wall representing the underworld of the cosmic mountain, balanced by its volume visible in elevation.

Whatever the reason, both the internal and external bas-reliefs are intentionally monotonous in presentation. They show only lines of seated figures, apparently representing the various fabulous characters - Naga, Garuda, Kumbhanda - which haunt the flanks of Mount Meru, shown as giants (sometimes with multiple arms), sword or club bearers, and women with bare torsos whose costume and triangular head dress with flaming discs relate to the style of the Bayon. To appreciate the exterior reliefs, the visitor should not forget to examine the north side - the best preserved - and its northern return that runs parallel to the road, where the start of some palace scenes are treated in quite a different spirit. One can see here in particular a sword swallower and some followers wearing a curious side-chignon.

Returning to the south side, one enters the internal corridor where the decor, set on a lower frieze of fish, elephants and the representation of a river running vertically, follows with the same elements as the exterior but is here enhanced with apsaras. Long protected, the sculpture remain very well preserved. At the end of the scene some laterite steps allow access to the upper level of the terrace.

Surrounded by three smaller decapitated statues carrying clubs on their right shoulders, the "Leper King" sits in the Javanese manner with his right knee raised. Resting on a simple stone slab just where he was found(14) and which perhaps corresponds to his original position, he offers the peculiarity that he is entirely naked - a unique phenomenon in Khmer art - though with no indication of any genitalia. He also has no sign of leprosy other than a few patches of lichen - his celebrity being more literary than artistic. Uninspired in craftsmanship and a little foppish in nature, he must rank amongst average works without attaining the first order.

The statue of the "Leper King", held by some to be a representation of "Shiva ascetic" is perhaps, in fact - if one is to believe a short 15th century inscription on the base - a "Dharmaraja". This name is sometimes given to Yama and sometimes to one of his assessors - "the Inspector of Qualities and Faults" - the supreme judge in the hour of judgement. Cœdes considers that the hair-style - which is quite particular to this individual and formed of thick coils starting from the front and covering the nape of the neck - emphasises, like the two "fangs" near the corner of the lips, his demonic character. For Cœdes, the "Terrace of the Leper King with its superimposed levels of fabulous figures is without doubt a representation of the 'Meru', and the fact that it occupies an area to the north of the Royal Palace - the area in Phnom Penh as in Bangkok reserved still now for royal cremations known as 'Val Prah Men' (the name of the pavilion prepared there for the funeral pyre) - leads one to suspect that the Terrace of the Leper King was none other than a permanent Men, which would explain why, at a time when this cult was still remembered, images of Dharmaraja, the 'god of the Dead', were placed there".

From the north-west corner of the Terrace of the Leper King one can then reach the Large Buddha of Tep Pranam along a track - without having to re-descend the stair on the south side or take the road again.