| the Royal Palace enclosure
Akas - Vimana "Celestial Palace"
Leaving Prah Palilay on its axis through the breach in the south side of its enclosure wall - dramatically framed by silk-cotton trees - one makes one's way through the forest for about 200 metres. This is a pleasant walk, which can be extended by taking a path to the left, towards the east, that follows the external enclosure wall of the Royal Palace. In less than a hundred metres one comes to the remains of an ancient basin which must have been a part of the whole composition of the Leper King Terrace, and whose western lining wall is sculpted on its east side with some interesting nautical scenes.
Retracing one's steps, one gains access to the interior of the Royal Palace through the western gopura of the 5 metres high northern laterite wall. This solid wall is doubled by a second of more recent construction, separated from it by a 25 metre wide moat, defining a vast rectangle of 250 metres by 600.
The northern and southern sides of this 15 hectare enclosure each have two similar sandstone gopuras, the best preserved being the one through which we have just come. Cruciform in plan, it is formed of a square towered-passageway with reducing upper tiers and two barrel vaulted wings that terminate with voluted frontons. Careful and restrained in their decoration these have all the purity of the classic period. On the corners of the upper cornices, the perfectly preserved tower miniatures still remain in place. The floor level in the gopura more or less corresponds to the level at the base of the Phimeanakas pyramid, at the centre of the enclosure. It is 1m.20 higher than the external ground level with the difference made up on this side by a double base plinth.
One can then, if the access track is passable, take a path to the right - that is to say to the west - where there is an ancient pool of 50 metres by 25 with steps and a laterite surround, which was perhaps part of the area of the palace reserved for the women. Following the north side, one comes to a small terrace that has its retaining wall sculpted with bas-reliefs showing a line of figures, elephants and horses, under a frieze of "Hamsas" (sacred geese).
Retracing one's steps and continuing east, or, if one has not made the detour, turning immediately left on leaving the gopura, one then arrives at the north-west corner of a large 125 by 45 metre pool, excavated in the 10th century and filled two centuries later during the vast filling work that was to raise the general ground level of the capital. Having since been neglected, it seemed appropriate to re-establish its original condition - an excavation undertaken on the north side revealed thirteen sandstone steps, remarkably finished, of which seven were moulded and six were plain, giving an overall depth of 5m.32 down to a laterite base.
A pavement separates it from the northern enclosure wall and from another smaller pool situated to the east - which is about 40 metres by 20, and 4m.50 deep.
On its western, southern, and a small part of its eastern side, the large basin is bordered, above a frieze of fish and aquatic monsters, by two broad, high steps sculpted with bas-reliefs; - below are nagas in animal and human form surrounded by nagi-princesses similar to those on the Terrace of the Leper King, - and above, where the height varies, male and female garudas and winged figures. Clearly in the style of the Bayon, the composition must have been crowned with a naga-balustrade and probably served as a tribune for the king and other court dignitaries during the display of nautical events staged here in this delightful setting.
Descending to the lower level, the visitor can examine all the sculpture in detail by following the western side, and then the southern nearly to its centre, where some blocks of stone have been placed to give access to the upper level.
Here, the history of the Royal Palace presents one of its more enigmatic mysteries. It would appear that these steps, whatever their apparent decorative importance, in fact mainly performed an utilitarian function - which was to retain the enormous mass of earth-fill which covered, in layers of varying thickness, the major part of the original ground level within the enclosure - and in particular the central area occupied by the chapel of Phimeanakas where, at 2m.50 in depth, it masked half the lowest tier of the pyramid.
The clearing of the area surrounding Phimeanakas by Mr Marchal, and other more recent excavations in the vicinity, revealed the existence of an intermediate level between the present ground level and the original base level, at 0m.80 above the latter. The general filling had, therefore, been undertaken in at least two stages. Each lower level - and in particular the intermediate level - corresponds to various remains of walls, of foundations and of paved areas relating no doubt to the layout of structures in light-weight materials - particularly on the eastern side of the temple. This must have stood in quite a crowd of buildings and was perhaps sited within a special enclosure. The fact is confirmed by the nature of the fill which contains brick and tile debris, and even traces of charcoal from fire-damaged construction timbers.
The timing of these successive in-fills remains a mystery - except for the intermediate level where two inscribed steles dating from the reign of Jayavarman VII prove that this was gained after the end of the 12th century. The last stage, given the present level, corresponds therefore at the earliest to the last years of the reign of this king.
The first of the two steles, known as "of the fig tree", is interesting in the proof that it gives of the religious syncretism practised by the Khmer - the "Bodhi" tree is in fact here identified with the Brahmanic "Trimurti" - Brahma for the roots, Shiva for the trunk and Vishnou for the branches. The second stele gives "the panegyric of a queen who reached nirvana after having performed numerous good deeds around her and practised the virtues of the ascetics". (V. Goloubew).
In its present state it is therefore impossible to know exactly where within the Royal Palace the various buildings - and in particular the private dwellings of the sovereign - were sited, since they were all built in perishable materials. One cannot be guided here by rules of symmetry, - anyone in our day who has visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh before its alterations in 1942 will have some idea of the results of several centuries of work by different monarchs. Unlike the temples, here there is no desire to make a lasting work according to the unchangeable rules of monumental architecture. With enlargements, alterations and modifications made at will to suit the tastes, whims and comforts of each, how does one then interpret with any success the various remains which are often reduced to some foundations of walls and impossible to place in time?
Based on the existence of enclosures still visible in elevation, Mr Marchal was, however, able to divide the royal enclosure into five zones. These are, from east to west; - an entry court of 70 metres in depth served by three gopuras, - the royal enclosure, of 280 metres, surrounding Phimeanakas and the large pool, served by two gopuras, - the area reserved for the women, of 150 metres, with, to its south, the latrine yard, neither of which have any link to the outside, - a fourth court opening onto the preceding and reserved perhaps for the service girls - and finally a last court, completely enclosed and of uncertain use.
Valuable clues to the character of each of these enclosures were provided by the nature of the objects found during excavation - in bronze or pottery and for cultural, decorative or utilitarian use.
Before the identification of Phnom Bakheng, the small pyramidal temple of Phimeanakas was thought by some to be the "Central Mountain" of the late 9th century capital of Yasovarman. However, it soon became considered as a sanctuary of the second order - partly because its rectangular plan and single prasat do not accord well with the idea of Mount Meru, the siege of the royal linga, located at the heart of the city itself - but also because it seems rather to justify its role as a private chapel, situated as it is within the palace.
This is the "golden tower" described by the Chinese envoy Tcheou Ta-Kouan that was found "in the private dwellings of the sovereign" - which gives their precise location and explains the large number of remains which appeared during the course of excavation at the foot itself of the pyramid. "The local people" - he adds "commonly believe that in the tower lives a genie in the form of a nine headed serpent, which is the Lord of the entire kingdom. Every night this genie appears in the shape of a woman, with whom the sovereign couples. Not even the wives of the King may enter here. At the second watch, the King comes forth and is then free to sleep with his wives and concubines. Should the genie fail to appear for a single night, it is a sign that the King's death is at hand. If, on the other hand, the King should fail to keep his tryst, then disaster is sure to follow...".
Phimeanakas appears as a pyramid with three diminishing laterite tiers forming an overall height of 12 metres. Rectangular in plan it measures 35 metres east-west by 28 metres north-south at the base and 30 by 23 on the upper platform. The axes are marked by steep, wide stairways framed by powerful side walls that rise in six steps - two for each tier - and are embellished with lions. Small elephants, standing on ornate sandstone bases, mark the corners.
The plainly moulded tiers are narrow and inaccessible, appearing almost pelagic under their thin sandstone capping. This forms a low, narrow gallery with balustered windows around the perimeter, its corners simply marked by small pavilions. The towered passageways of the gopuras are flanked by two wings.
We can see here the first attempt - albeit quite restrained - of a continuous vaulted gallery in sandstone surrounding a terrace, which, together with the detail of the ornamentation, allows one to place it in time from the late 10th century to the early 11th.
The visitor, having climbed the pyramid by its western stairway - the only one that is practically manageable - should notice the quite particular construction of the ovoid vaults of these small one-by-two metre galleries. Rather than having been made in two curved half vaults they are instead topped by a capping stone, whose underside is simply hollowed to suit.
The upper terrace forms an inner courtyard from where one gets a superb view over the neighbouring temple of the Baphuon. One can still distinguish the original base outline of a rectangular building and, set on a 2m.50 laterite plinth, the ruined remains of a cruciform sanctuary - in laterite and sandstone - with four vestibules opening to the four cardinal points. The upper sections have completely disappeared. This structure is not in keeping, and must have been the result of some alteration - no doubt replacing, in the mean time, Tcheou Ta-Kouan's "golden tower" that probably had its superstructure constructed in light-weight materials.
It seems that some original form of Phimeanakas existed already during the reign of Yasovarman, since an inscription dated 910 engraved on the jamb of the eastern opening of the present sanctuary describes the setting of a statue of Vishnou-Krishna, invoked under the vocable of Trailokyanatha.
This seems quite reasonable, since Phimeanakas aligns with the axial northern avenue of Phnom Bakheng - Yasovarman's masterpiece - and so explains its somewhat curious location within the present royal enclosure, constructed later and with its principal entrance on the east side considerably offset with respect to the temple. This is not, however, the opinion of Louis Finot, who saw in the inscribed door jamb of Phimeanakas just re-used stones that had simply been transferred here from one of the sanctuaries at Phnom Bakheng when this latter became redundant.
Leaving the temple by the south through a breach formed in the enclosure wall, one can gain access straight to the eastern entrance of the Baphuon - at the foot of the monument - and skirt its north-east corner by a footpath. But it is preferable to leave the royal enclosure by its eastern gopura. In so doing one will see, to the right, an elegant cruciform sandstone terrace with a surrounding cornice supported on columns - a later construction since it is built on filled ground - and then, lining the length of the north-south wall that separates the royal enclosure from the entrance courtyard, the remains of four pavilions in brick, laterite and sandstone, opening to the west and badly ruined, which are probably older - and finally, in the south-east corner of the enclosure, two sandstone structures of a later period. The more imposing of these has two entrances, windows to the south and a large vault with an undulating profile similar to both the "library" type of buildings and the shelters for pilgrims.
The single eastern gopura - constituting the principal entrance to the palace behind the central stairway of the Terrace of the Elephants - is grander than those on the north and south sides since it has two lateral passageways. Except for the central part forming a tower, it is vaulted in brick and is noteworthy for the purity of its proportions, the elegance of its internal cornice and the quality of its colonnettes and lintels - which have a head of Kala as the central motif. The inscriptions on the door jambs, dating from 1011 during the reign of Suryavarman I, reproduce the fidelity oaths of the dignitaries of the kingdom. The text is very close to that which is still in use today.