Phnom Bakheng

Date towards 900
King Yasovarman I
Cult (posthumous name: Paramashivaloka)
Brahmanic (Shiva´te)
Clearing clearing work at different times by
Henri Marchal from 1919 - 1930
research by Mr Goloubew, 1931 - 1934

phnom bakheng

Thirteen hundred metres north of the western axial entrance to Angkor Wat and 400 metres south of the southern gate of Angkor Thom, to the west of the road, one can see a wide track in the forest ascending a natural hill of 60 metres in height. This is Phnom Bakheng, the centre of the first kingdom of Angkor, or Yasodharapura, which formed a square of about 4 kilometres on each side and of which, travelling on the main road from Siem Reap, one crosses the double levee of earth forming its southern boundary - 600 metres before arriving at the moat of Angkor Wat.

On his accession in 889, Yasovarman abandoned Hariharalaya (Roluos), the rudimentary capital of his predecessors situated on the plain, and became the first, seduced by the mysticism of the hills, to find his "Meru" (the seat of the gods) and his "Ganga" (the river Ganges) symbolised here in the hill of Phnom Bakheng and the river of Stung Siem Reap - the latter probably being diverted to follow the eastern boundary of the new city.

As an imposing replica of the Bakong at Roluos, the temple of Phnom Bakheng, glorified by its choice position and prominence over the surrounding landscape, had yet further to assert its monumental character in order to justify its role as the base and shelter of the Devaraja - the linga Shri Yasodharesvara of the inscriptions - the master-idol of the kingdom. So came the first realisation of a quincunx of sandstone towers crowning the upper level of the pyramid and the multiplication of secondary towers on the lower tiers.

Phnom Bakheng is best climbed at the end of the day or early in the morning, either by its immediate steep slope or by the gently winding path bearing to the left, formerly taken by tourist elephants - which is a classic and very pleasant walk. From the summit one can enjoy a view stretching across the plain - dominated by the two other peaks that are also each crowned with a temple by Yasovarman; - Phnom Krom to the south, close to the Tonle Sap lake, and Phnom Bok to the north-east, standing out from the distant dark line of the Phnom Kulen - and then the plain of water of the western baray, the forest of Angkor Thom and the majestic composition of Angkor Wat, lying golden in the setting sun.

In previous chapters we described how Mr Goloubew identified the "Central Mountain" of the inscriptions - the centre of the capital from the end of the 9th century - with Phnom Bakheng. In particular, his excavations revealed the existence at the foot of the hill of a buried rectangular enclosure of 650 metres east-west by 440 metres north-south, intersected by gopuras of which some remnants are still visible at the base of the hill at the eastern entrance. Similar traces have appeared on the other axes where the stairways, unlike those of the eastern flight, have retained a few of their treads.

The art of Yasovarman shows a constant preoccupation with the quest for the monumental and the improvement of construction techniques in the use of scarce but durable materials. However, one can observe that in the detail, except for some powerful elements - such as the base platforms and the cornices, the devatas of the corner piers and the colonnettes - it failed to transcend a certain banality in the decoration and a disparity in the respective scale and arrangement of the motifs - one bemoans, for example, the lintels of preceding styles - those more broad and vigorous in manufacture of the Kulen, or more magnificent and dense but yet solid of Bakong and Prah Ko. This tendency towards finesse and detail derived perhaps from habits learned while sculpting in the decorative mortar of the brick monuments and the timber of the palaces - techniques which here restricted the craftsman's necessity to work in volume to the call of the architect.


The two lions framing the bottom of the path which leads to the upper plateau are amongst the finest and the best proportioned to be found in Khmer art. At the top of the hill, where once some Vietnamese monks were established and who made various inevitably regrettable alterations, one leaves to the right a building of which only some sandstone pillars remain, to pass two lingas set as bornes and a light-weight structure sheltering a Buddha's footprint of a more recent date - to then cross the remains of a gopura that originally intersected the laterite enclosure wall. On either side of the axis are two "library" type buildings in sandstone, ventilated by lines of lozenge shaped holes. Initially opening to the west, they have later each been pierced with another opening in their eastern sides.

The temple appears from here as a stack of five bare-faced tiers, becoming progressively smaller from 76m.00 at the base to 47m.00 at the summit, with an overall height of 13 metres. The severity of the lines is fortunately broken by the cut of a steep axial stair inclined at 70%, flanked by lions at each rise and framed by the cascades of small sanctuary towers that are repeated at the corners. The upper platform, with the quincunx of towers that are either truncated or have disappeared altogether, is no longer imposing, while the brick towers encircling the base of the pyramid are for the most part ruined and barely worth mentioning.

Thirty six of these towers, opening to the east and sometimes pierced subsequently with another door opening to the west, stood aligned in a single rank - except on either side of the axial pathways where they are found coupled on a common base, making a total of forty four. Many of them are missing or remain incomplete. Just before their remains, on the left, are two large pedestals. Found during the clearing work, these are remarkable in detail and quite pure in style.

The Bakheng pyramid is unique in not having its interior formed by in-fill - the bedrock has simply been hewn away as necessary and a sandstone cladding applied, as one can see in the north-east and south-east corners where land-slides reveal the substructure. No doubt the form of this natural frame has forced the narrow width of the tiers - less than 4 metres and obstructed by the small pyramid towers - which barely allow any circulation. These 60 prasats are constructed in sandstone and open to the east - those to the west side being practically inaccessible. They remain in rough form and are composed, as usual, of a principal core with four upper tiers and a decorative crown.

The north-south axis of the monument is slightly offset to the west, leaving borders on the fifth level differing in width from 5 to 12 metres - room enough to accommodate pageants.

A sculpted retaining wall of 1m.60 in height serves as a base for the 31m.00 wide upper platform, which, until the clearing work, was encumbered with a mound of re-used blocks, amassed by the monks to form the base of a huge sitting Buddha whose torso remained incomplete. There was some surprise, on starting to dismantle the blocks, to find a quincunx of towers - though unfortunately only the principal level of the central sanctuary remained, measuring 8 metres on each side. The four corner towers, of 6 metres, were reduced to a few bases of wall, leaving the silhouette of this 109 towered temple particularly deformed.

The central tower was constructed with particular care and opens to the four cardinal points. At the foot of the pyramid it was possible to find three of the four "Nandin", or sacred bulls (the mount of Shiva), which assured the omnipresent power of the god. A rectangular stone tank of 1m.40 by 0m.80 in width and 0m.72 in depth, with a drainage hole in the bottom, was extracted from the internal well - which stops at bedrock at a depth of 2 metres. This must have had, according to Mr Cœdes, some funerary purpose - it was perhaps a sort of sarcophagus once containing the mortal remains of the deified king. In front of the eastern side of the tower one can see a regular arrangement of holes formed in the pavement - most likely for the placing of masts or wooden poles. The other four sanctuaries sheltered a linga which was perhaps set on a pedestal. Each has two opposing doors.

In terms of decoration, the remains show evidence of all the qualities and faults indicated above. Besides the imposing devatas on the corner piers surmounted by apsaras, one can appreciate the delicately sculpted bands of foliated scrolls and the pilasters with chevrons or trellis-work enhanced with figurines that are characteristic of the style. Also noteworthy are the lightly relieved tympanums of the frontons, almost square in proportion and quite confusing in composition, but which are solidly contained by the diverging makaras terminating their framing arch. They have a central base with figures flanked by large scrolls fringed with a series of small heads of divinities - a formula that one finds only during this period of Khmer art.

An inscription is still visible on the western jamb of the north door dating from king Jayavarman V (968 - 1001) - and therefore later than the monument - but recalling the foundation of Yasovarman.