the Eastern Mebon

Date second half of the 10th century (952)
King Rajendravarman
(posthumous name: Shivaloka)
Cult Brahmanic (Shiva´te)
Clearing
and restoration
H. Marchal and M. Glaize from 1935 to 1939

Five hundred metres north of Pre Rup, the 16th kilometre boundary stone stands at the southern edge of the large expanse of water known as the eastern baray. Measuring two kilometres north-south by seven kilometres east-west, it is enclosed by an earth embankment and marked at each of its four corners with a stele set in a shelter. Identified as the "Eastern Lake" by Tcheou Ta-Kouan and the "Yasodharatataka" on the inscriptions, it was realised during the reign of Yasovarman towards the end of the 9th century and supplied by the Stung Siem Reap.

This vast reservoir, that served to regulate the flow of the river and to irrigate the surrounding plain, is today given over to rice fields, though if one is to judge by the laterite steps which surround the small island of the Mebon, its original depth was three metres and its volume must have been 40 million cubic metres. Since a large part of it is now silted up there must have been some disaster or rupture of a dike to have caused its rapid choking rather than its slow sedimentation. Whatever the cause, its centre was marked by a small island of 120 metres across where the temple of the Mebon was raised - on which the main entry pavilion of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom and the Victory Gate were subsequently aligned.

The Mebon has all the characteristics of a "temple-mountain" symbolising the Meru - but where there should have been the tiered pyramid inside two concentric enclosing walls, here there is instead a simple three metre high platform carrying the quincunx of towers. Perhaps the builders were wary of putting too much burden on such a small mound of earth entirely surrounded by water? Whatever the reason, in allowing a more open composition and in reducing the movement of pilgrims to a minimum - since it was only accessible by boat - such an arrangement must have considerably eased the circulation.

Several inscriptions found in the vicinity as well as the foundation stele - dated 952 and so only nine years before Pre Rup - describe the placing in the various sanctuaries of the linga Shri Rajendresvara, of several idols - notably of Shiva and Parvati "in the likeness of the mother and the father" of king Rajendravarman, and of Vishnou with Brahma - and of eight lingas of the god in eight forms (in the eight small towers of the surrounding court). The Mebon belongs therefore to the series of temples consecrated to the memory of deified parents, - and a very fine statue of a feminine divinity found during the course of clearing and returned to the sculpture storeroom would seem to be the Parvati of the inscription.

Each axis is marked by a laterite embarkation terrace, framed by two sitting lions and forming projections from the retaining wall, itself supported on tiers. A border of five metres surrounds the external enclosure wall which, by the pleasing arrangement of its setting back, leaves sufficient space in front of each of the four gopuras. These are in laterite and sandstone - with no remains of either vaults or roofs - and cruciform in plan with three passageways and central sandstone porticoes. The inscribed stele is to be found on the right on entering.(25)

A series of galleries with laterite walls pierced by variously arranged balustered windows and with sandstone porticoes follows the interior of the enclosure wall, serving as meditation or rest rooms. They are, as at Pre Rup, the precursor of the continuous galleries that were soon to make their appearance in the monuments. Except for in the southern part, there are but a few remains of these buildings, whose roof covering was in timber and tiles. Perhaps the materials were put to some other use after their demolition.

A 2m.40 high laterite retaining wall with a 2m.00 surrounding border defines the next level (first enclosure) which carries a low enclosing wall. One should not forget to admire, standing at the four corners of the platform of the first and second enclosures, the handsome monolithic elephants, treated in realistic fashion and showing every detail of their harnesses. The best preserved are to be found to the south-west, and are more impressive than those at Bakong.

Ahead of the axial stairways, flanked by lions, a return in the enclosure wall again frames each gopura - except for the western where the border has been left wider. The building itself, in laterite and brick, formed a towered passageway, though this has virtually collapsed. The western lintel of the east gopura shows Krishna wrestling with the naga.

Within the large courtyard of the first enclosure, eight small brick towers - two on each side - open to the east. Each sheltered a linga. They have finely detailed octagonal colonnettes with two bands, and lintels with figurines incorporated into a foliate decoration. To the east are three rectangular buildings in laterite - two to the south of the axis that contained in one a "stone of the nine planets" and the other a "stone of the seven ascetics", and a single one to the north. They open to the west like the "library" buildings, and traces of brickwork remaining above the cornice suggest that they were vaulted in brick despite their width. In the north-west and south-west corners are two similar buildings - without windows - but opening to the east.

The upper platform carrying the five towers is surrounded by a sandstone wall forming a plainly moulded base of 3m.00 in height. Another plinth of 1m.90, but which is ornate, allows the central sanctuary to dominate the four others. Lions embellish the stairways.

The towers are built in bricks which are much smaller than those at Pre Rup - 22cm x 13cm x 5.5cm - and constructed without mortar in the usual manner. Figures - all masculine except for the two western towers - are outlined on the corner piers. All were covered with a sculpted lime-based mortar that is mentioned in one of the inscriptions, but of which there remains no trace, despite the measure taken of boring small holes in the brickwork to aid adhesion.

The towers open to the east, with the other three false doors in sandstone. The sanctuary chamber measures 4m.00 in the central and 2m.80 in the corner towers. The one to the south-east still contains an interesting circular pedestal of the type already found at Phnom Bok and at Phnom Krom, where it carried a statue of Brahma.

The ornamentation is similar in many ways to Pre Rup, and all the sculpted sandstone elements are remarkable - even though the decoration remains slightly affected and is occasionally reminiscent in its complexity of certain failings in the Baroque style. The false doors are delightful with their lattice-work pattern and banded motifs set with tiny figurines.

It has been possible to secure the lintels in place nearly everywhere during the course of the works. These are far better than those at Pre Rup and are handled with real craftsmanship, vigour and imagination.

On the central tower, one should particularly note; - to the east, Indra on a three headed elephant with small cavaliers on the branches and flights of figures being disgorged by makaras, under a small frieze of figures in meditation, - to the west, Skanda the god of war on his peacock with a line of figures holding lotus flowers - and to the south, Shiva on the sacred bull Nandin.

Then on the tower of the north-west corner, east side, - the curious motif of Ganesha sitting astride his trunk that he has transformed into a mount.

On the tower of the south-east corner, north side, - the head of a monster devouring an elephant. On the west gopura of the first enclosure, east side, - Vishnou in the form of a man-lion, clawing the king of the Asuras who dared to challenge him. On the building of the north-east corner of the first enclosure, west side, - Lakshmi between two elephants who, with their raised trunks, spray her with lustral water.