Prah Khan

"The sacred sword"

Date 2nd half of 12th century (1151)
King Jayavarman VII
(posthumous name: Maha paramasangata pada)
Cult Buddhist
Clearing Started by H. Marchal from 1927 to 1932
Continued with partial anastylosis by M. Glaize in 1939.
Various consolidation and restoration work carried out since 1946

Note: - The traverse of the monument can be made in totality either from east to west or inversely. Send your vehicle to meet you at the gate opposite to your entry, or if you only have a little time, straight to the north gate. The three are to be found on the Grand Circuit, the way leading to the east gate (route Fombertaux) is just a little after the 9 kilometre marker stone, to the north gate after the 8 kilometre stone, and to the west gate at 7 kilometres.

The large ensemble of Prah Khan, forming a rectangle of 700 metres by 800 surrounded by moats, covers an area of 56 hectares. It is, like Ta Prohm with which it has many analogies, an example typical of the formula adopted by Jayavarman VII; - all the elements of a vast composition compressed into a relatively small space (the third enclosure contains all of its buildings in only 175 by 200 metres), - the transformation of an elegant initial plan into a veritable architectural chaos by the multiplication of additional buildings placed at random - all then enclosed within a vast habitation zone that was probably covered with huts and timber houses.

For Prah Khan, things can easily be explained. On the one hand, the reveals of the sanctuary door openings, give proof in short inscriptions of the multiplicity of the pious foundations - naming the idols which represent as many deified dignitaries and giving the monument the character of a kind of temple of remembrance, rather like a necropolis. On the other, the stele discovered in 1939 reveals that it was here the king won victory (personified in the name of Jayasri) and founded a city of the same name: "Nagara-Jayasri".

It is also quite likely that Prah Khan was a city, since, according to Mr Cœdes, the ancient name of Jayasri and the modern name of Prah Khan are but one and the same - "the sacred sword - the palladium of the Khmer kingdom - still being called Jayasri in Thailand: - "Nagara Jayasri", which meant in fact "the city of victorious royal Fortune", which became in popular usage the city of the sacred sword - or in Cambodian, Prah Khan".

In contrast to Ta Prohm or Banteay Kdei - other foundations of Jayavarman VII - the four access paths crossing the moats are here bordered by the same lines of giants holding the naga which also precede the gates of Angkor Thom, whose architectural symbolism we have studied in previous chapters. At Prah Khan, as in the distant city of Banteay Chmar where they can again be found, this element was the mark of a royal city, further confirmed by the planning of the entrances that are set on level ground, in contrast to the usual arrangement, in order to allow the passage of carts and elephants. Prah Khan, where one finds no faced towers like those at the Bayon, or outer enclosures as at Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Ta Som or Angkor Thom - and which must therefore have preceded them - quite probably served as the provisional residence of Jayavarman VII during the reconstruction of his capital, devastated by the Chams in 1177.

As a temple, the stele tells us that in 1191 a statue was consecrated in Prah Khan to bodhisattva Lokesvara, named Jayavarmesvara, who was none other than an image of the father of Jayavarman VII, Dharanindravarman - in the same way that Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother represented in Prajnaparamita.

It also refers to the existence of 515 other statues, to one of the 102 royal hospitals of the kingdom (which has not been found), and to a house of fire or stage-post. The attendants and servants numbered 97,840 men and women, a thousand of whom where dancers. Eighteen major annual festivals and ten days public holiday a month give evidence of the taste that the Khmer have always had for leisure and their religious ceremonies.


Prah Khan, like most other temples of Jayavarman's reign, is not uniform in style. It shows evidence of numerous alterations and additions - and although a Buddhist monastery, there is nonetheless an abundance of Brahmanic iconography.

It has two concentric galleries and, similarly, two enclosures formed by simple walls - the closest to the centre containing important groups of galleries and sanctuaries on the axes which, as a crossing cloister to the east, become veritable temples in reduction in the other orientations.

The visit is easy since recent clearing works have opened the axial circulation by clearing the fallen rubble. From the east to the west, as from north to south, is a long line of door openings, vestibules, rooms and galleries - and we recommend that one follows the central route while making as many deep forays on either side as possible.

The temple was previously overrun with a particularly voracious vegetation and quite ruined, presenting only chaos. Clearing works were undertaken with a constant respect for the large trees which give the composition a pleasing presentation without constituting any immediate danger. At the same time, some partial anastylosis has revived various buildings found in a sufficient state of preservation and presenting some special interest in their architecture or decoration.

The route Fombertaux, leading to the eastern entrance, ends at the ancient terrace which served as a landing for boats on the western bank of the "Jayatataka" - the large reservoir of 3,500 metres by 900 - which is axial on Prah Khan and has the tiny island of Neak Pean at its centre. Of the original arrangement there remains but some foundations and steps in laterite, preceded towards the lake by two beautiful "gajasimha" lions.(29)

From here, the perspective of the ensemble must have been magnificent, responding to the natural partiality of the Khmer for grand schemes. The avenue with decorative bornes followed by the pavement bordered with giants carrying the naga across the moats, leading to the external enclosure, is one of the finest realisations in Angkor, and irresistibly brings to mind the noble presentations of Versailles or of the Grand Trianon. It is only regrettable that the two lines of bornes are set closer together than are the two chains of giants, so masking rather than complementing them - a fault in the composition that could easily have been rectified.

One hundred metres long and ten metres wide, the avenue is repeated to the west with a little less dimension, while to the north and south there are only the chains of devas and asuras. Each borne has its shank sculpted with monsters, standing "as atlantes", and the square top decorated with four niches containing a seated Buddha. The image of the Sage - systematically butchered during the Brahmanic reaction of the 13th century - unfortunately only remains on two of them - at the return to the western end on either side of the axis.

The external gopura of the fourth enclosure has three towers, the central of which has four upper tiers and forms a clear passage at ground level, so dominating the two others which have only two tiers and secondary doors. Here one can clearly see all the characteristics of the Bayon style - the general decoration of the walls that are embroidered on a base of foliated scrolls, small devatas and false windows with partially lowered blinds. Large garudas brandishing the naga, over five metres in height, stand with their backs to the laterite wall on each side of the building - a motif that is repeated every fifty metres along the surrounding three kilometre external enclosure. At the corners they are more developed, and stand in their full glory - we would particularly draw attention to the one in the north-east corner, which has been fully restored and is accessible from the north gate by skirting the outside of the wall.

One of the finest works of Khmer statuary, a kneeling Prajnaparamita with a divine purity of expression, was found in this gopura during the clearing works. The original is now in Paris at the Musée Guimet, although there is a copy at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

To the north of the forest track leading to the third enclosure and still pactically intact stands the "house of fire" for the pilgrims, mentioned in the inscription. It is similar to the one at Ta Prohm, with particularly thick walls and windows with a double line of balusters. Its multiple corbelled vault, which undulates like the framing line of a fronton, allows the principal room an exceptional width of 4m.70 overall.

A vast terrace on two levels with lions and naga-balustrades in the style of the Bayon allows access to the five-doored gopura, which aligns its three towers and its two extreme pavilions on a front of nearly a hundred metres, the whole being linked by galleries with pillars to the outside and a rear wall ornate with false windows with balusters towards the courtyard. To the south of the axis, a pair of large trees, resting on the vault itself of the gallery, frame its openings and brace the stones in substitute for pillars in a caprice of nature that is as fantastic as it is perilous.

From here to the interior of the third enclosure, contained within a laterite wall, there is the usual cruciform court forming four small courtyards surrounded by galleries with side-aisles on pillars. Certain elements of the half vaults, carefully coursed and dressed, are still in place, with their ornamentation of lotus blossomed coffers. Above the openings, the presence of several remarkably fine apsara friezes confirm the probable use of this area as a hall for ritual dance.

Leaving by the north one can see, to the side of a pavement bordered with nagas, the curious arrangement of massive closely set pillars which also exists at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei - with the exception that here they stand as large cylindrical columns - the only example in Angkor in this dimension. They serve to support a first floor in masonry, whose window frames have been reconstructed on the ground, though no trace of any access stair has been found. Opposite is a long raised terrace with laterite retaining walls.

Returning to the principal east-west axis of the monument, one then passes through the ritual dance hall, which one leaves by a courtyard enclosing two "libraries" within its walls, opening to the west, and a pseudo-gopura that forms a tower.

The cruciform gallery that follows seems to be slightly later. Its ornamentation is excellent, with the dvarapalas and devatas in high relief framing the openings, its frieze of sculpted - though defaced - Buddhas separated by gracious winged figurines and its corner garudas. Up at the back, barely visible in the half-light, the eastern fronton on the gopura of the first enclosure is quite particular in nature with its palace door motif framing two figures - male and female - mounted on a base and elegantly dressed.

To the left, the first small courtyard has been cleared. It must have been delightful, with its surrounding cloistered gallery ornate with gracious devatas - until one of the towers, still in rough form, came as an unfortunate addition to obstruct its near totality.

The stele, discovered miraculously intact under a pile of rubble, has been replaced in its original location in the western vestibule of the first gopura.(30) Practically identical to that at Ta Prohm and of the same size, 2m.00 by 0m.60, it is inscribed on each of its four sides with 72 lines of angular writing that is characteristic of the late 12th century.

Two minuscule "libraries" with a particularly dense ornamentation frame the western door, whose imposing fronton - consecrated to the glory of the triumphant king - has been repositioned. Surrounded by large trees which so far it has been possible to spare, a vast cruciform hall with pillars separates the north-east and south-east quarters from the internal courtyard which, not yet cleared, is choked with more or less ruined buildings. Its walls are peppered with small holes and it must once have been covered, like the interior of the central sanctuary that follows, with wooden or metal panels. The sanctuary is clearly offset to the west and so divides the court into two unequal parts.

The main tower is cruciform in plan and has four avant-corps, and externally would seem to have been sculpted and then pitted to receive a covering of mortar. Within its eastern vestibule was erected - in 1943, after having been found in the neighbouring undergrowth - a large statue of a standing Lokesvara with eight arms that would seem to correspond to the "Lokesa called Shri Jayavarmesvara".(31) According to the foundation stele this should have been found in the main tower, and is in the image of the father of Jayavarman VII. Clearly in the style of the Bayon, the countenance is inspired with the same serene spirituality as the statue of the kneeling deified princess represented in the aspect of the Prajnaparamita (discovered in 1929 in this temple and mentioned above) - the two seeming to be by the same artist. The whole effect is concentrated in the expression of the face that glows with an imperceptible smile and an intense vitality. The simply modelled body stands firmly on oversized legs and has the peculiarity of being "irradiating" - it is covered with tiny figures of the Buddha from the toes, ankles and wrists to the chest, shoulders and the small curls of the hair. The only two hands which remained holding the disc and the rosary were broken off and stolen in 1945, during the Japanese occupation.

The central sanctuary is now occupied by the crowning motif of a stupa, the elements of which were found in the rubble of the sanctuary chamber. Unusual in form with its slender, banded shaft (tiered parasols?), it is no doubt of a later date. From here, the four lines of rooms and galleries which stretch to the four cardinal points can be viewed with their delightful play of shadow and light.

Taking one of the monumental galleries with double side-aisles which leave it on three of its axes, the visitor with a little time can explore either to the south, where from the avenue of giants (which no longer stand), the perspective stretches through a clearing in the forest to the moats of Angkor Thom - or, better, to the north, where the chains of devas and asuras have been re-established on either side of the pathway leading to the 8th kilometre of the Grand circuit.

The third gopura north is surrounded by some delightful trees, the "sralaos" with their white channelled trunks, which frame it beautifully. Its principal entrance is preceded by two enormous dvarapalas and a cruciform terrace, and has an interesting fronton; - it shows a lively scrum which is probably an episode from the battle of Lanka (Ramayana). Passing through the small cloister that forms a complete temple between the second and third gopuras, one can find a Ganesha in the central tower(32) and, on its eastern axial gallery, two superb frontons of Brahmanic inspiration - the "Reclining Vishnou" and "Shiva between Vishnou and Brahma".

Leaving the central sanctuary towards the west, one should visit the north-west and south-west quarters of the internal courtyard of the first enclosure - which have been entirely restored - with their numerous buildings sited without order and sometimes juxtaposed, which Mr Cœdes sees quite justifiably as "funerary chapels - or family tombs" . Some of them are vaulted, unusually, with a cloistered arch. The centre of the courtyard is marked by one of the isolated standing pillars with a top tenon, similar to those in other temples of the same period and which perhaps carried a miniature wooden temple containing some offerings. Each corner of the first enclosure gallery is marked by a high tower with reducing upper tiers - the one to the south-west has been reconstructed. It is interesting that, on the walls of the two symmetrical pavilions closest to the central sanctuary, the ascetics in arches on the north-western quarter remain unscathed, while on the south-western, the images of the Buddha have all been defaced.

Passing the first and second gopuras and continuing through the small temple in reduction with cloistered galleries like those encountered to the north and south, one can see a fronton representing "Krishna raising mount Govardhana" to shelter the shepherds and their flocks. It should be noted that all the tympanums with scenes in this part of the temple are dedicated to Vishnou and his various manifestations, in accordance with the convention for images of this god, so closely associated with the west.

The large gopura of the third enclosure - presenting a front of nearly 40 metres and entirely restored - has its central core formed in a crossing of aisles with groined vaults supported on pillars, with half vaulted side-aisles. It is quite close in style to Angkor Wat, though the external decoration, crowded with numerous figurines on a base of foliated scrolls that covers the entire surface of its panels, is very much in the style of the Bayon.

Among the fine frontons one can see; - to the east, on a royal embarkation, the "chess players" which one can also find in the south-west gallery of the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat - and to the west, an episode from the battle of Lanka (Ramayana). The western door is found with its two dvarapalas and its access terrace guarded by lions, once again practically intact.

A long cutting through the forest creates a dramatic vista that accentuates the monumental character of the composition and finally allows one to exit the temple through the three towered gopura of its fourth enclosure - whose restoration intervened just in time to save the ruin of its crumbling structures whose vaults only remained in place by a miracle of balance. The pavement bordered with giants that crosses the moat was restored to its original condition, with complete success on the side of the asuras, as was the avenue of decorative bornes with defaced Buddhas that joins the road of the Grand circuit at its seventh kilometre.