Pre Rup

"Turn the body"

Date second half of the 10th century (961)
King Rajendravarman
Cult Brahmanic (Shivaïte)
Clearing H. Marchal and G. Trouvé from 1930 - 1935

Situated 2.3 kilometres east of the junction between the Grand and the Small circuit at Srah Srang, just after the right-angled northwards bend and 500 metres south of the southern dike of the eastern baray - indicated by the 16th kilometre marker stone - the temple of Pre Rup unfortunately presents itself from insufficient distance. It would surely have gained by being re-united with the avenue of bornes which precedes it to the east.

An impressive work of impeccable proportions, constructed almost entirely of warm coloured materials (laterite and brick) at a time when sandstone was only used sparingly, Pre Rup needs to be visited either early in the morning or at sunset. Its relatively recent clearing required particular attention, the brick monuments needing special care in the removal of the soil, the fallen materials and the entangling roots. Any anastylosis being impossible, the restoration work was limited to some brickwork repairs and consolidation.

Later by a few years than the eastern Mebon and identical in style, Pre Rup is the last realisation of the "temple-mountain" that preceded the advent of the continuous surrounding galleries - which had their antecedent in the line of long rooms around the base. This is the "Meru" in the form of a pyramid, crowned with a quincunx of towers and dedicated to the deified nobility, with twelve small sanctuaries sheltering lingas on each of the tiers, as at Bakong. The inscription, after listing the genealogy of Rajendravarman, gives the foundation date (961) and names the monument as Rajendrabhadresvara, after the linga placed in the central sanctuary. There is then the designation of the statues placed in the corner towers - their cult corresponding to that of the king himself (Shiva) - identified as one of his maternal ancestors (Vishnou), his maternal aunt (Uma) and his half brother, king Harshavarman (Shiva), the son of this maternal aunt. The text explains that the royal essence or "spirit" of the sovereign was incorporated in his image, which was erected during his lifetime.

Axial on the eastern Mebon and dominating the wide cultivated plain irrigated by the baray, the temple-mountain of Pre Rup was certainly the centre of an important settlement - the "eastern City" referred to by Philippe Stern that developed on the return of the capital city from Koh Ker, to where it had moved between 921 and 944. This does not imply, however, that Rajendravarman established the royal City to the detriment of the former Yasodharapura, centred on Phnom Bakheng.

It is not known why the Cambodians have always attributed a funerary character to this temple. The name Pre Rup ("to turn the body") recalls one of the cremation rites, where the silhouette of the corpse in its bed of cinders is successively turned to different orientations. A large tank at the base of the east stair to the pyramid is considered by some to have been used in such ceremonies - and the funerary link continues in the legend of the careless King whose passion for sweet cucumbers caused his untimely death at the hands of his gardener.(24)

Architecturally, Pre Rup is composed of two enclosures, each with four gopuras, and a pyramid of three narrow tiers, conceived as a simple pedestal for the five towers of the upper platform. The eastern part of the last enclosure is occupied, unusually, by two groups of three towers aligned symmetrically with respect to the axis, set on a common plinth. One of these - the first to the north of the entrance - remains unbuilt, although its base platform has been prepared - unless perhaps the bricks have been re-used elsewhere following its demolition. The central tower of each group of three predominates and is more developed than usual, with a square sanctuary chamber of 5 metres each side and upper tiers which reduce slightly but are particularly high - their colossal dimension causing the upper sections of brickwork to crack, and in places collapse. The bricks are larger than normal - 300 x 160 x 85mm - and laid as usual without mortar but with a thin vegetal adhesive placed in the horizontal joints after the bricks had first been ground together.

These towers are not mentioned in the inscription and are presumably susequent since they remained unfinished. The false doors in sandstone, surmounted by their lintels, remain in rough form with only some outline traces of decoration. The most complete lintel is on the east side of the southern tower, showing Vishnou in his manifestation as a lion clawing the king of the Asuras, who had claimed the same honour as the god. The octagonal colonnettes with four bands give a forceful impression of strength.

Approaching from the road, the badly ruined access gopura is preceded by a small lion in the style of the Bayon, brought from some other monument. Its central brick section between two sandstone vestibules is formed of three adjacent rooms flanked by two independent passageways. The enclosure wall, of 120 metres by 130, is in laterite, and the surrounding courtyard has preserved but a few remains of the long rest rooms accessible to the pilgrims. Constructed with sandstone pillars in the eastern part and laterite walls with variously arranged balustered windows elsewhere, these were roofed in wood and tiles.

The laterite enclosure which follows is divided by four small single-roomed brick gopuras which are preceded by a sandstone vestibule and supplemented by two lateral doors pierced in the walls at either side. Long galleries, reserved for the temple servants and differing only in their manner of ventilation or lighting, surround the whole arrangement - their laterite walls and sandstone porticoes generally remained standing. Numerous fragments of tiles were found in the rubble, including some highly decorative stop-tiles.

In the north-east corner is a curious little building, square in plan and made with large blocks of laterite, that has been entirely restored. Of the type which usually shelters a stele, it is open to the four axes and topped with a "priests cap". On the ground is a sort of ablution vessel with a drain for water. The temple's large foundation stele has both sides inscribed and was found in part of a specially designated neighbouring gallery.

On either side of the eastern axial entrance are two buildings which open to the west. Of the "library" type, they have been built as high rectangular towers with reducing upper tiers. They sheltered respectively a "stone of the nine planets" and a "stone of the 7 ascetics". In the middle, between two rows of slender sandstone columns with top tenons, was found the dressed stone tank mentioned above. It measures 3m.00 by 1m.90. Not at all watertight and grooved on its upper edge, it would seem that it must have served as a base for some light-weight pavilion or statue of Nandin the bull, the sacred mount of Shiva, rather than as a sarcophagus in accordance with the legend. At the base of this tank were found the remains of a pedestal and a sacred foundation stone with a large linga, all of which perhaps came from the central sanctuary.

The elegant three tiered pyramid stands over a dozen metres in height, measuring 50 metres across at the base and 35 at the summit. Each axis is marked by a stairway, rising in constant width, while the stair-walls and the sitting lions which adorn them obey the usual laws of proportional reduction. The two lower tiers, around which the narrow verges of 4 and 3 metres barely allow any circulation, are formed in laterite. The first is twice the height of the second, both being treated as simple retaining walls with a moulded base and cornice. The third is all in sandstone, as are the steps cut into it, and appears in contrast as a decorated plinth with a central horizontal line of symmetry. Two secondary stairways framed with lions - a simple device of composition rather than of any practical use - animate its eastern side with their incision, while a dozen small sanctuary towers with lingas, opening to the east, stand around it on the first tier.

From the upper platform one can see the mound of Phnom Bok to the north-east and the dark chain of the Phnom Kulen beyond - the view then plunging down to the towers below. The central sanctuary clearly dominates, raised by more than 4 metres on a double plinth of moulded sandstone - but whose decoration is badly deteriorated. Its stairways are flanked by lions. The sanctuary chamber measures 4m.20 each side and only shelters two standing Buddhas of a later period.

The five sanctuaries open to the east. To the other orientations, false sandstone doors are sculpted with delightful figurines set in a vertical band in a lattice-work surround. The lintels are simplistic in style, lack much originality and are not particularly well preserved. All the brick elements still stand, though the detail of the superstructure has disappeared.

The walls were originally covered externally with a lime based plaster coating, which can still be seen in places - particularly on the tower of the south-west corner. The ornamentation was sculpted in the plaster itself, on a brick background which, for the more important decoration such as the figures in arches, was first sculpted in outline. The style is close to the motifs of the classic art but with some recollection of previous styles, such as in the representation of palaces and flying figures over the devatas.

It can be seen that the figures decorating the corner piers are feminine on the two western towers and masculine on those to the east - as they are on the central tower. One should also note; - on the south-west corner tower, a devata with four faces and four arms - the wife of Brahma, - and on the eastern side of the north-east corner tower another with four arms and a hog's head - the "sakti" of Vishnou in the form of a boar - who is to be found on the west face of the south-west corner tower.