Banteay Samre

"The Samres' citadel"

Date towards the middle of the 12th century
Cult Brahmanic (Vishnou)
Clearing 1930. Anastylosis by Mr Glaize from 1936 to 1944

A visit to Banteay Samre can be combined with an excursion to Banteay Srei, which it should precede if possible. The whole trip takes perhaps half a day and is best made in the morning.

From the Grand Circuit a track, which can often be sandy and difficult on a bicycle or rickshaw, leads from a point at 14 kilometres from Siem Reap, between Pre Rup and the eastern Mebon, straight in five kilometres to the path giving access to the eastern causeway of the monument. Two kilometres from its point of departure, in the village of Pradak, one passes the road to Banteay Srei to the left. 1700 metres further on one crosses an earth embankment forming the eastern dike of the ancient eastern baray. After another 500 metres, the first road right leads to the temple's north entrance, while the second, 300 metres further at the signpost indicating the crossing of the tracks, takes one to the extreme eastern end of the access causeway. One's car can then wait in front of the north gate.

The Samres are an indigenous people of uncertain origin - they populated the region at the foot of the Kulen hills, and the inhabitants of Pradak are considered as their descendants.

The monument itself has its own story, related with particular relish by Mr Baradat. It tells of the accession to the throne of a poor farmer of Samre origin named Pou, who specialised in the cultivation of sweet cucumbers - the seeds of which he had received in some supernatural manner. He made homage of his first harvest to the king, who found them so succulent that he quickly secured exclusive rights, ordering Pou to kill anybody, man or beast, who should enter his "chamcar" (field).

In the season of the rains when the cucumbers were scarce, the sovereign, impatient for their taste, went himself to visit his gardener - but, arriving after nightfall, was mortally wounded by the farmer with a blow from his lance, being mistaken for a thief and buried as such in the middle of the field.

The king had no direct descendants, and the dignitaries of the kingdom, unable to agree on the choice of his successor, resorted to divine intervention, calling for the "Victory Elephant" to designate the new king. Stopping just in front of the sweet cucumber farmer, it "saluted him, lowered its trunk between its feet, kneeled and, encircling him with its coiling trunk, placed him gently on its back".

So becoming king, the cucumber farmer exhumed the corpse of his predecessor to celebrate the funerary ceremony at the Mebon, followed by the rites of cremation at Pre Rup. The court dignitaries, humilified at being governed by a Samre, soon expressed their discontent by neglecting to show any respect. The king, unable to discipline them with either kindness or cruelty, left the Royal Palace and went to live at some distance from the city - at Banteay Samre - where he "remained shut away like a frightened tortoise with its head in its shell". There, he summoned his ministers who remained loyal to the attributes of the royalty and the regalia of the old king rather than to the Master himself and, when he could take no more, resolved to punish them. Calling for the commode of his predecessor, he decapitated all those who chose to humiliate him by rather showing their devotion to this miserable relic of the previous dynasty. His reign followed from thenceforth in harmony amongst his followers who, overcome by his compassion, became faithful to him.

Banteay Samre, overrun with vegetation and cluttered with fallen blocks from its upper parts, had all the usual charm of ruins lost in the forest, but was no more than an object without form or personality. Anastylosis has transformed it into one of the finest monuments of the Angkor group, and one of the most complete. Its ornamentation, exceptional in quality and very well preserved in its entirety, became thereafter presented in its unified integrity - it is a pure specimen of the classic art from the finest period where the decoration, shown to its best advantage on a clear background, is itself a function of the architecture.

Following the resurrection of Banteay Srei, this first attempt at the restoration of a monument of any considerable size proved that the new method of work was justified and the confidence placed in its success well founded. Although undated, since no inscription was found - unlike other monuments in the same style - Banteay Samre is without doubt very close in time to Angkor Wat, and perhaps a little later.

Its slender proportions - though not fully appreciated before the clearing works since the horizontal lines of the truncated buildings barely emerged from their verdant covering - are impeccable, with an internal layout similar to the central part of Beng Mealea or Chau Say Tevoda, with which it is approximately contemporaneous; - enclosed by galleries with four gopuras and a surrounding courtyard, its central sanctuary is preceded to the east by a long room flanked by two "libraries".

Arriving from the east, a 200 metre causeway paved in laterite and bordered by a naga-balustrade in the style of Angkor Wat - which unfortunately barely remains - passes between two "srahs" (pools), to end at one of the stairways embellished with lions and supported on colonnettes. On two levels and bordered by nagas - similar to those in front of the entrance to Prah Palilay - this was joined to another terrace that stretched in width to either side of the axis. Its retaining wall, with rich decoration of a quality rarely achieved even during this period, ends in two stairways. These have disappeared, and their absence - which no doubt results from some later use of the materials - detracts considerably from the majesty of the composition. They are followed by the beginnings of two right angle returns, evident by the remains of their laterite foundation walls.

To judge by the remains of a large number of tiles found during clearing works, this vast esplanade was topped with light-weight structures extending to the limit of the eastern enclosure wall, obscuring its 1m.20 high moulded substructure. Excavation carried out during the clearing works discovered some remains of the walls of an ancient terrace, though unclear in plan, which indicated that the arrangement of the immediate surroundings of the temple on the east side must have been altered. The external laterite enclosure wall in its imposing proportion of 6m overall height must have formed, as on the other sides, one of the walls of a tile-covered gallery joining a gopura that would have been far more impressive than the existing projecting entrance with portico. This meanly proportioned arrangement could not reasonably have constituted the principal entry to a temple as important as Banteay Samre - and its style is in any case of the Bayon, which is later than the monument.

Internally the impression is confirmed - the galleries and gopuras of the second enclosure must either have been demolished or remain incomplete on the eastern side - and a laterite terrace has also been identified just at the outcrop of the projection serving as the plinth for the first gopura. The gallery of the second enclosure, of 83m.00 by 77m.00, encloses a surrounding courtyard at a lower level with a border forming a continuous portico in elegant sandstone pillars. Its side-aisle was once covered in a double-curved tiled roof - the holes for locating the carpentry still being visible in the walls. The main gallery, also with its roof once tiled, has no openings to the exterior except on the south side where long horizontal windows are placed high, while to the courtyard it gains light through numerous windows, each with seven balusters. Those to the south are walled in.

The height of the walls forms a very effective enclosure, corresponding well to the defensive role given to it in the legend of "the King of the sweet cucumbers".

The three north, west and south gopuras are all similar - cruciform in plan with two wings that lead to galleries and two porticoed doors. They are in laterite and sandstone and far more imposing than those of the first enclosure, - the anastylosis has, apart from the tiled roof, enabled the complete restoration of their powerful masonry framework. The pictorial tympanums of the frontons and half frontons, in a composition that stands clearly apart from the usual pattern, are set in very high relief - the figures are larger in scale than those within the temple and differ in technique, showing a superior quality in their modelling. It would seem that, like Angkor Wat, the last enclosure with its gopuras was realised later than the rest of the monument, though maintaining an undeniable unity.

One should particularly note the large frontons on the porticoes, which have had to be supported by a reinforced concrete frame. Inspired by the Ramayana, they describe various episodes of the battle of Lanka where the monkeys play a primary role. The best preserved panel - and one of the finest specimens in Khmer art - is on the north gopura, northern side. It represents, in a high relief standing out from the confusion of monkeys and asuras, the fight between Rama and Ravana, each mounted on his war chariot.

All the others should also be seen:

On the north gopura, southern side, is the charge of the monkeys under the command of Rama, mounted on Hanuman, and Lakshmana, on Angada.

On the south gopura, northern side, the construction by the monkeys of the causeway in rocks that is to enable them to attack the island of Lanka, and, on the half fronton to the right, Vishnou holding an Asura by the hair.

On the south gopura, southern side, Hanuman carries the summit of mount Kailasa (whose magic plants will serve to revive them) to Rama and Lakshmana who have been wounded by Indrajit.

On the west gopura, western side, the ferocious battle between the monkeys and the rakshasas and, on the eastern side, Vishnou overcoming two asuras whom he is holding by the chignon, with, on the half-fronton to the right, a line of gods on their mounts; - Vishnou with four arms on a lion, - Skanda, the god of war, with ten arms and multiple heads, on a peacock, - and Yama, the god of the Dead, on a buffalo.

The internal enclosure (the first enclosure), of 44 metres by 38, is poorly defined by a low and narrow gallery in laterite which, like the other, is set high with respect to the surrounding ground-level. It has small corner pavilions, and the monotony of its line is fortunately relieved by the crested ridge of sandstone finials which it has, unusually, been possible to partly reconstruct.

The corner elements of this gallery that link the four axial gopuras are closed to the exterior and have no doors, opening only to the internal court with balustered windows - some of which have been walled in - giving a general impression of being prison cells or stores rather than places of meditation or of rest.

The works revealed that these galleries were in fact but an addition, having taken the place of an ancient enclosure wall, the original line of which could be identified on the gable end walls of the gopuras. The sandstone pavement surrounding the interior of the courtyard - with its steps and its balustrades of nagas on blocks with their remarkable five headed terminal motifs - is evidently also not original since, behind its unfinished sculpted plinth, there appeared to be another corresponding to the layout of the entrance pavilions. It would seem, however, that this "change of mind" was not a happy one, since the first arrangement in fact left far more space around the buildings, and in particular around the two libraries that now are practically wedged into the corners.

The overall dimensions of Banteay Samre are sufficiently small that, no matter from where, one gets the impression of the whole as being a complete composition of impeccable proportions, and all the more slender since the buildings are all perched high on a platform leaving the courtyard at a lower level. The decorative moulding of the plinth is of the usual design with opposing diamonds and with an horizontal axis of symmetry. It is particularly deeply cut and perfectly executed, embellished on the central band with delightful figurines, trimmed with lotus buds and standing proud from their background. Others are to be found in elevation around the base of the pillars and the frames of the openings - or, in accordance with the 12th century practice, grouped to form small scenes.

The four gopuras are all similar - formed of a central core with a false upper storey and crossing vaults with two smaller wings which, on the eastern gopura, form secondary passageways. They enclose a cruciform room preceded by projecting vestibules with tiered frontons.

From the eastern gopura, an exposed earth platform gives access to the long room preceding the central sanctuary that is framed by two vestibules and complemented on each of its broad sides by a slightly projecting entrance corresponding to a stairway. The thickness of the walls is accommodated in a false half-vault that has allowed the closing of the windows with a double row of balusters to very good effect. Internally, a delicate relief decoration has been started in places.

The sanctuary is considerably offset to the west and opens only to the long room, enclosing a square chamber of 3m.00 in width. The four avant-corps, three of which correspond to false doors, project to the four cardinal points - their doubled frontons are set in tiers just to the height of the cornice of the principal level, whose corner piers "reveal the background", rising uninterrupted to the full height of the frontons. Above, the four tiers are surmounted with a circular lotus crown capped with a double hat from which must have projected a timber or metal pole, reaching 21m.00 in height in relation to the courtyard ground-level. The numerous antefix stones set on the cornices intensify the play of light and shadow, giving this tower, more so than Angkor Wat, the aspect of a slender latticed cone.

It is interesting to note that many scenes on the frontons of the upper levels have been identified as episodes from the Vessantara Jataka. The presence of Buddhist scenes in a Hindu temple and the fact that in some places certain sculpted motifs - probably also Buddhist - have been mutilated (notably on the pilasters) makes a curious statement about the religious tolerance of the monument's patron.

Within the eastern part of the courtyard, on either side of the long room, two elegant "libraries" open to the west preceded by a vestibule forming a portico. Slender in proportion and with barrel-formed vaults, they have false side-aisles and a false upper storey punctured by horizontal windows, with gable ends forming frontons. Like the central sanctuary, the ornamentation of their false doors is remarkably fine.

Although in places defaced and differing in size, the door lintels and the tympanums of the frontons on the various buildings, either in single or tiered composition, are all interesting and merit being considered in some detail. Few temples present an iconography so complete in such a state of preservation, and we would draw particular attention to the following:

On the east gopura, east side, the lintel over the secondary southern entrance (Krishna wrestling with the serpent Kaliya), with its fronton showing the "Churning of the Ocean" presided over by Brahma and, above the northern entrance, the "apotheosis of Vishnou on Garuda".

On the west side "Vishnou Trivikrama astride the world" (south entrance), "Krishna raising the mount Govardhana" (north entrance), and "the aerial attack of Indra by the Rakshasas" (middle vestibule).

On the central sanctuary, the four lintels - almost intact and highly accentuated in relief - the southern of which shows, above a head of Kala, Vishnou with four arms overcoming two figures whom he holds by the hair (a motif which is repeated many times in the temple).

On the north gopura, southern side, a panel of apsaras dancing to the sound of a harp, and Shiva and Uma on Nandin.

On the west gopura, the conjunction of the sun and the moon (east side) and a line of divinities on strange mounts (west side).

On the north library, western side, "the birth of Brahma" carried by a lotus, whose stem grows from Vishnou's navel as he reclines on a serpent.

The absence of any devata may seem peculiar. However, on two of the narrow corner piers of the central sanctuary one can see some traces of figures, simply indicated in outline on the stone, as proof again that the sculpture on this temple, like so many others, remained unfinished.

Excavation has revealed only one statue in the round within the temple, of a superbly executed masculine torso, dressed and in a sitting position. Outside the second enclosure, close to the north-west corner, four large standing divinities (dvarapalas?) were discovered lying broken on the ground. In ignorance of their place of origin they have been set in the neighbouring second north gopura.(35) A delightful stone tank, the only in Angkor to still have its lid, with a hole pierced in the top of it and with a drainage channel in the bottom, has also been restored and placed in the large room adjacent to the central sanctuary. Mr Cœdes considers it to be some form of sarcophagus, enabling the procedure of periodic ablution of mortal remains which may have been entombed here.(36)

To finish, we recommend that you leave the temple by the south and walk around the external wall towards the right to the north gate, the parking place for vehicles. On the way one can then also admire, if not having already done so, the frontons of the three gopuras of the second enclosure. To the west, the construction of an axial cruciform terrace remains in its early stages - from where an avenue of 350 metres then leads to the east dike of the baray, forming in the last part of its stretch a wide paved causeway lined with elegant sandstone bornes of which unfortunately only a few remain. They recall the arrangement at Beng Mealea's eastern causeway.