Banteay Srei

"The women's citadel"

Date 2nd half of the 10th century (967)
King Yajnavaraha under the reign of Rajendravarman II and Jayavarman V
Cult Brahmanic (Shivaïte)
Clearing H. Parmentier and V. Goloubew in 1924 with anastylosis by H. Marchal from 1931 to 1936.

The miniature temple of Banteay Srei is located twenty kilometres north-east of the Bayon as the crow flies, not far from the right bank of the Stung Siem Reap, the river that descends from the Phnom Kulen to flow into the Tonle Sap. Situated in the middle of the forest, small in scale and in a region lacking in archaeological remains, one can understand why it escaped general attention for so long - its discovery by lieutenant Marec, an officer in the geographic service, was in fact only made in 1914. It was not cleared until 1924, following the theft and ensuing scandal the previous year of some important stones. These were eventually recovered and restored to their original positions during the course of restoration work.

The total success of the anastylosis, undertaken by Mr Marchal, caused the general adoption of this technique for the restoration of the monuments by our archaeological service, directly inspired by methods used by archaeologists in Java - and although the task at Banteay Srei was eased by the diminutive volume of the buildings, by the small blocks of stone cut from a durable sandstone which retained its sharp profiles and by the abundance of a remarkably well preserved and clearly visible decoration, the achievement of Mr Marchal is no less impressive since he was obliged to employ his skill on a particularly distant site with difficult access and with minimal means - and with an unskilled and inexperienced work force who had first to be trained from scratch.

Negotiations by Japan in 1941 ended the hostilities between Thailand and France, ensuring that Banteay Srei would be left to Cambodia - even though situated to the north of the 15th degree that marked the new frontier - by the creation of a triangular enclave which was effectively in part of Thailand. This provisional solution was unconditionally reversed by Thailand's restitution at the end of 1946.

The track to Banteay Srei, though sandy in places, is always passable by car, except for three or four weeks from September to October when the rains are particularly heavy. It leaves the Grand Circuit between Pre Rup and the eastern Mebon to head east through the delightful village of Pradak, where it forks to the north, at two kilometres from the point of its departure, to skirt, after another ten kilometres, the village of Khna - where those with a taste for coconut milk will be able to refresh themselves on their return. After six more kilometres it leads to a parking area. Walking from the river, which here cuts deep and is cleared by a foot bridge, one finally gains, by the road straight ahead and at the first fork, the eastern entrance to the temple - after some 500 metres.(33)

Given the very particular charm of Banteay Srei - its remarkable state of preservation and the excellence of a near perfect ornamental technique - one should not hesitate, of all the monuments of the Angkor group, to give it the highest priority. Although, in our opinion, there is no gain in trying to classify the quite different monuments of Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei or the Bayon in order of merit - nevertheless, Banteay Srei is by popular consensus a "precious gem", the "jewel of Khmer art". This commendation, however, also carries with it the only justifiable criticism - which is that the work relates more closely to the art of the goldsmith or to carving in wood than to sculpture in stone. The very nature of the material used - a hard red sandstone that can be worked like wood - has inspired the artist not to carve in volume, but rather, in the reduced scale of the composition and the proximity of the buildings - whose bare walls have disappeared under a dense overall decoration - to have made the temple itself like a half scale model, to the detriment of any architectural theme or monumental character.

The proportions of Banteay Srei remain unexplained and always amaze - it is a sort of "caprice", where the exquisite and abundant detail is more impressive than the mass. And while it is generally true that the outlying sanctuaries never attain the grandeur of the capital temples, and that the Khmer, used to seeing the Meru in a pyramid, the ocean in a moat and chains of mountains in the retaining walls, readily accepted small things for large - here, nevertheless, all the usual devices are distorted, with gopuras the usual thickness of a large wall and minuscule openings where the priest could not enter but by crawling.

This anomaly is particularly marked in the sacred enclosure, contributing at one time, following the erroneous interpretation of certain epigraphic data, to the assignment to the buildings of a later date - it was thought that the three sanctuary towers were not constructed until nearly the year 1300 in replacement of a single sanctuary of the normal grandeur - of the 10th century as the other enclosures - which occupied the same space.

It is now known, with the discovery in 1936 in the eastern Gopura of the fourth enclosure of the temple's foundation stele, that Banteay Srei formed a whole, whose style proves quite homogenous. Inscribed in 968, the first year of the reign of Jayavarman V, the inscription gives, with the position of the sun, the moon and the planets, the date of April-May 967 - the last year of Rajendravarman's reign, under whom at least some of the construction was probably started. After the invocation of Shiva and of his "Sakti", the text contains an eulogy of Jayavarman V and of his "Guru", Yajnavaraha, who founded Banteay Srei with his younger brother, erecting the linga of Shiva Shri Tribhuvanamahesvara in the central sanctuary. Other inscriptions engraved on the jambs of door openings mention the placing of another linga in the southern sanctuary, and of a statue of Vishnou in the northern.


The temple is presented to the east with a cruciform laterite gopura. This is flanked by two small side doors and probably corresponded to an external enclosure (fourth enclosure) formed as a timber palisade. The eastern door, with its sandstone pillars, the fine ornament of its pilasters and the fronton of Indra on a three headed elephant, give a taste of the internal decoration to come - and of the beautiful rose tint of the stone. The location of the beams which carried the tiled roof still remains visible in the masonry.

A processional way bordered with decorative bornes - that were toppled conscientiously every year by the wild elephants - leads to the third enclosure. Lining either side are galleries, with foundation walls in laterite and pillars in sandstone. These are divided towards their middle by small buildings, like gopuras, which lead, to the south, to three long rooms orientated in parallel north-south, and to the north to a single-roomed building. Here one should notice the superb fronton where Vishnou in the form of the god-lion (Narasimha) is holding Hiranya-Kasipu - the king of the Asuras who has dared to challenge him - upside-down below him while cleaving his chest with his claws. On the ground near the entrance is a long stone representing seven feminine divinities, facing forward on their mounts - then, to the side, a Ganesha and an unidentified figure. The remains of two other buildings can be seen before arriving at the third enclosure, near to which, on the north side, the fronton of the eastern door of the third gopura east has been reconstructed on the ground. It shows, mounted in a decoration of foliated scrolls with animals and small figures, the abduction of Sita - the wife of Rama - by the Yeak Viradha.

The temple as such is composed of three enclosures defined by simple walls that measure respectively 95m.00 by 110m.00 - 38m.00 by 42m.00 - and 24m.00 by 24m.00.

The third enclosure from the centre is formed by a moat surrounded by laterite steps, with a border to both sides, divided to the east and west by a causeway that leads to the two gopuras. The wall is in laterite and the eastern gopura, whose plan is the same as that of the fourth gopura east, dominates the western. Preceded by small lions, it has a superb accolade formed base step, a pedestal and three passageways. The fronton of its west portico was not replaced but sent instead to the Musée Guimet in Paris. It shows the "story of the apsara Tilottama, created by the gods in order to cause discord between the two brothers, Sunda and Upasunda - formidable asuras who wrought havoc in the universe. The sculptor has reproduced the moment where the two, each seizing the apsara by a hand, are in dispute over her possession". (G. Cœdes). This scene, taken from the Mahabharata, is very simple in composition but perfectly balanced - with the clear background between the figures further enhancing the modelling.

The second enclosure is also surrounded with a laterite wall and intersected by two gopuras of differing size. Offset towards the west with respect to the third, it contains six building annexes in laterite - the tiled coverings of which have naturally disappeared. These are rest galleries divided into three sections The two longest are to the north and south, while the others flank each of the gopuras. The east gopura, again cruciform in plan with three passageways, has each of its double-pillared porticoes set with superb superposed triangular frontons which follow the slope of the roof, recalling architecture in timber. Their bordered frames in large terminal volutes are crowned with deeply cut motifs of a refined elegance which, like their tympanums, are purely ornamental in decoration. Frontons treated in similar spirit are to be found at Koh Ker (10th century) and Preah Vihear (11th century), in the northern part of Cambodia - conceded in 1941 to Thailand and regained at the end of 1946. A small Nandin, the mount of Shiva, lies facing the temple to the west of the gopura.

The buildings of the first enclosure have undergone complete anastylosis, restored in every detail to their original condition. The integrity of the decor - even in its excess - is further enhanced by the numerous antefixes and corner stones in the form of the prasat which, on the sanctuary towers, line the cornices of the four upper tiers. Crowned with a "Kalasa", or a symbolic water jar, these are particularly slender in proportion - they seem to shimmer in the light, and bring to mind the dense complexity of Hindu art. This is no longer the monotonous "uniform density" inherent in the architectural method of the Khmer. However, nowhere is there chaos - the profiles are as sharp as the lines are everywhere decorous - nor any lack of style.

The enclosure wall is in brick, as is its western gopura. This has a central room forming a sanctuary flanked by two passageways. The eastern gopura, all in sandstone and with a single passage, is so narrow that a man can barely squeeze into its wings.

On either side, two "libraries" open to the west and have their long façades in plain laterite and sandstone under a corbelled brick vault. Opposite is the central group, presented on a single 0m.90 high platform in a simple T form. Three towers are aligned to the front in an arrangement reminiscent of Prah Ko, Phnom Krom and Phnom Bok. The two lateral towers are 8m.34 in height while the central is 9m.80. The sanctuary chambers are 1m.70 and 1.90 metres each side respectively. By a kind of anticipation - in accordance with an arrangement which one will often find in the 12th century - the central sanctuary is preceded to the east by a long room, or more exactly here by a square chamber with lateral doors between a portico and a junction vestibule. All are roofed in corbelled brickwork like the "libraries", and the interior is as bare as the exterior is ornate.

Banteay Srei, apart from its diminutive form, has also the particularity that it is both a reflection of the past - but not to the point of regression - and an advance to the future in its innovation. Through refinement it takes the best of all that had preceded - its affinity with the art of Roluos is clear - and submits it to new creation in a dynamic form of high art.

The arrangement of the plan - the stacking of superimposed frontons and the variety of the terminal motifs of their framing curves, - the appearance of bas-reliefs with scenes on the tympanums which until then were reserved for the representation of isolated figures, most often in hieratic poses, - the wall tapestry with squares and motifs with foliated scrolls, - the multiplication of heads of Kala, treated in purely decorative fashion, - the replacement of lions on the stair-walls by human figures with heads of monsters; - all of these are the mark of a general reconsideration, the majority of whose elements will be found time and again during the classical period, though often treated with considerably less skill.

The enchanting decoration requires detailed study. Besides the moulding of the profiles, the false doors, the frames of the frontons and the bands of foliated scrolls - which indicate a veritable "renaissance" several centuries before the Renaissance in Europe - we would also generally draw the visitor's attention to the following:-


The superb sculptural work on the east lintel, and the central motif on the west lintel where a divinity with four arms and the head of a horse overcomes two Yeaks whom he is holding by the hair - and the west fronton, where the goddess Durga with eight arms, helped by her lion, wrestles with a demon buffalo which a serpent entwines in his coils.


The two frontons, dedicated to Shiva; - To the east (Ramayana) is the giant Ravana, with multiple heads and arms, trying to shake the mount Kailasa - represented by a tiered pyramid similar to the mount Meru of the temple-mountains and set on a stylised forest background. At the summit sits Shiva with his wife Parvati crouching beside him in a delightfully abandoned pose. The different tiers are populated by animals that flee in terror, by figures with animal heads and by ascetics.

To the west, in a similar composition inspired by the Kalidasa, is Kama the god of love, shooting an arrow at Shiva - close to whom is Parvati, giving him a rosary and trying to disrupt his meditations.


The two frontons, inspired by the legend of Vishnou.

To the east (Harivamsa) is the "Rain of Indra", or beneficial rain, indicated by parallel lines which fall on a stylised forest inhabited with animals and through which pass the child Krishna with his brother Balarama. The god, mounted on a three headed elephant, dominates the clouds - represented by many undulating lines. On the axis stands the naga, the symbol of water.(34)

To the west is the murder of king Kamsa by Krishna. The scene, inspired by the Bhagavata Pourana and the Harivamsa, takes place in a palace, giving a precise indication of the contemporary wooden architecture - mounted on poles with reducing superstructures like the prasats in stone. The two principal figures, in their oversize, give an appearance of perspective that is rare in the reading of the bas-reliefs.

The four frontons, representing the first appearance of tympanums with scenes, are works of the highest order. Superior in composition to any which followed, they show true craftsmanship in their modelling in a skilful blend of stylisation and realism.

Other interesting frontons include the one on the west gopura, second enclosure, east side, which has been restored. It shows the duel of the two monkeys, Valin and Sugriva - the ally of Rama - who dispute the Royalty (Ramayana), - and from the same gopura but returned to the sculpture storeroom at the Conservation Office, another depicting the wrestling between the Pandava Bhima and the Kaurava Duryodhama (Mahabharata) in the presence of Krishna with four arms and his brother, Balarama, armed with a ploughshare. Both compositions are light and restrained, showing similarities in their execution to the history of the "apsaras Tilottama" described previously.


The delightful statuettes of devatas under arches of the corner piers of the north and south towers and the gracious young "guardians" of the central tower.

The male figures stand elegantly in a slightly "hipped" stance with their hair set in a cylindrical chignon. They gracefully hold a lotus bud in one hand and their lance in the other. The female devatas, standing similarly, have their torsos naked and play with flowers. Their hair is set in plaits and they are richly adorned. Above, separated from a head of Kala by a lotus, female figures playing cymbals give rhythm to a female dancer with a large bell dress, like those one can see in the art of the Bakheng, and particularly of Phnom Krom.

Of the lintels enhanced with figures one should note, on the central sanctuary; - to the north, the duel between the monkeys Valin and Sugriva, - to the west, the abduction of Sita, - and to the south, a wild boar, viewed from the front, who is perhaps an allusion to the founder of the temple, Yajna-varaha ("the sacrificial boar"). On the north Sanctuary, north side, a god cleaves his enemy from head to navel.

Excavation revealed several interesting pieces of sculpture in the round, worthy of narrative or ornamental sculpture and, like the temple itself, small in scale. Six male and female statues in two groups were found close to the east gopura of the third enclosure, - Shiva and Uma from the central sanctuary are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. There were also figures crouching on the stair-walls with bodies of men and heads of monsters; - monkeys in front of the south entrance of the long room, lions in front of the south tower, garudas in front of the north tower and a kind of negroid in front of the west side of the central sanctuary.