Beng Mealea

"The Mealea pool"

Date late 11th - first half of 12th century
Cult Brahmanic
Research by J. de Mecquenem in 1913

A trip to Beng Mealea, which in itself demands an entire day, can be combined with a hunting party, since the region is rich in both small and large game and wild animals; - tigers, panthers and elephants, herds of oxen and wild buffalo inhabit the forest as far as Prah Khan of Kompong Svay in the east.

The track to the Beng Mealea turns right from the Grand Circuit between Prasat Kravan and Srah Srang at 10 kilometres from Siem Reap, a little after the 12 kilometre marker stone. Following an ancient Khmer road for 28 kilometres (a bridge with nagas is still visible at the 16th kilometre) it joins the road from Damdek to then head north, then east, and then pass through the village of Tuk Lich to end near the south-west corner of the monument. The journey, which is quite difficult and only possible in the dry season, is 40 kilometres and requires about 2 hours by car. Jungle enthusiasts can then continue on to Kompong Thom by passing the temple of Prah Khan (of Kompong Svay) on condition that they make camp at this last location.(46)

We recommend that the visitor to Beng Mealea follows the dotted line indicated on the schematic plan provided, which should give a general idea of the most interesting parts without proving too difficult. Entry is gained by the western causeway that starts from the Koh Ker track, where one will see some remains of naga-balustrades on moulded blocks. Their terminal motifs have a purity of line rarely achieved during the various periods of Khmer art, - their high crest is trimmed with a stylised and extremely delicate decoration that is like embroidery.

Beng Mealea is one of the largest ensembles in the Angkor region, covering an area - within its 45m.00 wide moats that cover a distance of 4,200m all around - of 108 hectares, and comparable therefore to the most imposing temples of the capital. Clearly of architectural character, it gains above all by the clarity of its plan, the harmonious equilibrium of its composition and the sense of the monumental, given effect by the large clear surfaces - the decoration is simple and animated only in certain areas, and so shown to particular advantage. Platforms, bases and capitals, - cornices underlined with a single frieze, - the tympanums of the frontons and devatas are the main elements of an ornamentation that is generally discreet while maintaining excellent quality.

Although undated like many temples of this period, Beng Mealea is, by virtue of its style, later than the Baphuon and very close to Angkor Wat. It is in totality the prototype on a single level of a building formula which, combined with the principle of terracing, must have reached its peak in this latter monument. Unfortunately, its state of ruin is such that it is difficult to attribute the natural destruction to any single cause - although carefully constructed, in places it presents the appearance of a veritable chaos of fallen debris beside areas that remain absolutely intact - while everywhere vegetation reigns as master.

The external enclosure corresponding to the moats must have been formed in a timber palisade. Four axial pathways lead from the dikes - which are ornate with colonnettes as they cross the moat - to the cruciform terrace, also with colonnettes, preceding the gopuras of the third enclosure. These long avenues are paved and have lateral steps and naga-balustrades.

On the east side, like at Prah Khan of Angkor, the pavement is first framed by pools - one of which, lined with sandstone, always has water - and then extends beyond the external enclosure to a vast depression that was perhaps an ancient "baray". This was dominated by a large laterite terrace with three stairways to the east and west, preceded by decorative bornes and surmounted by a sandstone platform with small internal courtyards which, as at Srah Srang, must have carried a light-weight pavilion.

The temple as such is composed of three enclosing galleries with four gopuras. The third from the centre, of 152m.00 north-south by 181m.00 east-west, has a large tower set on each axis and each corner - that of the eastern gopura being flanked by two smaller others corresponding to secondary entrances. The following enclosures are concentric and resolutely offset to the west to allow the positioning on the east side of two "libraries" and a large crossing cloister, as at Angkor Wat. They have no towers. The first enclosure, finally, forms in itself a single complete temple in a similar arrangement to Banteay Samre and Chau Say Tevoda, which are practically contemporaneous; - four gopuras and corner pavilions, two "libraries", and a central sanctuary (that has completely collapsed) are preceded to the east by a long room.

To the south, between the 2nd and 3rd enclosures and on either side of a connecting north-south gallery that is axial on the central sanctuary, two annexe ensembles have been built; - to the east, a crossing cloister with four small courtyards and surrounding galleries stands partially intact with the vaults and slender side-aisles in elegant proportion; - to the west is a similar arrangement but which is less developed with a central hall and two small courtyards. Monsieur de Mecquenem saw here a place reserved for sacred dance or for "oration with or without the accompaniment of music" and in the other, where he found traces of guttering and remains of pottery, halls for ritual ablutions.

At Beng Mealea the galleries appear for the first time with the vaults supported on one side by a back wall and on the other by rows of pillars - a particularly favourable arrangement for the execution of bas-reliefs in the best conditions of lighting and presentation - as at Angkor Wat and the Bayon. Here, however, the walls have not been sculpted, and the iconography is seen again in various scenes, for the most part Vishnou´te, on the frontons or at the base of the pilasters, in a manner consistent with the 12th century. Recognisable in particular are; - the "Birth of Brahma" on a lotus emanating from the navel of Vishnou reclining on the serpent; - the "Churning of the Ocean", - "Krishna supporting the mount Govardhana" to shelter the shepherds and their flocks from the storms, - the "Wrestling of Krishna with the asura Bana", where the god is mounted on Garuda and his adversary is in a chariot drawn by lions, - some episodes from the Ramayana (the battle of Lanka), including the "Ordeal of Sita" which is well preserved and set on three tiers - and "Shiva dancing" between Brahma and Ganesha on his right and Vishnou on his left. The usual divinities are represented on the lintels; - Indra on a three headed elephant, - Vishnou on Garuda, - Lakshmi between two elephants whose raised trunks hold lotuses rather than ewers, - and Shiva dancing between Ganesha and Parvati.

Again, the devatas wear long plaited skirts with the material falling to the front, held at the waist by a circle of pendants, and hair coiffed with a single disc and a single point that herald the more complex styles of Angkor Wat.

We would point out, finally, that to return to the east causeway and the large terrace at its far end, one can skirt the third enclosure of the monument by a path to its south.