| Ta Prohm
"the Brahma ancestor"
Note: - the traverse of the monument can be made in totality either from west to east, or from east to west, by sending your driver to wait for you at the gate opposite your entry. The western gate of Ta Prohm is to be found a kilometre south of the crossing leading to Ta Keo.
"Nature," - wrote Aldous Huxley - "under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste, mild deity who presides over ... the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the (English) Lake District."
Even though the relentless force of the vegetation is the cause of so much damage, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient felt obliged to leave at least one temple in Angkor as an example of the "natural state" that so marvelled the early explorers, while also showing by comparison the importance of the effort already achieved in its work to safeguard these ancient stones. It chose Ta Prohm - one of the most imposing and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it - as but one specimen typical of a form of Khmer art of which there were already other models. The concession to the general taste for the picturesque could be made, therefore, with not too much reluctance, in order to enable each to give free rein to their own imagination and emotion.
Our work here was first limited to clearing in order to gain access, and then to preventing further ruin by seeking to reconcile the creepers and the roots with the survival of the structure and the architecture. In return, we ask the visitor to submit to the charm of Ta Prohm, to give it longer than just a few minutes and to thrill to it as the mood dictates.
Ta Prohm should be visited either in the afternoon or the early morning, and crossed from west to east according to the itinerary that we have traced on the plan. This precaution will prevent the visitor with limited time from becoming disorientated, due to the relative simplicity of a clearly marked route. In contrast, those who wish to spend several hours exploring the monument will find here the potential for an adventure - but without danger of ever getting lost, since the main axis is clearly defined from place to place by an uninterrupted line of rooms and vestibules, almost always made inaccessible by their collapse but providing nevertheless a good point of reference. We would advise, however, not to wander but with extreme caution in the areas of crumbling vaulted galleries remote from the normally frequented passageways.
Ta Prohm is a Buddhist monastery typical of the last formula of the Khmer temples in which the ensemble, laid out on a single plane, no longer followed the principle of multiple levels, but where the notion of elevation was rather expressed by the rising of the towers and predominant central sanctuary from within an arrangement of concentric galleries. Here these number three, and the principal east-west axis, formed by a succession of towers and passages, gives a sort of 'sacred vista' straight to the heart of the monument. The "horror of the void", a sentiment particular to the Khmer, has unfortunately favoured the proliferation on this framework of numerous parasitic buildings which, particularly to the east, either enhance or detract without any apparent logic.
The overall site is enclosed by two successive walls, the outer of which measures 600 metres by 1000. It may seem surprising that the temple as such with its three concentric galleries, consisting of all the elements of a grand composition, has been crowded into a meagre square of 100 metres each side which is itself lost in a park of 60 hectares. One should not forget, however, that - if one is to believe the inscription - there were 12,640 people living within the interior of the enclosure, including 18 high priests, 2,740 officiants, 2,232 assistants and 615 dancers...
While for some time all the various temples in the style of the Bayon were attributed to a single king - Jayavarman VII - during his twenty or so years reign, today it seems more likely that he could not, in such a short time, have done more than just transform, extend or complete already existing religious establishments with his mark. A monument as intricate as Ta Prohm, as Mr Groslier observed, was not built in a single throw, and shows traces of numerous alterations and adjustments. Some parts, in terms of style, are quite close to Angkor Wat, while others are to the Bayon - and only a deeper study after clearing the temple would allow one to classify the various elements with any certainty.
The stele of Ta Prohm is inscribed on its four sides and was found in a part of the gallery preceding the eastern gopura of the second enclosure. It gives the date of 1186, later by five years than the accession of Jayavarman VII, and describes the placing of a statue of the king's mother in the form of Prajnaparamita, the "Perfection of Wisdom", considered as "mother of the Buddhas", so classifying Ta Prohm in the category of temples consecrated to the glory of deified parents. After a listing of ancestors and the description of a victorious expedition to Champa, it attributes to the prince the setting of 260 statues of divinities, as well as the one of his "guru" or spiritual master, and the construction of 39 pinnacled towers, 566 groups of stone habitations, 286 in brick, and 2,702 metres of laterite enclosure wall.
3,140 villages and 79,365 people were involved in the service of the temple, whose particulars the text lists with a great delight for detail - including notably the existence of 5 tons of gold plates, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols. After defining the celebration of certain festivals it then also describes the foundation in the kingdom of 102 hospitals.
Only the western of the four gopuras relating to the external laterite enclosure is well preserved - except for its corner motifs with large garudas which have almost entirely disappeared. It is, clearly in the style of the Bayon, a tower with four faces of Lokesvara on a crown of devatas in prayer, with two smaller wings to either side.
From here, a 350m track through the forest leads to the fourth gopura. This is preceded by a cruciform terrace forming a causeway across the moat, on which are the remains of some lions, dvarapalas and of naga-balustrades in the style of the Bayon with their straddling garudas. The laterite and sandstone building is itself badly ruined, but the areas of wall which remain standing give an indication of its original grandeur.
With the view to the internal courtyard that follows, one is plunged into a surreal world. On every side, in fantastic over-scale, the enormous pale trunks of the silk-cotton trees soar skywards under a shadowy green canopy, their long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants. A cruciform paved terrace with naga-balustrades in the style of the Bayon, serving some of them as a base, leads to the next enclosing gallery - which is the third from the centre of the monument.
A single dvarapala armed with a club guards the axial entrance to the gopura. This has three towered passageways and extends considerably in breadth with walls abundantly decorated and sculpted with devatas. Turning to the right, one enters the gallery that has a double row of columns to the exterior and its interior wall, which remains without openings, decorated with large images of the Buddhist trinity sheltered in shallow niches - which have been systematically destroyed during the religious reaction of the 13th century. The light under these vaults - which are admirably preserved and show clearly the technique used by the Khmer of successive corbelling on horizontal beds - is a gentle, serene green.
Going back to the southern lateral entrance of the third gopura, one emerges to the right in a large surrounding courtyard with vegetation-capped towers, and, circulating around the narrow verge formed by the projecting base plinth of the building's east side, one returns to the axis where, from the west, one enters the sanctuary wherein lies a reclining Buddha. Then descending the few steps of its southern stairway, one crosses the right-angled courtyard of the south-west quarter. Through the southern tower, at its eastern extremity, one can penetrate to the internal courtyard of a small ensemble, enclosed by galleries, whose centre is marked by a sanctuary tower preceded by a long room to the east. Opposite is a fine fronton showing a group of divinities holding the hooves of the future Buddha's horse in order to muffle their sound during the "Grand Departure".
Returning to the right-angled courtyard, one enters the small door that pierces the southern part of its western side to pass through the laterite and sandstone gallery of the second enclosure, with its double row of pillars towards the interior. These are held by the roots of a tree growing on the vault itself which so appears to be suspended - held aloft by its grasping tentacles that hang to the ground like the limbs of a massive, slumbering beast. Turning again towards the axis one enters - by its western door - the western gopura of the first enclosure which one follows to the right towards the south, to then exit by the second opening - which is preceded by a small portico - into the central courtyard of the temple. This measures 24 metres each side.
Here one can see that an excavation carried out in the south-west corner revealed a 1m.10 high sculpted base plinth, completely buried, which must previously have considerably lightened the composition. Here stands a solitary square pillar with a top tenon, supporting no doubt some small light-weight altar, while a "library", opening to the west with a vestibule, is set in the south-east corner. The walls of the gallery are covered in sculpture, like a continuous embroidery, and while the execution is perhaps a little crude, the decor remains nonetheless charming, with its frieze of pendants, its foliated scrolls animated with figurines and its devatas sheltered in niches - their hair-styles, with small flaming discs set in a triangle, are in the style of the Bayon. The vault itself is channelled to represent false tiles and decorated with a repeating vertical motif.
Forming a quincunx with its corner towers strongly accentuated, the shapeless mass of the central sanctuary, which one traverses from the north to the south, seems incongruous in its undecorated form - the stone has been hacked in order to receive a plaster covering, some traces of which remain, that must have been painted or gilded. Internally, the regular small holes suggest the existence of a lining in wood or metal.
Leaving the northern part of this courtyard by its eastern gallery - after having first stopped to admire the finesse of the devatas on its walls - one passes through a door that is eerily framed by the roots of a gigantic tree. Then turning left into the gloom of the first gallery, one emerges at the north door of its north-eastern corner tower to turn right into the second gallery, with its lower side-aisle on doubled pillars, which one leaves towards the east by a small avant-corps.
Finding oneself in the large courtyard of the third enclosure infront of a lone sanctuary tower, one turns left towards the north to take a look at the small group of structures with a surrounding gallery and central tower which is symmetrical to the one already encountered on the south side of the main axis. Returning towards this axis, one passes between two rows of matching towers - and just by the one which has the west fronton sculpted with a row of feminine figures with naga heads, one squeezes into a tight passageway leading to the stele, which is found in part of a gallery close by, not far from which is a fronton showing, under a palace scene, a figure taming a horse.(19)
Emerging from the same narrow opening, one climbs over some fallen blocks to walk through to the third gallery. Here one passes through a vestibule joining the central mass of its gopura to its northern wing. On the main axis a young tree has grown on the frame of the eastern entrance, enveloping each of its jamb stones in its roots with perfect symmetry.
In front, the main entrance opens to a large rectangular enclosure of 20 metres by 30, surrounded by high walls decorated only to the north and south with magnificent false doors. This forms an internal cloister with four small courtyards formed by a crossing of galleries with side-aisles. The composition, situated outside the sacred enclosure and quite different to the other buildings of the monument, perhaps related to the "Royal Palace" mentioned in one stanza of the inscription - unless it was reserved for ritual dancing - since apsaras form friezes above the openings.
In the north-west corner one can see a curious freak of nature; - a tree, having dislodged the stone pillars, has substituted instead one of its roots which supports the whole weight of the galleries architrave. Passing through this unfortunately badly ruined crossing cloister from end to end, one arrives at the imposing eastern gopura of the fourth enclosure. Cruciform in plan with internal pillars, four wings and two lateral passageways, the enormous capping stone at the crossing of the roof vaults has fallen to the ground - where it still lies, intact.(20)
Restrained in style and fairly close to that of Angkor Wat, this gopura is decorated on two sides along its lateral passageways with remarkable panels of bas-reliefs. To the north, beyond a laterite wall, one can see a hall of closely placed pillars - similar to the ones at Prah Khan and Banteay Kdei - which must have carried an upper storey in light-weight materials. Its use remains a mystery. Further beyond, all the way around the inside of the fourth enclosure wall, stand the remains of small rectangular cells.
The moats are crossed by a vast sandstone-paved terrace, whose central area is cruciform in plan and slightly raised. It was decorated with lions and with naga-balustrades of which the hoods, without garudas, are certainly earlier than the style of the Bayon. Further - to the north of the axis - is a typical shelter for pilgrims. Half collapsed, it has its thick walls decorated with windows that have a double row of balusters. Its central sanctuary must have been consecrated to the bodhisattva Lokesvara, represented on the south fronton. A shaded path leaves the temple, whose fifth and final enclosure is encountered 400 metres towards the east; - its gopura is similar to the one to the west, but is reduced to some sections of wall where there still remain traces of the corner garudas.