La Femme Forteresse

Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 25, 2008

Banteay Srei is anti-Angkor. It is everything that Angkor Wat is not.

First off, Banteay Srei is remote, even by Cambodian standards. It takes more than 30 minutes by tuktuk from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. As such, making the trip costs an additional $20 to the tuktuk per-diem rental. Despite the distance and the added cost, the rewards of visiting Banteay Srei are manifold.

Banteay Srei: Lady Under The Lintel

Built in 967 CE, the temple preceded the more well-known Angkorian monuments by two centuries. Unlike the temple-mountains, this was not built by a king, but rather by a Brahmin, Yajnavaraha, a royal monk, as a temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god.

Perhaps that’s why Banteay Srei is miniature in scale rather than massive. A Brahmin need not build a grand temple to match his illusions of grandeur. One can have an enchanting promenade around the monastery in less than an hour. The complex is square; from a short entry causeway, you can go either way on the sides to go round the enclosures. In the central courtyard stand three towers guarded by pink monkeys and other mythical beasts.

Causeway to the Citadel: Banteay Srei

If other Angkorian temples are more somber in color and awe-inspiring in scale, Banteay Srei is flamboyant and whimsical. Splashes of pastel colors of the hard pink sandstone it was made from reflect warmth and light. The roof must have long collapsed, leaving the temple baking under the Cambodian sun. There are no cloistered hallways to offer refuge to the sunburned, except in that small shaded spot under the lintels on doorways. The disconcerting heat only adds to the otherworldliness of this watercolor-painting-come-to-life. Pink, red, crimson, terra cotta orange hues drench the temple in technicolor – a Bollywood touch in Angkorian architecture.

Lounging undera Lintel: Banteay Srei

Colors can only be an arresting sight from afar. Upon closer inspection, the bas-reliefs are deeper than those in Angkor, mesmerizing in their detail and density. Mythical images of legendary battles and Hindu gods and demons crowd the panels on which they are carved, mostly on lintels and pediments (crossbeams and triangular crowns on doorways, respectively), as opposed to the eye-level bas-relief in Angkor. Scenes from Indian classics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are depicted in the bas-reliefs. A guide could explain the narrative carvings while you toast under the sun. A parasol is recommended for a more pleasant storytelling session.

A God is in the Details: Bas-Relief in Banteay Srei

A pediment on a portico renders Shiva atop Kala, a mythical beast on which he holds sway. Kala is depicted with clawed hands and unmistakably bulging eyes and a grinning smile on his lion’s head. It is usually carved on doorways as a figure of protection. The attention to minutiae by the ancient artisans who carved these figures is hypnotic. The elaborate designs and symmetry are impeccable, a testament to the great skill and creativity of the ancient Khmer. Moreover, they are notable for their well-preserved state for over a thousand years!

Portico Pediment in Banteay Srei
Kala in Banteay Srei

The central towers and mandapa (pavilion) are flanked by pink monkeys. These pairs of sculpted mythical primates are both genuine relics and modern replicas. Half of the sculptures are preserved in museums in Siem Reap and Phomn Penh; half are left intact here. These restorations have undergone a process called anastylosis – reconstructing ancient structures using the original materials and processes. Devatas are housed in the niches on the tower walls decorated with false doors. It can be baffling to see these solid doors, an intrinsic component in Angkorian architecture.

Mythical Monkeys in the Monastery
Central Towers of Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei literally means “citadel of women.” The reason for which is still a mystery, although it doesn’t seem to be a misnomer. The temple’s delicacy of details, diminutive size, and pastel colors all contribute to its feminine charm. Not surprisingly, there is a yoni in one of the open chambers. It is a square stone that symbolizes the vulva. On it sits a linga, a phallic symbol associated with Shiva. It offers a solid indication of the stature of women in Khmer society at that time.

Phallus on Vulva (Linga on Yoni) in Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is truly a diminutive and delicate “Jewel of Khmer Art,” as it is popularly known, far removed from the imposing massiveness and grandeur of other Angkorian temples. It shows that Girl Power was alive and well a thousand years ago in ancient Khmer.

12 thoughts on “La Femme Forteresse

    1. Thanks! Yes, you’d appreciate the temple art a lot more if you’re familiar with the mythology they represent. Enjoy Angkor!

  1. Places like this are a treat for an Indian yuppie with inherent interest in the Indian mythology.
    I chanced upon your blog and love it absolutely.
    I just wish to extend my appreciation and gratitude for all the information you share here.


    1. Thanks too, Gaurav. My visit to Angkor also sparked by interest in Indian culture. One of my dream destinations is Rajasthan. I’d love to see Jaipur and Jodhpur, and everything in between them. 🙂

  2. AJ, your photos do not – AT ALL – look like they were taken by a point-and-shoot digicam. Whatever brand you’re using, it sure is a A LOT better than mine. I’d take your ‘viscerally’ taken photos over those over-composed SLR pics that proliferate the web, anytime of the day…

    I immensely enjoyed reading your blog. I can only hope I can “revisit” the places I’ve been the way you have… (when I’m no longer lazy…)

    In the meantime, from one traveler to another: Kudos, indeed. 🙂

    1. Whoa! Thanks Oli! Coming from THE REAL traveler like you…hmmmm words cannot express. 🙂

      Yeah, why not put up a similar blog? You’ve been to exotic places, like Marrakech, and relatively unknown cities, like Braga. Live to tell your stories. Plus, your Madonna experience in Zaragoza, Spain! Now there’s a blog entry to end all blog entries. 🙂

  3. great blog! a friend of mine went to Angkor Wat alone and she loved it!

    Inspired, I am planning to go to see the Angkors with 8 other family members age 2 to 68!


    1. Wow, that’s quite a demographic. There’s something for everyone in amazing Angkor! I’d wanna go back there…alone too. It’s such a magical place…if you can lose the hordes of tourists. 🙂

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