Siem Reap, Cambodia

April 25, 2008

Banteay Srei turned out to be anti-Angkor. It was everything that Angkor Wat was not.

First off, Banteay Srei was remote, even by Cambodian standards. It took more than 30 minutes by tuktuk from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Making the trip cost an additional $20 to the tuktuk per-diem rental. Despite the distance and the added cost, the rewards of visiting Banteay Srei were 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.

As such, Banteay Srei was built miniature in scale rather than massive. A Brahmin needed not a grand temple to match his illusions of grandeur. One could have an enchanting promenade around the monastery in less than an hour. The complex was square; from a short entry causeway, I could’ve gone either way on the sides to go round the enclosures. In the central courtyard stood three towers guarded by pink monkeys and other mythical beasts.

Causeway to the Citadel: Banteay Srei

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

Lounging undera Lintel: Banteay Srei

Colors could only be an arresting sight from afar. Upon closer inspection, the bas-reliefs were deeper than those in Angkor, mesmerizing in their detail and density. Mythical images of legendary battles and Hindu gods and demons crowded the panels on which they were 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, were depicted in the bas-reliefs. A guide explained the narrative carvings while we toasted under the sun. A parasol was a necessity for a more pleasant storytelling session.

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

A pediment on a portico rendered Shiva atop Kala, a mythical beast on which he held sway. Kala was depicted with clawed hands and unmistakably bulging eyes and a grinning smile on his lion’s head, usually carved on doorways as a figure of protection. The attention to minutiae by the ancient artisans who carved these figures was hypnotic. The elaborate designs and symmetry were impeccable, a testament to the great skill and creativity of the ancient Khmer. Moreover, they were 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) were flanked by pink monkeys. These pairs of sculpted mythical primates were both genuine relics and modern replicas. Half of the sculptures were preserved in museums in Siem Reap and Phomn Penh, half left intact here. These restorations had undergone a process called anastylosis – reconstructing ancient structures using the original materials and processes. Devata images were housed in the niches on the tower walls decorated with false doors. It was baffling to see these solid doors, an intrinsic component in Angkorian architecture.

Mythical Monkeys in the Monastery
Central Towers of Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei transliterated to “citadel of women.” The reason for which was still a mystery, although it didn’t seem to be a misnomer. The temple’s delicacy of details, diminutive size, and pastel colors all contributed to its feminine charm. Not surprisingly, there was a yoni in one of the open chambers, a square stone that symbolized the vulva. On it sat a linga, a phallic symbol associated with Shiva. It offered 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 was truly a diminutive and delicate “Jewel of Khmer Art,” as it was popularly known, far removed from the imposing massiveness and grandeur of other Angkorian temples. It showed that Girl Power was alive and well a thousand years ago in ancient Khmer.