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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.