Lecture at Faculty of Archaeology, Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA),
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Saturday 4th February 2012
Text By: CHEN Chanratana (Ph.D)
Kerdomnel Khmer Group Founder
The reign of Jayavarman IV (921-941A.D.) is traditionally associated with the site of Koh Ker in the history of ancient Cambodia. This sovereign left the Angkor capital to install the seat of his power to some one hundred and twenty kilometers to the east, in Chok Gargyar, now known as Koh Ker. At his death and his son, Harsavarman II, around 944 A.D., their successor Rajendravarman II reinstalled the capital at Angkor. No one can really explains this return — Koh Ker, abandoned by the kings, — seems not to have survived after this abandonment. However, if we look into the number and diversity of the monuments at Koh Ker, it is almost unconceivable to believe that all of them were constructed in the short period of Jayavarman IV’s reign. It is, therefore, permissible to assume that the immediate abandonment of Koh Ker by the people, after the death of the king, is hardly acceptable. Beside the Koh Ker area, we also discover some monuments of the same style “Koh Ker”, built away from this short-lived capital, such as Prasat Kravan at Angkor, Prasat Neang Khmau in Takeo province, Prasat Choeung Ang in Kampong Cham province, and a couple of temples in Thailand.
Our work’s goal is to study as many monuments as possible from existing old records and our own research: indeed, if the buildings of the group of Koh Ker have been identified, they
never have been properly analyzed. Studying the remains, the statuary and the inscriptions
still in situ. We have tried to establish a chronology of the buildings and statuary, and specify the style. Forty inscriptions from different Prasats — Thom, Krachap, Andong Kuk, Banteay Pir Choan, Chen, Damrei, Andong and Dan…etc. — provide information on the monuments of Koh Ker. These inscriptions were written in two languages, Sanskrit and Khmer, and mentioning the donations of the King and various dignitaries, the erection of temples for the gods, a list of slaves and the names of the districts…etc.
Divided into four chapters, our research focuses on the site of Koh Ker and its king, Jayavarman IV. The architecture, decoration and iconography developed under his reign are the main objective of this study.
This chapter is an overview of the geography and history of Koh Ker since the advent of the
future king Jayavarman IV to the full development of his reign.
The site of Koh Ker, about one hundred and twenty kilometers northeast of Siem Reap, is currently in the village — the phum — of Koh Ker. It is reached by road from Siem Reap to the city of Thbèng Meanchey. It is surrounded by rivers — the steung — coming down from the mountains. Over two decades after the fall of Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979), the site was managed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts as the “Project for the Protection and Preservation of the Site in the province of Preah Vihear”; this project was developed in collaboration with UNESCO and other partners. In 2003, the site attracted interest from a local company for tourism: since then, easy access from Angkor to Koh Ker was rebuilt. In 2005, the site was bounded by Royal Decree (NS/RDC/0504/070) on an area of about nine hundred acres, or nine square miles. After enlisting as National Heritage of Cambodia, economic development of the area grows rapidly due to the increasing in number of tourists visiting the site. Moreover, the migration of people from many provinces came to the site in order to benefit from the economic opportunities.
To limit our study in this research, we will only considers the monuments located in an area
of three kilometers and five hundred square meters in the center of the area bounded by Royal Decree.
In the early tenth century, Yasovarman I built his capital Yasodharapura — Angkor — where he erected a temple mountain on Phnom Bakheng — a natural hill situated in the center of the city. We do not know well the history of Angkor after his death because his two sons and successor kings – Harsavarman I and Isanavarman II – seem to have had problems with their uncle, Jayavarman IV – brother-in-law of Yasovarman I – and future king of Chok Gargyar.
What was the law of succession of Khmer kings in pre-angkorian and angkorian era? The eldest son of a king received, after the death of his father, mandatory the heritage and become king? For what reason, a member of the royal family could be regarded as a usurper? But was he a usurper? Our study on the inscriptions tells us the traditional role of matriarchy in Khmer society since the beginning of pre-angkorian era: Jayavarman IV’s wife, Jayadevi, younger sister of Yasovarman I, had more right to the throne after the death of his brother, than the sons of the king.
In 921 A.D., Jayavarman IV moved the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker probably because of his certainty of possible protest launched against his administration at Angkor, or because the city was moved to this area simply because Koh Ker is his mother’s birthplace? An inscription of Prasat Neang Khmau of Samrong, K. 35, tells us that he became king in 928 A.D. In his new capital, Jayavarman IV brought, and placed on top of prasat Prang, the
kamrateṅ jagat ta rāja, the sacred object of Angkorian kingship. He also followed the tradition from which his predecessors practice, the construction of great architectures: raising a temple to the ancestors – the prasat Thom, a temple for his own government – the Prang, a large water reservoir – a bāray – for the public and religious interest – the Rāhal. The intention of the king was to make Chok Gargyar a big city – temples, houses, bāray, roads – with the entire infrastructure. However, the inscriptions do not mention the size of the city nor its population. According to the researchers and our own field studies, we can assume that his capital was the type of “Open city” and was divided into two parts, one reserved for temples in the south of the prasat Thom, the other is residential area in the north but the exact location of the Royal Palace has not yet been determined. So far, there are three dams are discovered in Koh Ker, two were erected on the west and north sides of the Prasat Thom, the third one, was probably constructed as road connected the capital to royal road between Angkor and Wat Phu.
An administrative and social organization – probably already thought long before the arrival of the king – was being developed in phases since 921 A.D., the date of the arrival of the first movement of contractors, architects and artisans. Concerning this subject, inscriptions delivered the names of the newcomers and their origin areas.
At the beginning of the angkorian period, Buddhism occupied as secondary place, Jayavarman II and his son, Jayavarman III, who left no buddhist text or testimony during their royalty. From the reign of Yasovarman I, we find some information about the building of “houses with fire” available to all buddhist and hindu pilgrims. In the reign of Jayavarman IV, Hinduism and Buddhism seem to have been adapted to the daily lives of people of the kingdom while the king remained a devotee of Siva and had built a number of linga towers and temples to this god, that’s why the capital of Jayavarman IV had an another name called Lingapura beside Chok Gargyar.
This chapter takes a stock of knowledge – old and new – on Koh Ker and presents reference architectures.
The site was discovered and published by the great French explorers – Harmand, Delaporte, Aymonier, Lajonquiere – from the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1924 and 1930, Parmentier took research based on the data from his predecessors and published in 1939 a famous book: L’Art Khmer Classique (AKC). His work has helped to identify the temples of the region and to establish a more accurate classification of the temples and decoration style of Koh Ker. In 2002, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, in cooperation with the École Français d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), began a new inventory of archaeological sites in Cambodia led by Bruguier and his deputy Phann. Meanwhile, another research is undertaken since 2004 by a Japanese team governed by Nakagawa from Waseda University: it concerns the establishment of the site map and the study of the temples plans in order to better understand their construction methods and architectural evolution. In 2008, a detailed map of archaeological sites in all provinces of Cambodia was published. With these significant achievements – plans and maps of monument group of the site of Koh Ker, aerial photographs, which sixty-five archaeological ruins were recorded in the CISARK site – we now have a great tool for our study. Another recent project was set up under the name “Jaya-Koh Ker Project”, a collaborative effort between APSARA and a group of Hungarian researchers, led by Jelen, for a period of five years. The purpose of this collaboration is to collect archaeological and ethnological data from the site, but also to preserve and protect the temples. In 2011, a new report from the Scientific Research Group JASA (Japan-Apsara Safeguarding Angkor) on the monuments of the site of Koh Ker was published: this publication was produced with the cooperation of Meijo and Waseda Universities in Japan, APSARA and JSA (Japanese Team for Safeguarding Angkor).
The prasat Thom and the Prang – a pyramid with seven tiers – form the main temple of Jayavarman IV, which certainly stands in the center of the city. It is surrounded by numerous temples which are possibly divided into three categories: towers with enclosure, isolated towers, and linga towers, which are probably influenced by the temple of previous period, for example, some of brick towers at Sambor Prei Kuk site. Our research allows us to classify these architectures from their construction materials: the oldest are those built in brick between 921 and 928, those of sandstone – the buildings of the prasat Thom gopura – and some very large size in brick – the prasat Kraham – are to be placed between 928 and 932; laterite architectures spread of about 932 to 941, date of the death of Jayavarman IV. These divisions also appear to be connected with the development of Chok Gargyar, programmed from 921.
This chapter discusses the architectural decoration of the pediments, lintels, pilasters, columns, capitals, foundations, guardians…etc, the work with high quality which could be achieved if it was probably for the service of the king.
The study of the relief adorning the buildings in Koh Ker shows that all designs have benefited from past experiences – from the Sambor Prei Kuk style to the Bakong style – which had developed in all parts of the kingdom. From our observation of architectural decoration of Koh Ker, we find out that the artistic works of the monument during the reign of Jayavarman IV contain of what have been seen in many other places. This is probably, under the demands of the king, all the experts – sculptors, craftsmen, teacher, chief of contractor …etc – were brought to work in this new capital at Chok Gargyar. Bringing with them the experience and the knowledge, and probably joining their work with the local artisans groups – certainly very few – they would soon create their own and original style – the one that the king desired – surpassing masterpieces in the capitals of their predecessors.
The architectural decoration of Koh Ker style — leaves, lotus petals, leaves, animal…etc. — is a renewal work of its predecessor with slightly change and better in quality and inventivity.
This chapter presents the sculpture in relief and in the round and its iconography, which at the present state of our knowledge, has not yet revealed all its secrets. Little studied and even less published, various figural representations are currently under assumptions and need to be seriously proved. Koh Ker creations have found their true personality after 928 A.D., with the arrival of foremen and sculptors who were already experienced. According to our research, we could assume that the artists of Jayavarman IV — probably demanded by the king or dignitaries — desired to have construction with colossal size, and innovate the previous style to create an original one. For example, the sculpture with movement and some of the important figures in Ramayana epic — that previously presented only on bas-relief — were sculpted free-standing such as: Sugriva et Vali, warriors, guardians, and especially dancing Siva…etc. Moreover, we find out that the sculptures at Koh Ker seem to be a reminding of its ancient sources which are recreated on the new place.
Our study was particularly interested in the sculpture in the round – rich and innovative in Koh Ker – from the review and analysis of existing sculptures still in situ and old photos of Parmentier. This work allows us to make comparisons with the pieces preserved in various museums – national museum in Phnom Penh, Guimet museum in Paris, the Metropolitan museum in New York – as well as in private collections. We also tried to examine some pieces published in books and catalogs or websites, as it is possible to do so.
The sculpture in the round is a monumental sculpture in sandstone, which seeks to translate the idea of movement and dance poses, the creation that was not seen in previous styles. It offers many study possibilities – presentation, subject, role, magical and mystical value …etc.
The most impressive of these sculptures is in its very large size.The biggest one is the sculpture of dancing Siva from the prasat Kraham: it represents both the highest expression of a symbol and the culmination of a technical control.
The short-period reign – only two decades – of Jayavarman IV has always been regarded by modern scholars as an enigmatic parenthesis and the king himself as a usurper. However, this assumption is too simplistic and always repeated, ignoring the richest artistic and the number of constructions built during this reign in the service of religion. So, after our research, we thought that Jayavarman IV seems not to be usurper, but the problem that remained is concerning about the right of succession for Khmer royalty at that time. After the abandonment of Koh Ker as capital by Rajendravarman II in 944 A.D, the site had been preserved and maintained – sometimes modified – by the kings of later period testified by some inscriptions in situ and architectural remains.
By: CHEN Chanratana (Ph.D)
Kerdomnel Khmer Group Founder
Kerdomnel Khmer….Together We Can Protect!!!