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Banteay Chhmar, the forgotton giant

Banteay Chhmar, "the narrow fortress" or "citadel of cars", is an ancient Khmer temple complex of enormous size, the third largest and one of the most intriguing in the Khmer empire. Never excavated, Banteay Chhmar fits the cliché of a lost city in the jungle. Due to its remote location, about 60 km north of the provincial capital Sisophon in Banteay Meanchay province, Banteay Chhmar is less frequently visited by bus groups. Recent efforts, such as conservation projects, road pavement, provision of accommodation, shall invite more visitors to this World Heritage Site aspirant. Tourism, though often blamed as destructive, is of high relevance in order to protect this splendid monument against further destruction by neglect and by looting. Banteay Mancheay is listed as one of the most endangered heritage sites by the World Monument Watch. Art thefts can easily reach the Thai border in only two dozens of kilometers distance to the north and west. This is why irreplaceable works of arts have been lost in recent decades.
  
Like Angkor Thom, the temple of Banteay Chhmar is a construction project of Jayavarman VII (1181- ca.1218), the most prolific temple builder in Khmer history. Predecessor buildings existed here, the foundation is ascribed to the half-legendary first king of the Khmer empire of Angkor, Jayavarman II (begin of the ninth century).
 
Banteay Chhmar is one of the tree sites with those world-famous mysterious face-towers of Jayavarman VII's era called Bayon style, the others are Angkor and Prasat Bakan (Preah Khan at Kampong Svay). The meaning of those colossal smiling faces is still under discussion. Do they depict the Buddha or the compassionate "Lord of the World" Bodhisattva Lokeshvara or the Mahayana Buddhist king Jayavarman VII himself or a combination of all of them?

There is another striking similarity between Angkor Thom's Bayon temple and Banteay Chhmar. Both are surrounded by galleries with hundreds of metres of stone carvings depicting battle scenes, mythological themes and everyday life as well. Unlike Angkor, Banteay Chhmar was not effected by the vandalism during the Hindu resurgence in the late 13th century under Jayavarman VIII. Its Buddha sculptures were not defaced. 
 
A long Old Khmer inscription found at the site (K.227) narrates how four loyal servants lost their lives in order to protect the crown prince, probably Jayavarman VII's son. The central tower is dedicated to this prince, whose title is Samtac. This means, Banteay Chhmar was a funerary temple. The four adjoining corner towers commemorate those four generals who heroically sacrificed temselves for the prince in battles against the Cham. This happened in the time of Cham invasions, before Jayavarman's victory and coronation in 1181. The central complex is a jumble of ruins of towers and galleries, partly overgrown by vegetation. Beautiful carvings can be seen at the walls in situ and on stones on the ground. Originally Banteay Chhmar had 50 Prasat towers.

Banteay Chhmar Khmer temple in Cambodia

The main temple is surrounded by a gallery with reliefs of originally 900 m length, which constitutes the inner enclosure of 250 m by 200 m. The bas reliefs already mentioned depict battles against the Chams, religious scenes and daily activities. Regrettably, parts of the outer wall have collapsed. Others were dismantled. The highlight of the Banteay Chhmar panels are two spectacular multi-armed Lokeshvaras on the west side, one of them with 32 arms. Originally there were eight Avalokiteshvaras, but in January 1999 looters dismantled sections of the western gallery wall containing those emblematic bas-reliefs. They were caught by police, the pieces of the wall were recovered and are exhibited in the National Museum in Phnom Penh now. Already in 1998 a 30-meters long section from the southern wall was stolen by soldiers.
 
This famous gallery is the first of the usual three concentric enclosure walls of a Khmer temple from the Angkor era. The middle enclosure is 850 by 800 m. It was provided with a moat.
 
The external one, largely ruined, was 1.9 km by 1.7 km and surrounded by a wide moat, which still is used as a fishing ground. Like Preah Khan and Angkor Thom, originally enclosed a city in its outer enclosure with the temple at the heart. No traces of the city remain as the buildings were of perishable materials. Four stelae informing about Jayavarman VII's genealogy were found at the four corners of the third enclosure wall, as in the case of Angkor Thom's four corner-shrines called Prasat Chrung.
 
Besides the principal temple compex there are eight satellite temples, to the eight directions. The four temples to the cardinal directions have the hugest face-towers of Banteay Chhmar. The best example is the Ta Prohm temple south of the main temple. Samnang Tasok Temple is about 1 km west of the main temple and can be reached by walking or bicycle, but is not easy to find and can not be reached without boots during the rainy season or after heavy rainfall. This temple to the north is called Chinchem Trey. The eastern face-tower temple is less well preserved.
 
To the east of the complex was former reservoir, a Baray of about 1.6 km length by 0.8 km width, now dry. Like the Barays in Angkor, it had a temple on an artificial island called Mebon in its centre. banteay Chhmar is located in that area of Cambodia
 
Three kilometres north of Banteay Chhmar there is a modern reservoir called Pol Pot Baray, since it was constructed by the Khmer Rouge hard labor system. Banteay Chhmar belonged to that part of Cambodia that remained under Khmer Rouge guerilla warriors control for another decade, after they had been ousted from Phnom Penh due to the Vietnamese intervention.

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