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Banteay Srei, jewel of Khmer art

The gigantic Angkor Wat may be the right stuff to impress you, but most of all you will fall in love with the endearing Banteay Srei temple, situated 30 km northeast of Angkor. "Banteay Srei" means "citadel of women", maybe due to its grace or because of the many pretty carvings depicting Devata semi-goddesses. Banteay Srei is the precious stone in the crown of Angkorian temples, indeed deserving its honorary nickname "jewel of Khmer art". Surprisingly small in size, it is monument  astonishing all its visitors by its sheer beauty. The buildings in its central compound are the only Khmer structures completely covered with carvings. It is not only the amount of bas reliefs, it is their excellence and refinement and good taste that delights visitors. The most intricating sculptural reliefs, of course, are those on lintels and pediments. They are much more detailed and even larger than in other Khmer art styles, this is all the more striking as it contrasts with the small size of the buildings. 
 
Banteay Srei is the most signifcant example of a so-called private temple, this means, not built on order of a king, not serving state purposes. Banteay Srei was founded in 967 by an important scholar and dignitary named Yajnavaraha, he served during the reign of Rajendravarman II as counsellor and was a teacher (guru) of Rajendravarman's successor Jayavarman V. Door jamb inscriptions report that Yajnavaraha's brother and sister supported him. But though not a state temple, Banteay Srei has some hints symbolizing quasi-imperial claims, not only its richness, but in its layout as well, since it resembles that of the state temple Prasat Thom in Koh Ker, which had demonstrated the power of a rival of Angkor.

The Banteay Srei ensemble was restored and expanded in the 11th century. The temple was continuously occupied and maintained until the fourteenth century, but, unlike Angkor Wat, never taken over by the new predominating religion in Cambodia, Theravada Buddhism. Banteay Srei was rediscovered as late as 1914. 1923 Andre Malreau, later on French minister, plundered four Devatas and was arrested, but never served his sentence. In the 1930s Banteay Srei was restored, it was the first time the anastylosis method, invented for the reconstruction of Java's famous Borobudur stupa, was used in Cambodia.
 
The temple was dedicated to Shiva as "Lord of the Three Worlds", another allusion to Prasat Thom in Koh Ker, which was dedicated to the same god. This "Tribhuvanamaheshvara" was venerated in form of a Linga in the central Prasat tower. Notwithstanding, Banteay Srei was a Shiva and a Vishnu temple at the same time. The structures of the southern half prefer Shiva, wheraes Vishnu mythology predominates at those in the northern part of the enclosure, but not symmetrically, as the centre is for Shiva devotion. Originally, the temple was surrounded by a small town called Ishvarapura, another reference to Shiva.
 
Banteay Srei is built largely of a special red sandstone that can easily be carved, but is tough to resist weathering. Apart from Banteay Srei, there are only two small scale examples in the Angkor area for the use of this material, namely some carvings of Prasat Sralao and colonettes at the South Khleang. Brick and laterite were used for the enclosure walls.

Banteay Srei Temple


As usual, the Banteay Srei sanctuary consists of three concentric rectangular enclosures symmetrically arranged along an east-west axis. The temple compund was surrounded by the town of Ishvarapura in an additional fourth enclosure. An eastern Gopura is all that remains of this outer enclosure wall, as the enclosure walls themselves, 500 m long on each side, completely disappeared, presumably because they were wooden structures, as an exception. The East Gopuram's pediment shows Indra on his three-headed elephant Airavata facing east.
 
An avenue and causeway leads from the gate to the third or outermost of the three temple enclosures. The third enclosure is 110 m by 95 m, with two Gopuram entrances, from the east and west. The east-facing pediment, with a Ramayana scene, is now on the ground.
 
A wide moat surrounding the temple proper is inside the third enclosure. Second and first enclosure walls were close together, but the inner enclosure wall is collapsed. As usual, the inner enclosure contains the sanctuary. The three Prasat towers are arranged on a single platform on a north-south axis, the central Prasat is preceded by a Mandapa antechamber on the same platform. Two symmetrically arranged library buildings complete this inner ensemble. All six structures of this group are completely ornamented. Their lintels and pediments bear most of those exceptional carvings mentioned above. For example, the dancing Shiva is depicted on the eastern Gopuram entrance of this inner enclosure wall. Each library has two pediments, facing east and west. The east pediment on the southern library shows Shiva with his consort Uma seated on Mount Kailash, which is shaken by the ten-headed demon king Ravana. The west pediment on southern library again shows Shiva on Mount Kailash, in this scene Kama, the god of love, is aiming an arrow on him. The east pediment on the northern library depicts Indra sending rain to put out a forest fire created by Agni, who is supported by the Mahabharata hero Arjuna, who shoots arrows to block the rain. The west pediment of the same library depicts Krishna slaying his wicked uncle Kamsa.
 
Six stairways lead up to the main platform. Each of them was guarded by two marvellous kneeling statues of human figures with animal heads. They are copies, as the originals have been stolen or given to museums for safekeeping.
 
You can combine a visit of Banteay Srei far outside Angkor with trips to the "rivers of 1000 Lingas" at Kbal Spean and on Phnom Kulen.
 
Kbal Spean is the more interesting of the two streams, because there are not only the 1000 Lingas carved on the riverbed, but further carvings depicting mythological scenes can be seen at the boulders flanking the stream. In order to reach this mysterious and romantical place you have to walk, up and down, altogether four kilometres, whereas the 1000 Lingas of Phnom Kulen can be seen very close to the car park. However, for those not too lazy, the jungle path to Kbal Spean is an attraction in itself.

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