Prasat Andet: The Temple That Floats on Water

Prasat Andet, a rarely visited but easily accessible ancient temple, is located 27 kilometres from the small city of Kampong Thom, on the way towards Siem Reap. While it is still in fair condition, it is probably most notable not for its architecture but for the school of Khmer art to which it has lent its name: the Prasat Andet style. The main sculptures associated with school are now found in museums in Phnom Penh, New York and Paris, with none remaining in situ, but the keen student of Khmer art will be interested in seeing the temple which lent its name to these glorious sculptures.

A Ganesha in the Prasat Andet style

Prasat Andet is located on the grounds of a modern wat in Kampong Svay (literally, Mango Village). The wat and the prasat are both located on a five metre high artificial mound which dates back to antiquity. You see this mound as you first approach the temple along the access road and in so flat a part of the world, this almost seems like a hill. As we walked beneath the trees on the way into the compound, we asked the obvious question: Why would the ancients have devoted so much time and energy to the creation of this great mound of Earth? The most likely answer was that in Hindu cosmology the gods were associated with Mount Meru, a cosmic mountain. With no actual mountains in the area, the Khmer had decided to build one themselves. There was another dimension to this, which emerged later. Apparently in the rainy season, it was very common for the floodwaters to rise several metres in this area (Tonle Sap, the vast ‘inland sea’, was not so far away). By rising the temple five metres above the surrounding area, the ancients would have protected the temple from the annual floodwaters. This aspect of the temple was reflected in the name Prasat Andet, which meant ‘Floating Temple’ in Khmer. During the rainy season, the prasat and its grounds could be seen to be floating atop the rainwater.

A French-era postcard of the Prasat Andat Harihara
A French-era postcard of the Prasat Andat Harihara

Once you reach the top of the mound, you get your first view of the temple. Reminiscent of Wat Hancheay near Kampong Cham, the Chenla-era prasat here is located close by the viharn (hall) of a modern wat. The proximity of these two buildings can tell us a lot about the relationship between the past and present in rural Cambodia. Ancient temples continue to be venerated in Cambodia, even though they were formerly dedicated to Hindu gods and the population in the district is now entirely Budhdist. The sacred space of 7th century Chenla was still a holy site in 21st century Cambodia, creating an extraordinary sense of continuity between the past and present. It was also a reminder of how much the identity of the Khmers was tied up with their religious history and the veneration of religious monuments.

A magnificent stone Harihara in the Prasat Andet Style
A magnificent stone Harihara in the Prasat Andet Style

Now some 1350 years old, the prasat typically had a decayed look, with most of the decoration peeled off to reveal the bare bones of the structure. It was originally constructed of bricks, masonry and laterite, but most of what remained was just the bare, red brocks, with the outer layers largely lost. The main surviving decorative features were three false doors on the west, south and north sides. They reminded us of the false doors we had seen on Chenla-era monuments at Phnom Da and Wat Hancheay; also, the motif continued to be used on Khmer monuments well into the Angkor era. The other surviving decoration was a lintel over the door of the eastern porch. This was an example of the so-called Kampong Preah style of lintels which had been dominant in Cambodia in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. It featured vegetal and floral motifs of a highly decorative and stylised nature, and they reminded us of simialr designs which we had seen on temples in India. Clearly, the influence of Indian art had been enormous on Cambodia during the Chenla era.

The prasat in the foreground, with the wat behind
The prasat in the foreground, with the wat behind

The interior of the temple was a rather dismal affair, with nothing to boast of in the way of sculpture and just a few burnt-out incense sticks in evidence. However, this had not always been the case. The temple had once been dedicated to Harihara, a hybrid of the gods Shiva and Vishnu which had originated in India but whose cult had been especially popular in Cambodia during the 7th century. The Harihara of Prasat Andet was now safely stored in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, which, considering Cambodia’s history of looting and plunder, was undoubtedly a wise move. However, its absence is certainly felt at Prasat Andet, and perhaps a replica should be installed here to give visitors a sense of the grandeur of Prasat Andet sculpture. The Prasat Andet statues stand among the great artworks of the country and region, and the temple felt somehow empty without it. Before you head to Prasat Andet, try and see the Harihara in the National Museum first.

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Khao Klang Nok: A Mon Temple Mountain

After leaving behind Si Thep, I told the samlor driver I wanted to go to Wat Khao Klang Nok, a name which he immediately recognized, somewhat to my surprise. I hopped on the back and we set off, driving out of Si Thep Historical Park and down a series of back roads. In truth, I didn’t have much faith that he knew where he was going, but I was to be proved wrong. A few minutes later we were approaching a monument which was set in a rather dry-looking landscape of grasses, shrubs and only occasional trees. Off to one side were a couple of ramshackle-looking street stalls built of wooden poles, canvas and galvanized iron. The whole had a dusty, forsaken look; overall, it seemed a very inauspicious setting for the largest Dvaravati monument still in existence.

It was a hot day, so I went over the stall-keeper and her sidekicks to buy a bottle of water. As so often happens in out of the way places, the people were very friendly and warm. We agreed on a price for the bottle of water and they laughed and had a lot of fun with it all. They asked me a few questions but I had no idea what they were saying and looked to my samlor driver for assistance; he had been lingering in the background the whole time. He gave a long answer using vigorous arm movements, the thrust of which was probably that he had been hired to take me around the historical relics in the area. They seemed to consider this very pleasing and there was more smiling and nodding. Eventually I thanked them and took my leave, oddly cheered by the friendly dispositions of the drinks sellers at Wat Khao Klang Nok .

The monument was a very considerable chunk of masonry, especially considering how slight the architectural record is for Dvaravati generally. This temple was on a square base of 64 x 64 metres, reaching a height of 20 metres. In the photos I had seen before going there, it was a mass of pitted laterite with only a scant brick coating on some parts, but a restoration of the monument was now well underway and in some portions the laterite core was now encased in reddish bricks again. But the restorers had not been over-zealous. It still had a somewhat decayed look, with laterite showing through the brickwork in many sections and the top of the monument having a great knob of weathered masonry protruding above the rest of the structure. Presumably, this had been intended as a kind of temple-mountain, and it would once have had a flat terrace on top. Part of the main staircase had now been restored and it was particularly broad and grand, projecting out from the main body of the temple with tall sections of wall on either side. This dignified staircase would once have led right to the top of the monument, which would have commanded a good view over the scrubby plains thereabouts.

The monolithic remains of Wat Khao Klang Nok
The monolithic remains of Wat Khao Klang Nok

You were not allowed to clamber up on the ancient stupa these days, so I decided to circumambulate the monument instead, getting a look at it from all sides. Unlike at its sister stupa at Si Thep, there was no terracotta art, which struck me as curious. Why had the Mon not applied terracotta decoration to this monument when they had not only done so at the other stupa at Si Thep but everywhere else throughout their culture zone too? Did it have something to do with the encroachment of Land Chenla, the neighbouring Khmer state, whose Hindu artistic influence is very evident in the sculpture from Si Thep? Had the Khmer not only influenced Mon art at Si Thep but Mon architecture as well? It certainly seemed possible. Instead of relying on terracotta for its decorative impact, this stupa used beautiful, understated motifs in its brickwork. What exactly these motifs represented was not clear, but to me the resembled some kind of stylized temple or shrine.

A detail from the walls of the stupa
A detail from the walls of the stupa

By the time I had done a complete lap, I was certain that the most impressive vantage point was the initial one. The broad staircase had a majestic look, emphasizing the great weight and dignity of the ancient monument. Yet incredibly, the stupa had only been dug out of the earth less than a decade ago; as late as the earliest twentieth-century, it was still an unexcavated mound that was merely presumed to contain a temple. Archaeologists had been right, of course, and now a massive 8th or 9th century ruin was slowly being restored to something approaching its original grandeur. It was easily the largest surviving Dvaravati monument in existence, and its size and grandeur hinted not only at the prosperity of ancient Si Thep but the cultural richness of the entire Mon-Dvaravati realm. It was now one of the best surviving windows on this enigmatic kingdom.

 

 

Candi Astano: The Temple of the Kings of Malayu

One of the lesser discussed and photographed temples at Candi Muara Jambi is definitely Candi Astano. This temple is set about a kilometre and a half away from the main temples at the site, which is one reason why not every visitor bothers making the walk over there. The other reason is that its appeal is not as obvious as some of the other ruins. The architecture is not as impressive as Candi Gumpung and Candi Tinggi. Nor has the site yielded the sorts of interesting archaeological finds that we associate with some of the other lesser temples; there is nothing here that compares with the dwarapala of Candi Gedong I, for instance, or the war-gong of Candi Kembar Batu. Yet the temple had an interesting function that is hinted at its name, which makes it worth visiting for those wanting to get as full a sense of the site as possible. The leisurely twenty minute walk over to the site is also quite pleasant, with lush shade trees on either side of the trail.

These modest ruins have royal associations
These modest ruins have royal associations

Like all the other temple complexes at the site, Candi Astano was surrounded by a brick perimeter wall which delineated the sacred space. As elsewhere too, the walls form an approximate square- this one measuring 48 x 52 metres. Pleasingly, the red hue of the bricks contrasted strongly with the surrounding green foliage of the jungle, making it appear more vivid, as if the brickwork were aglow. Apart from the reddish walls, the second surprise was that the area within the fence was noticeably higher than that outside. To be exact, the inner space is about 1.7 metres higher than the surrounding area, which would have had an obvious symbolic meaning to the ancients. The temple, representing the religious world, existed on a higher plane to the temporal world outside. If, as is widely thought, the temple enjoyed royal patronage, this greater height would have also reinforced the superior position of the royals within the social hierarchy.

The main temple within was basically a large brick rectangle, measuring approximately 8 x 20 metres, with a square extension on one side and a second, much smaller, terrace on top of the main body of the temple. Yet the majority of the temple came to only chest high to us, making it seem on a rather human scale. As with many other temples at Candi Astano, it can be presumed that only the brick base of the temple remains and there was once some sort of superstructure of timber and thatch. (These organic materials would have been plentiful in ancient Sumatra, and timber remained the preferred building material throughout much of the island until well into the twentieth-century) . In losing its timber and thatch roof, the temple clearly become a diminished thing. With the former grandeur of the building largely lost , the most interesting thing about Candi Astano was its function.

The word in modern Indonesian for palace is istana, but in Sumatran dialects words ending in an -a are often changed to an -o. Therefore, tua meaning ‘old’ becomes tuo and apa meaning ‘what’ becomes apo. Furthermore, in the Minangkabau Highlands, the word for palace is still istano, which is very close to astano. Therefore, it is assumed that the name of this temple means Palace Temple and that it was reserved for use by the Malayu royal family. In a video made by the Jambi Department of Culture, they suggested that the flat terrace of Candi Astano was used, in particular, for funerary ceremonies for royalty. That suggestion makes a lot of sense, as the large flat surface would have been able to accommodate many monks, priests and court functionaries for the elaborate court rituals. The final rites of many of the Malayu kings may once have been performed here, atop the little-visited temple of Candi Astano.

Candi Kembar Batu: The Temple of the Chinese War Gong

There are seven main temple complexes at Candi Muara Jambi that are still in reasonable repair; one of these is Candi Kembar Batu (literally “The Twin Rocks/Stones temple”). Overall, it is not a particularly impressive ruin, which is probably why it is much less photographed and written about than the two ‘star’ candis here: Candi Tinggi and Candi Gumpung. In articles or blog posts about Candi Muara Jambi, it is usually passed over or discussed perfunctorily; even the most detailed posts rarely do more than give its measurements and then move on to the next temple. But there are really precious few ancient candi (Hindu/Budhdist temples) left in Sumatra, so each one offers valuable clues as to the past. It is worth raking over this temple for as much information as we can get about it.

Like the other major remains at Candi Muara Jambi, this one is surrounded by a low perimeter fence. These were constructed of a brick outer casing over an interior of river shingle and sand from the Batanghari River. The outer wall here is approximately square, measuring 59 X 63 metres. Within the space there is one candi induk (Mother Temple) and five candi perwara (satellite temples) and there are also the foundations of other largely vanished structures. All of the structures are built of plain bricks and none of them feature anything in the way of decoration. The most eye-catching of what has survived is the Mother Temple, which measures just over 11.3 x 11.4 metres, with a staircase extending outwards from the main temple body. It only reaches a height of 2.8 metres. It is presumed that this was formerly the brick base of a larger structure with wooden pillars and a roof. This sort of open-sided pavilion is still common in parts of Java and Bali. What we see now is probably only the base of the original structure, which is why it looks rather unprepossessing.

The interest of this modest temple complex is increased somewhat if you bear in mind the archaeological finds which have been made at the site. As at many other sites at Candi Muara Jambi, there was been a lot of Chinese porcelain found at the site. This mostly dates to the period from the 10th to the 12th century, when the Malayu kingdom (the predecessor of the Jambi Sultanate) was at its height and when the Sung Dynasty held sway in China. We also know from historical records that there was a lot of Malayu-Chinese diplomacy and trade going on towards the end of the eleventh century, with no less than 6 missions from Muara Jambi reaching the Chinese imperial court. Therefore, this temple complex was probably built during the ‘flower time’ of the kingdom.

The austere ruins at the site
The austere ruins at the site

Apart from sherds of Sung Dynasty porcelain, the site has also yielded gold and silver Chinese coins and an inscribed Chinese blade. But the most intriguing of Candi Kembar’s artifacts is surely a Sung Dynasty war gong. This bronze gong, somewhat encrusted with viridian, bears the date 1231 and it even bears an inscription in Chinese. The gong has been the subject of an essay by academic Claudine Lombard-Salmon, who considers as a potential new historical source for the late Sriwijaya period. Her essay makes several interesting points about the history of the gong.

Lombard-Salmon explains that there was a great shortage of copper during the Sung Dynasty and that successive emperors had placed a ban on the export of it. This makes the appearance of a Chinese gong in Muara Jambi in the 13th century all the more interesting. Lombard-Salmon puts forward two possible explanations of how it reached Muara Jambi. She notes that a trade in smuggled bronzewares certainly existed, as there have been 13th century Chinese gongs found in at least two shipwrecks- one at Pulau Buaya in Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago and another off the coast of Java. In this case, the war gong was just an unusual piece of 13th century contraband.

Lombard-Salmon tends to prefer a second hypothesis, however. In this telling there was a sizable Chinese merchant population at Muara Jambi (a view supported by the finding of the Chinese golden blade and a large bronze cauldron). Noting that the style of this gong is different from the shipwreck gongs in that parts of it have been soldered, she wonders whether the Master Hong of the inscription was in fact a resident of Muara Jambi. In this telling, he was a very early example of a ‘Straits Chinese’. She offers the possibility that not only was there a Chinese quarter at Muara Jambi but that there was also a Chinese artisan community there forging gongs, cauldrons and other bronzewares. Moreover, this community had its own armory to store its weapons and war gongs- presumably before they were put into service guarding shipping in the Straits. It is certainly a theory which offers many interesting insights into the economy and politics of 13th century Jambi.

What Lombard-Salmon didn’t discuss was why a Malayu (or Chinese) war gong ended up in Candi Kembar Batu. This question could also prompt a considerable amount of conjecture, but the link between gongs and temples is quite strong in South-East Asia, so its appearance doesn’t seem too surprising. In Bali, for example, the gamelan gong gede (the big gong orchestra) will often make an appearance during temple festivals. Further afield in Thailand and Burma, large, bronze gongs are sometimes displayed in Buddhist temples; for example, giant, suspended gongs feature prominently in temples in the town of Roi Et, in Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region. That a war gong would have been put to use in a Buddhist temple at Muara Jambi need not seem too surprising then. Perhaps it once hung from a wooden frame in one of the ruined temples at Candi Kembar Batu.