Sambor Group N16: The Palanquin of the Heavens

One of the more worthwhile sights in the Northern Group of temples at Sambor Prei Kuk (also known as the Sambor Group) is a brick sanctuary known by the distinctly unromantic name of N16. It is situated outside the central group of temples in the Sambor Group, right alongside a dirt road. This square-based brick tower is of interest primarily for the relatively crisp carvings on its outer walls. These brick relief carvings feature the most famous motif found at Sambor Prei Kuk- the so-called flying palace.

The flying palace motif found here is similar to those found on the numerous octagonal shrines of the Southern Group. In the centre of a brick panel is a stylized depiction of a tiered, wooden palace, which literally seems to be hovering in mid-air. These celestial palaces have their roots in Hindu mythology and can be thought to represent the abode of the gods. Mythology aside, they can also be thought to reinforce the temporal power of the Shivaite kings of Chenla. After all, the palace of the king of Chenla is thought to have been located at Sambor Prei Kuk, then known as Isanapura. The devotee coming to this sanctuary would have been reminded that just as the Hindu god lived in a celestial palace, the temporal king lived in an earthly palace. The link between the king and Shiva would have been impressed on the devotee, reinforcing the power and prestige of the ruling king.

By taking a closer look at the weather-beaten carvings, this impression is only strengthened. Firstly, the whole flying palace is said to resemble a palanquin: a covered sedan-chair with a large protuberance on top. This was obviously an elite form of transport, predominately associated with royalty. Palanquins were certainly part of ancient court ritual in ancient Cambodia; while wooden palanquins have not survived in their entirety, bronze palanquin fittings from the Angkorian era still exist. While travelling in a royal procession in a palanquin, the king would literally have been riding in the air, further strengthening the association between the king and the Hindu gods. The iconography we see on the walls of N16 is not merely religious then; it also served to heighten the sense of majesty and awe around the ruling family.

Flying Palace
The flying palace motif, carved into the walls of the tower.

While the flying palace motif looks broadly similar between the various sanctuaries at Sambor Prei Kuk, there are some interesting variations in the fine detail. Being unusually crisp, the carvings at N16 offer more than most in this respect. In the crispest and most photographed of the panels, a male figure sits flanked by two shapely women. Presumably this is the king with female attendants, perhaps concubines. Further out you see other attendants, this time male figures, standing with long staffs. Perhaps their peripheral position reflects their comparatively lowly status. In the uppermost tier of the flying palace, there are five figures peering out. Perhaps these are gods or other celestial beings. And the whole structure is elaborately depicted in fine detail, reinforcing the sense of royalty and exclusivity.

Apart from the flying palace motifs, there is also a relatively well-preserved false door on one of the sides of this temple. Overall, this makes N16 one of the more valuable of the Sambor Group sanctuaries for people wanting to get a glimpse of some rare Chenla-era art.

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Prasat Tao: The Lion Temple’s Roar

After the Sambor Group, we moved on towards the second ‘group’, The Central Group. Actually, in this case the word ‘group’ is a bit misleading, as there is only one extant temple. The foundations of other structures remain, including the ramparts of what must have been a large and important complex, but there is only a single temple, the famous Lion Temple, Prasat Tao. Before we reached it, there was one other thing to see, however. Just off to the side of this temple is a large, rectangular pond called Srah Neang Pov, measuring approximately 42 x 32 metres. While not on the vast scale of the baray (reservoirs) of the Angkor area, it was certainly a reminder that water storage had been an important part of Khmer civilization from the very earliest periods. Srah Neang Pov had a rather forlorn, overgrown look at the time of our visit, but its basic outline was pretty clear. It had a stepped design, which reminded us of the ghats of India; ritual bathing might have come to Cambodia along with Hinduism. At the time of our visit, the tank was almost entirely dry, with just a little stagnant water in the bottom, but the steps enabled us to imagine something of its former glory. From there we wandered over to the main sight, Prasat Tao, with the urchins still trying to sell us silk scarves. In the end, perceiving that there were not going to give up easily, we paid them a dollar each for the ‘silk’ scarves and they ran off cheering happily.

Prasat Tao, the Lion Temple, is the largest of the temples at Sambor Prei Kuk. It is a large, red brick tower that is in reasonable state compared to many of the other temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, but it is rather decrepit compared to the best temples of Angkor. Compared to the other temples at this site, it is rather massive; we could not find mention of its height, but it might have approached twenty metres tall. Another distinguishing feature of this prasat (tower) was its rather exposed position. Whereas the other temples of Sambor Prei Kuk were enclosed by the jungle, this temple was in a large clearing and the sun shone directly on its walls on all four sides. Though it cannot have been the case in the past, the relatively open position of the temple seemed to give it a special eminence amongst the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk, and I felt as if I was seeing the main temple at the site.

Apart from its size and position, Prasat Tao was also noteworthy for its stone-carving; it featured some of the most ancient statues and lintels to be found at an archaeological site in Cambodia. Most remarkable of all were two stone lions that stood guard outside the main entrance. They had beautifully rendered manes, which made them one of the most eye-catching sights at Sambor Prei Kuk. With arched backs, raised heads and opened mouths, they almost seemed to roar as they stood there, guarding the scared space within. Sadly, only one of four original pairs was still in situ at Prasat Tao. Traces of the paws of one more lion remain, but apart from that the statues had gone, more victims of the looting which had plagued so many archaeological sites in Cambodia. But while most of the stone lions have disappeared, the lintels and false doors had fared a little better.

Prasat tao
The main tower of the Central Group, Prasat Tao

Above the doorway is was another piece of ancient art, in the form of a lintel. This lintel belongs to the Kampong Preah school, featuring vegetal and floral motifs. Garlands of flowers hang vertically across the lintel in a highly decorative style, perhaps suggesting flower votives for religious ceremonies. This style, with contrasted sharply with the mythological scenes of later centuries, was in fashion in Cambodia in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. You could find further examples of these lintels on the other sides of the temple. In addition to these lintels, some of the other sides had false doors. While the doors themselves were rather plain, they were flanked on either side by slender, intricately carved colonettes, which also appeared to support the lintels. All this gave a vivid sense of the artistic skill of the Chenla kingdom, helping to evoke the grandeur of this former capital. It also reinforced a sense of continuity between Chenla and its successor kingdom, Angkor. Many of the temples of Angkor also feature carved lintels, colonettes and false doors.

Finally, we went into the temple itself. The interior was mostly empty though a large hole in the roof meant that it was flooded with sunlight. Though there were no longer any sculptures inside, the cella was impressive just for its scale. Whereas the earliest temples of Java have small, cramped cella, this one was spacious, measuring 8.35 x 5.5 m. Surely so large a sacred space would once have housed a holy image, but what had it been? According to Daniel Michon, who wrote his PhD on Sambor Prei Kuk, Prasat Tao would surely have contained a large and important linga (phallus). While we cannot know for sure what rites were performed within the temple, 11th century inscriptions from the reign of Suryavarman I give us some hint. During his reign, he presided over a sixfold Shivaite rite, in which, as an act of worship, various substances associated with the sacred cow were rubbed on the large, stone linga. These six substances were cow dung, a yellow orpiment, urine, milk, curds and ghee (Indian butter). Whether this precise rite was followed at Prasat Tao, we will never know, but discussing this rite helped us to understand the original purpose of the structure. Furthermore, it gave us a clear sense that long before Prasat Tao had been a quiet ruin, it had been the site of feverish religious rites and devotions.