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.
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.