New light on an ancient sitePhanom Rung has spectacular sunrises and sunsets, if you know the right dates
Story And Picture: Asger Mollerup
That Khao Phanom Rung, the ancient Khmer sanctuary beautifully situated on an extinct volcano in Buri Ram province, is one of the most imposing sights in northeastern Thailand.
The casual visitor might not notice anything unusual about the orientation of the structure, but on a few days of the year, spectacular sunrises and sunsets have led to speculation about the intentions of the builders.
The sanctuary was built by a local Khmer ruler called Narendradit in the 12th century AD, when the Khmer Empire was at its zenith and Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat. At the time the Khmer power sphere included most of Isan, southern Laos and reached as far as Lop Buri.
Khao Phanom Rung was dedicated to Shivaism and shares the same architectural concept as Preah Vihear (Khao Phra Viharn) on top of the Dangreg mountain range bordering Cambodia, and Wat Phu in southern Laos.
All three sites are unique in being accessible by long pathways and staircases leading up to continuing terraces, with naga bridges for reaching the sanctuary on the top, symbolizing Mount Meru, abode of the gods. The feeling of visiting these sites, especially early in the morning at sunrise when no tourists are present, is still divine.
Preah Vihar is oriented north-south and the other two temples are oriented with the entrance toward the rising sun, and a feeling of being associated to the equinox-day is evident.
At Preah Vihar and Phanom Rung, there are northwestern and east-west lines carved on the floors, as well as lines carved in the center lines of most of the doorsteps. At Phanom Rung, two eight-petalled lotus flowers are carved on the uppermost naga bridges, which remind one of compass-roses.
But the orientation in none of the places is straight east-west, so the rising sun on equinox day will not follow the east-west centerline and enter the eastern doorways over which Vishnu presides. Even more puzzling is that the orientation is not even parallel, so the days when the sun would rise and religious ceremonies presumably were held, were not on the same date.
At That Phanom Rung in particular, there are carved lines on all terraces, doors and even up the stairs. Unfortunately, those who restored Khao Phanom Rung appeared to have paid no respect to the lines, as they are zig-zagging (at the unrestored Khao Phra Viharn the lines are straight).
In the easternmost doorway of Phanom Rung, one line is oriented straight east. This emphasizes that the Khmers were aware of the equinox-day, but apparently chose not to orient the temple accordingly. (At the equinox on March 20 and Sept 20, the sun rises straight east in the morning and goes down straight west in the evening).
We don't know what kind of annual religious ceremonies were held, but certainly they were nothing like the present That Phanom Rung Festival, which will be held on April 1 and 2 this year (last year it was on April 5 and 6).
But as the ancient Khmers were keen on auspicious days, we can assume that a festival would have been the same day every year: The day when the rising sun casts its rays through the 15 gates of the 75 metre-long corridors and lights the centrally placed lingam-the most sacred object in the Hindu religion.
Many tourists are interested in visiting That Phanom Rung for the illuminating experience, but most come on the wrong date. Many dates will be given depending on the source. The information available from the Tourism Authority of Thailand is incorrect, as it states that the appropriate day is at the full moon in April. These temples are dedicated Hinduism and the sun-not the moon, which is a much more important element in Thai Buddhism.
The date in the first part of 2000 when the sun rises straight is on April 3 at 06:03, but it is also visible on the day before and after. The related sunset was on March 6 (see photo). There are two similar days in September and October. These will be the best days for taking images, as there will be no people in the corridors and the doorways.
In 2001 the auspicious moment will be at 6:04 on April 3, perhaps
even coinciding with next year's That Khao Phanom Rung Festival. The
author is a Danish architect and sundial expert, and has recently
finished a Thai-Isan-Lao
Phrasebook, which soon will be available on the
market. For further information on the sundial: