Sundial, calendar and Khmer temples

Astro-archaeology = archaeo-astronomy = Astroarchaeology = archaeoastronomy

Vat Phou

at 14*51'37'' North - 102*30'16'' West


: The barays (tanks) east of Vat Phou.

     Vat Phou (Wat Phu) is an ancient Khmer Hindu temple located in Champasak Province, southern Laos. The name is Lao and means 'The Temple on The Mountain'. Vat Phou is among the oldest Hindu temples in SE-Asia and has a unique location on the lower part of the Phou Kao Mountain over-looking the huge water reservoirs (barays) in front and a little further east the ancient city, the legendary Shestrapura, which dates back to the 5th century AD.
     Vat Phou is now a World Heritage site, but not as a single temple. The UNESCO concept, as described in
Champasak Heritage Management Plan, integrates Vat Phou and several other nearby temples, the Tham Lek Cave, the Khan Mak Huk lingas in the Mekong River, the two ancient cities, Shestrapura and Lingapura, the holy mountain Phou Kao - with preservation of the area and sustainable tourism development.

     The other nearby temples are Hong Nang Sida, Hong Thao Tao, Tomo (Oumong), and Oumong Nua. This page will describe the various religious sites, the ancient cities, and the ancient road /route to Kor Ker and Angkor. Ban Prasat , some 20 km south of Vat Phou, will be described in relation to its huge eastern baray and the ancient road, which passes the site.
     A visit in February 2006 inspired to compose a 2007-solar-tour for a small group of tourists. The concept is to connect solar events at Vat Phou with similar events at other temples in Thailand and Cambodia: ''Two Famous Temples in Two Countries - One Astronomical concept''

  Above: Vat Phou and two of its barays (reservoirs) are clearly visible. The dikes of the Ancient City can been seen next to the Mekong. Stippled lines in the river mark a proposed original extension of the capital..



The Phu Kao Mountain (the Lingaparvata)

     The natural linga on the top of the Phu Kao Mountain (Lingaparvata) marks the spiritual centre of the ancient Srestrapura area.
     The linga is only observable from outside the temple area of Vat Phou. After having passed the eastern baray it disappears.


Phu Kao observed from the eastern bank of the central baray

... and from the other side of the Mekong - 14 km away The holy mountain mirrored in the eastern baray. Note that Lingaparvata is on the second peak.

”A Chinese 6th century text mentions ”near the capital there is a mountain called Ling-chia-po-p’o (Lingaparvata), on top of which there is a temple which is always guarded by a thousand soldiers. It is consecrated to a spirit named P’o-to-li, to which human sacrifice is made. Each year, the king goes into this temple and himself offers a human sacrifice during the night”.
     (Michael Freeman: A guide to Khmer Temples in Thailand and Laos, p. 200)


The Barays and the processional causeway

Above: A GPS-generated map focussing on the orientations of the barays and of the processional causeway at Vat Phou.
Above: Sunrise aligned with the processional causeway
  Above: View towards east from the 2nd platform

Left: Photo analysis.

   The sun was observed from the centreline of the causeway on February
28, 2006 when it rose from the horizon at azimuth 99.03 degrees.
   Using the diameter of the sun as a 'measure-stick' on 0.52 deg. in a CAD-CAM programme the centreline of the extended causeway is measured to be have an orientation of azimuth 98.17 degrees.
   On the map above the extended centre-line is marked yellow. The angle used is 98.0 degree.

Above: Some days later the sun rose close to the alignment of the reservoir (the pier is not located on the centre line).
  Above: On the eastern bank there are no constructions to mark the alignment of the structure.

The 'Northern Palace'
Above left: Southern facade of the Northern Palace.

Above right: The inner court (basin?) towards Phou Kao, which is not observable from the temple area.

Right: Shiva and Uma on Nandin (eastern pediment).

Below: Details from the Northern Palace.



The central Sanctuary

  ”Some inscriptions belonging to the 5th and 6th century do mention a sanctuary built on the hill, contemporary with the foundation of the city, but this building has gone and is replaced with the building we see today. This was built during the first part of the 9th century, with some additions and reconstructions in the 12th and 13th centuries”. 
(Project de Recherches en Archeologie Lao – Research Project in Lao Archaeology).

Above: Kala. 1st room - central lintel.
  Above: Kala. Central hall, central Lintel.
Above: Siva as supreme ascetic.
Eastern pediment above southern door.
  Above: The abduction of Sida (Ramayana).
Eastern pediment above western door.
Above: Indra on 3-headed Airavata.
1st room - southern lintel
  Above: Indra on 3-headed Airavata.
1st room - central lintel.
Above: Apsara. Eastern mandapa on the northern wall.
  Above: Indra carrying his Vajra (thunderbolt). Detail from above.
Above: Krishna defeating Kalya.
Eastern lintel over the southern door.
  Above: Krishna killing Hansa.
Southern lintel. Inner southern door.
  Above: Apsara. Eastern mandapa on the southern wall.   Above: Guardian. Eastern mandapa, northern door.  


North of the Central Sanctuary

Right: North of and next to the central sanctuary
a depiction of the Hindu trinity is carved in the rock.


Further north ”Carved blocks (elephant, crocodile, staircase framed with two snakes) dating from after the 13th century)” …
”The remains of sandstone meditation cells (monolithic base, walls, and ceiling), maybe dating to the 7th century, are also seen here”. (Project de Recherches en Archeologie Lao – Research Project in Lao Archaeology)
Above: The 'crocodile stone'.   Above: Elephant and 'food-print' of a deity.


Artefacts around the Central Sanctuary
Right: A linga-yoni probably symbolising the five peaks of Mount Meru - the abode of the Gods.

Below: Procession of humans or gods?
If the latter then perhaps the dikpalas,
the Guardians of the Cardinal Directions.
These are often depicted on contemporary Khmer Hindu temples in 'Baphoun' style, but totally missing at Vat Phou.



Lingapura and the ancient route(s) towards Koh Ker and Angkor in Cambodia.

     Lingapura (the city of the lingas) is located right south of Vat Phou and is considerably smaller than Shrestrapura. It dates to the 12th century and the size reflects its later provincial status.
  Above: GPS-generated map of Prasat Hong Nang Sida and the ancient city Lingapura right south of Vat Phou.  

     The baray associated with Prasat Nang Sida measures app. 300 by 600 m. The reservoir contains no water, but the remnants of the ancient dikes are still traceable on aerial photos and in field as well.
     The eastern baray at Prasat Nang Sida is app. double as big as the eastern baray of Vat Phou to the north (app. 150 by 600 m). The two shares the same orientation.
     The yellow square and rectangle on the map above measures app. 300 by 300 m and 300 by 600 and represent an interim proposal to a 1 by 5 temple-baray grid - it was not observed on neither
aerial photos nor in the field except for some findings, which can have other interpretations. A similar 1 by 5 temple-baray grid seem to have been used on other contemporary sites in NE-Thailand as well.

  Above: Satellite photo of the area south of Vat Phou  


Above and left: Hathena Satellite image showing the ancient route ('Royal Road') from Angkor to Vat Phou. The baray visible on both images shows Prasat Ban That some 20 km south of Vat Phou and probably the first 'stop-over' on the journey. A grid based on the proportions of the baray has been applied by the author. The area in the NW-corner of the grid will later be checked on ground for possible remains of ancient dikes and motes.
The size of the baray is app. 190 by 570 m (ratio 1:3). The experimental grid is 190 by 190 m.


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Literature I: Champasak Heritage Management Plan, 1999, p.54. UNESCO Bangkok

     ''The oldest known written evidence for Lingaparvata is found in the Devanika inscription (or Stele of Vat Louang Kao, K 365), dated to the second half of the 5th century AD. According to a Chinese source (History of Sui), dated AD 589, a temple dedicated to Shiva Bhadresvara was built on the top of the mountain. The cult of Lingaparvata is confirmed by other inscriptions found in the Vat Phou area as well as in Cambodia, dated from the 7th to 12th centuries AD.''

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Literature II: The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs

Bhadresvara - an aspect of Shiva and the deity of Vat Phou.

Tribhuvanesvara and Bhadresvara
   ''Another consequence of the sojourn at Chok Gargyar [Koh Ker] seems to have been the identification of the devaraja with the Tribhuvanesvara, god of that region, and its subsequent merger with Bhadresvara, the god of the old sanctuary of Vat Phu and the tutelary deity of the Cambodian and Cham nations,' and the merger of the estates of those deities in a movement which seems ultimately to have imposed on Cambodia a landed theocracy by the absorption of the cultivable lands and much of the working population by the gods.
   The so-called devaraja of Yasovarman I seems to have been his personal linga, Yasodharesvara - inseparable in life or death from his corporeal being. Thus his Vnam Kantal, where it was deposited, became his Central Temple during his life and his funerary temple after his death. But, after the sojourn at Chok Gargyar, Rajendravarman I could consecrate his Rajendresvara in his Vnam Kantal at Phimeanakas and could consecrate another Rajendresvara at the Mebon and also a Rajendrabhadresvara at Pre Rup.
   From the inscriptions, it seems that, in 921, Jayavarman IV took a new purohita - Isanamurti - with him to Chok Gargyar and left the old purohita - Kumarasvami - with Harshavarman I. No doubt the old Sivalinga - Harshesvara - remained with its king and its purohita at Yasodharapura, probably at Baksei Chamkrong. Isanamurti consecrated a new Sivalinga - Jayesvara - for Jayavarman IV at Prasat Thom. The tutelary deity of that region seems to have been Tribhuvanesvara, another manifestation of Siva. Jayavarman IV consecrated his temple, to this god; i.e., gave his Sivalinga the name Tribhuvanesvara, said to be equivalent to the term kamraten jagat ta rajya, or more properly, kamraten jagat to rajya, "god of the royalty", which term had probably not before been used in the history of the Kambuja. If the term devaraja had been applied to the king's Sivalinga before this time, it probably had a more personal meaning. In the face of a personal and older royal linga, Jayavarman IV seems to have tried to give his new royal linga a national rather than a personal significance.
   The next step was the merger of this new royal linga with Bhadresvara, who was supposed to be the tutelary deity of the early Kambuja - probably borrowed from the Chams - but who, up to that date had not appeared to be much in honor outside of the cradle of the Kambuja - the region around Vat Phu. The merger of these two concepts was seen in the establishment of the linga Rajendrabhadresvara at Pre Rup. This merger of the sanctuaries and their foundations, as will be seen, was taking place in the reign of Jayavarman V.

Isvarapura and Lingapura
   The stele inscription of Banteay Srei, dated 968, and discovered in 1936, is identical, except for a few details, with two other inscriptions discovered some time ago at little sanctuaries, about ten kilometers apart - Sek Ta Tuy and Prasat Trapang Khyang (wrongly called Trapang Cong). All were founded by the guru Yajnavaraha. All these sanctuaries were dedicated to the linga Tribhuyanamahesvara, which is the name of the god of Lingapura (Chok Gargyar), and all were made misrabhoga (co-participant) of certain revenues with the god Bhadresvara.
   The Khmer part of the inscription of Banteay Srei, of the same date, is a royal ordinance of Jayavarman V, prescribing the union of the foundations of Vajnavaraha in favor of the god Tribhuyanamahesvara to the Bhadresvara of Lingapura and formulating certain prescriptions which reproduce partly those of the Sanskrit text.

The Foundations of Divakara and Indralaksmi
   Indralakshmi, daughter of Rajendravarman II and younger sister of Jayavarman V, married a Brahman bhatta (doctor) from Northern India, named Divakara, or Divasakara, sometimes qualified as deva or dvijendra. They made many foundations. Divakara established a triad of gods, consecrated to Bhadresvara, in a region called Madhuvana, "Forest of Honey," probably at Prasat Komphus, where the inscription was found, about twenty-five kilometers west of Chok Gargyar. The temple was completed in 972.
'' (pgs 137 and 138, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs.)

   The Khmer part of the Banteay Srey K 842 inscription calls the in 967 AD installed linga at Banteay Srey for Tribhuyanamahesvara and mentions the union of the foundation of this god with those of Bhadresvara of Lingapura.

Vat Phou
   ''This temple, on the slope of Phu Bassac, about eight kilometers south of the modern city of Bassac, was located in the cradle of the Kambuja. The ancient capital of Chenla-Sreshthapura, and probably also the original Bhavapura, was in that region. In very early time a temple - perhaps the first temple erected by the Kambuja - was dedicated here to Bhadresvara, the tutelary deity of the early Chams and the early Kambuja. In the seventh century Jayavarman I made a stele inscription at this sanctuary, which he called Lingaparvata, "linga of the mountain." This region was hallowed ground to the Kambuja. An inscription of A.D. 835 speaks of Sreshthapura as a Holy City.''
(Page 163, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs.)

Inscriptions of Suryavarman I, 1012-1049
   ''A Khmer inscription of 1038 ... speaks of Lingapura, of Avadhapura, "the indestructible city," of Bhadresvara, and of Sikharesvara, "god of the peak." In a Sanskrit inscription of 1041, Suryavarman asked the people to serve the god Sikharesvara. Aymonier thinks the inscription giving the genealogy of Sivasakti (which Bergaigne and Barth thought was of the reign of Yasovarman was dated 1046 or 1047).
   A pillar inscription of the temple of Sek Ta Tuy, in Khmer, dated 1039, very much damaged, refers to a donation to a god called vulgarly Kamrateng jagat vnam brahmana, "god of the mountain of the brahmans," which is apparently Tribhuvanamahesvara.''
(Page 166, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

Inscriptions of Harshavarman III
   ''The inscription of Samrong, just north of the northeast corner of Angkor Thom, says that in the last year of Harshavarman III's reign, purchases of land and foundations were made in that vicinity, under the direction of the royal pandit Yogisvarapandita and that the king granted lands and redevances, mostly in the name of Bhadresvara, god of Lingapura, and ordered the erection of a Sivalinga, a Narayana and a Bhagavati, which the enemy had pulled up at Stuk Sram''.
(Page 177, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

Vat Phou
   ''According to a Khmer inscription, in 1102, a king with the aid of his Holy Guru, erected some statues of divinities at Vat Phu in honor of Bhadresvara. Parmentier thinks the anterior hall in front of the ancient sanctuary belongs to the period between the Baphuon and Angkor Wat and was probably erected by Jayavarman VI at the beginning of the twelfth century. He also thinks the series of naga-balustrades and mile-stones received their final form during this period.''
(Page 182, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

Dharanindravarman I
   ''The stele of Samrong commemorates the foundations made by one Yogisvarapandita to Bhadresvara and the god of Lingapura during the reigns of Harshavarman, Jayavarman, and Dharanindravarman. The inclusive dates are 1077 and 1106. The inscription is thought to date from the later years of the reign of Dharanindravarman I. Yogisvarapandita, who was also mentioned in the inscription of Nom Van [Phanom Wan near Phimai in NE-Thailand] is reputed to be the author.''
 (Page 184, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

Suryavarman II
   ''This period seems to have witnessed the completion, or at least the decoration and furnishing of the massive temple of Vat Phu, which we have ascribed to the reign of Suryavarman I. According to Aymonier, between 1102 and 1139, to which latter date he attributes the completion of the monument and its inscriptions, seven dates are carved on a stele found there. These inscriptions record the erection of statues and gifts of donation, in 1102 and 1104, to Bhadresvara, who seems to have been the principal deity of the temple; impressive ceremonies and donations on the occasion of the coronation of Suryavarman II in 1113; the erection of a Sankara-Narayana (diva-Vishnu) in the Vrah Prang, or holy pyramid, in 1122; the erection of a Vrah Vishnu in between 1118 and 1127, of a Vrah Sri Guru (the sacred representation of Divakarapandita?) . Finally, in 1139, there took place there the erection of statues, the founding of villages, the establishment of sacred slaves, male and female, to the number of 109, each mentioned by name; the enumeration of the goods given: cattle, male elephants, implements of cult in gold, silver and bronze alloy, rings, plates, urns, etc. ; the division of revenues among the divinities, as well as the daily and New Year's redevances. (While these foundations and gifts are recorded in an inscription of Vat Phu, they were not necessarily all made to that temple. )
   Aymonier thinks this temple was built during the reign of Jayavarman VI; but, as we have seen (pp. 163, 188), some of the decorations certainly assign parts of it to a still earlier period. Coedes thinks the Divakaratataka, paid to have been dug in this reign, was the great basin of Vat Phu.''
(Pgs. 188-189, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

Ban That
   ''The Sanskrit stele inscription of Ban That, a group of three prasats, about thirty kilometers southwest of Basak, gives the genealogy of a matrivamsa which, according to the inscription, held the hereditary post of chief-priest of a linga on Mount Bhadresvara (Vat Phu). The founder of the family had acted as hotar of a King of Cambodia in performing the abhiseka of his son and was granted a piece of land near Mount Bhadresvara (apparently at Ban That) and founded the above-mentioned linga. The founder of this family was the sage Vagisvara. His son-in-law and successor in the matrivamsa was the intelligent Vijayendrasuri. Then followed the royal pandit Gunaratnavindu, whose daughter, the brilliant Tilaka, with her son, Subhadra Murdhasiva, as has been seen, flourished at the court of Jayavarman VI, apparently at the north before that king's coronation. This pandit performed various charges successfully under Jayavarman VI, Dharanindravarman 1, and Suryavarman II. The inscription is undated and seems to celebrate the three towers of Ban That, dedicated respectively to a linga of Isa (Siva), to Sadanana (Skanda), and to Gauri Mahishasurari.''
(Page 193, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs)

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The sacred spring

      ”A small temple built in sandstone and bricks (11th century) wedged below the cliff, would sanctify the water from the southern spring and would probably have contained a Linga. Behind this temple under the cliff, small bronze Khmer statues of Vishnu and a female divinity, and some much later Buddha representations were found” (Project de Recherches en Archeologie Lao – Research Project in Lao Archaeology) 




24 April 2006 © Asger Mollerup



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