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Red Citadel of Women

Red Citadel of Women
 
 

ALMOST every temple in Angkor was commissioned by a king of the great Khmer empire, built to ensure the king stamped his legacy in the world's greatest city. There was one exception.

Upon leaving the great city of Angkor we returned towards the massive temple of Angkor Wat and its surrounding moat and jungle. From there we continued passed a couple of enormous ponds, and continued further out through the jungle for another ten minutes until reaching a substantial car park at the edge of a large rice paddy field.

Crowded entrance
Crowded entrance

There were a lot of people here, all heading towards the entrance to a small temple. This temple didn’t tower through the jungle like the other ones, and it was quite small in area. In fact this had been deliberately constructed as a miniature of the other temples in Angkor. The elaborately carved entrance had a doorway not much bigger than a standard door in a house. The elaborate carving rose to about four metres – very diminutive compared to the other entrances I had seen so far. From the entrance stood a sandstone wall that was quite uneven thanks to the ground slumping over hundreds of years.

Carvings on the temple entrance
Carvings on the temple entrance

The carving at the entrance was amazing, more detailed than any that I had seen so far at Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom. The carving was so delicate that it made all the other carving I had seen to date appear quite crude. Perhaps it was because this temple hadn’t eroded much despite being lost in the jungle for four hundred years. The carvings were of small Buddhas, elephants and plants. The columns and rock faces at the entrance were in near perfect condition.

It was a bit crowded going through the entrance and over a bridged stone walkway over a wide moat surrounding the low temple. The buildings were no more than a single storey in height.

Small tower
Small tower

Vinh explained that we were in an ancient Hindu temple originally named “Tribhuvanamahesvara” – “Great lord of the Three-fold World, an appellation of the god Siva”. It was later renamed Banteay Srei – the Citadel of Women. This is considered to be a place of protection.

This temple is isolated quite some distance from the other temples all sitting back to the south west, so this would have been within the outer suburbs of the large city of Angkor.

Banteay Srei was built mostly from a deep red sandstone. This rock can be carved just as well as wood. The buildings were deliberately built miniature in scale which is rather unusual. All the other temples we had visited so far had been deliberately built to be larger than life to appease the gods they had been built to worship.

It is unique in that every other temple in Angkor was built under a ruling monarch. This temple was privately built under a counsellor to the king. The counsellor was Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist who helped those who suffered from illness, injustice and poverty.

Inner court of Banteay Srei
Inner court of Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei was consecrated on 22 April 967 AD. It was originally the centrepiece of the town of Isvarapura, effectively an outer suburb of Angkor.

Like the great city, the town has long gone, taken over by the sprawling jungle when it was abandoned in the early fourteenth century. The jungle completely concealed the temple causing it to remain completely hidden until 1914. There were few visitors but it was subject to a theft in 1923. Fortunately the stolen temple devatas were returned. The surrounding jungle was cleared in 1924 and the temple was restored in the 1930s. Some of the large artefacts here had been removed and taken to the national museum in Phnom Penh, but they were unfortunately vandalised during the Khmer Rouge.

The temple itself contained three concentric rectangular enclosures. The outer enclosure which I had just passed through is ninety five by one hundred and ten metres. A shallow moat of murky water occupied most of the enclosure. The area the moat concealed was the middle enclosure, thirty eight by forty two metres in size. Within the middle enclosure was a much smaller inner enclosure that was inaccessible.

Small statues
Small statues

We entered the middle enclosure through another intricately carved entrance and explored the temple along the small public path.

Here stood numerous statues of people on tall pedestals. They had been scaled down to about the size of a cat. Some had human heads, and others had the heads of strange animals, most likely Hindu gods. They were laid out in interesting arrays, no doubt deliberately located for some special religious reason. They were paler than the rest of the pinkish sandstone work in the rest of the temple.

The statues had an eerie presence about them as if they had hidden cameras in their eyes watching you. All the statues were kneeling on the ground with their right knee up off the ground. It seemed like a very uncomfortable position to be in for any length of time, and certainly for the thousand plus years they have been here. Each figure was kneeling on a pedestal on either side of a short stairway into the temple. There were numerous stairs, hence numerous statues.

Inner court of Banteay Srei
Inner court of Banteay Srei

The small temple buildings had small towers, almost a miniature version of the towers of Angkor Wat with their distinctive lotus shaped towers, only these seemed to be randomly arrayed within the small moat surrounded temple. Parts of the temple were starting to crumble away, but the lack of vegetation here meant that it was now being well maintained. The few windows in the rooms were mostly blocked by the turned cylindrical columns similar to those I had seen in the hall of a thousand gods in Angkor Wat.

Disabled musicians
Disabled musicians

It was not long before we were passing through the other side of the temple and crossing another bridge over the moat to a large wall. I could now hear the same percussive music. Once through a gap in the wall I saw a group of people playing strange instruments. Some of the people appeared clearly disabled. They were playing various instruments, none of which were even vaguely familiar to me. There were several crude stringed instruments, and the rest were percussive. The music sounded very percussive and discordant, mainly improvisational without much evidence of musical knowledge. However the exotic sound of this rhythmic music seemed to blend in very well with the jungle setting. Perhaps it was because the instruments were made from wood and other materials sourced from this very jungle.

Stone wall surrounding the temple
Stone wall surrounding the temple

I read their crudely painted sign. They were a group of disabled people who earn a living through playing their music. There was a rusty tin for donations and a small suitcase full of CDs selling for ten dollars each. I bought one of the CDs.

I then followed the wall anticlockwise around the temple. It was about two metres high but there were a few holes in the wall affording me a view of the temple across the wide moat surrounding it to my left, and there were thousands of carved moss covered stones laid out in the long grass to the right. There were lying there waiting for someone who had the patience to solve this part of the enormous three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

At this point my guide Vinh called us back and we returned to the car park to head off and explore more temples back in the main city built and commissioned by kings.

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Latitude: Longitude: Altitude:

24 October 2009

 

Banteay Srei

Cambodia

 

13°26'N
103°53'16"E
9m ASL

 

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