Bakong: The First Mountain Temple of the Angkorian Era

Arial photo shows Bakong temple in Siem Reap province. Photo by Sem Vanna

SIEM REAP--It was discovered that “Mountain Temples” have existed prior to the Angkorian period itself. However, people started to witness noticeable improvement of this style with the Bakong temple due to its height and significant size.

The Bakong dominates through its sheer stature the 15 hectares of land of the ancient city of Hariharalaya, which today is in Bakong District in Siem Reap Province.

This 9th century temple was named after King Indravarman I following a ceremonial event he had held at the nearby Preah Ko temple. During the Angkorian period, a mountain temple was usually named after a divinity and the king who had built it. Therefore, the Bakong temple was originally named Indreshvara [after the king and the Hindu divinity Shiva].

The Bakong temple is regarded as the first, the model for other mountain temples. Regarding its architecture, the Bakong started to incorporate elaborative elevation. There are, in total, five steps of elevation, which contribute to the height and beauty of the temple. In addition, there are smaller towers built on the fourth elevation and bigger ones at ground level. Some of the bigger towers were either built of clay or laterite stones combined with sandstone.

Another special feature of this temple is the statues of animals. There are figures of a cow, or Kamadhenu, which represents Shiva’s means of transportation, statues of lions in front of the four staircases aligned with the four cardinal directions, and elephant figures at every secondary direction. As for the sculptures of the Naga, they are placed directly on the ground in contrast with the 12th century style in which the Naga sculptures were placed on a raised surface.

The architectural designs in the 9th century were found to have been dramatically influenced by those in Java. However, this influence diminished in the course of time and shifted toward the adoption of Khmer styles. Therefore, we can see noticeable differences in styles and architectural designs especially during the Angkorian period when compared to the previous periods.

In addition to the temple’s design, we can see a marvelously large moat that is believed to have been the starting point of creating the City of Water. The Indratataka water reservoir, built by King Indravarman I, spans over 3,800 meters in length and 800 meters in width. It is capable of storing sufficient quantity of water to supply farmers during the dry season and the surrounding temples.

Generally, mountain temples are constructed to resemble Mount Meru [in the center of the universe] surrounded by the sea—a common belief in Hinduism. In order to recreate that, ancient engineers must have dug the nearby land and pile the soil into the shape of a mountain. Next, they proceeded to create elevations set with sandstones and clay. Occasionally, laterite stones were incorporated as well. Therefore, the process created an artificial mountain surrounded by waterways, which represent both the mythical mountain and the mythical sea. Finally, the depth of the reservoir heavily depended on the size of the temple and the quantity of soil that was needed for the temple.

Today, experts have found that only one tower rests midway to the top of the temple. It is believed to have been built in the 12th century judging by the sculptures, features and design. Some have suggested that this tower was constructed…during the reign of King Yasovarman II [in the 12th century].

The sculpted scenes at each level tells a story. For instance, the lowest level depicts stories based on Vishnu, the eastern gable the story of Shiva, the northern gable illustrates a story of Rama and Naga, and the western gable features a picture of a sleeping Vishnu. Unfortunately, some of the sculpted scenes were eroded and experts could not make sense of the story.

 The Buddhist pagoda that was later on incorporated into the temple grounds is also an unforgettable sight when viewed as a reflection in the moat from the outside.

Although being thousands of years old, the details on the temple walls, colonettes, blind doors and lintels are still mesmerizing today.

Long Ton is a Cambodian with a passion for Angkor and that era. A university graduate who speaks several languages, he has conducted tours at Angkor.

Song Daphea contributed to the story

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