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The Banteay Srei Temple in Cambodia

January 31st, 2010

banteay-srei-temple.jpgThe Hindu temple at Banteay Srei, in the Angkor area of Cambodia, is one of the great masterpieces of Khmer sacred art. The temple is unique in being constructed entirely from red sandstone, and features some of the most intricate and beautiful carvings of Hindu mythological scenes in the world.

The name Banteay Srei means “Temple of Women”, which may be a reference to the small scale of the temple and the delicacy of its carvings. Due to the softness and fine grain of the stone, it was possible for the ancient artisans to carve scenes of great detail in three dimensions. They wasted no space in the temple, for every available surface is covered with the elaborate carvings. Scenes from the Mahabarata and the Ramayana are depicted in narrative sequence, telling incidents from the early history of the Hindu faith. At Banteay Srei, one can see a moment of history frozen in stone: the period when the ancient Khmer empire adopted the faiths and culture of India, and created works of sacred art whose sophistication and technical mastery rival those of India itself.

Construction of the temple at Banteay Srei began as one king left the throne of “Kambuja”, leaving the crown to his ten-year-old son. The old king, Rajendravarman II (r. 944-968) had come to power at the end of a time of turmoil, when the kingdom was split and the capital moved to Koh Ker, some 50 miles north of Angkor. When Rajendravarman took the throne, he returned the capital to Angkor and resumed the building projects of earlier kings, including the construction of many temples such as Pre Rup and the East Mebon. His reign was not a peaceful time, and included a war with the kingdom of Champa, in what is now Vietnam. His kingdom was victorious over the Chams, and while that enemy would return to threaten Kambuja again, that first victory ushered in a period of peace that persisted for some years.

The temple at Banteay Srei was consecrated in the final year of the old king’s reign, but it was not built by him. Rather, it was built on the orders of one of the king’s counselors, a great Hindu teacher named Yajnavaraha. When the boy king Jayavarman V came onto the throne, Yajnavaraha remained with the court as his teacher and counselor. Jayavarman V’s reign was a time of peace and cultural flowering, and while war would follow it, that brief period would give the world some of its finest sacred art.

Banteay Srei is a good example. It is unusual in some respects. The red sandstone from which it is made is a contrast with the gray stone that is more typical of Khmer constructions, and while much Khmer architecture is monumental and imposing, Banteay Srei is small and delicate. It has been called a “little jewel”, and the name fits.

The temple faces the east and has three concentric rectangular enclosures set on an east-west axis. The innermost enclosure contains the sanctuary, which has three towers and two other buildings which are called libraries.

Walking through this place and looking at the carvings on the walls, one can see Hindu scriptures come alive. Here, in exquisite detail and realism, is the horrific lion-headed Narasimha in the act of clawing out the bowels of a demon. Another scene shows the monkey princes, Bali and Sugreeva, engaged in pitched battle, while the next scene of the narrative depiction shows Bali being felled by the arrow of Rama. In a more peaceful picture, the sky god Indra is seen lounging atop his three-headed elephant, Airavata.

We can guess that these carvings may have served the same purpose as the stained glass windows of Europe: for a largely illiterate people, they provided a link to the tales of the past.

And for us, they can do the same. The temple lay forgotten in ruins until the 1860s, when French archaeologists discovered and restored it. During the 1970s military activity made the area inaccessible, and the wonders of Banteay Srei have only recently been rediscovered by the Western world. Today it has regained its former glory and is open to the public.

For those who are interested in the history of this area and the amazing artwork it produced, Banteay Srei is not to be missed.


Hayes, Holly: Banteay Srei at Sacred Destinations: sacred-destinations.com/cambodia/angkor-banteay-srei

Banteay Srei Wikipedia entry: wikipedia.org/wiki/Banteay_Srei

Banteay Srei entry at Angkorblog.com: angkorblog.com/id2.html

Banteay Srei entry at Lonely Planet.com: lonelyplanet.com/cambodia/siem-reap/sights/500526

Review of the exhibit, “Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: nga.gov/exhibitions/cambodia/camrm8c-8b.htm

This article was supplied to us by G. B. Partain from Constant Content.

2 Responses to “The Banteay Srei Temple in Cambodia”

  1. comment number 1 by: Aioliki

    Wow Its really amazing. Todays temple works can never be as perfect as these works

  2. comment number 2 by: Travel Asia

    The temple is surrounded by the low walls. The walls of temples are made out of the deep red colored sandstone. The meaning of Banteay Srei is “Citdel of Women” or the “citadel of beauty”.

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