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The Baphuon Temple in Cambodia

February 3rd, 2010

baphuon-temple-cambodia.jpgWhen it was erected in the 11th century, the Baphuon temple at Angkor Thom in Cambodia was the crowning achievement of Khmer architecture. It was the “golden mountain” of King Udayadityavarman II, erected in the center of his capital and dedicated to the god Shiva. The Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, whose accounts give us an unparalleled view of life in the Khmer Empire, marveled at the Baphuon’s immense tower, which he called “the Tower of Bronze — a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.” Until it was surpassed by Angkor Wat, the Baphuon was the largest temple in Southeast Asia.

In one of history’s typical ironies, this serene and ethereal structure was the product of times of strife. The early 11th century saw the Khmer kingdom split by civil war between two contenders for the throne, Jayaviravarman and Suryavarman I. Suryavarman was victorious and united the kingdom, but when he left the throne in AD 1050, Udayadityavarman II took over a nation with deep troubles. Much of his reign was preoccupied with fighting internal revolt which left the nation devastated.

Despite these problems, Udayadityavarman II managed to build several magnificent temples and add to others. The Baphuon, completed around 1060, was the greatest of these.

Measuring 120 meters by 100 meters and standing probably about fifty meters tall including the tower, the Baphuon was at once imposing and ethereal. While the king intended the Baphuon to be a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, the 15th century saw a change of political climate, and it was rededicated to Buddha. It was at this time that a 70-meter-long statue of a reclining Buddha was added to the site. It is thought that a tower which was present in the original structure, but is completely absent now, was demolished to allow the construction of the Buddha figure.

Unfortunately, the Baphuon was unstable from the beginning. The builders unwisely placed the temple on sandy soil that was unable to support its immense weight, and settling must have started as soon as the building was completed. In fact, it is probable that parts of the Baphuon had already collapsed by the time the Buddha was added in the 15th century.

By the 20th century, the Baphuon was just an overgrown mound. French archaeologists started trying to restore the temple in the 1960s using a technique called anastylosis, which literally means taking the whole structure apart and then reassembling it, taking measures to reinforce everything in the process. In order to do this, they had to number all the pieces and make a guide to tell how to reassemble them.

This process was still underway when the Khmer Rouge came to power in the early 1970s. Work on the Baphuon project, only halfway finished, was hurriedly stopped; the archaeologists had to leave the country. As had happened so often in the past, Cambodia was torn by war.

When peace finally returned to the land, the restoration project was in sad disarray. The pieces of the Baphuon were still intact, but the written guide that should have told how to reassemble it all had been lost. Not to be discouraged, the archaeologists began the slow job of putting together the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle.

Today, the work has come a long way, but there is still much to be done. Luckily, the restoration effort has been aided by three sources of information. One was the architect who worked on the original project in the 1960s, Jacques Dumarcay, who was still alive and able to remember some details about the Baphuon as it existed back then. Another source of information was a large file of photographs taken by the French during their restoration, which still existed in Paris. The third source was the second half of the building, which had never been disassembled. The plan was to reassemble the first half, using the second half as a guide, then disassemble the second half and rebuild it, too.

This work is proceeding slowly, and parts of the Baphuon still are not open to the public. However, visitors can see the exceptional animal carvings at the entranceway and some other features, including the huge reclining Buddha. When viewed from the outside, the sheer immensity of the Baphuon makes it worth seeing. For history enthusiasts and admirers of ancient architecture, the Baphuon is already a great place to visit, and as time goes by, more and more of the complex will become open.

After wars and other delays, the Baphuon is slowly emerging from the past, and we can watch it come together. Bit by bit, the “golden mountain” of King Udayadityavarman II is rising again.


The Baphuon Wikipedia entry: wikipedia.org/wiki/Baphuon

History of Angkor at website of Canby Publications Co., Ltd.: canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-baphuon.htm

Mydans, Seth: A Piece Here, a Piece There: an Ancient Temple is Rebuilt, reprinted from Siem Reap Journal, January 1, 2003 at Yahoo! Groups.com: groups.yahoo.com/group/berita-bhinneka/message/64397

Vachon, Michelle: Picking up the Pieces: Putting the World’s Biggest Jigsaw Puzzle- Angkor’s Baphuon Temple- Back Together Again in the Cambodian Daily, July 13-14, 2002: camnet.com.kh/cambodia.daily/selected_features/baphuon.htm

Szczepanski, Kallie: Angkor Wat Timeline: Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire at About.com: asianhistory.about.com/od/cambodia/a/angkortimeline.htm

Related article: The Banteay Srei Temple in Cambodia

This article on the Baphuon Temple in Cambodia was supplied to us by G. B. Partain from Constant Content.

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