Saturday, 3 November 2018


Preah Théat Preah Srei (Srei Santhor District)
ByVittorio Roveda & Yem Sothon
(Copyright text and pictures)
Stimulated by the interesting essay of Ashley Thompson 1996, we revised our notes on temples of the Kampong Cham district in order to identify one temple we visited with some of those studied by Lunet de Lajonquière and Etienne Aymonier. They are rare books available on the area we were researching and mapping wild (at that time) antiquities ‘sites. Although they did their research in the second part of the 19th century and published in 2001, they are sources on tons of information missing on modern books. They deals with the post-Angkorean art Cambodia and especially of a part little known to historians: the area of Srei Santhor in eastern Cambodia along the Mekong. It happened that in our private search on the murals of Buddhist monuments that one day we were in that area when we  reached some temple remains after driving past several rubber plantations. Unaware, we discovered a huge temple. Entering from the east we noticed two laterite basins and a portion of a moat of Khmer type. Immediately we compared with the plan of Lunet and discovered we were entering Preah Théat Preah Srei, No.114 of his list (his Fig.96). In this province there is a terrible confusion on different names attributed to same temples, but we are convinced of our identification (of Preah Théat Preah Srei) that may be different from the Preah Théat of of Aymonier 2001 : 415, Fig.71.
This temple has been massively restructured, before and probably after the 1970s with the  minimum respect for any traces of the large Khmer monument that existed there. It was restructured in the 18th century (Lunet de Lajonquiere 2001:241, Aymonier 2001:416): a large vihara occupies the laterite terraces built by the Khmers centuries before, probably before the arrival of the royalty that abandoned Angkor in the 15th century.
Fig.1 – Lunet de Lajonquiere 2001: 143       

                      Fig.2 Aymonier 2001: 416
Modern conditions of the temple - The eastern gopura(indicated[I] on the map(f Fig.1) is now a simple gate with two modern columns and a rectangular pediment. The entire enclosure wall has been transformed into a modern column’s rail; the left corner is occupied by a light building that extends northward along all the western side until reaching a higher building, empty at the date of our visit. In the area near the gopura there is a small building housing the cement statues of two guardians holding heavy maces, all gold painted. Also the umbrellas over them are made of golden fabric. They seem to be custodians of a stone buried between the two, covered with writing that we could not read it.
The vihara is large and longer than usual, with two entrance doors to the East, lateral windows (no doors) and a single door to the West, facing the tower-tupa. Around the vihara is a gallery created by exterior modern cylindrical undecorated columns (commercial pipes ?). This is flat, but then over the central tower a steep treble roof of tiles was built, each with slim chofar. The triangular pediment over the entrance side does not have mythological elements but the Tripitaka symbol.[1] The old vihara ends to the west a few meters from the tower with conical roof that we may call stupa, supported by tall cylindrical columns with a capitals on which stands a figure with spread arms. The columns remind again of mass produced cement pipes for industrial use. This tower is e a modern replacement of towers constructed many times, before eventually based on the Khmer tower of Fig.2 of Aymonier. Small tower-like monuments close to the vihara are for the vihara  sema. We did not search for the sacred space’s semas at the border of the compound.
The large tower-stupa only has one entrance to the south created during one of many restorations. It was simply cut into the wall, arched inside and made rectangular outside by three double louvered doors. Certainly this in not original design, but a pastiche made be monks without resources. Over the outer door, a blue sheet of plastic was placed to fill the unfinished door, on top of which a light blue (originally darker) curtains are painted on the wall up to the roof completing the pastiche.  We “tower” of cement (still as in the original redented design) building o tiled roof assuming almost a conical-pyramidal shape terminating in a carved stone with four-faced heads (Brahma?). The same occur also above the false windows of each level of the roof.  Externally, the northern door has an entrance door in a wall with double roof supported by square cement columns. There is triangular stucco’s pediment showing Vishnu with bent legs, probably doing the mythological Three Steps (Vishnu Trivikrama). This large door with portico is part of a renovation plan wile the door to the east was cut out from the wall for practical daily by monks living in the large spice outside it. 
The murals. For unexplained reasons we were not allowed to enter the vihara, presumably decorated, and we had to limit our visit inside the tower with the tall windows supplying  light to read satisfactorily the mural covering the walls. To the north there is a sort of altar made of cement, painted blue with an image of a robust tree each lateral side from which springs a branch with green leaves and a large yellow flower (sunflower?). At the center of this altar’s face, a rectangular unpainted space was left for an inscription (we could not see it.) In the wall’s recess over the altar, is a statue of Buddha at the moment of Enlightenment. His central and highest position because this is the most relevant over the other statues. The image is also placed against the wall painted with a large tree of the forest. Below the Min Buddha’s statue there small of two standing disciples: Sariputta and Mogallana, made of painted cement. On the wall behind this highest Buddha’ statue, hidden by fabric’s curtains, we discovered a small mural depicting the the Maravijaya scene; the thin transparent fabric’s curtains hide the full view of all the murals.
The inner-room of the tower has some exceptional mural paintings on the vertical walls created by the redented external wall (with one identation). There are murals totally different from those painted on the large walls. We start by describing the standard walls painted within a brown paint square are.
The murals on the tall inner pillars are tall slim figure of the Buddha walking in the forest with the zigzagging path on which the Buddha is in monastic dress.
All painted grey is again the figure of a skinny man walking in the forest with birds in the sky and monkeys on trees. This figure is covered by a short vest around the hips made of tree leaves. He may be Siddhartha after terminating the hermitic life, went in the forest to wash in a river. The murals depict him after bathing, covered only by a loincloth made only of leaves.  In other Buddhist legend to cover him, Siddhartha took the cloth from a corpse, washed it and start to wear it regularly.
The most unusual and extraordinary building construed in the inner walls of the vihara, is along the enclosure wall and is now in a dilapidate conditions, surely ready to be demolished at the time of our visit. More likely, the locals decided it was a funny building and decided to retain part of it but when it became in real dangerous conditions, isolated it and it is probable that by now a new one has been build (of totally different style and function).Our photographs show the ‘façade” of this curiosity, two identical rooms joined by central separated staircases. The face of each pavilion has a door with stucco decoration at the sides and a large face of a monkey (Hanuman?) or a monster painted at the top (Fig19). The lower part of the building consists of four arches hiding the floor planks of the first floor. The floor (square with resented corners) was supported also by cement pilasters, the central ones terminating with the large figure of a bird with wings reaching the cement ceiling. We assume that this strange building was a sala (room in general) used by the monks as a reunion site, read and learn, but too much is missing to formulate precise idea. It is certainly the strangest religious building we have seen in Cambodia for many years and of which It is AN unusual architectural example.
We devote special attention to the painted iconography of this unusual remote temple, in particular to the inner ornamentation of the tower.
 1) On the inner northern wall next the Buddha with one hand in vitarka mudra, another simply holding follower. A similar is repeated on another wall, next to the scene of Sujata bringing the aromatic rice to the Buddha. Below the latter two is the mural depicting Mara (Vessantara’s wife) halted by giant animals to return home after collecting her basket a full of fruits.
2) On the inner southern wall over the door have 4 squares frames showing the Buddha in meditation, teaching several followers, followed by another moral with the Buddha converting two lay men (Sariputta and Mogallana) when they were still in charge of transporting goods in a long caravan, and finally a painting of the Buddha preaching to a king.
The painting of this wall is covered, to the right part of the wall by an elongate image of the Buddha out of proportion, in a single vitarka mudra, standing on the ground of a zigzagging road. The left, this wall is entirely hidden behind the curtains. However, the most different “style”, (primitive), of these murals is illustrated  by those the flanking  the entrance door, the one to the left depicting a small Khmer orchestra in a room with arched vaults as if it were an important place (a royal saloon, a vihara?). Each musician plays a traditional Cambodian instrument and the now degraded and incomplete inscription indicating they are musicians (!); their costume is also that commonly used by Cambodian men but the white faces of western men. The murals to the left of the door displays 5 men standing playing long drums, while the  8 musicians to right of the door, are sitting on the floor, plying in a more varied set of instruments, as seen in modern temples during festivities. The inscription of these two panels, both depicting musicians, are painted in a primitive fashion, meaning without proportions, without shades, without perspective and with a limited choice of colors; they are lifeless, as often seen at the end of the 19th century.
3) - The  lower part of the inner eastern wall has a large mural illustrating prince Vessantara pouring water on the hands of Jujaka, to certify the donation of his two children, in his life’ presence. The painter forgot that the wife was not present to this sale, and she found out much later. However, over this scene are four more murals (modern making) arranged in a square space. One shows the Buddha in a forest being offered honey by a monkey and a bamboo container with water by an elephant. Above this is another scene when the Lord refused rich gift offered by a king (or prince).
Personal view. Leaning against the wall is a large panelk in bd conditions depisting two strong men squatting to cut iwit a larg saw twh head o seven sinners, watched by two other men at a distance. It is certainly a scene of hell.
As usual, our main interest was on the murals and especially those performed at the end of the 19th   century, but subjected to many restorations when new murals were added in the 20th century within a square space divided into four square paintings. These modern murals have the Main figure (usually the Buddha vividly defined with shadows), depth and perspective and a rich palette, clear signs of western influence. Some oddities exist amongst the painted images. One of the most unusual of the older style depicts a tall skinny Buddha temporarily covering his loin made of plant leaves (Fig. 37).
Interesting was also the large face painted on the outer face of the sala building (Fig19), and the mural on the inner wall depicting Shiva on bull (resembling more to a pig in the paining) with a follower offering flowers and another carrying a flag (Fig.20).
The tower also can be compared to that of Lunet’s picture, heavy, low and redented. All thaw roofs both on the tower and tower and wihara, have been reconstructed acceding to modern needs, that is further emphasized by comparing with Lunet figure (Lunet de Lajonquiere, reprint 2001: XXVII Fig,2)
The region of Srei Santor in which our temple is located, had a remarkable life when the Angkor kings choose refuge in there, far away from the Siamese. The chronicle and lack of inscriptions in addition to the lack of archeological and art historical research is almost total.  Only Madeleine Giteau in 1975 published her rational work on the sites mentioned here. We translate her opinions here below agreeing that the rare Buddhist monasteries of Srei Santhor region suffered late embellishments making them useless to research (Giteau 1975:54). Their dating is between the 16th and 17th centuries, when Srei Santor was honored several times by the stay of the Angkorean royalty. At Angkor the manifestations of Buddhist art happened later, corresponding to the return of the monarchy to the old capital in the 16th century. This happened almost two centuries after an enormous reclining Buddha had been assembled at the back of the Baphuon temple, and a colossal statue of a seated Buddha initiated at Bakheng’s top terrace, hiding the towers of the temple. Previously, Theravadin monks took over Angkor Wat transforming the top floor into four Buddhist shrines. When the royalty was at Santhor, at Angkor a king named Ang Chan completed the reliefs on the Third Enclosure of Angkor Wat by carving the two reliefs of the north-east quadrant  that we have diascussed in detail in the assay No.. Giteau did not mention any murals in our or other temples of this area.
Our final observation n deals for the rarity of mural paintings in ancient pagoda of this area (Srei Sintor province.)
In appendix we would like to remind that for independent researchers it is difficult to stumble in such an extraordinary temple complex as the above. There are many vihras built on scred Khmer space, surrounded by a moat (See Roveda & Yem2004: 30) but none has suffered such an extensive destruction, bulldozed out, except the tower with his vivaha, as here at Preah Theat Srei.
Étienne: Le Camboddge, Vol.1,Leroux, Paris, 2001, reprint 2015
Giteau Madeleine, Iconographie du Cambdge Post-angkorien, Publications EFEO, VOL. C. Paris 1975
Lunet de Lajonquiėre: Inventaire descriptif des documents du Cambodge. Cedoerex reprint, Phnom Penh 2001
Roveda Vittorio and Yem Sothon, Buddist Paintings In Cambodia, River Books, Bangkok, 2004
Thompson Ashley, The ancestral cult of transition: reflections on spatial organization in Cambodia early Theravada complex. In Klokke and Bruy, Southeast Asian Archaeology, Centeral Southeast Asia Studies, : 273-295, University of Hull,1998.

 MAP OF Lunet de Lajonquiére 
reprint 2001
We assumer that the monuments described
 of this paper belong to the site indicated with a small red circle
Fig.1 to Fig.4 – Two rectangular basins with laterite walls that we assume were Khmer water basins.

Fig.5 - View of the monastery coming from the east


Fig. The old brick steps leading to the Vihara.
The white tower-like construction between the two doors protects the vihara's Sema

Fig.7- The view of Vihara from the south-east. Notice the Vihara's Sema protected inside towers with cylindrical base.
Fig.8 – The vihara from the South-West.
      Fig.9 – The conical tower like a stupa with the four faces head at the top.
Fig.10 – The tower’s southern door  
    Dig.11 - The roof over the southern door.

Fig.12 – The curtains-like shape of the open road with blue pained curtain above.                 


Fig.13 – The tower seen from the north

Fig.14 – the most curious sala now collapsing

  Fig.15 – The inner structure of th sala


Fig.16 View of the tower from SW     


  Fig.17 – The northern door portico

Fig.18  The decorted window of th curious sala.

 Fig.19 – Detail of the face painted over the window and Fig.20 the only mural painting found in the sala.
Fig.20– The dwarapala guarding an insdcribed stone  
Fig.21 – The altar of the tower

Fig.22 and Fig.23– “primitive” painting flanking the southern exit door
Fig.23– “primitive” painting flanking the southern exit door
Fig.24 - Murals high on the wall over the southern door

Fig.25 – The ceiling of the tower

Fig.26 – The future guardiasns of the temple (perhaps).

[1] Tripitaka means the Three Baskets of the Buddhist Canon and the 3 texts: Sutta pitaka (Basket o Discourses); the Vinaya pitaka (Basket of monastic discipline) and Abihamma (Basket of higher Teachings).


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