A Masterpiece of Khmer Temple Art
Known for its exceptional beauty, intricate carvings, and fine workmanship, Banteay Srei is a gem among hundreds of temples that dot the Cambodian landscape. It is a smaller temple complex containing multiple single-story structures. Unlike many other temples in Cambodia, it is not built like a temple-mountain.
The Banteay Srei Temple has some stunningly beautiful bas-reliefs that depict gods, demigods, and scenes based on the episodes narrated in the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The bas-reliefs are deeply cut and finely carved. Even after 1000 years, the carvings have retained their original sharpness.
Unlike most of the other Cambodian temples, Banteay Srei was built predominantly using red sandstone. Because of the color and texture of the sandstone, its carvings appear pleasant and colorful.
Banteay Srei is about 16 miles northeast of Siem Reap and is on the way to the Phnom Kulen mountain range. Many tourists who visit Angkor Wat often miss Banteay Srei because it is not in the Siem Reap region, home to many well-known Hindu/Buddhist temples. You can accomplish the Phnom Kulen and Banteay Srei visits in a single-day trip.
A Bit of History
Banteay Srei is unique in that it is commissioned not by a king (like many other famous temples in the region) but by the courtiers of a king. Yagnavaraha and Vishnukumara were the courtiers who built this temple on the land granted to them by King Rajendravarman. According to an inscription, Yagnavaraha is the grandson of King Harshavarman and the teacher of the future king Jayavarman V. He was known to be a great scholar, philosopher, and philanthropist who fought for justice.
The building of this temple started in 967 CE. The name Banteay Srei is recent, which in Khmer means Citadel of Women or Citadel of Beauty. The name could be referring to the beautiful carvings of women (apsaras and devatas) on the bas-reliefs.
The original name of Banteay Srei was Tribhuvanamaheshwara, which refers to Shiva as the Lord of the Earth, Heaven, and Hell. Note: In Sanskrit, Tribhuvana means three worlds or realms consisting of earth, heaven and hell, and Maheshwara means great god.
The town surrounding the temple used to be known as Isvarapura, which in Sanskrit means Isvara’s town. Isvara is another name for Shiva. After the temple was built, Isvarapura became a town having residents supporting the temple.
As mentioned, the Banteay Srei Temple was surrounded by a town. The entrance to the temple is through the town gopura (gate), located on the east side. The town gate opens into a long causeway, which leads to the main entrance to the temple.
The Banteay Srei Temple complex has three rectangular concentric enclosures built on the east-west axis. The main temple structures are in the innermost enclosure. The innermost and the middle enclosures are close to each other and are surrounded by brick walls. Separating the outer and middle enclosures is a moat.
The entrance to the temple complex is on the east side and is through a gopura built with an ornate door an exquisitely carved pediment above it. The door opens into the causeway, which leads to the eastern entrance to the outer enclosure.
Gate and Causeway
The gate at the eastern entrance to the temple
The gopura (gate) is mostly made of red sandstone. The door frame and the pediment are beautifully carved. The bas-relief on the pediment depicts Indra riding his vehicle three-headed elephant called Airavata. At each end of the pediment is Makara, a mythical sea creature, spewing multi-headed naga, a mythical serpent.
According to an inscription, this gate used to be the entrance to Isvarapura. It is believed that a wooden wall existed surrounding Isvarapura.
The causeway that leads to the outer enclosure is about 67 meters long. There are 32 boundary marking stones lined along the path.
The outer enclosure measures 110 x 95 sq m, and a laterite wall encloses it. The original construction had the gopuras in the middle of the east and west walls. Only the west gopura exists now, and part of the east gopura is lying on the ground where the original gopura once stood.
The image on the left shows this structure. It is the east-facing pediment of this gopura, and the west-facing pediment is on display at a museum in France.
As you can see from the image, the bas-relief on this pediment depicts Ravana abducting Sita, a well-known episode in Ramayana in which Ravana, a rakshasa and the King of Lanka, kidnaps Sita, Rama’s wife.
The image shows the west gopura with an ornate pediment. The beautifully carved bas-relief on the pediment depicts Shiva and his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) seated on his vehicle Nandi, the bull.
Under Nandi is Kaala, the time demon often associated with Shiva, who, according to Hindu mythology, is the timekeeper of the universe and controls the time cycles by creation, preservation, and destruction.
Surrounding the bas-relief is the decorative carving of Makara, a mythical sea creature, disgorging yakshas from its heads on the left and right ends.
Note: Yakshas in Hindu mythology are the demigods who protect natural treasures, such as water and forests.
The middle enclosure measures 38 x 42 sq m and has gopuras on the east and west sides connected by a brick wall, some portions of which have collapsed. The causeway mentioned before leads to this enclosure, and the moat filled with water on either side of this causeway surrounds this enclosure.
The gopuras on the middle enclosure are ornate with exquisitely carved artwork of creative patterns and narrative bas-reliefs.
The image shows the east-facing view of the eastern wall with a gopura in the middle. As you can see, it is an elaborate structure with three doorways and extending it on either side is the brick wall that surrounds this enclosure.
The approach to the middle enclosure is through a causeway, i.e., the mud path in front of the gopura. A small part of the moat can be seen in the image on either side of this causeway. A narrow terrace surrounds the wall on its outer side, separating the moat and the wall.
Just like the other gopuras in the temple, the east gopura has two facades: east facing and west facing. The façade shown in the image is the former. The middle door of this gopura is flanked on either side by a false window and a door. The two identical structures visible behind the gopura are the libraries situated inside the inner enclosure. The structures within the middle and inner enclosures harmoniously blend with the surroundings.
The image shows the pediment above the middle door. In the center of this highly ornate pediment is a triangular area with a beautifully carved bas-relief depicting Kaala, a time monster associated with Shiva as he is the timekeeper of the universe, and an unidentified deity above Kaala.
The rest of this triangular area is filled with foliage. Enclosing this area is an exquisitely carved artwork of symmetrical patterns.
The west-facing pediment depicts Gaja Lakshmi – one of the eight avatars of Lakshmi- seated on a lotus flower flanked by two gajas (elephants ) performing abhisheka (showering with water and food) and riding Uluka the Owl. Uluka is often associated with Lakshmi, but not always as her vahana (vehicle).
Lakshmi is Vishnu’s wife and goddess of wealth in Hindu mythology. She is known as Ashtalakshmi because of her eight avatars (manifestations), each symbolizing an aspect of wealth. The Gaja Lakshmi avatar symbolizes wealth through strength. According to a myth, Gaja Lakshmi is a by-product of Samudra Manthana (Churning of the Ocean of Milk).
Gopura on the west side of the middle enclosure
The pediment depicts the fight between the brothers Vali and Sugriva and Rama is trying to help Sugriva. This popular theme from Hindu epic Ramayana is portrayed in many Hindu temples in India and Southeast Asia.
The inner and middle enclosures are much closer than the outer and middle enclosures. Both the inner and outer enclosures are surrounded by brick walls. As seen in the image below, a narrow empty space separates the enclosures.
This is where the main temple structures are located. The enclosure measures 24 x 24 sq m with a brick wall surrounding it. Built inside this enclosure are the main temple structures, including two libraries and three sanctuary towers. Attached to the middle sanctuary tower is mantapa, a covered hall with an entrance facing east and side entrances facing north and south.
The image shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the northeast side. The rightmost structure is the north library and next to it is the east gopura. The structure that has two kneeling dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) in front is the mantapa. The tips of the three sanctuary towers are seen at the far end of the image.
The image above shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the southwest side. The leftmost structure is the south library and next to it is the east gopura. The view shows the west-facing facades of these structures. The three sanctuary towers are in the front.
The image shows the view of the innermost enclosure from the northwest side. The rightmost structure is the north library and next to it is the east gopura. The view shows the west-facing facades of these structures. The three sanctuary towers are in the front.
The image shows the east-facing facade of the east gopura. The door frame and the pediment of this gopura are beautifully decorated.
The pediment depicts the scene Shiva Tandava Nritya, i.e., Shiva performing his cosmic dance of creation, preservation, and destruction.
The lintel depicts Indra, the dikpala (guardian) of the east direction, riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. Each Airavata head is shown as a monster-like figure attached to the elephant head. As you can see from the image below, Indra, whose head is missing, is holding the elephant trunk with the right hand, and the monster head with the left hand. The other two Airavata heads are at the ends.
A damaged statue of Nandi is in front of the gopura.
Built like mini shrines, the libraries are the unique elements of the Khmer temple architecture. Although their exact purpose is still a mystery, the likely intention of building them was to use them as repositories of manuscripts. It is worth noting that there is no concept of libraries in the architectures of Hindu temples in India.
The Hindu religious texts, which include four Vedas, two epics and 18 Puranas, are large and numerous. The manuscripts of these texts were likely brought from India and were considered precious and sacred. The libraries were likely built to preserve them in a safe place and were designed like shrines to allow people to worship them. However, there is no evidence that the libraries were ever used as repositories of manuscripts.
Located near the entrance of the inner enclosure, the two identically designed library structures, one on the north and the other on the south, are equidistant from the center. In other words, they are like the mirror images of each other.
They are aligned along the east-west direction with ornate facades facing east and west, each of which has a beautifully decorated door, lintel and pediment. The facade facing west has the doorway to enter the building, whereas on the east side, there is just a false door built only for decorative purposes.
The bas-reliefs on the pediments depict stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The south library is dedicated to Shiva. Both the east and west facades depict stories about Shiva.
The east-facing pediment depicts an episode from Ramayana in which Ravana with his 20 hands tries to lift Mount Kailash, the heavenly abode of Shiva and his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) as Shiva sits calmly with his consort Parvati on his lap.
Ravana Shaking Mount Kailash
According to the story, Ravana was enraged by Shivas’ vehicle Nandi who did not let Ravana’s plane (Pushpak Vimana) to pass over Shiva’s abode. When Ravana tries to lift Mount Kailash, Shiva holds it down, which enrages Ravana further and he starts shaking the mountain.
The west-facing pediment depicts a story from Shiva Purana in which Kama (a.k.a Kamadeva), the god of love and carnal desire, strikes Shiva with Kamabana (Kama’s arrows) to arouse passion and desire in Shiva, who is in the state of meditation.
According to the story, after the death of his wife Sati, Shiva goes into a state of meditation to grieve her death. This results in a great imbalance in the world. Meanwhile, Sati is reborn as Parvati, and all the gods want Shiva to marry Parvati. Sensing this need, Indra sends Kama to arouse passion and desire in Shiva for him to be interested in Parvati.
West-facing south library facade
The north library is dedicated to Vishnu. Both the east and west facades depict stories about Krishna, who is one of the avatars (manifestation) of Vishnu. The library is built on a raised platform with two levels.
The doorway of the facade has a beautifully decorated false door flanked by pilasters. Because this facade is facing east, Indra, who is the dikpala (guardian) of the east, is the theme of the carvings on both the lintel and pediment.
Check the list of Ashta Dikpalas, the eight guardians of directions.
The bas-relief on the lintel depicts Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. As you can see from the image, Indra is in the middle sitting above an elephant head. At each end of the lintel, there is an elephant with a human-like figure sitting on it.
As you can see from the image, there are three pediments. The innermost is the narrowest and is in the front, and the outermost is the widest and is on the back. Each pediment is enclosed by a finely carved creeper which is resting on an intricately decorated pillar.
Carved into the lowermost pediment is a narrative bas-relief depicting a well-known episode in Mahabharata, Burning of the Khandava Forest. Here is the story in brief:
Burning of the Khandava Forest
According to the story, the fire god Agni wanted to burn the Kandhava Forest because of a stomach ailment. Disguised as a brahmin, he went to Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, and requested that he was hungry and needed to be satiated. Because Arjuna could not refuse a request from a brahmin, he agreed to Agni’s request. Agni then revealed himself and said to Krishna he was hungry, and the only way he could satiate his hunger was to help him consume the Khandava Forest by letting him burn it. Arjuna reluctantly agreed to help him.
The Kandhava Forest was also the home of Takshaka, the king of nagas (snakes), and Maya, the architect of the asuras. When Agni started the fire, Takshaka was not in the forest, but his family was inside. So, he begged his friend Indra, king of the devas (demigods) and heaven, to help them to escape the fire. Indra agreed and used his power to bring rain to the forest to douse the fire. Arjuna tried to stop the rain by creating a layer of arrows. Meanwhile, Krishna stayed on the other side of the forest and helped Arjuna stop the rain.
While this battle was going on, Takshaka’s wife swallowed her son Ashvasena and tried to fly out of the forest. Realizing that she was trying to escape with her son, Arjuna cut her head off with his arrows but could not prevent Ashvasena from escaping the forest.
Maya also escaped the forest and then sought asylum from Arjuna. Eventually, Agni consumed the entire Khandava Forest and cured his stomach ailment.
This is one of the most beautiful and detailed bas-reliefs in the temple. On the top is Indra riding his vehicle Airavata and trying to bring down the rain on the forest. The layer underneath Indra depicts flowing water, giving an impression of rain coming down. On the left is Arjuna shooting arrows to stop the rain. Below the water, there are two layers of arrows, created by Arjuna, preventing the water from coming down. On the right is Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, holding his signature weapon, Sudarshana Chakra, helping Arjuna. Between Arjuna and Krishna is the forest with a chaotic scene of animals, Takshaka’s family, and Maya and other asuras trying to escape the fire.
Notice the two multi-headed nagas in the middle of the arrow layers. These are Takshaka’s wife and their son Ashvasena. As mentioned in the story, Ashvasena escaped Arjuna’s arrows through the brave action of his mother, who swallowed him to shield him from the barrage of arrows. Although she died in the ordeal, she enabled Ashvasena to escape the fire.
West-facing north library facade
Sanctuary Towers (Prasats)
Aligned along the north-south direction, the three sanctuary towers in the inner enclosure are close to each other and symbolically represent the Hindu Trinity, Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. The sanctuary towers are the most sacred buildings in the temple.
Each tower has an inner sanctum, i.e., a chamber with the deity. Because Banteay Srei is a Shiva temple, Shiva is considered the dominant god of the trinity. The middle tower is dedicated to Shiva, and to show his dominance, it is taller than the other two. Its inner sanctum likely had a Shivalinga or a statue of Shiva. For this reason, it is taller than the other two towers, which likely had statues of Vishnu and Brahma.
The south and north sanctuary towers have three outward facades, each of which has a door with multi-level pediments and a lintel. The entrance is only on the east side and the rest three facades have false doors. The central tower has only one outward facade, which is on the west side.
Central Sanctuary Tower
The central tower is home to a Shiva Linga inside the inner chamber. It is taller than the other two. There is a mantapa in front of it on the east side. The pediment on the west side depicts Varuna riding three hamsas (sacred swans), the north side depicts Kubera, the south side depicts Yama riding a buffalo and the east side depicts Indra riding Airavata.
The mantapa is a covered hall that leads to the central sanctuary tower and is attached to the east facade of the central sanctuary tower.
The images above show the north and south facing walls of the mantapa. As you can see, the design is similar but the carvings are different. The he doorway in middle and leading to the doorway is a stone staircase on both sides. Guarding the entrance are the two squatting dwarapalakas (guardians of the door), who have human bodies and monkey faces.
In the north wall image, the staircase on the right leads to the east-facing entrance of the north sanctuary tower and is guarded by the bird-faced dwarapalakas. Likewise in the south wall image, the staircase on the left leads to the east-facing entrance of the south sanctuary tower, guarded by lion-faced dwarapalakas.
South Sanctuary Tower
The east-facing facade of the south sanctuary tower facades
The images show the east and south facing facade of the south sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment of the east facing facade depicts Shiva and his consort Parvati (a.k.a Uma) sitting on his vehicle Nandi. The lintel shows Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. The doorway is beautifully decorated. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door and in the front two dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) guard the door. The entrance to this structure is on this facade and the facades on the other three sides have false doors.
The bottom pediment and the lintel of the south facing facade depicts Yama, the god of death and justice, riding his vehicle male buffalo. The doorway with a false door is beautifully decorated. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door.
Carved into the pediment is Kaala (time monster) devouring an elephant, and there is an unidentified deity on top of Kaala. The lintel also depicts Kaala.
North Sanctuary Tower
The images above shows the east and north facing facades of the north sanctuary tower. The bottom-most scene on the pediment most likely depicts Bhima killing Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, by splitting his body into two. The lintel shows Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant. This is the only entrance to the sanctuary tower and the other three sides have false doors. It is guarded by two squatting dwarapalakas (guardians of the door) who have human bodies and faces of mythical bird Garuda who is Vishnu’s vehicle. The door frame is beautifully decorated and it is flanked on either side by devatas standing on top of hamsas (swans).
Unlike the east-facing facade, the north-facing facade has a false door, which is decorated with beautiful artwork. On both sides of the door, beautifully sculpted devatas are guarding the door. The bottom pediment depicts Kubera carried by yakshas and the lintel shows Bhima killing Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, by splitting his body into two.
The image above shows the west-facing facade of the north sanctuary tower. The bottom pediment depicts Varuna riding three hamsas (swans) and the lintel depicts Kubera carried by a yaksha (Kubera’s vehicle is a man or yaksha). The doorway is beautifully decorated. The door is a false door. On both sides of the door, devatas are guarding the door.
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