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CAMBODIA TALES 2003

Prasat Preah Neak Buos

The central brick and laterite tower, surrounded and topped by vegetation, at Prasat Preah Neak Buos.

Originally constructed at the beginning of the 8th century by King Jayavarman I, Prasat Preah Neak Buos nestles at the foot of a promontory of the Dangrek Mountain range that forms a natural border between Thailand and northern Cambodia. Due to its remote location, inaccessibility and the ever-present danger posed by landmines, its one of the last remaining ancient Khmer temple sites to escape close scrutiny by archaeologists and tourists alike for the last few decades if not the last one hundred years. I was lucky enough to visit the site in January 2003 and you can read about my discoveries here.

There are a handful of individuals who are synonymous with the European discovery of Angkor and the remnants of the former Khmer civilization. The naturalist Henri Mouhot and the missions of Doudart de Lagree alongwith Louis Delaporte and Francis Garnier for example, but there are two names that loom large in the documented history and discovery of Prasat Preah Neak Buos and they are Etienne Aymonier and Etienne-Edmond Lunet de Lajonquiere.

A naval man, the epigrapher Etienne Aymonier (1844-1929) began the job of cataloging Cambodia's monuments including Neak Buos. He mounted three successive expeditions from 1882 to 1885, in the course of which he assembled a large collection of Khmer sculpture which was later housed in the Guimet Museum in Paris. Aymonier published his expedition findings in his three volumed Le Cambodge between 1900-1904. Another military man, Etienne-Edmond Lunet de Lajonquiere, was sent out to Cambodia by the new Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient to continue Aymonier's work and decided to number every monument, large or small, that he came across. He listed 910 in total. His inventory, known as Inventaire descriptif des Monuments du Cambodge, in three volumes, was published by the EFEO between 1902 and 1911and is still an essential record today.

The translation of Lajonquiere's work has been long overdue. To help piece together what we can find today at the Neak Buos temple site, a friend and fellow traveller, Merrily Hansen, who visited the site herself in February 2003, has painstakingly translated Lajonquiere's work on Neak Buos which is presented below. The translation is accompanied by a photograph of Lajonquiere's map of the temple. However, the map is large and to avoid a long download of the photograph on this page, please click on the highlighted link below to see the layout of the temple site.

click to see a Map of Prasat Preah Neak Buos

Prasat Preah Neak Buos - 'Tower of the Monks'

This monument is located towards the southwest corner formed by the Sam Padu, about 9 kilometers to the east-northeast of the center of Cheam Khsan. It leans up against the slope of the plateau.

The buildings erected in this spot have been arranged on a rocky eyrie that rises about ten meters from the surrounding plain. There is no advance warning of this eyrie around which large blocks of rough sandstone still emerge scattered among the diverse shells of the structures. The monument is in fact composed of a number of structures from different periods, and therefore seems to have been built over time, the more so on the exterior than within interior of the enclosure wall. These adjacent buildings sometimes observe the symmetry of the whole, and sometimes do not have anything to do with it.

Buildings Erected as Part of the Main Complex

Sanctuaries

The entire focus of the monument complex is a large square sanctuary oriented towards the south, an orientation, which is for the most part that of the entire complex. This edifice, constructed of laterite to about the height of the foot of its vault and in brick above that, measures 12 meters on each of its faces. These are unusual dimensions. The east, north, and west faces are ornamented with false doors. The top tiers are, for the most part, also very well conserved. The door (facing south) is made up of ordinary surrounds and decoration with dimensions that are in proportion to the structure, except for the fact that the height of the opening is a little deficient. The ringed octagonal colonnettes support a decorative Type III lintel whose principal figure is Indra on a three-headed elephant. Along the top border stretches a frieze of worshipping figures; other personages are also scattered as ornamentation; the bough from which the curved scrolls originate is terminated at its ends by naga heads. The diverse motifs of this panel are distinctly drawn, but the stone, which has remained hard and seems to have been difficult to work, has been a bit mutilated.

A brick building was later constructed against this fašade; it forms a sort of front wall that was once covered no doubt by a tile roof; the framework of its slots is still visible around the fronton. It rests on the other side on a brick wall of the gable end. It is pierced by three openings that consist of a central door and two lateral windows whose surrounds are in sandstone. The lower sides were formed by walls of blind brick. All of this is actually quite ruined.

From the door of this front wall, a border of laterite supports some sandstone pillars forming a covered alleyway that leads to the gopuras of the first enclosure.

Seven small sanctuaries in laterite, in an orderly arrangement around the principal sanctuary, have their openings turned in its direction. Those that face the three false doors as well as two others that are situated in the northeast and northwest corners are very plain. Their doors do not present ordinary decoration and the other faces do not have the false doors. It is not the same with structures F and G, which face the covered alleyway; those bear all the habitual characteristics of sanctuaries. [Translator’s Note: Structures F and G are on the south side of the main structure; their doors open towards each other; namely F opens to the east and G opens to the west.]

Enclosure

Around the principal sanctuary and the satellite buildings there is a rectangular enclosure that measures 72 meters in the north-south direction by 62 meters east-west. It is formed by a wall of laterite with a cap; its height is about 2.3 meters on the south and west. It seems a little higher on the north and east. It is broken on the south face by a gopura in laterite that can be characterized as following: it is a rectangular gallery that is entirely open to the exterior. It is crossed by three passages. The principal one in the center is flanked by windows barred with sandstone balusters, one on each side, which light the rooms. These wings of the building were covered by a tile roof, because the walls are evidently not capable of supporting a vault and there is no debris remaining in the interior. The doors are unusual in that they do not have risers of sandstone; the treads simply consist of laterite steps.

In the interior of the enclosure along the north side, the ground is clearly higher and is maintained by a retaining wall of laterite; this would seem to indicate that there once was a type of cloister, Z, part of whose roof rested against the wall of the enclosure while the other part was supported by the retaining wall. The west side is doubled by a parallel interior wall that is also in laterite and capped; it, with the exterior wall, form a long and narrow blind "alley" whose purpose we were unable to discern.

Structures of Diverse Dates

The enclosure surrounds other buildings that we will eventually enumerate, but these, placed without symmetry, do not appear to be part of the ensemble. There are twelve in number, of which five are in the southwest corner. [Translator’s Note: Originally there were six but one is ruined.] The most remarkable of all is a rectangular structure L that has an east-west orientation according to the large axis. Like the principal sanctuary, it is constructed of laterite up to the height of the base of the vault, and in brick above that. It is topped by an ogival, or pointed arch-shape vault on two sides where the exterior 'revetement' [Translator’s Note: facing of a wall] appears (as far as one can tell given its actual condition) as a tier on the large faces. Those of the smaller faces are closed up by a wall right up against the gable ends. This arrangement is reminiscent of certain Cham constructions. The exterior faces are bare, with the exception of the west, where the door has received ordinary decoration. Here the decorative lintel is that of Type II (only part of which rests on the right colonnette) [Translator’s Note: Prei Kmeng style] and some round colonnettes. This entryway is preceded by a peristyle where the tile roof was supported by square pillars in laterite and appears to almost reach the inner wall of the enclosure. [Translator’s note: A peristyle is an architectural term for an open space surrounded by columns set at regular intervals and topped by a roof.]

The other buildings grouped in this corner, namely H, K, and M, are square brick sanctuaries that show the characteristics and decoration that are typical of these types of structures. They are of different dimensions and diversely oriented. Structures H and K are open to the east, and M is open to the south. Structure I is nothing more than a mound of ruins that is embraced by the roots of a gigantic tree.

Structures R and R, which are in the southeast corner, are two large rectangular brick buildings placed parallel beside each other and oriented east-west along the large axis; their doors open to the west. It seems to us that they ought to be considered as two annex buildings, treasuries or libraries, which would be customary to find in a complex of similar construction. We attribute their irregular placement to the fact that they were erected later when the temple was enlarged. Their customary placement was already filled by sanctuary L, which according to the inscriptions engraved on its doorframes, is the oldest of the structures within the enclosure wall. These buildings [R, R] do not have vaults. Their walls are bare on both the interior and the exterior, but their doorways have the appearance of ordinary decoration. The decorative lintel on the southern building is a Type III with Indra on a tri-headed elephant; the corresponding section of the other building has fallen and is covered by debris.

Structure N, in the southeast corner, is square and open to the south. It is unfinished. Its false doors, with their structural parts, have been sculpted in the body itself of the building, which is otherwise prepared with particular blocks in order to form the usual pieces of ornamentation. The decorative lintels are only roughed out; that of the south door is buried under the debris of the ruined fašade while the others are still in place. They appear to be Type II and their principal figures are in the following succession: to the west, Shiva on Nandi; to the north, a standing figure bounded by an arch while behind him a very small female holds a fan; to the east, the work has barely commenced and remains indistinct.

Structure O, which borders structure N, is a brick sanctuary of ordinary construction. However it presents the following particularity: it is preceded by a covered alleyway whose roof rested on octagonal laterite pillars. This alleyway continues up to the enclosure wall and passes in front of the two annex buildings labeled R, R. No trace remains of the pillars as all have fallen down. Structure P is a small sanctuary of restrained proportions with a door so low that it is necessary to bend double to enter it.

Finally, structure Q is a rectangular laterite gallery open on its north and south that ends in doors that lack sandstone posts. It is lighted on the courtyard side by apertures, much longer than high, with sandstone surrounds and filled with barred balusters.

Outside the enclosure are found a series of constructions which, if they are not perhaps all contemporaneous, were certainly part of the general plan and are ordinary in their development. They are as follows:

First: A large brick gopura with three entries in the south. The principal entries, in the middle, are remarkable. The exterior doors are notable because their surrounds are formed by four monoliths of considerable dimension. Those of the interior are notable because of their unusual arrangement, which is no doubt the result of the long length of the lintel that rests on two parallelepiped [Translator’s note: A parallelepiped is a prism whose bases are parallelograms.] columns with capitals that moreover appear never to have been finished. At present, it is the only case that we have encountered of the use of this system. The doors of the side passages are typical. The square windows, with sandstone surrounds and baluster bars, provide light on both the exterior and the interior sides of this single room that is crossed by three entryways. The walls, with an interior height of about 4 meters, supported a roof, probably of tile, of which not a trace remains.

This structure is extended on its two wings by laterite constructions placed against it, a type of long loggia, or roofed open gallery, without any entry on the interior side but completely open on the exterior side, which faces south. On this side, the roof of these annexes comes to rest on a line of columns stretching along the face of an earthwork retaining wall.

The south gopura emphasizes, in fact, a gentle undulation of the plateau, a natural gradient of about three meters; this unevenness imparts to the principal fašade a certain amplitude and provides a reason for the construction of a flight of steps with two stages, the lower one of which is imprinted by a double set of steps. It is this projection of the terrain, which extends more or less accentuated on the east and west faces that makes up the second enclosure. On the exterior, the soil has only been graded and the large blocks of sandstone still appear scattered about, especially on the west, which imparts a sense of untamed wildness to this holy spot.

Three constructions are enclosed by this second enclosure wall, they are:

First: Two galleries T and T which face each other on either side of the central access way that leads to the two gopuras. They are closed on their three exterior sides by blind laterite walls; on their interior sides, they are made up of a cordon of sandstone supported by square pillars that are also in sandstone; everything was covered by a roof of which nothing remains.

Second: Structure U that is one of those buildings that we consider a sort of palace lived in by the king or by highborn persons. This laterite structure is incomplete; we have only found a front gallery with three connected rooms and two symmetrical porches on the sides. The rear galleries would have completed the missing quadrilateral. It should be noted that the east porch, which is turned towards the main axis of the monument, is the only one with access steps; the others are simply composed of a simple terrace. The rooms are lighted by balustered windows that open to the south. The entire structure was covered by a tile roof arranged in three levels, which was typical.

About 50 meters to the south of earth embankment that makes up the second enclosure, a new raised unevenness of the ground has given rise to the installation of a monumental staircase made from 11 irregular large steps. They are in laterite bordered by a retaining wall. This staircase, about 16 meters wide, leads to a cruciform peristyle. There a tile roof was supported on high sandstone pillars. In front of this structure, a small causeway ran through walls of sandstone raised on a narrow flight of steps; the string walls are decorated with railings formed by the bodies of nagas whose heads were deployed on each side of the entry. The peristyle and the nagas that ran along the lines of this large stairway are unfortunately knocked down. Two lines of sandstone border the alleyway that leads from the peristyle to the large gopuras.

To the left and the right of this walkway, at differing distances from it, and on the inner face of an earthen projection that would appear to constitute a third enclosure, stand two other brick constructions, V and X, the latter of which seems to belong to the category of dwelling places. It offers, in its effect, the same general characteristics as U and other similar buildings. The principal door opens to the west, which is to say to the main axis of the monument; it is preceded by a large peristyle. The symmetrical peristyle on the east, already raised because of the ground against it, is much shorter. The three interior rooms are lighted by openings on the south side with sandstone surrounds and baluster bars. The roof was made of tile.

Structure V, which is very ruined, appears have been a large rectangular brick construction with a laterite access terrace on the east, that is to say towards the main axis of the monument. This side has three door openings, of which the central one is completed by typical decorative pieces and the two side ones are unornamented. At the extreme opposite of the building, a central door opens onto a large back terrace. The ruined state of this building does not permit conjectures about the purpose of its use; we have not been able to determine, for example, if it had windows along its length. It presents some of the characteristics of a nave of a sanctuary, but here the sanctuary is missing. The current Buddhist pagodas of Siam, like those of Cambodia, show the same layout. Perhaps, based on this similarity, one might be able to draw some conclusion?

Such are the different parts of this moment, which is perhaps less complex than it seemed at first glance. It appeared to us that the principal sanctuary and Sanctuary L were hardly contemporaneous. However, they are at least constructed in the same way. Based on the inscriptions carved in the door posts of L, this structure can be dated to the end of the 7th century of our era.

The nave placed against the fašade of the principal sanctuary, the accessory buildings R and R, the first enclosure wall, and successively all the exterior arrangements, were founded by a donation of Suryavarman I, who is mentioned in the inscriptions carved on the main doorframe of the nave, which are dated 1008 A.D.

Finally, the other secondary sanctuaries, F, H, I, K, and so on, were later constructions of which some may have been erected to commemorate an interesting event by certain persons more or less associated with the temple.

About a hundred meters in front of this complex, a square brick basin, measuring 40 meters on each side, surrounded by large trees, holds water in all seasons.

Not far towards the south, a large rectangular rahal offset at a right angle still exists. It measures 150 meters on the north and south and about 800 meters on the east and west, and is formed by a large raised carriage way. It should be considered as an accessory to the temple even thought it is not symmetrically laid out in accordance with its axes; its north-south axis was, for example, very clearly offset to the west.

In the southeast corner of this rahal, about forty meters to the south of the south carriageway, stands a small laterite temple, which is composed of a sanctuary, an annex building and an enclosure wall measuring 23 meters by 25 meters (east to west). It has an east facing gopura and everything else is regularly placed and oriented towards the east with nothing unusual.

Towards the northeast corner, M. AYMONIER sighted a small building that we have not been able to see that was composed of a rectangular gallery of about 20 meters on each of its faces, open to the west and enclosing an open courtyard. This gallery was surrounded by an enclosure wall of about 40 meters on each side. The entire complex is very ruined.

Sculptures

There are a few loose sculptures in the monument including some fragments of statuettes, some pedestals, and a very well done Nandi that can be seen in the interior of the first enclosure, close to the parvis [Translator’s Note: open space] of the gopuras.

click to see a Map of Prasat Preah Neak Buos

 

My sincere thanks to Merrily Hansen for the above translation and of course Lajonquiere, for their efforts to expand our knowledge of this temple.


Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales:

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

January 2003 marked my ninth trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.


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