What is it that makes Banteay Samre temple so special to me?
It’s certainly a gorgeous place to spend some time; the architecture of this compact and beautifully proportioned temple is delightful. The iconography at Banteay Samre is diverse and fascinating, the quality of the carvings is superb and they are remarkably well preserved after 900 years.
Banteay Samre is a tranquil place, which suits me just fine! It’s not far from the main Angkor temples, only about 4km (2.5 miles) east of Pre Rup, but few tourists visit this place. Banteay Samre isn’t on the main “tours” of Angkor, and coach-loads of visitors don’t descend on the temple all at once. In fact, I’m often here alone.
It is a combination of things that gives Banteay Samre temple a special place in my heart. One can get so close to the carvings and architectural details, making the experience very intimate, very personal. And the intact high walls and galleries insulate one from the outside, empirical, world. When inside Banteay Samre I feel that I have entered a sacred realm, a timeless place full of mysteries, the home of the gods.
Let me give you a brief introduction to Banteay Samre temple, and then we’ll take a tour of the inner sanctum that is the first enclosure (enclosure I) using a few images that I made especially for this article…
Banteay Samre temple was built from the mid-12th century CE onwards, during the golden age of Khmer architecture. It is the most important temple dating from this period after Angkor Wat.
There is no surviving text by which we can accurately date the temple, and most of the guidebooks attribute the temple to Suryavarman II, who built it as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. Banteay Samre’s remarkable architectural similarities to Angkor Wat, and to other temples of that period such as Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, would seem to support this.
However, I believe (along with Bruno Dagens and others) that Banteay Samre was probably erected a little later, by Suryavarman II's cousin and successor, Dharanindravarman II, the father of Jayavarman VII. Buddhist iconography can be found throughout the temple. Close scrutiny of the central tower reveals several jataka reliefs (Vessantara and pigeon jatakas), as well as several low pediments with the Buddha seated in meditation. Furthermore, pediments show large defaced Buddha images, notably those of the southern library and on the western face of the eastern gopura I, depicting the Assault of Mara. These Buddhist reliefs, it seems to me, are built into the fabric of the place rather than being a later addition as others have suggested, and I believe that Banteay Samre was conceived as a Buddhist temple following the beliefs of Dharanindravarman II, but was also adorned with Hindu iconographic themes in line with traditional Khmer syncretism.
Banteay Samre is located along the ancient royal road between Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, from where Dharanindravarman II apparently ruled, and Angkor. With Beng Mealea, it may have functioned as a religious site to be visited during the trip.
Banteay Samre was most likely completed under Yashovarman II, while the cloister of the outer (second) enclosure (enclosure II) was probably added (but never completed) by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century CE, when a few pediments were carved or re-carved.
The central sanctuary is closely surrounded by two enclosures with richly decorated gopuras, and the reliefs are of varying types as you move in towards the centre. Those of enclosure II and some of the outer face of enclosure I are deeply carved, and the main figures (Shiva, Vishnu, and Rama) are much larger than in other reliefs; they are shown with muscular bodies and richer costume. The pediments around the roofs of the gopuras of enclosure I, however, are shallow carved with schematic figures. This probably reflects the use of different workshops, possibly at different times or under the patronage of different kings. The technique of using superimposed registers in the pediments for visual narrative is common here.
The quality of the bas-reliefs and stonework is among the finest in Angkor, and because Banteay Samre is a ground-level temple, the excellent deep-carved reliefs are viewable at close range. The pediments, lintels and pilasters here depict a great number of mythological scenes, some of them rarely seen in other temples.
As mentioned above, the layout of Banteay Samre is similar in many respects to temples built in the reign of Suryavarman II, including Chau Say Tevoda, Thommanon, and Angkor Wat. The tower, or prasat, of the central sanctuary has the same distinctive curvilinear lotus-bud profile, and the mandapa (antechamber) is similarly connected to the central shrine via an elongated vestibule, or antarala (small corridor). The layout and positioning of the 'libraries' is also a common feature, as is the series of stone-vaulted galleries encircling the temple's core pavilions.
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Central Sanctuary, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The central sanctuary and mandapa of Banteay Samre temple are on a high platform, surrounded by the walls and naga balustrades of the first enclosure.
The prasat, with its three false (spirit) doors and double pediments, has a very tall first tier, higher than the pediments of the porticoes, and four more highly denticulated tiers which culminate in a lotus-shaped circular finial some 12 metres (39 feet) above ground level.
Spirit Door Detail, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
A detail from the centre of the western spirit door of the central sanctuary, Banteay Samre temple.
Almost every available surface of the sandstone sanctuary and its mandapa are decorated with fine carvings.
First Enclosure, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The north library (left) and the central mandapa and sanctuary (right) of Banteay Samre temple.
As you can see here, the steps of the first enclosure gates and those of the the central sanctuary are so close together that the first enclosure is effectively divided into four courtyards.
Vishnu Resting on Ananta, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
Ananta here is represented as a dragon, the same as at Preah Khan temple; Banteay Samre represents a transition in the iconography of Suryavarman II’s Angkor Wat to the temples of Jayavarman VII.
The lotus on which Brahma sits emerges from Vishnu’s navel.
Tympanum on the pediment of the north library, western side, Banteay Samre temple.
Valin Attacked by Sugriva, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The artist brought a touch of humour to this otherwise violent scene from the Ramayana.
A detail from the half pediment to the left of the north library, western side, Banteay Samre temple.
Mandapa, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The central sanctuary of Banteay Samre temple, where the entrance portico, the mandapa with its colonetted windows alongside the side doors, and an elongated vestibule lead us to the prasat. All stand on a high platform, surrounded by the walls, libraries and naga balustrades of the first enclosure.
Funeral Urn, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
A funeral urn inside the mandapa of the central sanctuary, Banteay Samre temple, note the drain at the base.
The Angkor inscriptions don’t give us any information about the funeral rites performed after the death of a king. Traditional Hindu and Buddhist practices would have the king ceremonially cremated on a carefully selected auspicious date some time after his death. In 1296, the Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan wrote that ‘… kings are still buried in towers [temples?], though I do not know if their corpses are buried or just their bones.’
Stone urns, such as this one in the mandapa of the central sanctuary of Banteay Samre, were found in the ruins of several temples. They feature a hole in the top and another one at the base. Some scholars suggest that the corpse of a deceased king was brought to a temple to be honoured after death, and that the holes allowed for the circulation of ritual oblation liquids, or the evacuation of the gases and fluids emanating from the corpse.
Naga Balustrades, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The narrow walkway that runs around the periphery of the first enclosure is lined with exquisitely carved naga balustrades that enhance the beauty of this gorgeous little temple.
Spirit Door, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The beautiful false door on the eastern side of the southern library, Banteay Samre temple.
Notice how the pilasters have have defaced Buddhas in niches on either side of the door.
Southern Library, Banteay Samre Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. 2022
The southern library of Banteay Samre temple, with the mandapa of the central sanctuary in the background.
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