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This morning, Annie and I visited the gorgeous Preah Palilay temple, an early 12th century CE Theravada Buddhist monument.

Preah Palilay is one of our favourite places, whilst not far from the centre of Angkor Thom, it’s a peaceful spot seldom visited by tourists, and yet the rare Buddhist sculptural reliefs are some of the finest in Angkor.

This morning, the only things to disturb our tranquil exploration were the shrill song of the cicadas, the chattering calls of the parrots, the playful squirrels and the raucous whoop-whoop of the monkeys in the forest canopy above us.

Whilst we were there, this scene, on a pediment on the northern face of the gopura, caught my eye.  It tells the story of the Subjugation of Nalagiri.

The Subjugation od Nalagiri, Preah Palilay, Angkor, Cambodia by Lucas Varro

The Subjugation of Nalagiri, Preah Palilay, Angkor, Cambodia.
In this representation of the story, on the northern pediment of Preah Palilay’s gopura, Nalagiri is represented twice; in the background with a menacing erect trunk, and in the foreground squatting on the ground after having been subdued by the elegant figure of the Buddha, who has placed his right hand on the elephant's head.

The legend tells us that, 37 years after the Enlightenment, the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta was consumed by jealousy and decided to murder the Buddha, and not for the first time!  He had previously hired a professional assassin to murder his cousin but the killer was converted by the teaching of his intended victim.  Devadatta then rolled a boulder down from a mountain to squash the Buddha, but the boulder missed him.

This time, Devadatta's plan was to loose a fierce war elephant called Nalagiri, which he had intoxicated to madness, onto the streets of Rajagriha, the small town in which the Buddha was begging for his food.  The enraged animal rampaged through the town and terrorised the population before charging the Buddha, but, as he approached, his fury was miraculously abated by the benevolence of the Buddha and, cured of his murderous intent, he knelt submissively at the Buddha's feet.

Nalagiri was forgiven by the Buddha and went on to lead a peaceful life.

The disappointed Devadatta did not give up, however, for it is said that he was responsible for the creation of a schism within Buddhism.  When he died, after a difficult illness, he was reborn in the 'Avici hell', described at Angkor Wat Temple as the hell for "those who live in abundance and still live only in sin".  The damned of this "hell without rest", as shown in the reliefs of Angkor Wat, are thrown on a stake or spiky tree.  See my article The Hell Without Rest for more on the Khmer conception of hell.

Nalagiri's submission is one of the 'Eight Great Miracles' and is a favourite of Southeast Asian iconography.

How did this relief survive the Hindu Reaction?

Buddhism has always been practised by the Khmers, having been introduced together with Hinduism, if not earlier, in the first centuries of the first millennium CE.

However, surviving sculptural reliefs narrating Buddhist stories of any kind are rare in Angkor, as most were destroyed or defaced in the Hindu Reaction, the great Shaivite iconoclasm of the 13th century CE, after the death of Jayavarman VII.

At Palilay, built before the Hindu Reaction, the Buddhist images somehow survived the destruction.

My favourite theory is that, despite the dominance of Hinduism during most of the Angkorean period, Theravada Buddhism was tolerated from the end of the 9th century CE, when Yashovarman I permitted the building of Tep Pranam Temple in the shadow of the Royal Palace.  The iconoclastic fever of the Hindu Reaction was directed against the Mahayana Buddhist temples but spared the Theravada monuments.

It seems this tolerance was also extended to nearby temples in the Preah Pithu Group, though these may have been built or modified in the late 13th century CE or even later.


You can enjoy more of my images from Preah Palilay Temple by clicking here:  My Work at Preah Palilay Temple.


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