The Mysteries of Jayavarman VII’s Triad Temples

Last Updated on: 26th December 2018, 03:18 pm

The late 12th century Angkor temples of Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei make up what are known as Jayavarman VII’s ‘triad temples.’ Each temple, in fact, represents a member of the monarch’s favored Buddhist trinity, an ideology he worked hard to promote after centuries of Hindu dominance.

Today, these temples have largely been left unrestored, giving them an especially rustic, romantic feel. Already partially merged with the jungle, Ta Prohm in a particular is a strong favorite amongst visitors to the region.

But what secrets lurk beneath the exposed roots and the rubble? One of the reasons these temples, which also functioned as their own cities, have largely been left untouched, is due to their complex layout. Having once enshrined hundreds of deities, there’s still a lot we have yet to figure out about the triad temples.

Buddhist Triad
Prajnaparamita, Avalokiteshvara, and the Buddha

But this is part of what makes them some of the most alluring temples in all of Angkor. And conveniently, they can easily be visited together in a single day. Let’s take a look at the temples themselves, in addition to some of the momentous cultural and religious changes brought forth by Jayavarman VII upon his ascension to the throne.

Who Was Jayavarman VII?

Jayavarman VII was one of, if not the most, powerful monarch of the Khmer Empire. Not only did the Empire’s vast territory reach its zenith during his reign, but he built more structures than any other Khmer king. In fact, he may have built more stuff than all the other kings combined! 

His reign also brought major religious and political shifts to Angkor. After hundreds of years of Hindu rule, Jayavarman VII made it a major priority to spread Mahayana Buddhism throughout his territories.

Jayavarman VII was the son of a king named Dharanindravarman II, who himself was the cousin and successor of Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat. Suryavarman II had conquered the Champa Kingdom (present-day central Vietnam) around the year 1145. And so he could learn more about their ways, Jayavarman VII was sent to stay there as a youth.

After the death of his father, Jayavarman VII’s brother (Yashovarman II)  took the throne. But when his brother came under attack from a usurper (Tribhuvanadityavarman) in 1165, Jayavarman rushed back to Angkor. He was too late, however. His brother had already been killed. Curiously, Jayavarman VII did not take any action against the usurper, but laid in wait for over a dozen years!

In 1177, the Champa Kingdom invaded Angkor, killing its king and sacking the city. It was finally Jayavarman’s chance. Using his intimate knowledge of the Cham against them, he was able to raise an army and drive them out for good. Jayavarman VII was installed as king in the year 1181 – already in his late fifties. Five years later, he completed his first major temple, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the entire Angkor Archaeological Park. This is in no small part thanks to archaeologists’ decision to leave it largely as they found it, giving it one of Angkor’s most “romantic” atmospheres.

This romanticism has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood film producers. “So when are we going to the Tomb Raider temple?” I overheard a few different tourists ask their drivers throughout my time in Siem Reap.

After the towers of Angkor Wat and the enigmatic faces of the Bayon, images of ancient stone fusing with the jungle is often what many people picture now when they hear the word “Angkor.” And they’re likely picturing Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm Angkor
Ta Prohm Jayavarman VII
Ta Prohm Angkor
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm Angkor

Entering the temple, you’ll pass by a structure known as the Hall of Dancers. Influenced by the cruciform shape of the galleries in front of Angkor Wat, these halls were named after the dancing apsara carvings covering the walls and pillars. It’s unlikely that any dancing actually took place here, though. To this day, the true purpose of these structures remains a mystery.

Ta Prohm Angkor

What was this place like before these trees started tightening their grip on the old sandstone blocks? Ta Prohm would’ve been bursting with activity in its day. Thanks to a detailed stele inscribed at the temple, we know that the temple doubled as a Buddhist monastery.

The temple was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s own mother, in addition to the female Bodhisattva named Prajnaparamita. This female divinity has traditionally been associated with motherhood, along with the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Ta Prohm was likely the first Angkorian temple of its size that wasn’t primarily dedicated to a Hindu deity. But Prajnaparamita was far from being the only divinity worshipped here.

Ta Prohm Angkor
Ta Prohm Angkor

In fact, no less than 260 divinities were enshrined at Ta Prohm! And when it comes to enshrining deities in Angkorian religion, you can’t just “set it and forget it.’ Each divinity required regular offerings of food, while attendants needed to perform particular rituals as well as clean and clothe the statues.

The end result was thousands of servants being charged with maintenance of the temple, while surrounding villages were obligated to make regular donations.

The mind-boggling number of both divinities and humans which called Ta Prohm their home helps explain why exploring the temple can be so confusing today. Not only have many of the structures been reduced to rubble, but the temples would’ve been a disorienting labyrinth of dimly lit passageways even in its prime.

Ta Prohm Angkor
Ta Prohm Angkor
Outside the western entrance

Jayavarman VII’s temple introduced what we now call ‘medallions.’ In addition to the traditional lintel, colonette and pilaster carvings, circular carvings can now be seen all over many of the structures’ walls. They typically depict either religious scenes or scenes from everyday life. One medallion in particular, has got a lot of people talking.

Located to the side of a door near the temple’s western entrance is an image of what seems to be a stegosaurus. Obviously, dinosaurs were not walking around in 12th century Angkor. Or were they?

While the temple artists are long gone and we have nobody to ask, it’s probably safe to say that the controversial carving is nothing more than a rhino with foliage in the background.

Ta Prohm Angkor
The so-called 'stegosaurus'
An attack on the Buddha?

Elsewhere in the temple complex is another mysterious carving, depicting two men appearing to attack the Buddha or a Buddha statue with sticks. Experts have not been able to identify it with a scene from Buddhist folklore. The scene also appears at a couple other of Jayavarman VII’s temples.

As we’ll go over in more detail down below, Buddha statues were vandalized and beheaded en masse following Jayavarman VII’s illustrious reign. If the ‘stegosaurus’ carving really was a look into the distant past, was this carving some kind of premonition of the near future? 

Ta Prohm Angkor
A recently refurbished gallery

Ta Prohm’s romanticism is gradually fleeting. It’s now a major stop on just about every group tour. Even though I arrived as soon as the temple opened at 7:30am, the place was flooded with tour groups not long after. 

Meanwhile, rumor has it that even the iconic trees may not be there a whole lot longer. That is, if they’re deemed a risk to the buildings on which they reside. 

Furthermore, entire sections of the temple have been entirely rebuilt in recent years. One example is the eastern side of the third gallery enclosure, which had previously been nothing more than a pile of rubble. During the restoration, the team discovered remnants of an ancient drainage system. If the rest of the temple gets restored in the future, who knows what other secrets may be lurking beneath the surface.

Preah Khan

Five years after Ta Prohm, Jayavarman VII completed the temple we know today as Preah Khan. As Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother, Preah Khan was dedicated to his deceased father, Dharanindravarman II. And just as his mother was identified with the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita, his father at Preah Khan was identified with Avalokiteshvara.

But just who, or what, was Avalokiteshvara? Also known as Lokeshvara, this divinity is an important Bodhisattva – a potential Buddha who postpones enlightenment in order to help humanity along the same path.

Like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan also had its own stele. It too revealed the number of gods enshrined in the temple, adding up to a total of 430! But the stele makes it clear that Avalokiteshvara was considered supreme, even subsuming the old Hindu trimurti or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Entering the temple, visitors first encounter a large recreation of the famous Hindu legend, ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk.’ (Read more here.) This likely would’ve been Jayavarman VII’s first experiment with this motif. He would utilize it again at his walled city of Angkor Thom, as well as the outpost temple of Banteay Chmar. 

Preah Khan was actually its own temple-city, then known as Rajavihara. Though it pales in comparison to the size of Angkor Thom, it was likely Jayavarman VII’s headquarters while the walled city was being rebuilt. It also likely predates the completion of Angkor Thom’s central temple, the Bayon.

Preah Khan Dharamsala
The 'dharmasala'
Preah Khan Angkor

Entering the gate from the east side, one of the first structures you’ll encounter is the ‘dharmasala.’ These ‘Houses of Fire,’ as they were referred to in the stele, were a staple of Jayavarman VII’s temples. They also lined the long road leading from Angkor to the outpost city of Phimai (in current-day Thailand). In total, there were around 120 of them in the kingdom.

But were they rest houses, like the salas found at modern Theravada Buddhist temples? Or were they designated for some type of special fire ritual? Nobody really knows.

While Ta Prohm gets most of the attention (and tourists), Preah Khan also has its fair share of ‘romantic’ trees overtaking its structures. And like those at Ta Prohm, their days may be limited, should they be too much of a threat to the existing buildings.

Preah Khan Angkor
A rare, if not the only use of round columns at Angkor

Once inside the walls of the main complex, you’ll notice one of the most peculiar structures of the temple – if not in all of Angkor! It’s a large two-story building which sits on circular columns, possibly the only such example of round columns in Angkorian architecture. Again, nobody knows what this structure was really used for.

Preah Khan Angkor
Preah Khan's Hall of Dancers

Jayavarman VII again made use of the apsara-laden Hall of Dancers introduced at Ta Prohm. But the overall structural layout of Preah Khan was a first at Angkor, and one he’d utilize in later temples. The central prasat (sanctuary tower) is surrounded by 8 other sanctuaries. This entire group is then surrounded by another group of four prasats.

However, only the one at the front (east) of the temple is a standalone prasat. The other outer three are actually part of their own small satellite temples, complete with concentric gallery enclosures.

Preah Khan was also the first major temple at Angkor to abandon the typical quincunx pattern. Instead, the four prasats surrounding the central one are located at the cardinal points. The quincunx, as we know, symbolized the mythical Mt. Meru. But what about Preah Khan’s arrangement? Again, nobody knows for sure, but it’s a similar layout to the Bayon’s mysterious face towers.

Preah Khan Angkor

The temple’s original cluttered complexity is one of the major reasons for its lack of restoration. Nobody knows just what went where, making a faithful restoration nearly impossible. Exploring the temple today, entire structures remain blocked off by rubble. It seems like the perfect venue for a game of hide-and-seek.

Old shiva-lingas still occupy some of the shrines, revealing how the worship of Hindu deities still persisted under Jayavarman VII. As the inscription suggests, however, the real star of the show was Avalokiteshvara. His statue, though, is now missing, along with Preah Khan’s huge collection of gold, silver and gems that were also mentioned in the stele.

The central sanctuary, which surely must’ve once been Avalokiteshvara’s domain, is now home to a bell-shaped chedi. The Sri Lankan-style of the chedi tells us that this surely must’ve been added at a later date, well after Cambodia’s transition from Mahayana to Theravada Buddhism.

Interestingly, while Jayavarman VII was a fervent Mahayana Buddhist, he also showed a great interest in Theravada, even sending one of his own sons to study with monks in Sri Lanka. 

Preah Khan Angkor

Don’t miss the western exit, where you can enjoy some peace and quiet in the presence of some headless Dvarapala guardians. Back inside, take some time to appreciate the art. Despite its poor state overall, the temple still contains some excellent lintel artwork, depicting classic tales from both Hindu and Buddhist lore.

Given its deep significance to Jayavarman VII, his religion and his empire, Preah Khan is arguably one of Angkor’s most under-appreciated temples. As is the case with Ta Prohm, the stele found at the temple does indeed tell us a lot. But there are no doubt a lot more surprises waiting for us beneath the rubble, should serious restoration efforts take place in the future.

Preah Khan Angkor
Preah Khan Angkor
Preah Khan Angkor

Banteay Kdei

Banteay Kdei is the final and smallest of the three temples. We don’t know exactly when it was completed, however. Unlike the other two, there was no stele  found at the site. It’s probably safe to say, though, that this temple was dedicated to the Buddha himself, thus completing the divine trinity of Jayavarman VII’s unique brand of Buddhism.

As the two Bodhisattva’s had been identified with the king’s parents at the other temples, many scholars believe that the Buddha enshrined here probably would’ve been identified with Jayavarman VII himself. Judging from the language used in the prior inscriptions, he was far from being a modest king.

A recent Buddha statue installed at the temple
Banteay Kdei Angkor
An image of the Buddha completely erased in the 13th century

Structurally, Banteay Kdei is a lot like the other two, but on a slightly smaller scale. Visitors walk along a causeway before encountering a Hall of Dancers, which then leads to a similar layout to what we’ve seen previously. Some of the outer satellite structures are lacking, however.

But what makes Banteay Kdei special?

Banteay Kdei Angkor
Another unidentifiable structure

Due to the temple’s relative obscurity compared to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei receives hardly any visitors. The lack of tour groups, many visitors discover, is reason enough to spend at least a half an hour here. 

But, as we’ll go over below, this temple, for a very long time, also harbored another secret that was only discovered at the end of the 20th century.

Banteay Kdei Angkor

Like the other two triad temples, Banteay Kdei was originally a monastic complex. What’s more surprising is that, despite the temple’s dilapidated state, monks even continued to reside here up until the 1960’s!

Banteay Kdei
Banteay Kdei
Banteay Kdei

Walking through the temple complex, it can be a fun little game to see if you can find any carvings of the Buddha that haven’t been etched out. As you may have already noticed, images of the Buddha have been vandalized at nearly all of Jayavarman VII’s temples. At some point after his reign, the Hindu Shaivite sect regained control, with large-scale desecration happening at all Buddhist temples.

But why? For most of its history, Mahayana Buddhism had been tolerated and even encouraged by Khmer monarchs. For centuries, it coexisted side by side with Hinduism without any issues. While nobody’s certain, scholars believe that Jayavarman VII may have taken things a little too far with promoting the Buddhist divinities over the Hindu ones.

Headless Buddhas

At a number of his temples, Banteay Kdei included, carvings were made of the Hindu gods Brahma and Vishnu worshipping the Buddha! Typically, Shiva had taken this central spot in similar carvings. Replacing Shiva with the Buddha, then,  may have been considered sacrilege by the Brahmin priesthood.

While the Hindu Jayavarman VIII often gets blamed, evidence suggests that he was actually rather tolerant of Buddhism. The vandalism, then, probably occurred just before his reign, or sometime during it but probably against his wishes.

Just as carvings had been etched out, Buddha images were also beheaded. As was discovered by Sophia University researchers in the 1990’s, parts of 274 different Buddha images were even buried near Banteay Kdei’s entrance. The burials were likely carried out by monks and not the vandals, as the fragments appear to have been carefully laid to rest.

The structure, near the eastern entrance, under which the 274 Buddhas were found

It’s unclear exactly why Banteay Kdei was chosen as the place to honor these poor statues. It likely had to do with the temple’s symbolic relation to the Buddha. If Preah Khan was home to one of Angkor’s most important Avalokiteshvara statues, we can picture Banteay Kdei housing some of the kingdom’s most beautiful Buddha images. It may have seemed like the logical temple for a burial once the iconoclastic madness finally died down.

Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum

Today, the statues are on display at a museum called the Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum, located fairly close to the place where you buy your park pass. Here you can see the remnants of the original statues, which range from a number of different eras and art styles. This suggests that they were vandalized at many different temples but gathered at Banteay Kdei to rest.

As Banteay Kdei itself is not the most popular temple, you’ll likey find yourself the only visitor at a museum dedicated to these images. The entry ticket, however, includes an informative English guide, while there are also some findings from a nearby prehistoric archaeological dig.

Visiting the Triad Temples

Visiting the temples mentioned above in the same day is easy, as they’re all located relatively close by one another. If you’re a sunrise person, start the morning off at Srah Srang, a platform situated in front of one of Jayavarman VII’s barays (artificial reservoir). Srah Srang being located nearby Ta Prohm also ensures that you can get there as soon as it opens at 7:30, beating the crowds by just a little bit.

Then move on to Preah Kahn. Afterwards, check out the smaller Jayavarman VII temples of Neak Pean, Krol Koh and Ta Som. Finally, end the day at Banteay Kdei.

As detailed below, I personally recommend that you do this on the fourth day of a five-day Angkor chronological tour. Regardless, the route outlined above is best done with a hired tuk-tuk driver, though it’s not impossible on a bicycle.

Additional Info

People exploring the Angkor temples will need to base themselves in the city of Siem Reap. The city is easy to get to, being served by a wide variety of Asian airlines. You can fly direct from cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Of course, you can also fly domestically via Phnom Penh.

Generally, you want to avoid coming by bus from Thailand. Many of the vendors of these tickets are in on some kind of scam. There are no true direct buses, as you will always have to go through immigration at the border. I did the trip the opposite way, from Cambodia to Thailand, without any problems, but there are certainly a lot of seedy characters in the area.

Siem Reap is reachable by bus from many other parts of Cambodia. However, I wouldn’t ever want to ride a night bus, as many of the roads in the country are absolutely horrible. You want to make sure your driver has full view of all the potholes on the roads.

The best way to get around the Angkor Archaeological Park is to hire a tuk tuk. Unlike the tuk tuks in Thailand, these are basically special wooden carriages attached to a motorbike. The ride is bumpy, but definitely more comfortable than riding on the back of someone’s bike.

The standard price is generally $15 per day. Air conditioned cars can be hired for a higher price, usually around $40 per day.

Foreigners aren’t allowed to rent motorbikes in Cambodia but you can rent a bicycle from your hotel. It’s possibly to bike to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom by bicycle, though I wouldn’t recommend it for anything more distant than that.

The perfect amount of time to see the major temples in order is 5 days. This requires purchasing a seven-day pass. At $72, it’s only $10 more than the three-day pass, so it’s still a good deal even if you don’t use all the days.

There is no need to join an organized tour to visit the temples in order. What you do need to do is find a reliable tuk-tuk driver (they can also be arranged through your hotel) who understands exactly what you want to do. As most tourists only want to see the most famous temples over the course of one or two days, the driver might be a little confused at first by what you’re suggesting. 

It doesn’t make the most sense logistically, but after having done it myself, I couldn’t picture exploring the temples any other way. Just give yourself enough time in Angkor and the plan below is perfectly feasible. 

The following plan is largely based off the suggestion given by Michel Petrotchenko in his excellent book Focusing on The Angkor Temples: The Guidebook. Now after having done it myself, I’ve added a few small additions and minor alterations.

Pre-first day: Buy your entry pass to the ruins the day before in order to avoid having to wait in a long line the next morning. It’s only possible to do so from 5pm the previous evening. Most lines can get very long, but luckily, the booth for the seven-day passes will have almost no one waiting in them! You can kill time before 5pm hanging around Siem Reap and visiting the Angkor Museum.

Note: The standard price for a day around the ruins via tuk-tuk is around $15. However, you will be asked to pay a little bit extra for going to out-of-the-way places like the Roluos group and Banteay Srei. You will also be expected to pay a little more to include a sunrise or sunset in your schedule.

First day: Head straight to the Roluos group (Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei).

Back in the main Archaeological Park, walk up the hill to see Phnom Bakheng around lunchtime.

Nearby are a few unique temples called Baksei Chamkrong and Prasat Kravan that both date from the early 10th century.

Second day:

Start the day off at East Mebon, and then Pre Rup. Then head north to Banteay Srei.

(Note: A visit to Banteay Srei can also be combined with a trip to the river carvings of Kbal Spean. Therefore, you may choose to deviate from the chronological order slightly by visiting Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and then continuing on to East Mebon).

After lunch, make a visit to Ta Keo before heading inside the walls of Angkor Thom. Make a brief stop at the North and South Khleangs (one should be enough if you’re short on time).

Still inside Angkor Thom, visit what’s left of the Royal Palace and then Phimeanakas and the Baphuon. You’ll pass by it, but resist the temptation to visit the Bayon just yet.

Third day:

It’s now finally time to visit Angkor Wat. This is one of the few temples to be open for sunrise. However, the temple gets extremely crowded each morning, so you may want to come slightly after the sun has risen to avoid the crowds.

After taking your time at Angkor Wat, head over to Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda (right across the street from one another). Then, head east to Banteady Samre.

Fourth day:

This will be your first introduction to the temples of Jayavarman VII. Start the day off as early as possible at Ta Prohm. (As an alternative to sunrise and Angkor Wat, check out the sunrise from Srah Srang which is right by Ta Prohm).

Then move on to Preah Kahn. Afterward, check out the smaller temples of Neak Pean, Krol Koh and Ta Som. Finally, end the day at Banteay Kdei.

Fifth day: Head to Angkor Thom and admire the statues of the devas and asuras outside of the South Gate. Inside the walled city, it’s now time to visit the Bayon.

Afterwards, go see the Royal Terraces (the Elephant Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King).

You can also go see Preah Palilay and the Preah Pitus complex, which are believed to be among the final temples in Angkor.

You should still have some time left over in the late afternoon. Consider revisiting the Bayon to see it in a different light, or head back again to Angkor Wat, as the temple faces west and looks best in the evening.

Beyond: If you’re like me and want to make the most of your seven-day pass, here a couple suggestions: You can try visiting some of the smaller, obscure temples (such as Banteay Thom) built by Jayavarman VII which are north of Preah Khan.

On another day, consider heading over to one of the smaller hilltop temples like Phnom Krom or Phnom Bok. Or, just return to the temples you liked best.

Remember, there are still a whole lot of amazing temples outside of the Angkor Archaeological Park, such as Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Banteay Chmar and more. These will all be covered in their own articles, along with tips on how to visit them all on a three day road trip around the country.

If your main goal is to see the ruins, the closer you are to them the better. There’s not a whole lot to see or do in central Siem Reap other than the Angkor National Museum and maybe some arts and crafts shops. (Of course, there’s Pub Street, if that’s your thing, but it might be a little hard to appreciate the ruins while hungover.)

Understand that you need to purchase your pass before approaching the archaeological site. The ticket vending area is located on Apsara Rd., east of the main road which takes you from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat temple.

There are staff just about everywhere checking for passes, both at the archaeological zone entrances and at all the individual temples, so make sure not to forget it at your hotel. Later in my trip, I practically cycled through a jungle to get to one of the most obscure little temples in the middle of nowhere. And sure enough, there was a staff person there asking to see my pass, before asking how I ever managed to find the place!

As Cambodia can get very hot, be sure to apply sunscreen and wear a hat. Fortunately, there are vendors all throughout the archaeological zone selling water and fresh coconuts. There are also ample places to sit down for lunch.

You want to get started each morning as early as possible. One reason for this is that a large majority of the temples face east, meaning they look best in the morning light. Another reason is that due to Angkor’s massive popularity, the major temples get absolutely flooded with tourists from around 8 or 8:30am. The temples (with the exception of Angkor Wat) open at 7:30, so try to get there right around then.

Things get much quieter in the mid-afternoon when it’s hottest. If you’re able to bear the heat, this is a good time to visit some of the more popular temples, though it won’t be ideal photography wise.

The Mysteries of Jayavarman VII's Triad Temples

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