13 months
Dec 27:
silky smooth
Dec 27:
hanging with the monks
Dec 28:
run, don't walk, to cambodia
Dec 29:
not WAT i expected
Jan 3:
the lowdown
all galleries
next location

sign over a cell phone shop
Phnom Penh, Jan 2, 2005

my favorite temple (ta prohm)

What I find most fascinating about these temples is imagining what it must have been like to be there during their construction. This entry is a short history about my favorite temple, Ta Prohm, so if you're not interested in history, then click away now. I realize that by saying this I may have lost all readers except my dad. So, Dad, this one's for you...

spong tree and strangler figs in doorway

Ta Prohm looks now like the temples you see in movies like Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, etc.: huge monuments of half-crumbled stone covered in exotic jungle overgrowth. (Note: Ta Prohm actually *is* the temple used in Tomb Raider, for all you movie buffs out there.) When French explorers discovered Ta Prohm in 1947 it had been invaded by two kinds of parasitic plants, 200-year-old spong trees and strangler figs (see photo). These trees can grow on rocks or other trees (and even on top of one another). The French government cleared out most of the spong trees, but left a few untouched so that people could see what condition the temple was in when they found it. Now, on to the history according to our guide.

Ta Prohm is one of the biggest temples in Cambodia, measuring 1 kilometer by 750 meters, not including the moat and surrounding land. Although the temple is credited to Jayavarman VII, in the late 12th century (1186 A.D.), close inspection of the temple reveals that it may have been built in 3 stages by 2 different kings (this theory is controversial). The king was very rich (even for a king) and was able to build his temples with lava rock surrounded by a layer of intricately carved sandstone. There is an amazing tomb in the temple that the king built for his mother – it is surrounded by some kind of bronze or copper with hundreds of rubys, emeralds and diamonds embedded in to the sandstone (unfortunately, all the gemstones have already been stolen or removed). Jayavarman VII was known as "The Monument Builder" and his goal was to build as many temples as fast as possible (he built around 15 - 20 in all, more than any other king). Ta Prohm was one of his highest quality constructions, but since he was so prolific, the craftsmanship and materials he used in some of his other temples was not as good.

After building the temple, the king appointed a community of approximately 80,000 people to support it (temple maintenance, religious activities, feeding everybody, etc.). This population included 18 high priests, 2,200 monks, 2,700 officials, and 615 dancers for entertainment. The monks and dancers had to be housed separately in the temple during construction since, as our guide said, "You shouldn’t put the sugar next to the ants."

Later, during the Hindu resurgence, Jayavarman VIII commanded carvers to deface (scrape off) any Buddhas that were carved in to the walls. (This was a common practice for kings when they came into power.) As a result, all of the once intricately carved Buddhas in Ta Prohm have been scraped away. In more recent times, all the iron crossbars once used to hold the large stones together were dug out of Ta Prohm (and all of Cambodia's other temples) as an iron source for weapons during the war. This left many temples, including Ta Prohm, in shambles.

As we toured the various temples, we learned that much of the restoration is funded by other countries, with each temple being an independent project. 3 years ago India promised US$6 million for Ta Prohm’s restoration, but so far, Cambodia has not yet received any of that money. (I have mixed feelings about whether I’d like to see this happen. It would be nice to see it the way the king intended it to be, but I like seeing it in its current state, too, since it reflects so much of its history.) [Update: see Sam's comment below.]

[Thanks again to our guide, Sam, for helping us with some of the details in this entry.]

© 2004-2012 susan & grace, all rights reserved

-- comments from readers --


Update on restoration: The Indian project has started and been running for a few months already. They are restoring the gallary at south-east corner of the temple.

--Kao Samreth (Sam, our guide!); Apr 23, 2005