Ta Prohm Temple – One of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region

By Paul Pinkerton
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Ta Prohm Temple – One of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region

Paul Pinkerton
 
 
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Ta Prohm is the modern name of the temple at Angkor, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia. It was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and it was originally called Rajavihara.

The temple is located approximately one kilometre east of Angkor Thom and on the southern edge of the East Baray, it was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.

Unlike most Angkorian temples, this temple has been left in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.

Photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins. Diego Delso/source
Photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins. Diego Delso/source

In 1186 A.D., Jayavarman VII embarked on a massive program of construction and public works. Rajavihara (“monastery of the king”), today known as Ta Prohm (“ancestor Brahma”), was one of the first temples founded pursuant to that program.

The stele commemorating the foundation gives a date of 1186 A.D.

Roots of a spung running along the gallery of the second enclosure. Diego Delso/source
Roots of a spung running along the gallery of the second enclosure. Diego Delso/source

Jayavarman VII constructed Rajavihara in honour of his family. The temple’s main image, representing Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, was modelled on the king’s mother.

The northern and southern satellite temples in the third enclosure were dedicated to the king’s guru, Jayamangalartha, and his elder brother respectively.

As such, Ta Prohm formed a complementary pair with the temple monastery of Preah Khan, dedicated in 1191 A.D., the main image of which represented the Bodhisattva of compassion Lokesvara and was modelled on the king’s father.

Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Diego Delso/source
Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII. Diego Delso/source

The temple’s stele records that the site was home to more than 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers), with an additional 800,000 in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies.

The stele also notes that the temple amassed considerable riches, including gold, pearls and silks. Expansions and additions to Ta Prohm continued as late as the rule of Srindravarman at the end of the 15th century.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 17th century, the temple of Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. As of 2013, Archaeological Survey of India has restored most parts of the temple complex some of which have been constructed from scratch.

Wooden walkways, platforms and roped railings have been put in place around the site to protect the monument from further damages due to the large tourist inflow.

It took 79,365 people to maintain the temple. Diego Delso/source
It took 79,365 people to maintain the temple. Diego Delso/source

The design of Ta Prohm is that of a typical “flat” Khmer temple (as opposed to a temple-pyramid or temple-mountain, the inner levels of which are higher than the outer).

Five rectangular enclosing walls surround a central sanctuary. Like most Khmer temples, Ta Prohm is oriented to the east, so the temple proper is set back to the west along an elongated east-west axis.

The outer wall of 1000 by 650 metres encloses an area of 650,000 square metres that at one time would have been the site of a substantial town, but that is now largely forested.

There are entrance gopuras at each of the cardinal points, although access today is now only possible from the east and west. In the 13th century, face towers similar to those found at the Bayon were added to the gopuras.

Some of the face towers have collapsed. At one time, moats could be found inside and outside the fourth enclosure.

The design of Ta Prohm is that of a typical “flat” Khmer temple. Diego Delso/source
The design of Ta Prohm is that of a typical “flat” Khmer temple. Diego Delso/source

The three inner enclosures of the temple proper are galleried, while the corner towers of the first enclosure form a quincunx with the tower of the central sanctuary.

This basic plan is complicated for the visitor by the circuitous access necessitated by the temple’s partially collapsed state, as well as by the large number of other buildings dotting the site, some of which represent later additions.

The most substantial of these other buildings are the libraries in the southeast corners of the first and third enclosures; the satellite temples on the north and south sides of the third enclosure; the Hall of Dancers between the third and fourth eastern gopuras; and a House of Fire east of the fourth eastern gopura.

Ta Prohm has not many narrative bas-reliefs (as compared to Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom). One explanation that has been proffered for this dearth is that much of the temple’s original Buddhist narrative artwork must have been destroyed by Hindu iconoclasts following the death of Jayavarman VII.

At any rate, some depictions of scenes from Buddhist mythology do remain. One badly eroded bas-relief illustrates the “Great Departure” of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, from his father’s palace.

The temple also features stone reliefs of devatas (minor female deities), meditating monks or ascetics, and dvarapalas or temple guardians.

The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Diego Delso/source
The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Diego Delso/source

The trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm, and “have prompted more writers to descriptive excess than any other feature of Angkor.”

Two species predominate, but sources disagree on their identification: the larger is either the silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) or thitpok Tetrameles nudiflora, and the smaller is either the strangler fig (Ficus gibbosa) or Gold Apple (Diospyros decandra).

Indulging in what might be regarded as “descriptive excess,” Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize observed, “On every side, in fantastic over-scale, the trunks of the silk-cotton trees soar skywards under a shadowy green canopy, their long spreading skirts trailing the ground and their endless roots coiling more like reptiles than plants.”

 

Tetrameles nudiflora (or sprung) grows as a large tree to 20 m (70 ft) high with a spread of 10 m (35 ft). Diego Delso/source
Tetrameles nudiflora (or sprung) grows as a large tree to 20 m (70 ft) high with a spread of 10 m (35 ft). Diego Delso/source

 

UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Diego Delso/source
UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List in 1992. Diego Delso/source

In 1992, UNESCO inscribed Ta Prohm on the World Heritage List. Today, it is one of the most visited complexes in Cambodia’s Angkor region.

The conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm is a partnership project of the Archaeological Survey of India and the APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap).

The temple of Ta Prohm was used as a location in the film Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Joli.

Although the film took visual liberties with other Angkorian temples, its scenes of Ta Prohm were quite faithful to the temple’s actual appearance and made use of its eerie qualities.

 
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