Lingams of Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean (“Bridgehead”) is a site on the outskirts of the Angkorian region in Cambodia.  For a distance of perhaps a couple of hundred meters, the bed of a small creek set in the jungle is decorated with carvings of lingams, yonis, and other Hindu motifs, notably images of Vishnu in a reclining posture.

The lingam is a religious phallic symbol associated with the worship of Shiva.  Kbal Spean has been called the “River of a Thousand Lingams,” because some rocks and parts of the riverbed are literally covered with neatly arranged hand-carved bumps, each representing a lingam.  The yoni is a religious symbol of the womb.  At Kbal Spean, the yoni is generally depicted as a square that has an opening to one side and contains one or more lingams.

The word “lingam” comes from the language of the ancient Austric peoples, who left their traces in India, Indochina, Indonesia and the Polynesian islands.  Cultural factors associated with the Austrics are the blowgun, the boomerang, the outrigger canoe, the notion of taboo, and totemism (the identification of human groups with animals).  Originally, “lingam” meant a digging stick or primitive plough.  Later, it was applied also to the phallus, which like the digging stick prepares the way for insemination.  Primitive fertility cults worshipped the lingam in the form of a phallus-like stone.  By the period of Indian civilization in which the great epics were composed, linga-worship identified with the god Shiva had become an important non-Vedic ingredient to the Hindu religion.

Lingam and Shiva.  Hindu scriptures contain several stories explaining the origin of lingam-worship identified with Shiva.  (You can find the translations of these stories in Hindu Myths, edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty.)

  • According to a story in the Siva Purana, Brahma had just gotten done with the business of creation, when Shiva set to destroying everything with a flame that shot from his mouth.  Brahma, seeing his creation on fire, sought to propitiate Shiva by worshipping him.  Mollified, Shiva agreed to rechannel his energy.  He broke off his own lingam and threw it down upon the face of the Earth.  From there, it grew tremendously in both directions, so that not even Brahma could find its end.  Thereafter, Brahma and all the other deities worshipped the lingam of Shiva.
  • According to a story in the Brahmanda Purana, a group of sages and ascetics living together in the Himalayas were once approached by Shiva.  “His body was pale with the ashes smeared on it; he was naked, and all his identifying marks were defaced; his hair was disordered and loose; he had enormous pointed teeth; his hands were busy with fire-brands, and his eyes were read and tawny.  His penis and testicles were like red chalk, tip ornamented with red and white chalk.  Sometimes he laughed horribly; sometimes he sang, smiling; sometimes he danced erotically; sometimes he yelled again and again.”  Not recognizing the exotic and in their minds immoral stranger, the sages and ascetics became quite angry, especially when they beheld their wives and concubines irresistibly drawn to him.  Failing in their attempts to curse him, they tried to induce him to cut off his lingam.  Shiva complied with their request, and when he did so, the results were devastating.  The entire world order was upset, and the energy and powers of the sages and ascetics were nullified.  Dismayed, they appealed to Brahma for help.  Brahma explained to them that the stranger was Shiva, whose energy creates and destroys all creatures.  He instructed them to propitiate Shiva by worshipping an image of his lingam.  Following his instructions, the ascetics were able to regain Shiva’s favor, and he rewarded them immediately by teaching them the significance of bathing in ashes.

Vishnu reclining.  The creative significance of Vishnu’s reclining at the bottom of the ocean was explained by Shiva to the wicked king Jayadratha, in the following passage from the Mahabharata (the link is to the English translation at  “When at the close of four thousand Yugas [i.e., cosmic ages] the Earth thus became flooded with water, like one vast sea, and all mobile creatures were hushed in death, and the sun and the moon and the winds were all destroyed, and the Universe was devoid of planets and stars, the Supreme Being called Narayana [Vishnu], unknowable by the senses, adorned with a thousand heads and as many eyes and legs, became desirous of rest. And the serpent Sesha, looking terrible with his thousand hoods, and shining with the splendour of ten thousand suns, and white as the Kunda flower or the moon or a string of pearls, or the white lotus, or milk, or the fibres of a lotus stalk, served for his couch. And that adorable and omnipotent God thus slept on the bosom of the deep, enveloping all space with nocturnal gloom. And when his creative faculty was excited, he awoke and found the Universe denuded of everything.  As soon as that everlasting Being was engaged in meditation for the re-creation of the Universe, a lotus flower instantaneously came into existence from his navel, and the four-faced Brahma came out of that navel-lotus. And then the Grandsire of all creatures [i.e., Brahma], seating himself on that flower and finding that the whole Universe was a blank, created in his own likeness…” the Universe’s new inhabitants.

Here are photos taken at Kbal Spean in Cambodia.

The trail from the parking lot to the creek is through the jungle.

This knotted tree stands along the way.

A waterfall marks the end of the stretch of carvings in the creek.

These myriad bumps are lingams carved by human hands.

Many of the lingam bumps are underwater at the bottom of the creek.

The water flows over a yoni and lingam design.

This yoni has an opening to one side and contains five lingams.

This yoni also has an opening, but it contains only one lingam.

Crude mythological figures are also carved into the rock.

A stone carving of Vishnu reclining is partially obscured by a tiny waterfall.  According to legend, at the end of every cycle of cosmic ages the world is destroyed and created anew.  Vishnu lies at the bottom of the ocean awaiting the new creation.  A lotus grows upwards from his navel.

To the left, Vishnu reclines at the bottom of the ocean; to the right, Shiva and his consort Uma sit astride the mighty white bull Nandi, a symbol of fertility and creative power.  In his phallic form, Shiva is frequently associated with the creation of the universe.

Behind an array of lingam bumps, Vishnu reclines.  He is supported by the serpent Sesha, who once had been appointed by Brahma to bear the entire Earth on his head.  According to legend, creation proceeds when Brahma emerges from the lotus growing from Vishnu’s navel.