|Banteay Srei (“Citadel of Women”). The “Jewel of Khmer Art”, as Banteay Srei has been called, is unique among the great temples of Angkor in that it was built not by a monarch, but by a courtier and scholar named Yajnavaraha (“the sacrificial boar”), who served as an advisor and guru to the Cambodian King. Dedicated in 967 A.D. to the Hindu god Siva, the shrine is also older than the most famous Angkorian sites. Angkor Wat, by contrast, was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.
Banteay Srei’s buildings and layout are miniature rather than monumental in scale. The grounds are small, and the buildings give the impression of being crowded against one another. Taken individually, however, they are beautiful in form, and the red sandstone is simply covered with bas relief carvings of exquisite detail, including a number of narrative carvings situated in the tympana over door and passageways.
Stories told by the narrative bas-reliefs
The narrative carvings at Banteay Srei illustrate scenes from Indian legend and mythology, including scenes from the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The scenes are divided between those featuring the god Siva and those featuring the god Vishnu under the aspect of one of his avatars (manifestations). Here are some of the stories illustrated. The links are to the source texts at sacred-texts.com.
- The Combat of Bali and Sugreeva. Bali, the king of the Vanaras or monkeys, and his brother Sugreeva hunted a demon, who sought refuge in a deep cave. Bali entered the cave on the demon’s heels while Sugreeva waited outside. For one year, Bali pursued the demon through the cave. At the end of the year, Sugreeva heard a horrible growl and saw blood oozing from the cave, leading him to surmise that the demon had killed Bali. Fearing for his own life, he sealed the mouth of the cave with a gigantic boulder and went home. When he told the monkeys that their king was dead, they prevailed upon him to accept the crown himself. Sugreeva ruled for the short time that it took the furious Bali, who had defeated the demon, to push aside the boulder and to make his way back to the kingdom. Thinking he had been betrayed, Bali issued an order of banishment against his brother. All of Sugreeva’s efforts to explain himself went unheard. Despondent, he crept away into the forest. His spirits were soon lifted, however, when he made the acquaintance of Rama, the human incarnation of the supreme deity. Sugreeva and Rama entered into a pact: Rama would do away with Bali, and in exchange Sugreeva would muster an army of monkeys to help Rama in his battles with the demons. Pursuant to their plan, Sugreeva challenged Bali to a fight in the forest, while Rama remained hidden in the dense undergrowth. Bali, still angry over Sugreeva’s having abandoned him in the cave and having usurped the crown, readily accepted the challenge. The brothers began fighting. Soon, however, Bali, who was an expert fighter and the veteran of many battles with demons, got the upper hand. When it seemed that all was over for Sugreeva, Rama emerged from the underbrush, drew his bow, and drove an arrow through the heart of Bali. As Bali lay dying, the monkey kingdom went into mourning and Sugreeva again took possession of the crown. He and Rama maintained their alliance and eventually defeated the demons in the great battle of Lanka. You can find this story in the Ramayana and in the Mahabharata.
- Narasimha’s Slaying of the Demon. An avatar of Vishnu, Narasimha was half man and half lion. He had angry eyes resembling molten gold, a shining mane, and a razor-sharp tongue, which moved about like a dueling sword. Narasimha slew a powerful and wicked demon king named Hiranyakasipu in order to protect the demon’s righteous and pious son from his father’s oppression. “As a snake captures a mouse… Lord Narasimha captured Hiranyakasipu…. As Hiranyakasipu moved his limbs here, there and all around, very much afflicted at being captured, Lord Narasimha placed the demon on his lap, supporting him with his thighs, and in the doorway of the assembly hall the Lord very easily tore the demon to pieces with the nails of his hand.” The story is found in the Bhagavata Purana.
- The Burning of Khandava Forest. The god of fire, Agni, grew ill on account of the vast amounts of sacrificial butter he was made to consume by an especially devoted practitioner of Vedic sacrifice. Turning to Brahma for a cure, he was instructed to consume Khandava Forest and all of the creatures that lived in it, as a more healthful form of nourrishment. Agni went to the forest and attempted to burn it down, but he was thwarted by Indra, who doused the flames with rain from the skies. Indra, it turned out, was the friend of Takshaka, the king of the nagas who happened to call the forest his home, and the sky god was not about to let his friend die a horrible death by immolation. Undeterred, Agni sought and obtained the help of the epic heroes Krishna and Arjuna. While Agni surrounded the forest with flames, the heroes positioned themselves at opposite ends of the forest and shot any creature that sought to escape. When Indra attempted to extinguish the fire by causing rain to fall, the heroes fired a dense cloud of arrows that blocked the raindrops from reaching the forest. In the end, all but a few of the creatures in the forest were slaughtered by the heroes and consumed by the gluttonous Agni, who derived much satisfaction from the massacre. Aswasena, the son of Takshaka, was able to escape by means of his mother’s ruse, though in the process the heroic woman herself fell prey to Arjuna’s arrow. The story is found in the Mahabharata.
- The Duel of Bhima and Duryodhana. As the epic Battle of Kurukshetra drew to a close and the Pandavas prepared to celebrate their victory, one duel remained to be fought. Duryodhana, a chieftain on the side of the losing Kauravas, was renowned for his skill in fighting with weapons. Years before, he had done the five Pandava brothers a great insult by laughing maliciously as another man attempted to disrobe their wife Draupadi. Now, at the end of the lost battle, alone, wounded and exhausted, he sought temporary shelter at the bottom of a lake. The Pandavas, however, were able to discern his form beneath the surface of the water, and from the shore taunted him with allegations of cowardice, so that he had no alternative but to emerge and to defend his honor. Quickly it was arranged that he would fight a duel with Bhima, the most brutish of the Pandava brothers, who had forged his violent reputation by killing numerous Rakshasas and would-be ravishers of Draupadi. Taking up their maces, the two began to spar, Bhima being the stronger, Duryodhana the more skillful. To the onlookers, it soon became apparent that Duryodhana could not be beaten fairly and that eventually he would prevail if the duel were permitted to run its natural course. The Pandavas and their advisor Krishna realized that only deceit and foul play could assure a favorable outcome. In those days, the rules of honorable mace duelling prohibited blows below the navel. Presuming that the rules of honorable duelling were in full force and effect, Duryodhana lept into the air in order to set up a devastating blow. In so doing, however, he left his lower body exposed and vulnerable. (It is the moment of Duryodhana’s leap which is illustrated in the lintel of Banteay Srei.) The treacherous Bhima seized the moment and struck Duryodhana on the thigh, breaking the bone and sending him crashing to the ground. As Bhima exalted over his fallen foe, stepping on his head to add insult to injury, Duryodhana in his final moments bitterly reproached Krishna and the Pandavas for their dishonorable conduct. Krishna’s brother Balarama, who had been watching the encounter, likewise was deeply offended, and would have rushed against Bhima had Krishna himself not restrained him. The Pandavas themselves and all their followers bowed their heads in shame. Krishna, however, was ready with just the speech to rally their spirits. He told the assembled warriors that but for the deceitful schemes which he had hatched to topple one after the other of the Kaurava champions, the Pandavas could not have prevailed in the battle. Therefore, he explained, the use of deceitful means had been necessary in order to assure military victory. The end had justified the means. Taking heart from Krishna’s speech, the Pandavas set aside their scruples and began to celebrate. You can find this story in the Mahabharata.
Another narrative bas relief is found on a tympanum originally from Banteay Srei but now located in the Musée Guimet in Paris. The typanum illustrates the story of the Asura brothers Sunda and Upasunda and their dispute over the fair Apsara Tilottama. Here is thelinkto a photo of the tympanum at Wikipedia. For the story of Sunda and Upasunda, see the page on this website entitledDemons, Asuras, Rakshasas.
Banteay Srei’s central religious image, a lingam (phallic post) named for the “Lord of the Three Worlds” (Siva), is no longer present. A statue of Siva sitting with his consort Uma has been recovered from the central sanctuary and is now on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The move was necessary in order to protect the statue from looting, which had claimed many of the temple’s other treasures. In the 1970’s, unfortunately, when the statue was already housed in the museum, vandals hacked off the head of Uma. The senseless despoliation of Cambodia’s cultural heritage is an ongoing tragedy.
Related pages on this website: 9 Devatas (demigoddesses at Banteay Srei and other Angkorian temples); 16 Nagas (the story of Aswasena’s attempt to get even with Arjuna, and other images of serpents at Angkor); 17 Demons (Hiranyakasipu and other demons, in the art of Angkor).