Preah Khan


(left to right) a tympanum showing Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana, a wall featuring two devatas, a decorative carving, the outer wall of the city of Preah Khan.Preah Khan (“Sacred Sword”).  A creation of King Jayavarman VII in honor of his father, the Mahayana Buddhist temple and monastery of Preah Khan was dedicated in 1191 A.D. to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.  As such, it should be regarded together with Ta Prohm and the Bayon, the other two great temples founded by Jayavarman.  An inscription suggests that the king built Preah Khan on the site of a battlefield on which he had defeated invaders from Champa.

The Name “Preah Khan”

The modern name “Preah Khan” (Sacred Sword) is no doubt related to the sword historically carried by Angkorian kings as a symbol of their authority.  Zhou Daguan, the Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor around 1296 A.D., reported that the king used to wear clothes with a floral pattern, a golden crown, and golden jewelry.  The soles of his hands and feet were dyed crimson.  In his hand the king carried a golden sword.  Riding in a procession, the king would stand on an elephant, protected by numerous parasols and holding the golden sword.  Zhou underlined the symbolic importance of the sword for Angkorian kingship by means of a curious story.  According to Zhou, on one occasion when an old king passed away, his biological son was deprived of succession when the dead king’s wife stole the sword and gave it to the king’s son-in-law.

The City of Preah Khan

According to Maurice Glaize, The Monuments of the Angkor Group, Preah Khan was once a functioning city characterized by the compression of numerous core buildings into a relatively small area, the random subsequent addition of other buildings, resulting in “a veritable architectural chaos,” and the enclosure of the core within a “vast habitation zone” of huts and timber houses.  The city included a hospital and a “house of fire” or resting-house for travellers.  At one time, close to 100,000 people may have lived and worked here.

Decorative and Narrative Bas-reliefs

The buildings at Preah Khan, as elsewhere at Angkor, are decorated with carvings in bas-relief.  Like other 12th century temples, Preah Khan is known for the numerous devatas (demigoddesses) that grace its walls.  The site also includes a room that scholars have dubbed the Hall of Dancers – a space, now open to the sky but presumed previously to have been covered by a wooden roof, that is decorated with carvings of dancing apsaras.

Narrative or story-telling bas-reliefs are not prominent at Preah Khan, though some scholars speculate that originally they may have been so.  Following the death of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer empire reverted to Hinduism for a time, before settling eventually on the faith of Theravada Buddhism.  The reversion to Hinduism included a period in the 13th century of iconoclasm and destruction of Buddhist images.  Some reliefs featuring Buddhist subject-matter may have fallen before the fury of the iconoclasts.

Krishna lifts Mount Govardhana

One narrative bas-relief that remains is that depicted at the left end of the banner at the top of this page.  This relief depicts Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, lifting Mount Govardhana over his head.  The story may be found in the Vishnu Purana, Book X, Chapter 24 and 25.  One day Krishna observed his devotees the cowherds preparing a sacrifice to Indra, the Vedic god of storms.  When he inquired into what exactly they were trying to accomplish, he received the answer that the ritual would move Indra to send rain and to help the people attain their religious, economic and romantic goals. Krishna objected on the grounds that destiny (karma) and not the will of Indra was what caused things to happen.  He declared the sacrifice should be made to the cows, the brahmanas and Govardhana Mountain. The people did as Krishna had ordered, and discontinued the sacrifice to Indra.  Angered, Indra unleashed a violent tempest, intending to devastate the village of the cowherds. As the deluge roared down upon them, the cowherds appealed to Krishna for protection. In response, Krishna picked up Mount Govardhana and held it aloft with one hand, allowing the cowherds to take shelter underneath with their cows. Krishna held the mountain aloft for seven days, until, admitting defeat, Indra recalled the tempest. The people came forth and resumed their devotion to Krishna, and Krishna put the mountain back in its original place.

The story of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana was well-known to Angkorian artists.  In India, originally, the story would have symbolized the supercession of ancient Vedic religion centered on the practice of sacrifice and the figure of Indra by the medieval devotion to Vishnu and his avatar Krishna.  In Cambodia, however, the story would not have carried this historical meaning, since there is no evidence that Vedic religion ever existed as an independent force in Cambodia prior to the advent of religion centered on Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.  Rather, the story would simply have been an illustration of the power of Krishna and of the value of devotion to him.

Related pages on this website: 4 Ta Prohm and 5, 10, 11 Bayon (two other temples built by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII);  7 Garuda (life and deeds of the bird-man appointed to protect the outer wall at Preah Khan); 9 Devatas (minor female deities serving as temple guardians); 15 Meditating Monks and Ascetics (depictions of spiritual masters at Preah Khan and Ta Prohm); 16 Naga (mythological hooded serpents).



The moat at Preah Khan is crossed by means of bridges lined by naga balustrades of the type also found at Angkor Thom.  Each balustrade is shaped as a serpent.  The posts supporting the balustrade are heavily worn statues of giants holding the body of the serpent.

Just across the causeway lined by the naga balustrades, entry into the city is accomplished by means of a gate in the outer stone wall.  The city has one gate for each of the cardinal directions.  The main gate depicted here faces to the East.  The gate tower is flanked by two smaller towers.

Massive stone relief carvings of the divine bird-man Garuda can be found every 50m or so along the outside of the 3km long stone wall surrounding the city.Garudas of Preah Khan (a Youtube video)

This entrance to the central temple complex stands under the protection of two stone dvarapalas, or armed guards.

The temple is constructed in a linear fashion that allows the visitor to look down long alleys of doorways, passages, and chambers.

Despite the ongoing restorative efforts of the curators, many of the passageways and galleries at Preah Khan are strewn with rubble.

A beatific ascetic sits deep in meditation.  The wing-like objects are probably leaves.

A devata or minor female deity stands near the entrance to a chamber at Preah Khan.

A highly stylized lion with bulging eyes and a strange overbite hoists his burden.

Some of the walls at Preah Khan are decorated with beautiful plantlike patterns, such as this one carved into sandstone.

According to Maurice Glaize, “The temple was previously overrun with a particularly voracious vegetation and quite ruined, presenting only chaos. …

…Clearing works were undertaken with a constant respect for the large trees, which give the composition a pleasing presentation.”