Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm (“Ancestor Brahma”).  In 1186 A.D., the Khmer monarch Jayavarman VII completed the construction of Rajavihara (“Royal Monastery”), a site now known as Ta Prohm.  He dedicated the Mahayana Buddhist temple and monastery to his mother, whom he symbolically identified with the goddess of wisdom Prajnaparamita.  Rajavihara or Ta Prohm is the most romantic and mysterious of the sites at Angkor.

Ta Prohm as part of Jayavarman’s building program

Among the Angkorian kings, Jayavarman VII was by far the most prolific in his construction of temples and other monuments.  Ta Prohm belongs to a group of three temples, the other two being Preah Khan and the Bayon, that together represent the king’s family.  While Ta Prohm is dedicated to the king’s mother as identified with Prajnaparamita, Preah Khan is dedicated to his father as identified with Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Bayon is the king’s own royal temple in which he he is identified with the bodhisattva and the Buddha.

The Foundational Stele

A stele is a stone post or pillar that serves as the medium for a written text.  The founders of Angkorian temples frequently created steles explaining the temples in which they were placed.  When Jayavarman VII constructed Rajavihara, he endowed it with such a stele.

The Ta Prohm stele says that Jayavarman founded the city of Rajavihara in a country that he had conquered (referring no doubt to his reconquest of Cambodia after invaders from Champa had sacked Angkor in 1177 A.D.), and that he there erected a statue to a deity in the image of his own mother.  The stele expresses the king’s wish, “that in virtue of my good actions, my mother enjoy the status of a saint, once she is delivered from the ocean of existence.”  It urges his successors to protect the site, “to guard even the smallest piece of sacred material, of wood, or stone, against thieves or those who would commit sacrilege.”

The stele also describes the king himself in exalted terms, likening his glory to that of the Hindu god Vishnu.  Alluding to the myth of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, very clearly one of Jayavarman VII’s favorite stories, the stele says that the king was like Hari (Vishnu) in churning the ocean (i.e., in fighting his enemies) and thereby obtaining wondrous items of booty.

The stele also alludes to the story of Vishnu in his avatar as Vamana the dwarf.  According to this story, the demon Vali had become very powerful and had acquired dominion over the world.  Assuming the diminutive form of the dwarf Vamana, Vishnu went to Vali and asked for three steps of land.  When the unknowing Vali granted the request, Vamana became enormous in size and covered the entire world with only two steps.  Thus the demon was dispossessed and the world came back under the dominion of the gods.  The stele at Ta Prohm alludes to this story in order to make a point about Jayavarman: “Without a doubt, if the ocean and the three worlds had been as big as Jayavarman’s glory, Vishnu would not have been able to conquer the world which rises above the ocean, nor to cover the worlds themselves, even with ten thousand steps!”

A French translation of the stele was published in 1906 by Angkor scholar George Coedès in the journal Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient.  The publication is now available online.  Here isthe link.

Related pages on this website: 3 Preah Khan (a temple similar to Ta Prohm dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father); 5 Bayon (the state temple of Jayavarman VII located at the center of his capital of Angkor Thom); 8 Churning the Ocean of Milk (a favorite story of the king, expressed in the naga bridges of Angkor Thom and Preah Khan); 9 Devatas (mysterious demi-goddesses positioned around the king’s temples); 15 Sages and Ascetics (meditating figures at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan).

The modern discoverers of Ta Prohm found the site overgrown with jungle plants, including gigantic trees that had sunk their gnarled roots downward through the masonry and into the soil below.  Fortunately, it was decided that only the vines and shrubbery would be removed, but that the trees would stay.

The result is a unique and stirring image of the ephemerality of human civilization and achievements, as the towers, galleries, and walls are gradually crumbled by the powerful roots.  The irony of the site is that this image itself is the product of careful restoration and preservation by modern curators.

Ta Prohm is filled with stone-hewn images of devatas, minor female deities apparently charged with safeguarding the temple.  Always benign and peaceable, they stand in contrast to other more menacing temple guardians found at Angkor, such as lions and serpents.

Ta Prohm is also home to numerous meditating ascetics, wearing facial expressions ranging from the serene to the intense as they sit cross-legged with their hands clasped prayerfully before them.  These three have expressions of great joy and inner peace.  Extant sculpture portraits of Jayavarman VII show the king himself seated in a meditative pose, his expression similarly introspective.  The stele at Ta Prohm not only describes him as a mighty ruler and warrior, but also characterizes the king and his family as accomplished in spiritual matters.

Tourists flock to Ta Prohm to take in the sights.  Photo opportunities abound, and some of the trees are well-known from the movies and the mass media.  Here, some tourists have their picture taken with a tree featured in the movie Tomb Raider.  Travel writers of the early 20th century compared these trees to gigantic octopi, and their downward thrusting roots to the coiling tendrils of such creatures.  Having access to the sites even at nighttime, and without the tourist throngs of the 21st century, these early travel writers felt with great intensity the eeriness of the deserted ruins.

Much of Ta Prohm is rubble.  Here, a cleared path leads to a stone gate reinforced by the modern curators of the site.  In the late 12th century, however, the monastery was the focal point of a thriving city.  According to the stele, at one time over 12,000 people lived at Ta Prohm, including 18 high priests, 439 religious saints, and 615 female dancers.  Some 79,000 people (including several thousand Chams and Burmans) belonged to the broader community providing for the upkeep of the monastery and the 619 divinities represented there in the form of statues.

“On every side, in fantastic over-scale,” Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize wrote in his still definitive guide The Monuments of the Angkor Group, “the enormous pale 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.”

The collection of devatas at Ta Prohm is a study of unity in diversity.  Certain traits are shared by all: they stand upright and are oriented straight ahead; their hands are graceful and their legs clunky and awkward.  Other traits are subject to endless variation, among them hairstyles and headdresses, clothing, facial expressions, and hand positions.

Ta Prohm is a maze of archways and galleries.  Due to their abandoned and delapidated state, many may be structurally unsound.  Angkorian builders were ignorant of the true arch, which would have permitted them to build stabler edifices.  Instead, they used less stable arrangements like the corbelled arch and the lintel and post. 

A short distance from the temple itself one can find a stone gopura or tower that marks the entrance to the temple enclosure.  The gopura at Ta Prohm is in the style of the temple of Bayon.  Huge stone faces representing King Jayavarman VII as Avalokiteshvara gaze off in the four directions.

A massive colonette lies on the ground at Ta Prohm amidst other fascinating rubble.  In Angkorian architecture, segmented colonettes are frequently used to support the horizontal stone lintels used in the manner of wooden beams over doors and passageways.

The Mystery of Ta Prohm (a Youtube video)Devatas of Ta Prohm (a Youtube video)