by Jim Goodman
Founded in 802 as another competing Khmer kingdom in central Cambodia, quickly conquering and absorbing its rivals, by the accession of Suryavarman I in 1011, the Khmer Empire was already the biggest, most powerful state in Southeast Asia. This monarch went on to conquer southern Laos and the Mon Kingdom of Lawo, which became the Khmer province of Lopburi. Later on, the Empire also established military outposts and a major temple compound in Kanchanaburi.
Both areas were Khmer-populated then, for Vietnamese didn’t migrate to the Delta until the 17th century and Thai or Lao were still centuries away from settling in Isan. Eventually the Empire extended its control along the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, but further expansion north into Thailand halted when three invasions of the Mon state of Haripunchai, today’s Lamphun, completely failed.
His successor Udayadityavarman II undertook more construction, but such projects tailed off after his death in 1066. Instability and revolts followed the accession of Harshavarman III, a recurrent problem for the Empire as it had no clear cut succession system. Suryavarman I himself had won his throne by militarily defeating a rival claimant.
In 1080 a new line of succession began when Jayavarman VI, a vassal prince of the Mun Valley in Khorat, took the throne, reigning until 1107. He was from Phimai, the major political and economic center of the Mun River Valley, then inhabited by Khmer and Kui, a related ethnic minority famous as elephant handlers. Though he moved to Angkor and embellished his royal palace, he added nothing more to the city’s architecture. Instead, he became famous for sponsoring the construction of Prasat Hin Phimai, originally called Vimayapura, which eventually morphed into Phimai. Today it is the most outstanding Khmer temple beyond the borders of modern Cambodia.
Angkor Wat hadn’t been built yet, but work would soon start. Upon Jayavarman VI’s death his elder brother took over until forced out by his grand-nephew Suryavarman II in 1117. This is the ruler who initiated the building of Angkor Wat. One can only speculate how much he wanted Angkor Wat to outdo Phimai in splendor and glory, but the architecture and compound design of Angkor Wat derived from the Phimai prototype. Specifically, that includes layout, building shapes and use of sandstone.
This was the first time a Khmer temple was surrounded by walls. It was also unique because it was not oriented to the east, the direction of the rising sun, but instead faced south, towards Angkor. There were walls within the compound as well, long hallways and adjacent rooms. All of the buildings—the galleries and the main and subsidiary shrines--were placed in a harmonious pattern, a precedent adopted and enhanced at Angkor Wat.
Outside the compound, discovered by aerial reconnaissance during the renovation last century, lay two large reservoirs (barays) with a small island in the center. They were used for the city’s water consumption, but also as part of a landscape design inspired by religious belief. The high central tower of the principal shrine symbolically represented Mt. Meru, the mythical Himalayan home of the gods, while the barays replicated the holy lakes in the vicinity of that abode. A century later Angkor incorporated the same feature.
They didn’t adopt the caste system, though. The king was sacred and nobody else was and the Court had a coterie of Brahmins for ritual and administrative purposes, but the rest of society was free of social restrictions or caste taboos. By this period Mahayana Buddhism had started gaining adherents, but no social conflict ever erupted between the two faiths.
He commissioned Prasat Hin Phimai as a Buddhist temple, dedicated to a particular Tantric deity, but the temple’s decorative imagery is mixed. Images in the outer area are Hindu while those within are Buddhist. Khmer kings usually built temples dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva or Vishnu, with whom they identified as Universal Ruler. Buddhist rulers, like Jayavarman VII especially, viewed themselves as an incarnate bodhisattva.
It is the same style as the ones in Angkor, somewhat different from earlier and later styles. When art historians finally categorized prang styles, they labeled those of Phimai and Angkor the Angkor Wat style.
Rather than the usual brick used to construct most temples, sandstone was the primary building material at Phimai, like at Angkor later. The foundations, hidden parts of the buildings and the exterior walls used laterite, a soft clay that hardens upon exposure to sunlight but results in an uneven surface, not good for adding relief sculptures. Its capacity to absorb water, though, made it suitable for foundations. Sandstone, by contrast, could be cut into blocks with perfectly smooth sides, which could later be carved with various types of sculptures.
Angkor’s sandstone source was the Kulen Range of hills about 40 km north. Since the blocks were cut on the spot it must have been quite a task to transport them all the way to the building site. Sandstone quarries in Isan were much closer to Phimai. After cutting the blocks to the desired shape, workers drilled two holes in a corner, fixed pegs into them and tied ropes to the pegs to enable humans and elephants to drag the blocks to Phimai.
That done, the next step, probably with the help of elephants, was to lift and fit the blocks evenly on top of each other. They used no mortar. Natural friction of the weight, special cuts in the stone and sometimes clamps of iron or bronze held the blocks in place. A rectangular stone piece called lintel lay horizontally across pairs of columns in the passageways.
Phimai took about 17 years to complete. Angkor Wat, with more buildings and carvings, required about 37 years to finish. Phimai was the most important Khmer city in what is today Thailand. A royal road 225 kilometers long connected Phimai with Angkor. From the capital the road crossed the Tin Muen Than Pass of the Dangrek Mountains northwest of the city and entered the Khorat Plateau of Isan. The Dangrek Range was not very high and the plateau averaged only 200 meters elevation. The first stop after the pass was the elaborate hilltop temple of Phnom Rung, completed shortly after Prasat Hin Phimai.
All along this highway, the longest in the Empire, stood numerous hostels, rest-houses and shrines, mostly set up during Jayavarman VII’s reign. He also had a new outer wall and moat constructed around Phimai. The sheer number of hostels, etc, established on this road attests to its regular use and the importance of Phimai to the Empire. Other roads led from Angkor southeast to Kompong Thom, northeast to southern Laos and west towards Sisophon.
Sculptors created huge carvings of his face on the sides of towers, like the Bayon, and over compound entry gates. He was a fervent Mahayana Buddhist and even ordered the construction of two new cities, Beng Melea to the east and Banteay Chhmar in the northwest, full of temples and shrines promoting Mahayana Buddhism.
Under his reign the Khmer Empire reached its peak territorially, culturally and artistically. After his death came a reaction against extravagant building projects and some recently constructed Buddhist temples were destroyed. Beng Melea and Banteay Chhmar were all but abandoned. The irrigation system began to collapse, thanks to the clearing of forests for the Universal Ruler’s ambitious building projects. Though still a splendid and vigorous city at the time of Zhou Daguan’s visit in 1295 (the only traveler to Angkor in its prime to write an account), the Empire was already in decline.
In the following century Khmer territory in Isan came under threat from two new neighbor states—Lanxang in Laos and Ayutthaya in Thailand. Lanxang began annexing the northern parts of Isan and by mid-century Ayutthaya had taken over Phimai. Most of the area’s Khmer and Kui fled south and Ayutthaya did not promote any settlement programs. What today constitutes Nakhon Ratchasima Province was pretty much deserted for several generations.
The wooden hostels and rest houses disintegrated, but some of the shrines, made of sandstone or laterite, survived and thus it is possible to trace the original route. Otherwise, a small section at the entrance to Prasat Hin Phimai is the only part of it left.
Afterwards, Thai and Lao began migrating to the area and in the 17th century King Narai had a wall and moat built around Khorat city, the administrative center of Nakhon Ratchasima. Some descendants of the original Khmer inhabitants remained as a significant minority in the province, but the overwhelming majority were Thai and Lao. Phimai reverted to a village and as the new inhabitants were Theravada Buddhists, the temple fell into a period of neglect that lasted until the government’s restoration of it in the 20th century. That was carried out not to revive its use but to establish its value as a tourist attraction.
As a result, it is never crowded. One can visit in a day trip out of the provincial capital, just 60 km away. But it’s better to stay the night in the quiet town of Phimai and explore the ruins from early morning, when birds might be twittering in the groves along the compound and the color of the pink sandstone blocks has a richer hue.
The main entrance is from the south gate, across a balustrade flanked by seven-headed nagas (big mythical serpents). The restoration was not total, nor were all the monuments lying in ruins on the ground. The restoration team put the elements of the walls and hallways back together and fallen lintels back in place. Many of the sculptures were still intact, but missing or badly damaged ones were not replaced. The main tower was still in good shape, though the two smaller ones were not. A few sculptures were removed to museums, but others were left in place.
Besides admiring the precisely and smoothly cut and perfectly fitted sandstone blocks, the visitors’ eyes soon train on the surviving sculptures. Some of the columns have fluted sides and perhaps a small carved figure embedded near the base. The main attractions are the lintels, with wonderfully detailed relief carvings of gods and men, animals and nature, in vignettes of celestial and earthly life. Relief carvings also adorn some of the pediments, the roughly triangular structure above a lintel or on the side of a prang. A few hallway doors feature individual sculptures of deities or demon beasts
The carvings on the outer perimeter utilize Hindu imagery, like Vishnu or the multi-armed Dancing Shiva. Those in the interior section derive from Mahayana Buddhism, like the Buddha seated in meditation wearing the crown of the Universal Ruler, or Manjushri wielding the sword used to slay ignorance and superstition. Other sculptures depict secular activities, especially armies on the march and commanders on elephant.
The figures, celestial, human or animal, are realistically rendered and the vegetation is accurately depicted. The faces of both gods and men have broad noses and thick lips, very characteristic of the classic Khmer sculptural style. Altogether, Prasat Hin Phimai offers many fine and fascinating examples of the Khmer Empire’s architectural achievements. They are sure to arouse visitors’ appreciation. They certainly did for the builders of Angkor Wat.
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