Wat Phou – Birth Place of the Angkor Empire

Wat Phou, a small Angkorian era temple, is the centre of a UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 390 square kilometres and is the chief tourist attraction of Southern Laos. Those that make the effort to travel to Wat Phou are rewarded with a fascinating ancient temple site with beautiful views from the mountain. Most visitors to Wat Phou consider it as a remote outpost of the great Khmer empire centred on Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. But in fact this small mountain temple is the birth place of that once mighty empire. It’s history is shrouded in much mystery so here we shall delve in to what is known about Wat Phou, ranging from serene Buddhist sanctuary to site of bloody human sacrifice.

A Sacred Linga Mountain

Mountain
Mount Lingaparvata or Phou Khao resembles a sacred linga to those who worship the Hindu god Shiva

Located just 10km from the town of Champasak in Southern Laos, near the west bank of the Mekong River, Wat Phou is located on the slopes of a prominent mountain Phou Khao (“The mountain like a woman’s hair bun“) that rises to a height of 1,416m. Early Indian traders coming up the Mekong River appear to have recognised in the shape of this mountain the sacred linga, the phallic like symbol of the god Shiva who is both the creator and the destroyer in the Hindu cosmos. To this day the formal name of the mountain is Lingaparvata meaning “Linga Mountain”.

However it is not just the mountain’s shape that made it sacred. No doubt the local inhabitants in this sparsely populated region knew for generations that high on the slopes of this peak was a natural fresh water spring coming from the rocks. This spring is still revered as a sacred place, located just behind the upper sanctuary of Wat Phou temple.

spring under large rock
The spring under a cliff on Phou Khao. Archaeological work in the early 1990’s found evidence that this water was once channelled to the sacred linga within the upper temple.

The Angkor Monuments

The temple structures that comprise Wat Phou today predominantly date back to the 11th and 12th century, built during the reigns in Angkor of Jayavarman VI and also Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat. But whereas the famous Angkor Wat is laid out as a series of enclosures leading to a man-made Mount Meru (The centre of Hindu cosmology), at Wat Phou the buildings lie along a linear east-west axis leading to the sacred mountain of Lingaparvata. From the public entrance one first walks past two large barays, that is large rectangular reservoirs of water measuring 600m in length and 200m wide. From the far end of the barays begins a magnificent causeway lined with milestones. The causeway is flanked by two smaller barays and leads on between two halls of similar design, to the left the Southern Quadrangle and to the right the Northern Quadrangle.

khmer temples
The Southern Quadrangle (Left) and the Northern Quadrangle (Right) lie either side of the main causeway of Wat Phou

These two halls both comprise gable roofed halls with large courtyards measuring about 25 x 50 metres. The architecture is classic Angkor, probably from the early 11th century, with highly decorative stone lintels above each doorway and balustraded windows. Over the last decade much work has been done to restore these beautiful buildings.

After passing between the two halls one climbs a series of increasingly steep staircases through a series of terraces to finally reach the upper central sanctuary some 75m above the barays. Here stands a classic Angkorian shrine once dedicated to Shiva. The oldest part of the building at the rear dates back to the 9th or 10th century whilst the front section dates to the 11th century.

khmer temple
The main building of the upper sanctuary of Wat Phou dates from the 11th century

Flooding of this upper terrace over the millennia has caused subsidence of the temple’s foundations and the building still awaits the restoration that has been discussed for over one hundred years. Inside the shrine stands a large Buddha image, protected from the weather by a simple corrugated steel roof. It is believed the shrine was repurposed as a Buddhist temple in the 13th century during the reign of the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII.

buddha image
The main Buddha image of Wat Phou framed by a magnificent lintel of Indra seated upon the three-headed white elephant Erawan

Around the upper terrace there are many small Buddhist stupas dating from recent centuries when Champasak was an important regional city. But there are also various rock carvings, most notably one showing the three forms of Brahman, that is Shiva standing with Vishnu and Brahma on either side, which probably dates from the 11th century.

trimurti
A rock carving of the Trimurti – Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma – located just behind the upper temple of Wat Phou

The Traditional Oral History

The Khmer empire of Angkor fell into decline from the 13th century and gradually knowledge of the origins of the Shivaite Wat Phou temple was displaced by local beliefs and traditions. From the 18th century Chamapasak became an important regional centre and nearby Wat Phou was the spiritual heart of this kingdom.

According to local oral traditions Wat Phou was founded by a ruler known as Phra Kammatha. He was said to have been a Cham who married the daughter of the Lao king of Vientiane. Phra Kammatha had a beautiful daughter called Nang Sida but he was forced to offer her up as food to ogres living in the hills. She was saved by a prince Chao Khattamam, who killed the ogres and married the beautiful princess.

statue
On a terrace leading up to the upper Wat Phou sanctuary stands this Khmer statue of Shiva, now erected by the locals as Phra Kammatha, believed to be the founder of Wat Phou.

When the French explorer and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier visited Wat Phou in the late 19th century he noted that the Northern Quadrangle was named after Phra Kammatha whilst the Southern Quadrangle was named after Nang Sida. Today these names are no longer used for these halls but instead a small temple structure 1km to the south of the main causeway is named after Nang Sida. Hong Nang Sida dates to the 11th century and is largely in ruins but has recently undergone some restoration work.

female statue
A statue in Wat Phou Museum now revered as representing Nang Sida, daughter of Phra Kammatha (Photo Credit : Dr Rie Odajima)

A French Church in the Old City

In September 1866 The Mekong Exploration Commission, a group of five French explorers sent by their government to chart the Mekong River, arrived in Champasak. After waiting nearly two weeks for the monsoon rains to abate they were able to explore the area and were taken to see Wat Phou.

old drawing
Wat Phou sanctuary as drawn by Louis Delaporte of the Mekong River Expedition, 1866

These French explorers recognised the similarities of this ancient architecture, deeply buried in jungle vegetation, to that of Angkor which they had visited just three months earlier. In the following decades as France created its colony of Indochina explorers gave way to administrators, researchers and missionaries who were all in their different ways a part of the Mission Civilisatrice.

Within twenty years French Catholic missionaries were in Champasak as an extension of their work in Ubon, Siam. When they requested land to build a church they were granted a plot within the grounds of the “Old City” to the south of Champasak town. The locals knew well that this area was strewn with ancient ruins and artefacts and considered this to be the dwelling place of ancient spirits, spirits they were reluctant to disturb by building their own houses there.

church
The Name of Jesus Church built in 1895 within the ancient city of Kurukshetra is one of the oldest churches in Laos

Mueng Kao or “The Old City” is now recognised as one of the oldest urban settlements in Southeast Asia. Roughly square in shape it was surrounded on three sides by double earth ramparts measuring 2.4km by 1.8km with the Mekong River on the fourth side to the east. Parts of these ramparts still survive, up to a height of 6m in places. Within these walls archaeologists have identified the remains of some 50 brick buildings and many small barays probably indicating a large number of ceremonial religious buildings. But little remains that can be appreciated by the untrained eye.

The Ancient Written History

One of the most remarkable objects found within the Old City was a stone stele covered on four sides with Sanskrit writing. Known variously as King Devanika’s Stele or the Wat Luang Kao Stele and catalogued by the French as K365, this stele was dated to the middle of the 5th century. Studied first by the famous French researcher George Cœdès the inscription mentions the Great “King of Kings” Sri Devanika who Cœdès believed was the King of Linyi in Central Vietnam. More recent research disputes this suggesting that Devanika was the ruler of a kingdom centred on Wat Phou that may have been a part of Chenla.

The Devanika Stele praises the gods Shiva, Brahma and Visnu and says that Devanika founded a sacred bathing place (thirta) called Kurukshetra. This would appear to be a description of the barays of Wat Phou and the nearby “Old City” named after the great Indian city which features in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata for a legendary battle there (The Battle of Kurukshetra is in fact the subject of one of Angkor Wat’s most magnificent bas-reliefs carved 700 years after the Devanika Stele).

Devanika’s Kurukshetra is the site of the earliest Shivaist culture in the region heavily influenced by the Indian epic Mahabharata, from which many of the Devanika Stele’s verses are taken. One hundred years after King Devanika’s reign his successor King Bhavavarman I of Chenla would found the Khmer kingdom of Angkor. Mount Lingaparvata and Wat Phou would continue to be revered by the great Khmer rulers as the birth place of their empire.

sanskrit writing
The Devanika Stele (K365) is one of the oldest inscriptions found in South East Asia and provides evidence that Wat Phou is the birth place of Khmer culture

The Devanika Stele K365 is in fact just one of 34 such inscriptions found in the area of Wat Phou and Champasak. This is the only collection of Khmer inscriptions spread over a period of eight centuries of Khmer history with examples from Kings Jayavarman I (r. 657-681CE), Yaśovarman I the famous Leper King (r.889–900CE), Sūryavarman II who built Angkor Wat (r.1113-1150CE) and Jayavarman VII (r.1122–1218) who built the Bayon and converted the Khmer empire to Buddhism. Despite the importance of this collection only half of these inscriptions have been fully studied. The Devanika Stele itself stood for many decades at the front of the royal palace in Champasak before being moved in 2002 to a new museum built at Wat Phou after the area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The museum holds many other important inscriptions and statues found in the area.

Terror on the Mountain

The upper terrace of Wat Phou has several interesting and ancient rock carvings, notably one of an elephant and another of a Naga snake. But perhaps the most sinister mystery at Wat Phou relates to a strange carving called Crocodile Stone. Located not far from the upper Wat Phou sanctuary, Crocodile Stone appears to be the shape of a crocodile carved deeply into the rock. The carving is about the size of a small adult lying down. The ritual purpose and symbolic importance of this carving has been long forgotten.

rock carving
Crocodile Stone could simply be a carving of a mythical crocodile spirit. Or else this could be the stone upon which Phra Kammatha himself sacrificed humans in an ancient bloody ritual. We will probably never know.

But in a Chinese text from the sixth century the kingdom at Champasak is described thus;

Near the capital is a mountain named Ling-chia-po-p’o, on the summit of which a temple was constructed, always guarded by a thousand soldiers and consecrated to the spirit named P’o-to-li, to whom human sacrifices are made. Each year, the king himself goes to this temple to make a human sacrifice during the night.

The Wat Luang Stele K365 also briefly describes King Sri Devanika as performing sacrifices but it does not say that these are human sacrifices. Nevertheless local tradition holds that Phra Kammatha practised human sacrifice and Chao Siromé of the Royal House of Champasak provided Simms with an elaborate if probably fanciful account of these sacrificial ceremonies;

[T]he king of Chenla used to mount the great causeway, flanked by thousands of brilliantly dressed soldiers, up the steep side of the mountain and entered the temple of Wat Phu. Two virgins were awaiting him clothed in the finest silks and cloth of gold, perfumed with precious unguents, powered, and immaculate. Solemnly he prayed and then turning to them consecrated them to eternal marriage with the guardian spirit of the mountain…..Then to these two shy and radiantly beautiful girls, he would offer some rice spirit. Hardly had their lips touched it, than swords fell upon them and they were hacked to pieces at the feet of their god: their gorgeous costumes of gold, silver and brilliant colours, the red flowers of marriage, their bathed and perfumed bodies, were all soaked and spoiled in their own blood. The sacrifice of the two maidens was the price the people paid for one more year of prosperity and for the glory and continuation of their king’s reign.”

Wat Phou Festival

Whatever the truth about Crocodile Stone and sacrificed virgins what is known is that a tradition of sacrificing buffalo at Wat Phou has been practiced by the local people for generations as part of an annual festival that takes place every year, on the 15th day of the increasing moon of the 3rd month (in January-February). This coincides with the Makha Bucha Buddhist Festival.

The festival held over three or four days comprises religious ceremonies, boat races on the Mekong River as well as other games and competitions. Prior to 1975 the Royal House of Champasak was the centre of these celebrations whereas today local government officials make opening speeches and award prizes. The festival is now promoted as a key tourist attraction in Southern Laos but it continues to play a very important part in the continuation of local traditions in Champasak.

buddhist monks
Wat Phou Festival held each year in January or February continues ancient local traditions
(Photo credit: Vat Phu Champasak World Heritage Site)

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References

  1. Coe, Michael D. Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames & Hudson. 2003.
  2. Cœdès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Australian National University Press. 1975.
  3. Simms, Peter & Sanda. The Kingdoms of Laos. Six Hundred Years of History. Curzon Press. 1999.
  4. Odajima, Rie. Theatrical Governmentality and Memories in Champasak, Southern Laos. Southeast
    Asian Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, April 2020, pp. 99-129.
  5. Pichard, Pierre. Preservation of Vat Phou Monuments: Results and Perspectives. Bulletin de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient 97- 98. 2010-2011.
  6. Zakharov, Anton O. Devanika’sa Inscription from Vat Luong Kau near Vat Phou in Laos K.365: First English Translation. The South East Asian Review Vol. XL, Nos 1-2, Jan-Dec 2015
  7. Aymonier, Etienne. Le Cambodge. Les Provinces Siamoises. 1901.
  8. Lao PDR. Nomination of Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Cultural Settlements Within the Champasak Cultural Landscape for Inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List. May 2000.
  9. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/481/
  10. https://www.facebook.com/VatPhuChampasak/

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