Sacred Sites in Southeast Asia | Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei
Cambodia, Angkor area, Angkor period, 10th century (ca. 967 CE), Sandstone and laterite

Northeast of the main Angkor area, along the road to the mountaintop site of Kbal Spean, is the jewel box-like temple of Banteay Srei. Unlike other monuments in the region, it is made from a distinctly pink sandstone that brilliantly catches the morning light. The gateway leading into the complex is a richly hued laterite trimmed with sandstone. The low doorway frames the compact complex, which is closer than it appears.

Pink sandstone and laterite temple complex with three central towers, enclosure wall, and moat, seen obliquely
Surrounded by a moat, Banteay Srei is a tiny, floating island-city. It was built in the tenth century, not by a Khmer king but by his guru. Little is known about this individual, but within the community he must have held a level of prestige. He was able to accrue the resources necessary to sponsor the construction of a temple made of such fine-quality stone and to commission some of the greatest artisans for its ornamentation and sculptures of the gods.

Multi-shrine temple with pointed arches and intricate carvings on the façades
The temple’s basic architectural plan is similar to other Khmer complexes, with a grand causeway on the eastern side leading up to a central cruciform shrine for the Hindu god Shiva. The main shrine and auxiliary structures are surrounded by three concentric square enclosure walls. Throughout the complex, the sandstone surfaces are intricately carved with some of the finest, most elaborate ornamentation to survive from the Khmer era.

Closeup of relief showing dancing Shiva in a cusped niche
The triangular shaped tympanums above each doorway present iconic images of goddesses and gods. In the southeast quadrant of the complex, one tympanum holds a scene that recalls imagery found in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A powerful figure of Shiva stands at the center. His legs are in a deep plié to show that he is dancing. In the lower left corner is an emaciated female figure. She is Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the Tamil saint who renounced her own beauty in order to pursue an ascetic lifestyle. Along with some sixty other devotees who lived in Tamil Nadu during the sixth through ninth centuries, she is credited with composing poetic devotional hymns to Shiva.

Finely carved sandstone pointed archway terminating in naga finials
Contrasting with the specificity of scenes like the dancing Shiva, Banteay Srei is also a festival of abstraction. Above the entrances that lead through the first enclosure, pyramidal toranas (framings) curlicue into tightly bound spirals, and tiny figures emerge from intricate, vine-like designs.