Sacred Sites in Southeast Asia | Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean
Cambodia, Angkor period (ruler: Udayadityavarman II), 11th-13th century, Sandstone

Although Cambodia is best known for its soaring structural temples, the landscape is also rich with sacred sites that are integrated with the natural environment. Just to the northwest of Phnom Kulen’s lush forested expanse stands another mountain separated by a low pass. A jungle trail leads up to Kbal Spean, an elaborate network of stone carvings that runs along and inside a river.

Rushing water over carvings of Vishnu and lingas in the partially dry riverbed

Kbal Spean’s Hindu carvings date primarily to the eleventh century. Like many Khmer sites, Shaiva and Vaishnava imagery is layered side by side.

Shallow relief showing multiheaded and multiarmed deity flanked by three devotees on each side
Several Buddhist carvings were added later, most likely in the thirteenth century when Buddhism became the dominant religion for the Khmer Empire.

Square yoni and multiple lingas carved into a riverbed, with water streaming over

At Kbal Spean, Shiva is represented mostly in his symbolic form—numerous circles indicating the tops of lingas, some supported by yonis (square pedestals, female symbol), are carved directly into the living rock. When the river flows over the carvings, the water is symbolically blessed by the gods.

Relief carving of Shiva and Uma on Nandi with ascetics
In several images, Shiva and Uma ride on their bull vehicle, named Nandi, and are worshiped by Shaiva ascetics carrying tridents and water pots.

Rocky outcrop with relief of Shiva and Uma on Nandi, overlooking jungle ravine
Double waterfall in jungle
One such scene overlooks the pathway to a steep waterfall where fluttering butterflies often congregate.

Quarry area in jungle with two carvings of Vishnu reclining and lingas
Relief carving of Vishnu reclining with three shrines, carved into the living rock
Vishnu is repeatedly depicted in a scene that represents the creation of the universe. In this image, Vishnu reclines on a serpent, floating on the cosmic ocean of bliss. As he sleeps, he dreams that the god Brahma emerges on a lotus that grows from his navel. Brahma is known as the creator, and it is within the context of the dream that Brahma fashions the world as we know it. In Indic philosophies, this story is meant to prompt us to contemplate the nature of reality.