Koh Ker Temple
For two decades, in the second quarter of the tenth century, Koh Ker instead of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire. Almost all monuments in the huge temple town - the second largest in Cambodia, second only to Angkor - originate from this short period.
After Angkor had been founded
When the founder of Angkor, Yashovarman I, died about 910 AD, he was succeeded by his son Harshavarman I. Though overwhelmingly praised in inscriptions, he seems to have been a weak ruler and little is known about him. His name means “protected by joy”.
On the death of Harshavarman I, who remained childless, his brother Ishanavarman II succeeded as his rightful heir in 922, but not without being challenged by a maternal uncle of the two brothers, namely the local ruler in Koh Ker who later became King Jayavarman IV. His chief queen was Jayadevi, a younger sister of Yashovarman.
Building programme in Koh Ker
Koh Ker, those days called Chok Gargyar “island of glory”, seems to have been his personal domain before he became king. He already started to build his own capital here in 921 and he began to perform kingly action, such as building a reservoir and beginning work on the hitherto tallest Khmer temple pyramid for an imperial Linga, already during the period of Ishanavarman’s II rule in Angkor. This weak king in Angkor seems to have reigned until 928.
The erection of the largest Shiva Linga on top of the tallest temple pyramid hitherto built in the Khmer empire clearly indicates the claim to supreme power by this local ruler, though he formally was a kind of vassal of the king of Angkor.
One of the inscription found at Prasat Thom, dated 921 and in Sanskrit, reports the erection of the god Tribhuvanshvara. Another, of the same date but in Khmer, mentions donations to the Devaraja (kamrateng jagat ta raja), the highest god and protector of royal power (by many scholars even identified with a god-king as its human form). Altogether 3 inscriptions of Jayavarman IV boasted that this construction surpassed those of previous kings.
On the death of Ishanavarman II, who remained childless, too, the throne finally passed to this ruler of Koh Ker who became King Jayavarman IV now. It is not known how the succession came about. Obviously Jayavarman had already been the most powerful figure in the Khmer empire for years. But it is not completely clear that Jayavarman IV has to be called a “usurpor”, someone only claiming power by outright military force, since matrilineal lineage traditionally played an important role in the line of succession in Khmer and other Southeastasian kingdoms, though this alone was certainly not cause enough to prove his right the supreme throne.
Soon after his coronation Jayavarman IV. in 928 decided not to reside in Angkor but to return to his stronghold Koh Ker, where he carried on with his building programme. This way Koh Ker (Chok Gargyar) replaced Angkor (Yashodharapura) as Khmer capital officially. Inscriptional evidence for Koh Ker being the the capital was found also outside Koh Ker, namely in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampong Cham and even in Takeo province in the south. At least ten thousand inhabitants lived in the new capital.
The reasons for this shift of the capital are not completely clarified. However, Koh Ker had already begun to be an imperial project and although it is situated in a relatively poor and inhospitable region of Cambodia, it is not far from hills rich in iron and copper ores, and even gold. Furthermore, Koh Ker was located at the Khmer empire’s main road from Angkor via Bang Melea to Preah Vihear and extending to Wat Phu in present-day southern Laos and finally to the coast of central Vietnam.
The inscriptions of Jayavarman IV in Koh Ker show that the temples of that city were built between 921 and 937, but that most donations were made from about 928 to 932, as several Khmer inscriptions from this period record donations chiefly of land and slaves to the the Devaraja. The dimensions of the new imperial state temple and the proliferation of smaller temples in an area of some 35 square kilometres are proof of the new capital’s wealth. As already mentioned, almost all of them are from the reign of Jayavarman IV, only additions to the temples and nearby shrines were afterwards made by the Angkor kings Rajendravarman II (944-968) and Jayavarman V (968-1000), one last sanctuary was the hospital chapel of Prasat Andong Kuk built by Jayavarman VII in the late 13th century. Statues in the style of Koh Ker are noteworthy for their three-dimensional plasticity and celebrated for their vividness and expressiveness.
All the monuments of Koh Ker were dedicated to Hindu gods, mainly Shiva but not for the Buddha though he was held in high esteem already during early periods of Khmer history. Apart from Shiva, to whom most temples were dedicated, Jayavarman IV also erected sanctuaries for other Hindu deities. Door inscriptions of Prasat Chen report that Jayavarman IV consecrated that sanctuary to Shripati (Vishnu). Inscriptions at the door pillars of Prasat Banteay Pir Chan record that Jayavarman IV consecrated this temple to Prajapatishvara (Brahma) in 937, and that several donations were made to it. This is remarkable, because there were no other temples in Khmer history dedicated solely to Brahma. Prasat Bak was apparently dedicated to the worship of Ganesha.
The influence of Jayavarman IV may well have extended into what is now northeastern Thailand where several temples in the Koh Ker style have survived.
The Koh Ker ruler Jayavarman IV. received the posthumous name of Pramashivapada. A slab inscription found at Prasat Bayang praises Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman. It is dated 941, which seems to indicate that Harshavarman II was on the throne on that date, or some short time before that date. Harshavarman II was not his father’s designated heir, as an inscription relates that he “attained kingship with the help of a friend and that of his two arms”. This succession seems to have been contested, during his short reign the king was embroiled in continual struggles and one of his generals had to wage war on the town of Indrapura, which had been the first capital of the Khmer empire’s founder, Jayavarman II. After only three years Harshavarman II mysteriously disappeared, probably he met a violent end. Later inscriptions refer to him by the posthumous name of Brahmaloka. No architectural achievements are attributed to the short reign of Harshavarman II.
The above-mentioned friend supporting Harshavarman’s claim to the throne, at least in the beginning, was probably his cousin who was the ruler of Bhavapura (in the area of Sambor Prei Kuk) and whose mother, Mahendradevi, was an elder sister of Harshavarman’s mother, Jayadevi, and of Angkor’s founder Yashovarman I. Only a few years later on this cousin became King Rajendravarman II, who shifted the capital back to Angkor. Again, a matrilineal lineage returned to the forefront, and it seems to have been legitimate and undisputed, though not completely reputable and unequivocal. This is indicated by the court poets, as they emphasise that Rajendravarman was even greater than his predecessors. Such derogatory comparisons are extremely rare in Kmer inscriptions and seems to compensate some doubts. Another form of such compensation was the building programme of Rajendravarman, the renewer of Angkors supremacy, now lasting for centuries.
The first French explorers of the Prasat Thom ruins of Koh Ker were Lunet de Lajonquière and Étienne Aymonier. In the 1880s members of a French expedition removed many works of sculptural art from Koh Ker to the Musée Guimet in Paris, some say, it was robbery, others, it was safeguarding, maybe both is true.
At the beginning of the 20th century art historians identified a distinct style of Koh Ker. The renownd scholar for Indochina studies Georges Coedès was able to concluded from inscriptions that Koh Ker had been the capital of the Khmer empire under the reign of Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman II. French researchers in the 1930s counted fifty sanctuaries distributed over an area of 3.500 hectares (8,649 acres). The archaeologist Henry Parmentier, who earlier on had documented Vietnam’s Cham temples and supported the preservation of Angkor Wat, created informative drawings in Koh Ker.
After NASA satellite research results had been published, the protected area of Koh Ker was extended to 80 square kilometres in 2004. More than 180 monuments are known today, but many of them not yet explored on the ground.