Chua Say Tevoda: A History of Angkor Temples

Whenever someone mentions anything ‘Angkor’, the first image that comes to most people’s minds is the impressive and daunting image of Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a magnificent temple complex that spans roughly 200 acres and includes the main temple, dozens of gopuras (carved towers over doorways), statues, galleries, libraries, towers, shrines, ponds, long promenades and smaller structures. Chua Say Tevoda is a group of small temples that sit roughly a mile away from the Angkor Wat complex and are classified as Angkor temples.

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Most of the Angkor temples in Cambodia were built during the mid 1100’s and composed of standstone blocks and laterite. Sandstone was used on the exterior and visible interior parts of the buildings while laterite was used for outer walls and hidden structural elements. The material used to join the blocks and hold them in place has yet to be identified, but a type of natural resin or slaked lime composition is being investigated.

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When you look around Siem Reap you may wonder where on earth all this stone came from. To build all of the Angkor era temples the residents had to use tens of millions of metric tons of sandstone which couldn’t be found in the nearby area. Interestingly, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined and occupied a greater area than modern-day Paris. Can you imagine having to import all of that stone through forests without the use of excavation equipment or trucks?

To get the stone from the area where it was quarried on Mount Kulen there are two possible routes. The first suggested route travels 22 miles down a canal heading towards Tonle Sap Lake, then a further 22 miles across the lake and another 9.3 miles upstream along Siem Reap River. That journey is roughly 56 miles. The other suggested, and most likely route, has been suggested to be a now-hidden canal that spans 22 miles from Mount Kulen to Angkor Wat. This route was suggested by Etsuo Uchida and Ichita Shimoda of Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, when they discovered the canal on satellite imagery in 2012.

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Chua Say Tevoda follows the same architectural and decorative style as it’s companion, Angkor Wat. Typical decorative elements are statues, Devatas (carvings of deity), Apsaras (female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) and bas-reliefs with extensive garlands and narrative scenes on pediments. Unfortunately, other decorative elements have been destroyed by looting and the passage of time, including gilded stucco on the towers, gilding on some figures on the bas-reliefs, and wooden ceiling panels and doors.

But even though there has been a lot of damage from weather, age, looting and vandals the site still looks fascinating.

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One of the interesting things about the Angkor temples is that they are still active Buddhist temples. Any temple you enter could reveal chamber with a devotee in the act of praying or meditation. During the days when the Angkor state religion was Hinduism, these areas were known as a cella. Cellas are small central chambers inside the temples. They were made small for three reasons: the temples were considered the homes of the gods and only needed to be big enough to house the statues of the gods, the rituals which were held in them were reserved for a small group of elite elite (in the capital of the Khmer only the god king could enter the shrine) and the technology at the time the temples were built could not yet make large airy halls.

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Fruit and bottles of water were originally left at the shrines as a symbolic representation of the nectar of Dharma and the wish to achieve it. This reasoning is specific to Mahayana Buddhism. In the late 12th century King Jayavarman VII changed the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. That lasted through 1243 when  Indravarman II succeeded him and returned the state religion to Hinduism. Towards the end of the 13th century the state religion again shifted, but this time is was Theravada Buddhism and over the centuries Theravada Buddhism has replaced all other religions as the dominant religion of Cambodia.

In Theravada Buddhism each offering has a specific meaning. Incense is lit to symbolize the fragrance of pure moral conduct and as a reminder to conduct yourself in a pure and moral way. Water is offered as a symbol of purity, clarity and calmness. This offering is a personal reminder to practice the Buddha’s teachings, so as to cleanse the mind of desire, ill-will and ignorance, and to continue working to attain the state of purity that is necessary to achieve Enlightenment. Fruit is offered as a symbol of the fruit of Enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practitioners. Fruit serves as a reminder that all actions have an effect for good or evil and to constantly be aware of the fruits of your actions.

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What you see here is a porch leading to the cella. This porch is called a Mandapa and is usually facing East.

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These are the feet of what is presumed to have been a Buddha statue, but it could possibly be the remnant of a Hindu statue. With the back and forth of the state religion and the erecting and removal of statues during that time, it is impossible to tell which religion these feet originally belonged to, but the orange cloth is symbolic of what Buddhist monks wear, thus denoting that these feet have been claimed as a Buddhist religious statue. Unless the body of the statue is ever recovered, we may never know what the truth really is.

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This carving of a Buddha has fallen off the wall and been placed in one of the cella.

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I can’t find anything that specifically says what the stone pedestals are, but based off similar items I’ve researched online and what they were used for, these look like sacrificial alters used to catch the blood of the animal being sacrificed and then to burn sacrificial offerings. Seeing as the central article is placed in direct line to where the statue of a Hindu god would have once stood and based off of similar items, my non-professional understanding is that the the stone to the left would have stood outside the temple for the actual sacrifice and once the blood had been collected from the sacrificed animal and the exterior rituals performed, the sacrifice would be burned inside the temple in the center stone.

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This is one of the thousands of Devatas (deity) you will come across when exploring Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. A Devata looks similar to an Aspara (a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology), but the main difference is the posture and direction of the head. While Asparas are in a dancing poses with their heads facing slightly or fully to the side, Devatas stand or sit erect with their faces fully forward.

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This window is flanked by Devata.

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It is sad that the combination of time and vandalism has made it so the carvings are so incomplete.

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Weather has also deteriorated the once clear and intricate details.

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Part of this exterior carving has been meticulously restored, but unfortunately only half of it survived to be restored. The central piece of the carving is that of a Makara, or sea creature of Hindu mythology. The Makara is an embodiment of Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges river and the sea god Varuna. It is also the insignia of the love god Kamadeva. Kamadeva is also known as Makaradhvaja (one whose flag a makara is depicted). Makara is the astrological sign of Capricorn. It is often portrayed protecting entryways to both Hindu and Buddhist temples.

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The tops of these temples would have once been adorned with an elaborate prang, a tall and intricately carved tower-like spire. The taller the prang, the more important the god housed therein.

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This temple at Chua Say Tevoda has a mostly intact prang.

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One of the unfortunate pieces of information I’ve learned about the Angkor temples is that after the fall of the Angkor civilization to the Ayutthaya kingdom in the early 1400s, many statues were taken to Ayutthaya and Angkor was largely abandoned. After the abandonment Angkor fell into decay and stones from the temples were used to build other temples. In recent years, due to the lack of protection and safeguarding of the ruins, there has been an increase in looting and the theft of carvings and other irreplaceable items from the temples. APSARA, the Cambodian agency that manages the preservation and restoration of Angkor released a statement in 1992 saying, “vandalism has multiplied at a phenomenal rate, employing local populations to carry out the actual thefts, heavily armed intermediaries transport objects, often in tanks or armored personnel carriers, often for sale across the Cambodian border.” It’s incredibly disheartening that any Cambodian citizen would be involved in the continued destruction and desecration of their own cultural heritage site and it is just so sad that the Cambodian government won’t take steps to protect these national treasures.

9Z9C7048Some sections of the stairs on this side of the main temple are completely gone or seriously damaged, necessitating the construction of a new staircase. You can also see that the central prang is missing along with the carvings and exterior sculptures typical of Angkor temples.9Z9C7045 This is all that’s left of the exterior wall and grand central walkway to the temple grounds. IMG_2542t

What’s left of the courtyard surrounding the main temple.

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The carving atop the side of this temple is mostly intact. Isn’t it beautiful? Beneath it is what’s called a ‘Blind Door’. Angkorean temples and shrines frequently opened in only one direction, typically to the East. The other three sides featured Blind Doors to maintain symmetry. Blind Windows were often used along otherwise blank walls as well.IMG_2535t

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Another reason the Angkor temples are in danger is unsustainable tourism. Every year the rate number of tourists increases and more damage occurs to the site. Far too many tourists climb on the temples, carve their initials into them, go into areas where they are not supposed to and rub the fragile sandstone carvings causes irreparable damage. While tourists who are respectful and do not climb on the temples are appreciated, the sheer weight of tourist groups also threatens the stability of the site. Cambodia is so poor that the government isn’t willing to curb or restrict tourism for fear of losing a vast part of the national income, even if it means speeding up the destruction of such a culturally important site.

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Since millions of tourists visit the Angkor area every year and there are no plans to curb the amount of people allowed into the site or even close off the more fragile sections, what can we do to ensure the survival of this one-of-a-kind national treasure?

  • Be careful where you walk
  • Avoid areas where the stones are broken
  • Do not jump on protruding stones
  • Do not climb on the temples
  • Use the stairs to get to areas you would like to explore
  • Honor the “Do Not Enter” signs
  • Take pictures, not stones
  • Do not carve or write anything on any of the stones, temples, statues or monuments
  • Do not rub or touch the carvings. Sandstone is incredible fragile
  • Do not engage in horseplay on the temple grounds
  • Do not pick up or attempt to pick up stones, statues or any other object inside the temples or on the grounds
  • Do not throw things in or around the temples
  • Put your trash in the provided receptacles – pick up any if you see it
  • Keep your clothes on – whether or not you view it as such these are sacred religious sites
  • Report any inappropriate behavior to a nearby official

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All of the Angkorian temples are beautiful and the area is so fascinating to visit. I don’t wish to discourage anyone from making the effort to experience the culture and history firsthand. My only wish is to help you have a better understanding of how culturally important and physically fragile these structures are. I really loved exploring the remnants of the Angkor Kingdom and getting a better understanding of their history and ingenuity. One day I hope to go back and see these sites again along with the ones I wasn’t able to get to.

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Have you been to Angkor Wat or any of the other Angkor temples? What did you think of the experience?

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16 Replies to “Chua Say Tevoda: A History of Angkor Temples”

  1. Alfredo

    Hi, How are you? What is your plan for this new year? Would you like to travel cheap or even get paid for travel on this new year?

    Reply
  2. Katherine Rose Coronel- Rivera

    Beautiful photos! There are lots of Asian countries that have this kind of culture. Still rich and pure. I have lots of friends who have visited Angkor Wat temples and they said it’s really beautiful. They also like taking outfit shots there. I hope I can visit that country in the future and do the temple run. Kidding aside!

    Reply
  3. Desirae

    Wow just wow! I am so jealous of your trip and all of your pictures! I would love to travel and do unique things like this. Its sad that this place is in danger. People just don’t know how to take care or respect things. I have been in several unique places and watched people just be just do disrespectful.

    Reply
    • Erin Post author

      I agree. I don’t understand how people can treat places and things the way they do. The lack of understanding and care about the impact we have on historic sites by some people can be frustrating, but with places like Macchu Picchu and the Egyptian Pyramids starting to fine and jail people who do these things, hopefully it will deter others at other sites.

      Reply
  4. Cynthia

    I love these temples, how full of history and culture! I can only imagine the amount of history contained in a 200 acre complex. The site is fascinating and I hope the complex and its building remain intact for future people to enjoy and learn from. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photographs as well as the information.

    Reply
    • Erin Post author

      Thank you for your comment! I, too, hope that the site can remain intact for future generations to enjoy. It’s such a great place.

      Reply
    • Erin Post author

      I know! Whether you’re religions or not, these sites are thousands of years old and I’m sure most people wouldn’t want someone to carve their initials into something they treasure.

      Reply
  5. Aileen Adalid

    The Angkor Temples are amazing and no one can deny that fact. I haven’t been to this place yet though and I wish I had visited it before I left Asia — but then again, that leaves me with something to look forward to. Great photos by the way! And I love learning about the facts behind it 🙂

    Reply
  6. Laura H

    What an amazing story. Angkor temples are not known by me but found your article fascinating and full of wonderment. It is amazing to think at how hard and far they must of came to build this only to have time and people to make it into ruins. However the stories still are passed and that is the best we can hope to have sometimes. Great photos by the way.

    Reply
  7. tammileetips

    I love these Angkor temples! We have visited temples in Bali and some other places and loved the history there. It really is said how some people treat these places and leave their mark.

    Reply
  8. dee

    Awesome photos!!!! This place is so rich in history and I love the design and architecture of Chua Say Tevoda. This makes me want to really find away to travel to see new places and learn a new culture. I hate that the place is in danger because of Tourism and I hope that there an be a way to fix the problem so that this place is there for generations to see.

    Reply
  9. Kita Bryant

    Love the architecture. Did you say carve their initials? Why would people want to ruin such history *sigh* I would take pictures but I would not try to carve into anything or climb things because the artifacts can get ruined and because of the age of them you want something preserved in it’s originality as much as possible.

    Reply

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