Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in Cambodia

Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in CambodiaUNE MERVEILLEUSE CITE KHMERE – Banteay Chhmar
By George Groslier

Special thanks to Nicole Groslier for providing original photos and for her kind permission to translate this draft of her father’s article, which later appeared in L’Illustration magazine, April 3, 1937. The translator assumes all responsibility for errors. Serious researchers should consult M. Groslier’s final article in the original French.

Banteay Meanchey, Cambodia –If one ventures to the north-western borders of Cambodia, one arrives in a region surrounded at right angles by the extreme western end of the Dangrek mountain chain. Beyond them lies Siam. Occupying 2 or 3,000 square kilometers, this area is nearly deserted. Consisting of soil made of clay and sand, crossed by some dry rivers six months of the year, it offers nothing to the traveler but uncultivated plains and sparsely wooded forests whose trees remain stunted due to fires that rage in the dry season.

Villages become increasingly rare, finally disappearing completely. In the summer, there is no game and torrid heat; in winter, the area is subjected to violent storms deflected by the mountains. This is the most desolate place in Cambodia. Still, however, ruins are found there; an imposing array of monuments from an ancient empire. Among these ruins is not only one of the largest Khmer temples that we know of (including those of the Angkor group), but also one of largest temples in the world. This temple is known as Banteay Chhmar.

What series of events inspired the builders eight centuries ago, at the height of Angkor’s power, to choose to settle in such a desolate region? And why did they later abandon the site that presents itself to us in the ruinous state that we now find it today? Here is one of the most intriguing puzzles in the history of Cambodia. We cannot address this issue here, but to understand the facts, it is helpful to know that the Khmers organized the places they inhabited bit by bit, and that their irrigation works, which we will examine in depth, made them livable and perhaps prosperous.

Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in Cambodia
Banteay Chhmar temple plan.

Today, the temple of Banteay Chhmar is almost entirely collapsed. The two authors who previously published descriptions of it — Etienne Aymonier around 1883, then Lunet de Lajonquière around 1903 — both noted that of all the Khmer monuments that they had explored Banteay Chhmar was the most ruined, the largest, the most chaotic…and the most indecipherable.

In their summaries Aymonier and de Lajonquière also gave contradictory sketches and descriptions of many pages. This attracted us to reexamine this remote group of temples. We had to make four visits over the course of several years because the temple is only accessible for two months per year. After three campaigns, we still had not even been able to reach the foundations of the walls. Despite our efforts and best intentions we risked only adding to the questions, and augmenting the work of our predecessors by very little. It was then that Mr. George Cœdès, Director of the French School of the Far East (EFEO), helped us with appropriations to support our project. We were able to immediately dispatch a team of forty coolies who gave us fifteen days of labor. But their work was only enough to enable us to probe about a third of the essential areas inaccessible in our former research.

Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in Cambodia
Banteay Chhmar’s main temple (small grey square at left) is encircled by 8 secondary temples and a vast artificial reservoir with the Mebon temple built on an island in the center.

The second site plan that we present here introduces the identification of the temples and hydraulic works that remain from the ancient city. The “Baray” is a reservoir formed by a rectangular seawall, 3 meters high on average, that encloses an area of 1,276,450 square meters (1,526,621 sq. yards). Inside edges are entirely lined with laterite blocks, which gave easy access to the water. Originally a river, now dried out, fed this vast reservoir that also collected rain water.

Boat landing at Banteay Chhmar
Ruins of the boat landing terrace on the Baray. Excavations by the EFEO revealed carved lotus flowers and sacred geese with wings spread.

Close to the center, the Khmers created an artificial island where they constructed a “Mebon” temple (i.e. a temples situated in the center of a Baray). On the Baray’s west seawall, the Khmers built an embarkation terrace for boat traffic to the central temple (photo above). Its foundation stones, originally submerged in water, are sculpted with open-winged aquatic birds among lotuses. The dimensions of this architectural element, the style of its décor, its bold position, dominated by the imposing mirror of water and the sacred Mebon temple island, prove to us from our first steps the collective viewpoint and theatrical taste of the builders of Banteay Chhmar.

The central temple is entirely encircled by a rectangular moat 65 meters wide (213 feet) with a depth of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet). One crosses to the main temple by four axial causeways, each originally edged by balustrades consisting of two rows of stone giants and supporting a Naga parapet, an ornamental motif seen at the gates of Angkor Thom, as well as at Angkor’s Baray and its Mebon temple.

South view of the moat at Banteay Chhmar
View of the south side of the moat surrounding Banteay Chhmar, with the causeway linking it to the mainland.

Before entering the boundaries of this huge temple, let us note that on its north-south and east-west axes are found seven satellite temples, with an eighth located near the southeast angle of the moat (see diagram above). These buildings, of secondary artistic interest because of the similarities among them, each include one or two surrounding walls, a tower with four faces forming a central shrine and a system of moats and basins, lined with stone banks like the Baray. On the 8 or 9 square kilometers covered by the Banteay Chhmar group, more than a sixth of the area was therefore excavated — sometimes up to depth of 6 meters (20 feet) — with the intention of creating reservoirs of water and, as a result, very clear liquid surfaces to complement the architecture.

South gallery at Banteay Chhmar
South exterior gallery of Banteay Chhmar’s main temple. These galleries originally surrounded the temple covering nearly 700 meters of bas relief carvings of Khmer life.

Here, in a few words, are the main guiding principles of the plan: all galleries and colonnaded walkways join together or cross in right angles. The majority of these junctions feature a tower shrine, tapering towards the center with four faces in some areas of the temple (the same type of the towers seen in The Bayon of Angkor Thom). As they approached the central shrine, the towers increases. From 6-7 meters (20-23 feet) tall at the periphery, they attained a height of about 20 meters (66 feet) in the center. In total, there were 56 towers.

Courtyard at Banteay Chhmar
One of the courtyards of Banteay Chhmar leading to the central labyrinth.

The two main axes of this group are clear at first glance. The point where they intersect is occupied by the central shrine, the Holy of Holies. Thus the architectural center and ritual center of the temple coincide. By passing through the temple from East to West, one encounters six distinct sections, each closely dependent on the others:

1 – A rectangular gallery enclosing the entire temple measuring 250 meters by 190 meters (820 x 623 feet). This consists of an arch roof built against a wall supported by pillars on the outside edge. The outside face of the covered wall features bas-relief carvings that, in their entirety, cover an area of 1,090 square meters (11,733 sq. feet). The interpretation of the historical and legendary stages pictured on the bas-reliefs is still impossible. Each side of the gallery is penetrated at the central axis by a monumental door with triple entry passages and three towers. One reaches these entry gates by crossing a Terrace of Honor, lined with Naga parapets and staircases flanked by lions (only the eastern terrace is shown on our plan);

2 – A rectangular gallery surrounding a courtyard, which is occupied by a crucial gallery. This beautifully proportioned building was, originally, independent of the temple itself. To the north and south it is associated with two water basins with steps and two additional buildings set upon 4 meter (13 feet) tall foundations. These are flanked by 1.7 meter (5.6 feet) tall standing monsters that act as caryatids;

3 – The main section of the temple. This “checkerboard” of galleries divides itself into three complexes that connect, one to another, from east to west, as three complete temples joined end to end. Each includes, in effect, a central tower sanctuary preceded by an entry pavilion, with towers and ceremonial gates set to the north and south. These sections are simultaneously united and independent;

As one advances west, the composition tightens; the towers and entry pavilions multiply as one reaches the principal sanctuary. Then one emerges in an open air courtyard that is mostly occupied by a group of three isolated towers. This transition achieves a remarkable contrast. These provisions obviously correspond to religious constraints imposed on the architects by the multiple divinities who were worshipped in this immense temple. The problem to be solved was therefore made much more difficult.

Also, from an architectural viewpoint, it is of great interest to follow diversity of the plan, despite the repetition of similar motifs that can be deduced within. This long rectangular area of 40 meters (131 feet) wide by 170 meters (558 feet) from east to west is divided by rows of towers — sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes on elevated foundations and sometimes with four divine faces — joined end to end without a gap, leaving no doubt in one’s mind that no section of the system of axes that govern the design was neglected. NOTE: It is this aspect that, not escaping the eye of Cambodians, inspired the modern name of the temple: Banteay Chhmar which means “narrow citadel”;

4 and 5 – To the north and south, the temple’s main section is flanked by two similar groups that are symmetrical and independent of the main structure. Both of these two shrines are topped with face towers and encircled with a rectangular gallery;

6 – Finally, completing in the west, we find the same composition style as both precedents. But, here, the central shrine is built on a foundation 3.7 meters (12 feet) high, decorated with moldings and serrated designs, flanked by staircases on all four sides. This design is different from the rest of the temple which is strictly level, the highest foundation previously encountered not exceeding 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) above the base.

Winged sacred women at Banteay Chhmar
Interior structure of Banteay Chhmar’s crucial gallery: winged women with arms raised holding lotus blossoms.

Banteay Chhmar’s plan differs considerably from most of the great Khmer temples now known. Usually, these plans are concentric and consequently develop with similar dimensions based on the four cardinal points. Generally, secondary buildings, or those added at later times, were more haphazard and without symmetry. Here, as we’ve just seen, the group is radically opposite these other designs.

The plan is eccentric, developing from east to west, in a series of successive structures that never break their rigorous symmetry. The surrounding gallery enclosure, like that of traditional temples (but here it is independent), is penetrated, but the architect neglects the north, south and west entries of the central group, even masking them with independent sanctuaries.

Garuda and Naga at Banteay Chhmar
The bird-god Garuda combined with the multi-headed serpent Naga decorates the balastrades of the terraces.

If the builders first undertook a rigorous staking of their construction sites, the disparity among almost all the Khmer monuments is that the lines of the architect are often remarkable, but the construction itself is often mediocre; this also exists at Banteay Chhmar, one of the largest of all their temples.

Banteay Chhmar devata
One of the innumerable devata nymphs who appear on the walls of Banteay Chhmar.

Given the technique of shaping the stones and stacking them one on top of the other, it was necessary to create axes 7 meters apart for three lines of towers, so there were surprises. After all was said and done, this vast monument, perfectly composed in every section by the architects, was built “approximately” and as well as the circumstances allowed.

Despite these mistakes that the workforce was powerless to change, they compensated with true will, true intelligence and a boldness that made it certain that they could accomplish building the main temple of Banteay Chhmar. Its horizontal development on a single axis precluded it from creating a massive impression as a group, but as the Khmers experienced it, proceeding through each impressive section, the small defects that we have just noted disappeared.

Four-face tower at Banteay Chhmar
One of the towers with four divine faces at Banteay Chhmar.

The 5-6,000 measurements we took of these ruins have us allowed us to calculate the cubic volume and carved surfaces. We met too many unknown factors in our research to calculate the total time spent in the construction and decoration of Banteay Chhmar. However, we were able to determine the minimum time required for such a project by determining the maximum number of workers the site could accommodate. The final answer was about sixty years, provided that there was no interruption of work.

Buddhist goddess at Banteay Chhmar
Goddess from the Buddhist pantheon at Banteay Chhmar.

On the other hand, inscriptions discovered from of the reign of Jayavarman VII (1180-1201 AD) indicate that the large temple was already finished at that time. One can therefore postulate that the ancient city of Banteay Chhmar was a prosperous religious center during the twelfth century, and that construction of the central complex of this temple was begun by about 1140 AD at the latest. As for the religion practiced there, the most anyone can say is that there was Vishnuism at the beginning. The temple later appears to have been affected by Buddhism, at least in its most recent sections. In any case, its iconography belongs to these two religions.

Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in Cambodia
Banteay Chhmar lintel.
George Groslier and his daughter Nicole at the gate of their Phnom Penh home - 1923.
George Groslier and his daughter Nicole at the gate of their Phnom Penh home – 1923.

George Groslier (1887-1945) lived, breathed and loved the art and culture of his country of birth: Cambodia.

His work as an historian, curator, educator and author was the motivating force behind much of the revival of interest in traditional Cambodian arts and crafts. He produced a large body of research and, in 1926, began adding fictional works to his oeuvre, depicting Europeans in the context of the exotic Far East.

For a complete list of George Groslier’s work please visit

Special thanks to Nicole Groslier for her kind permission to use her original photos and for allowing Kent Davis to translate this draft of her father’s article, which later appeared in L’Illustration magazine, April 3, 1937.

Banteay Chhmar in 1937 Ancient Khmer City in Cambodia

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