BACK STORY: In the winter of 2014 I spent a month in Cambodia and Thailand, on what began as a photography trip ended up as a three year study of the mythology, astronomy and cosmology Khmer Empire and how these disciplines were expressed in architecture. The first four articles in this series greatly explored how Hindu creation myths gave rise to religious symbolism and an architectural style associated with mythological and cosmic order, which is reflected in the measurements, orientations and alignments of the temples and religious complexes.
In part and in whole the Khmer temples are a 'near' perfect expression of greater cosmic order, the passage of time, the ever moving rays of the sun and ultimately their influence on agriculture - therefore survival. The last article brushed on Khmer sacred geography, which followed the topographical and geodetic measuring rules and principals defined by earlier Vedic Indian Priests in the Sulbasutras - (Codes of the ropes). Vedic geometers expressed geographic, astronomical, mythological and spiritual concepts with pythagorean triangles, for example, lunar and solar distances are encapsulated within a pythagorean triangle which has sides measuring 40, 41 and 9 equal units, as illustrated in the Figure 1.
Pythagorean triangles are not only measurable in the Khmer temples but also within the greater landscape. In the last article I took the astronomical data of professors Stencel, Gifford and Moron and married it with the modern work of Professor Giulio Magli, who in 2016 published a concise paper entitled Archaeoastronomy in the Khmer Heartland . Using Google Earth and GIS data, with a reconstructed ancient Khmer sky generated on Stellarium, Magli set out to:
investigate the relationships of astronomy with orientation and topography in a systematic fashion, following the methods of modern Archaeoastronomy and strictly keeping at a bay vague and/or esoteric proposals put forward by many authors in the past.
Magli rediscovered the primary landscape alignments were first laid out by Indravarman I (877-889), who famously built the Bakong temple. Magli pointed out that his successor, Yasovarman I (889-910 AD) later built 'the Lolei' island temple, precisely at the centre of the existing Baray, directly upon the Bakong temple meridian.
This meridian was clearly a symbolic-sacred-geographic feature with a rich associated cosmology, where the divine plan of one King was expanded upon by another in his linage. This is a great example of 'symbolic' sacred geometry, but on deeper-level the high priests also integrated astronomical alignments into their sacred landscape plans. Some of the principal astronomical considerations in the Khmer landscape were first retraced in the mid-70s by researchers Stencel, Gifford and Moron, who in their 1976 paper Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat observed that because Angkor Wat is located on latitude 13° 26' N, the sun's rising azimuth (angle) on the June and December solstices is 65.5° and 114.5°, respectively. Moron explained:
a key solstice alignment untied the temple at Angkor Wat with the 220 meter high Phnom Bok hill, 14 kilometres to the north east.
Magli's also commented on how Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, located Angkor Wat so that this solstice effect/show, occurred with Phnom Bok Hill. If he had located Angkor Wat even 300 meters north or south this solar effect wouldn't 'work', as illustrated in Figure 3.
This map illustrates the June solstice sunrise alignment between Angkor Wat and Phnom Bok hill. This is the extent of the current academic work on this subject and from here on in we go off-piste, adhering of course, to the principals of archaeoastronomy defined by Magli, Stencel, Gifford and Moron. My new research, as presented in this article, begins two centuries before Angkor Wat was built when the original ground-plans for the sacred Khmer landscape were first being measured out and plotted by Yasovarman I who is recorded as having 'set his priests to work 'measuring out' a sacred plan for 'future' temples, monuments and shrines'.
THE LOST KHMER MERIDIAN
At the end of the 9th century King Yasovarman I moved his ancient capital city from Hariharalaya further north to Yashodharapura where all of the famous religious monuments were 'later' built, e.g. Angkor Wat. At the very heart of his new kingdom were two hills, Phnom Bok and Phnom Dei, which were fortunately were aligned north to south. Yasovarman I built a temple upon each hill, separated by 14.5 kilometres, and in doing so he continued the kingly tradition of establishing a prime meridian to mark his kingship and authority over his dominion.
His new zero-line of longitude would become an immovable anchor in an otherwise wild and changing landscape, from which all astronomical and building measurements would be taken to and from, and upon and around which cosmologies and spiritual constructs would be built.
King Yasovarman I's two hill-top temples were located upon the same meridian with an accuracy so fine, that if one were to stand at either temple and hold a hair at arms length, along the imaginary meridian, the second temple would be hidden by that hair. Close your eyes, its way easier! This ancient meridian linking Yasovarman I's two hill-top temples was though of as a spiritual spine in the Khmer Empire for the next 200 years.
I propose that most if not all Khmer temples were located on primary measurements, to and from, this old prime meridian - marked by two hill-top temples. Proving my theory, Dr. Giulio proved that a primary consideration for the location of Angkor Wat was so that worshipers could 'watch the summer solstice sun rising from behind Phnom Bok hill', as shown in Figure 1. I asked the question:
Might the Phnom Dei hill-top temple, 14.5 kilometres to the north, also have served as a astronomical foresight on the summer solstice sunrise? From, a yet unidentified temple?"
Running khmer Dynastic Meridians
The answer to this question was yes! Albeit it has taken 3 years for me to formulate that question, the answer was established as simply as drawing Angkor Wat's meridian 14.5 kilometres north, on Google maps. From this newly identified location, identified in Figure 5, a viewer would watch the summer solstice sunrise from behind the Phnom Dei hill-top temple.
14.5 km north on Angkor Wat's meridian I identified the south west corner of a massive rectangular baray (reservoir) surrounded a series of clearly square forms rising through the trees, in a landscape, which if not engineered by man should have been be a chaotic scribble.
I had obviously located a temple, but it was well off the tourist trail and no names, photos or road signs appeared on any mapping programs. I immediately wrote an email to a temple guide I know in Siem Reap and sent him the coordinates of this baray, precisely 14.5 kilometres north of Angkor Wat, mirroring the length of the meridian between the two hill top temples. I was soon informed my landscape alignment had identified a temple-hospital complex- Prasat Tonle Sngout, next to Phumĭ Ângkôr Krau in Khétt, near Angkor Thom's North Gate.
This temple was built by King Jayavarman VII who reigned in c.1181–1218 and established the new capital, Angkor Thom. Historians generally consider him as the most powerful Khmer monarch of all time and following the tradition of his father, Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist, thus, his life-goal was to ‘alleviate the suffering of his people’ and he greatly attempted to turn his kingdom into an ‘earthly paradise’. This is evident in the 10th Stanza of the Say Fong inscription which praises the 'perfection of the king' and tells us of his sacred geographic plans.
Seeing that his kingdom, which his 'wisdom had transformed into heaven on earth', was oppressed by death, he produced a divine elixir that brought immortality to all.
Located 14.5 meters north of Angkor Wat on the same line of longitude, observers standing at the west side of the Prasat Tonle Sngout baray, on the morning of the summer solstice, would watch the sun rising behind Phnom Dei hill-top temple, as illustrated in Figure 8, with the summer solstice hill-top alignment detailed in orange.
To summarise this sacred landscape plan in words, would take at least another 3000, but it is explained in its fullest in Figure 10 where the 9th century prime meridian, marked by the two hill top temples - Phnom Dei and Phnom Bok - later determined the locations for Angkor Wat and Prasat Sngout temples, built in the 12th century.
Taking a few moments to meditate upon this sacred geographic format will reveal it as a thing of simplicity, not lacking in beauty - an expression of the mind of King Jayavarman VII. His two 12th century temples were situated so that on the summer solstice the sun was seen rising from behind his ancestor Yasovarman I's two 9th century hill-top temples. This is raw and pure Hindu sacred geography.
For over 30 years Jayavarman VII personally project managed a massive construction program of public works and monuments, following the sacred landscape delineated by his predecessors. Combining religious construction with public works, in Angkor Thom for example, he created a network of provincial temples, moat systems and enormous barays (reservoirs) which fed the national irrigation system. His reign was marked by the centralisation of the state and he was a social controller on a grand scale - a city maker. In the first phase of his building program he famously built ‘102 hospitals’ and rest houses along the roads and afterwards built a pair of temples in honour of his parents: Preah Khan for his father and in 1186, he dedicated Ta Prohm ("Ancestor Brahma" or " Eye of Brahma") to his mother.
He finally constructed his own temple-mountain at Bayon, a multi-towered, multi-faceted temple blending Buddhist and Hindu cosmology and iconography, and developed the city of Angkor Thom (Indrapattha) around it. At this temple an inscription indicates that this massive temple at one time had ’80,000 people’ assigned to its upkeep, including 18 high priests and 615 female dancers.
If what I had discovered was indeed evidence of Yasovarman I's 9th century sacred landscape plan, still being built upon in the 12th century, I should then be able to apply this system in a predictive manner and locate more temples? And I did. In the third article I explained that the two equinoxes were the most mportant/sacred holy days in the Khmer agricultural, civic and ritual calendars. Therefore, almost all of their temples were aligned east to west, so that the first rays of the equinoctial sun enlightened the shrines, altars, lingams and yonis.
Understanding how these two sacred hills were used to locate temples so that June solstice sun rise was seen behind these two hills, what about the equinox sunrises? It would be expected that the two hills would have served as foresights on these most sacred dates? And they do. Standing on Phnom Dei hill-top temple, looking 2300 meters directly west - along the equinox alignment - the skyline is broken with another massive temple complex - Banteay Srei Island Temple.
Consecrated on 22 April AD 967, Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women) is a 10th-century temple originally called Tribhuvanamaheśvara (Great Lord of the Threefold World), the triune manifestation of Shiva. Built largely of red sandstone, a medium that enabled the elaborate decorative carvings which are still observable today, the buildings themselves are like miniature temples compared to the standards of Angkorian construction further south. where the bulk of the temples are located.
I arrived at this temple at sunrise and watched the light spread down three concentric rectangular enclosures - all constructed on the equinoctial east–west axis. A 67 m causeway, on this axis, leads from a grand outer gate to the third, or outermost, of the three enclosures. Inside, an inner enclosure contains the sanctuary which consists of an entrance chamber and three further towers, as well as two libraries. The temple buildings are divided along the central east–west axis with those located 'south' of the axis being devoted to Shiva, and those north of the axis are devoted to Vishnu.
The causeway connects the gopura (entrance tower) with the third, inner enclosure. North and south of this causeway are galleries each with a north–south orientation. These observations determine that Banteay Srei Island temple was aligned so that worshipers at its centre viewed the vernal and autumnal equinox sun rising from behind the natural notch in Phnom Dei hill.
In conclusion, just as predicted, a third 12th century temple, Banteay Srei Island temple, aligns to the 9th century meridian marked by Phnom Dei hill. This temple was specifically located so that the hill becomes a foresight on the two equinox sunrises, when the 'first light' was seen emanating from a notch in the hilltop and beaming down the causeway, where it exploded upon the artefacts and offerings located at the centres of the temples and shrines.
The next level of this sacred landscape matrix is achieved when we extend an equinox alignment west of the Phnom Bok hill-top temple. Not only does this line define the north western most corner in the Angkor Thom complex, but it precisely locates the centre of the massive Banteay Sra temple, 31 kilometres (19.25 miles) to the west.
Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker e
xploring history, science and psychology. Exploring ancient landscapes, cultures and kingdoms. Investigating myths, folklore and legends. Examining artefacts, symbols and architecture. Discovering and presenting unique stories from the
Banteay Sra temple
Finding Banteay Sra temple located on the equinoctial line from Phnom Bok hill-top temple, I had now completed drawing out a triangle in the landscape, the sides of which were formed with the ancient prime meridian and the June solstice and equinox alignments. A triangle of the most sacred nature to a Hindu priest, built on two hills and two astronomical measurements.
What you are looking at is the manifestation of the ancient Khmer Empire's underlying scared format constructed around Phnom Bok and Phnom Dei hill-top temples. This is a thing of beauty in its own right, but what if I told you that not only did this triangle embrace the prime meridian, solstice and equinox alignments, but when its three sides are measured it is found to be a Pythagorean 9,40,41 triangle. This type of triangle was, shown at the beginning of the article as an example of how ancient Vedic priests used Pythagorean triangles to represent astronomical concepts in sacred geometry in architecture and here in sacred geography.
Angkor Wat and the Khmer temples are often called functioning 'calendars in stone'. This is of course true, but we must come beyond the dimension of time and reconsider the deeper meaning of the temples locations, in the three earthly dimensions of 'space'. The 12th century builders located Angkor Wat and Prasat Tonle Sngout temple so that they aligned with the two hills, Phnom Bok and Phnom Dei, where in the minutes following the equinox sunrise, the suns blazing corona was seen perched atop the hill-top temples which would have been perceived as receiving powerful solar "creation energy" which was thought as having been pumped downwards from the divine - first into the hill-top temples, along the landscape alignments and into the 12th century temples, through the king, and outwards across the entire Khmer Empire.
This solar sunrise dynamic with the two sacred hills is repeated on the equinoxes when the sunrise is observed from Banteay Srei and Banteay Sra temples, both located directly to the west of the two sacred hills. This is a beautiful expression of spiritual and mythological concepts being fused with astronomy and geography - then expressed in the locations of temples. Albeit Angkor Wat is one of the most written about ancient buildings on our planet, little attention has been given to the underlying alignments which synthesise the temple with the surrounding landscape. I hope this article will provoke further research into this field of study.