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Beng Mealea is a very impressive temple built in the reign of King Suryavarman II, 12th century CE, and modified by Jayavarman VII. It is located in Beng Mealea village, Beng Mealea commune, Svay Leu District, Siem Reap province. It is about 77 Km Northwest of Siem Reap town and faces the eastern part of Kulen mountain on one side. Importantly, it is situated along the Royal Road to the east of Angkor, where leads from the eastern part of Bakheng mountain. From Angkor the Royal Road passes temples such as Bat Chum, Cao Srei Vibol, Banteay Ampil and Beng Mealea to Preah Khan Kampong Svay. This ancient road has well constructed bridges such as Spean Ta Oung, Spean Khvav and Spean Khmeng. Beng Mealea is flanked by Prasat Don Chan and Prasat Koh Chin on the west, Prasat Kong Pluk and Prasat Jrei on the east.
Beng Mealea was constructed on a large scale. Unfortunately, it is now seriously damaged due primarily to natural degradation and collapse. The main architectural element is sandstone which was taken from nearby quarries. The temple was built on a flat plan in a compound of 14 hectares, and consists of one central sanctuary, surrounded by three galleries and connected by cruciform galleries. It is surrounded by a moat of 1200m in length and 900m in width, a symbol of a cosmos ocean surrounding Mount Meru, the residence of all the Gods. There are four smaller strctures, previously termed "libraries"; two are in the inner enclosure and the other two are in the outer enclosure.
The sites has three ponds located in the east and they are approximately on either side of the main entrance. Srah Keo and Srah Svaytong are in the north and Srah Thmar Baykream is in the south. Beng Mealea has two large structures on the south side of the third enclosure which have been termed “palaces” or halls for ritual ablutions and dances. This type of structure appears before the entrance of the sanctuaries, basins and other places. Generally, it has two levels, the upper level assumed to have been used for King and his family members and the lower level for the members of the court. It has a long causeway that leads from the east entrance to the moat, surrounded by Naga-balustrade and Lion statues. Significantly, there are three other causeways leading to the three other cardinal directions. These causeways are supported by cylindrical columns and also adorned with Naga-balustrades and Lion statues. A cruciform terrace leads to the Gopura of the outer galleries. Furthermore, two architecture innovations can be seen in this temple complex. They are wide vaulted roof galleries in stone and a vault supported on one side by a row of pillars and on the other side by a wall.
Beng Mealea was decorated with 180 lintels, depicting the scenes of Churning the Sea of Milk, Mahabharata, Ramayana and some individual Brahmanic deities such as Siva, Brahma and Ganesha. It is unlikely that the walls did not bear decoration – either bas-reliefs or were probably coated with frescoes as there is no remaining trace of carved stone.
The pediment depicted deity scenes, most of which were presented in multiple levels creating significant style and beauty. Cylindrical columns, divided into 7 sections, are fully decorated with florals and vines can also be seen, and door frames are decorated with flowers, vines and some tiny figures of deities. This type of decoration is also found at Angkor Wat of particular note are: the Dvārapāla (door guardians) figure, which look quite similar to at Banteay Samre temple, in their clothing and especially the fishtail design for the sampot; secondly, a figure of a divinity, who might be sitting on a cow (Siva) or buffalo (Yama), 61cm high; and thirdly, the torso of a male figure, 61cm in height. A further 34 fragments of divinities were found in the year 2000, most of which are fragments of Dvārapāla, lions and columns. It is rare to find the statues of the deities in the temple. However, there are three statues originating from Beng Mealea presently housed in the Depot of Angkor Conservation. The statue of Avalokitesvara with four arms, 140cm in height was found in the first enclosure between the four central sanctuaries and library. According to the four tier design of the, this statue probably was made in the first half of the 12th century CE.
Criterion (ii): Beng Mealea was a central point on a crossroads between east-west and north-south routes, where products from the Kulen mountains and neighbourhoods along the Royal Road were exchanged, including sigbificantly, marine products from the Tonle Sap and even some foreign goods. It was also a check point for staging military and ceremonial processions and other state missions to the east.
Criterion (iv): Beng Mealea is an Angkorian temple constructed on a flat plan, often described as two-dimensional version of Angkor Wat. The techniques of construction and decoration are recognised in a high standard and craftsmanship of Khmer art in particular. The design and decoration show a combination of three styles, Baphoun, Angkor Wat and early Bayon. Furthermore, it is an outstanding example of temple-town landscape divided into regular orthogonal city blocks by the road grid and pond arrangments. Every block furnished with number of elevated occupation mounds and ponds". Importantly, it is a hydraulic city, based on managing water flowing from Kulen mountain to the moat, baray and the ponds. A 200m width dyke near the temple was also used to supply water to the whole area aroujd it, and was believed to have been used as the route for transportating the stone from quarries near Beng Mealea to Angkor.
Beng Mealea is in a remote landscape setting, more authentically like the ancient landscape than many of the major temples of Angkor. After being virtually lost in the jungle for many years, no major conservation or restoration work has been done and most of its components are still intact and in situ, even if collapsed and some damaged.Beng Mealea is not part of Angkor Zone. However, this temple is under the management and protection from APSARA Authority (The Authority for the protection and management of Angkor and region of Siem Reap). APSARA Authority was doing some minor preventive conservation activities on the temple. Some international organizations are also taking part to do the researches and studies.
The principal philosophies and religions in ancient Cambodia were undoubtedly rooted in India, and religious temples and images of the divinities show Indian inspiration. However, the style of architectural structures and decorations are distinctive, from India, Dvaravati, Mon or Champa either. Within the Kingdom, Khmer art rapidly developed showing distinct characteristics in the eras of individual Kings, especially certain “Great Kings”.
In the 12th century, King Suryavarman II who was one of the great Kings in the history of Cambodia built many big and important temples. The most famous of course is Angkor Wat temple and others in that style include Dhammanon, Cao Srei Vibol as well as Beng Mealea. However, those temples have distinctive features, except for some decorations and motifs. Exceptionally, the function of Beng Mealea could be similar to some temples below.
Preah Khan Kampong Svay (Cambodia: late 12th-13th century)
Preah Khan Kampong Svay is a temple that was built and used by many Great Kings of the Khmer Kingdom, including Suryavarman I, Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII. This temple is also located on the extreme end of Royal Road to the east of Angkor while Beng Mealea is approximately half way between Angkor and Preah Khan Kampong Svay. The architectural design of Beng Mealea Preah Khan Kampong Svay share many features but are by no means replicas. Furthermore, they each served political and economic functions of the Kingdom in their respective localities areas.
Vat Phu (Laos: 10th-early 11th century C.E.)
Vat Phu temple, is also located on the Royal Road heading to the northeast, in present day Laos. It is also a big Hindu temple, with outstanding architectural plan, design and decoration showing connections between nature and humanity. It also served the political and economic purposes for the Kingdom.
Phimai (Thailand: 12th-13th century C.E.)
Phimai temple was a very important temple in the reign of King Jayavarman VII, although the site had been used before him, f including in the reigns of King Jayavarman VI and Suryavarman II. This temple is also erected on the Royal Road from Angkor towards the west. The design and decoration of this temple are much more related to the religion and political administration in the reign of King Jayavarman VII and the Kings before him.
In terms of design, Beng Mealea temple is one of the most interesting temples among many reigns of Great Kings of Angkor, especially among the temples of King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. It was built on a plan showing significant complexity of architecture and art work, which is possible to compare only with the most highly regarded temple of Angkor Wat. Each element of the temple providedd effective functions for religious needs while also symbolizing the universe or the cosmos, the most meaningful element for the vision of the people in Southeast Asia. Such outstanding art connects humans to the Gods and illustrates the life and prosperity of the human. It expressed the harmony of the religion toward the people and was a means to transmit knowledge of the people from one area to another, crossing political boundaries.