Phnom Kulen range is located 30 km northeast of Angkor archaeological site, Siem Reap province, northwest Cambodia. It is registered since 1992 on the Government of Cambodia’s tentative list as a World Heritage potential cultural site, with the criteria V and VI. Phnom Kulen means the Mountain of Leeches in Khmer. According to the old Khmer inscriptions (and particularly Sdok Kak Thom inscription), the mountain is known as Mahendraparvata, the mountain of the Great Indra, an ancient city established at the late 8th-early 9th-centuries, comprising several temples, the religious remains of this former capital of the Khmer Empire. The capital was settled on the plateau, located 70 Km to the south of the Dangrek Mountains, and 30 Km away from the great Tonle Sap Lake. Today, the Phnom Kulen national Park is a 37,375-hectares protected area, located in Banteay Srey, Svay Leu and Varin districts, in Siem Reap province.
The ancient Mahendraparvata (late 8th-early 9th centuries) on Phnom Kulen is today a partially forested site containing about 40 brick temples, including one pyramid mountain-temple, as well as ancient reservoirs, dykes with spillway, channels, ponds, plots, platforms, and earthen mounds, all part of an ancient urban system.Other later archaeological remains are also located on Phnom Kulen such as dozen prehistoric sites with rock paintings, more than 40 rock shelters occupied by hermits from the 10th century, including 2 sculpted riverbed (Kbal Spean and the One Thousand Linga), ceramic kilns dated from the 10th to 11th centuries, a late Angkorian temples such as Prasat Krol Romeas located at the large natural waterfall (end of the 12th century), and the large and very much venerated nowadays Preah Ang Thom reclining Buddha.
Phnom Kulen is located in Northwest Cambodia, such as the others Cambodian Cultural World Heritage sites: Angkor, Preah Vihear and Sambor Prei Kuk. The mountain range is also at the origin of the Siem Reap River, as well as the other main rivers of Angkor region (Puok and Roluos). It has a major role for the local aquifer and for the surface water, draining most of the plateau before reaching Angkor, nourishing its entire hydraulic system, the major reservoir (baray) and the temples or city moats through a network of channels, and ending in the great Tonle Sap Lake.
In addition, Phnom Kulen holds a major symbolic significance for the ancient Khmer Empire as, according to ancient inscription, King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802 CE from the city of Mahendraparvata. There also, this king initiated the first Devaraja cult of the king, as stated in Sdok Kak Thom inscription (Michael and Evans, 2018: 118). Among local recent legends, one identifies the mountain with the place where Buddha stepped a foot, when the entire country was flooded.
Recently, the LiDAR technology has revealed a very large and formally planned network of oriented earthen dikes forming axis. This urban grid connects previously known, temples, and the water infrastructures, such as the dams blocking the valleys of the plateau and creating large reservoirs. Organizing the landscape on a large scale (more than 40 km2), it also organizes settlement plots. Most of the temples are single brick towers, attributed to Jayavarman II reign. One of them stands out, Prasat Rong Chen, the five-tiered pyramid temple built on the highest point of the southern part of the plateau. Partially constructed from leveling or soils embankments (first two levels) and laterite blocks (last three levels), the temple’s top level is accessible by ramps, unique remains of a construction left unfinished. An unfinished large reservoir, or baray, was also evidenced thanks to the Lidar technology. Additionally, the Royal Palace of the ancient capital (Banteay) was identified in 2009 (Chevance, 2014) and confirms the presence of the king and his court on the plateau, at the early 9th century. Mahendraparvata (Phnom Kulen) is, therefore, very significant as it is one of the earliest capitals of the Angkor period, which extended from the 9th to 15th centuries.
Systematic archaeological survey and excavations have identified an array of cultural features. There are more extensive of a large settlement than the historical record indication. For instance, later Angkorian inscriptions often refer to Jayavarman’s capital on the plateau, but no inscriptions dating from that period have been found so far in Phnom Kulen. However, the significant infrastructures in Phnom Kulen demonstrated the “first engineered landscapes of the era, offering key insights into the transition from the pre-Angkorian to Angkorian period, including innovations in urban planning, hydraulic engineering and sociopolitical organization that would shape the course of the region’s history for the next 500 years” (Chevance et al, 2019: 1305). Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen, “therefore, represents a significant milestone in the development of urban from/in the region” (Chevance et al, 2019: 1317).
It is believed that “the grid of major axes provides the overall framework upon which other patterns of habitation are based and elaborated” (Chevance et al, 2019:1316). According to Lidar and following field verification researchers “found hundreds of ponds within the central area, only two of them interrupt the course of the major axes, the other ponds are scattered within the city blocks” (Chevance et al, ibid). Several evidences “suggest that the central grid was laid out before, or during, the elaboration of the habitation network, and that the two systems functioned contemporaneously” (Chevance et al, ibid).
The existence of a royal palace, numerous temples and neighbourhoods, indicate that a royal court was located on the Kulen plateau. A substantial population living in “an extensive, well-defined, built-up area” supports it (Chevance et al, 2019:1318). “This area was clearly of parceled neighbourhoods indicate that it was not merely a vacant ceremonial centre (Chevance et al, 2019:1318).
Prior to the Mahendraparvata construction, “the evidence shows that settlement patterns in the Angkor region comprised small, loosely structured urban areas that lacked any formal grid, had no clear boundaries and appear to have developed organically without a coherent plan. Beyond the Angkor region, a handful of centres show evidence of enclosing walls, for instead, at the sixth to eight centuries AD site of Sambor Prei Kuk. On the other hand, these much smaller in scale than at Mahendraparvata and contain no internal grids. Thus, Mahendraparvata marks an important point of departure, and appears to represent the first large-scale ‘grid city’ elaborated in the Khmer world. It would be some time before such a design would be fully realized again in the Angkor region. The ninth-century AD city of Hariharalaya, the capital immediately following Mahendraparvata, contains a monumental core but, overall, evinces an organic layout typical of the early Angkorian ‘open cities’ (Evans 2010; Pottier 2012). It is only in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD that the massive linear axes and internal frameworks of cities appear again in the Angkor region (Gaucher 2017), and not until the twelfth century that we have unambiguous evidence for gridded cities achieved on the same scale as Mahendraparvata (Evans 2016). Hence, the urban network revealed by lidar and described here seems to form an enormous and remarkably early experiment in formal urban planning. The urban model that first developed on this mountain plateau, although sparsely inhabited at the time and not widely adopted straight away, would eventually be adapted to the low-lying floodplains of Angkor, and become a prototype for high-density urban centres at the height of the Khmer Empire” (Chevance et al, 2019: 1317, 1318).
Mahendraparvata map bring new insights regarding the history of the Angkorian urbanism. It combines the two previously identified forms (Evans et al, 2013; Evans, 2016), while missing many other elements. It has an extended city grid, but without any attempt to define a central area with a wall or moat; the central grid does not appear to have been densely inhabited; and there is little evidence for intensive agricultural activity or a broader network of low-density occupation revolving around fields and ponds. Hence, while Mahendraparvata is immediately recognizable as Angkorian, and identifiably ‘urban’, it is totally unique in the Khmer world in its development of urban form (Chevance et al, 2019:1319).
Moreover, the architecture and art of Phnom Kulen, moreover, indicate the development of a unique style during the reign of Jayavarman II, at the end of the 8th century. The sandstones decorative architectural elements (columns and lintels) and the sculptures progressed to a unique and a new “Kulen style”. This style illustrates a transition from the previous pre-angkorian styles to the future angkorian and post-angkorian styles.
After this early capital of the Khmer Empire was abandoned as the siege of power, the court moved from Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen to (Hariharalaya in Rolous, 15 Km east of the future Angkor). Phnom Kulen site continued to be considered as a sacred mountain and later archaeological sites show, it was never completely abandoned. Epigraphic evidence indicated that Kings consecrated sculpture riverbed (Kbal Spean) and later temples and particular infrastructures such as channels, stairways, ceramic kilns or mounds fields evidence an occupation of the Phnom Kulen during the angkorian period. Nowadays, several Phnom Kulen archaeological sites still hold a sacred value for Cambodians and are the witnesses of an important worship by Khmer people, coming from the entire country. Monks and modern hermits often reused hermit’s sites, insuring a sacred continuity, and numerous legends, folktales, and narratives continue to be associated by the local communities to the archaeological sites.
Finally, Phnom Kulen is also known to host the ancient quarries, where the sandstone blocks were extracted. From Phnom Kulen site, a complex and long network of channels and parallel raised earthen road allowed their transportation to Angkor, to build the prestigious religious monument, from the 10th century. Phnom Kulen ancient quarrying industry, known from the late 19th century, was developed on a very large scale, recently revealed by the Lidar (Evans, 2017). It has left numerous localized pits with high stepped surfaces forming a complex network of stone exploitation.
The Phnom Kulen will be presented as an extension of Angkor site, in accordance with the guideline for the implementation of the 1972 convention. The proposed tentative list meets criteria ii, iv, and v for the inclusion of Mahendraparvata on the World Heritage List, as a cultural site. There are three main outstanding universal value of Mahendraparvata/Phnom Kulen tentative list, as a first unique urban city, a living cultural heritage, and as the sandstone source for the construction of the Angkor temples (quarries location).
Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen has recently discovered an immense, formally planned urban network, comprising axis and linking, temples, and water infrastructure (Chevance et al, 2019). The majority of temples from site are primarily built of brick, laterite, and also dates from the Jayavarman II period (Michael and Evans, 2018: 121). Together with the recently identified Royal Palace Banteay (Chevance, 2014), they confirmed the presence of this early Angkorian capital.
Recently, the LiDAR mission identified an additional main piece of hydrological infrastructure in this area. The East-West orientated Thnal Srae Thbong dike and the 1 Km long Thnal Mrech dike (Pepper Dyke), with several 10th to 11th centuries ceramic kiln sites, are part of a very large unfinished reservoir of baray. This last feature completes, together with the mountain-temple and the Royal Palace, the main markers of an angkorian capital. They are integrated in the urban network and the whole indicates a significant evidence for the early Angkorian period to setup infrastructure and city.
Criteriion (ii): Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen is a unique example of town-planning for an ancient city, with related infrastructure, temples, monumental artistic remains, and other archaeological sites. Mahendraparvata presents “a centrally planned urban area, spanning ∼40-50 Km2” of the plateau. This comprises a network of major thoroughfares that divide a central zone into a city grid; a system of smaller-scale land parceling that subdivides city blocks within that grid; a distribution of small shrines, mounds and ponds; a large-scale water-management system, consisting of dams and a major, unfinished reservoir; and finally, a distinctive spatial arrangement of a royal palace, state pyramid temple and other infrastructural elements that are consistent with and unique to all other known Khmer Empire capitals” (Chevance et al, 2019:1318).
The complex demonstrates a significant interchange of human values during the early Khmer Empire, in 9th century. The site also indicated a masterpiece of human creative genius in terms of architectural framework, iconography, and an early and unique city planning from the Angkor period. The iconic architecture at Mahendraparvata on Kulen is seen in O Paong, Neak Ta, Thma Dap or Damrei Krap temples, and Rong Chen is the first pyramid temple in the angkorian world, built on a natural mountain.
Criterion (iv): Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen is an outstanding example of a type of a unique, religious architecture, combined with a modified landscape to form one of the first grid city in ancient Cambodia. The religious monuments (about 40 brick temples) have been discovered on the plateau itself, in addition rock shelters, carved riverbed, and prehistoric site with rock painting.
Furthermore, Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen presents various elements characteristic of an urban form from an Angkorian capital. The important Rong Chen mountain temple, with its distinctive pyramidal shape, is typical of other state temples located at the heart of pre-Angkorian and Angkorian urban areas. The Royal Palace with it “rectangular shape, size, orientation and architectural remains indicate that it was the center of power of a royal capital” (Chevance et al, 2019:1307), during the reign of Jayavarman II in AD 770-835. The royal capital presents a grid of major axes, which provides the overall framework upon in other patterns of habitation are based and elaborated. Therefore, “the network of Phnom Kulen mostly developed according to an overall plan, and the major axes, including the largest earthen dams, were the earliest and most fundamental elements of that design” (Chevance et al, 2019: 1316).
Another famous site, Preah Ang Thom is an eight meters long statue of the reclining Buddha, estimated to be carved between the late angkorian period and the post-angkorian period (12th to 16th centuries). Preah Ang Thom is the most sacred and worshiped site for the Kulen Mountain after the angkorian period. Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen continued to be a significant worship settlement during the angkorian period, notably with the hermits in the rock shelters of Phnom Kulen. Therefore, Phnom Kulen has a significant cultural, which is necessary to preserve as an ancient city site and a cultural landscape.
Criterion (v): Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen presents a very large-scale and unique settlement from the 8th-9th centuries. Archaeological survey found hundreds of ponds within the central area and recovered some run along the ancient axis and dykes. Major dams were raised to block valleys and create reservoirs. The data also suggest that settlement on Mahendraparvata was not only spatially extensive but also temporally enduring. For example, Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen plateau comprised 366 individual mounds attributed to the 10th century.
Moreover, sandstone quarries on the southeast foothill of Phnom Kulen indicate a very large industry, illustrating another human interaction with its natural environment from the 9th to 12th centuries. The quarries provided most of the sandstone blocks used to build the Angkor temples and most of the statues to represent the Khmer gods.
Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen has suffered damages from the ravage of time, looting during the Cambodian war (1970s-1990s), climate change, and historical events. Following the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century and civil war, Phnom Kulen was largely forgotten, except for its large reclining Buddha, which was a pilgrim center. It was not until the early 20th century that French explorers became aware of Jayavarman II city. The 1930’s exploration of Phnom Kulen confirmed its importance as a capital, revealing numerous brick temples with a homogenous architectural decoration. Some artifacts were sent to France for exhibition. Research stopped as Cambodia plunged into a civil war in the early 1970’s. Phnom Kulen would become a Khmer Rouge stronghold, preventing any archeological work for more than 25 years. The area became isolated and was vulnerable to looting. Some statues were relocated to Phnom Penh or Angkor Conservation for safety, while other were looted and went to private hands.
After civil war’s end in the 1990’s, when peace arrived in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen was still isolated. Researches resume with a few institutions such as University of Sophia and Singapore, sponsoring excavation on the ceramic kiln sites. Since 2008, the APSARA Authority (in charge of Angkor Site management), and the Archaeology and Development Foundation (ADF) have started a collaborative project to explore the area, update the archaeological map of the mountain, excavate the most representative sites, restore the excavated artifacts and present a chronological occupation of the entire site. After LiDAR technology produced a new map of the region in 2012, the results showed that the property retains many features and monuments of which illustrated the exceptional cultural, architectural, artistic, historical, technological and hydraulic values of the site. Many temples and structures have been preserved. Restoration, and conservation have been applied to several ancient brick temples and structure. Recently, APSARA Authority continues the restoration and conservation of brick temples and sculptures.
The decorative elements, statuary and inscriptions from this site have been preserved, researched, and documented. Many of the masterpieces have been restored, preserved, and exhibited in museums in Cambodia and oversea. Phnom Kulen LiDAR remote sensing technology allowed the scanning map of the region by using methods detailed by Evans (Evans et al, 2013). This revolutionary technique uncovered the extent of the Khmer Empire. Since then, ADF and APSARA field survey on Phnom Kulen has confirmed the discovery of a framework of linear axes, oriented roughly to cardinal directions and spanning much of the southern area of the plateau (Chevance et al, 2019). Surveys and excavations also indicated that many sites structures are in good condition. The Cambodian government secure the protection, with APSARA Authority actions, and 50 workers and 3 archaeologists insure the regular cleaning and guarding of the major sites. Recently, restoration efforts have contributed to the preservation of several temples.
The Mahendraparvata site on Phnom Kulen can be compared to four of ten different of World Cultural Heritage sites: on a national, sub-regional, regional and international level. This is not only complying with other World Heritage criteria, but also reflecting the period, features and characteristics, such as the influence of town-planning, urban infrastructure, language, religion, architecture, materials and hydrology.
Bakong temple (Cambodia: the 9th century C.E.): Bakong temple is the first temple mountain covered with sandstone, constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Hariharlaya, the capital right after Mahendraparvata, where the Jayavarman II declared the sovereignty of Cambodia. His successor, Indravarman I constructed the Bakong temple dedicated to the god Shiva and consecrated its central religious image, a linga whose name Sri Indresvara. The Devarāja cult, similar to Mahendraparvata’s on Phnom Kulen, consisted in the idea of divine kingship of royal power. The structure of Bakong has a stepped pyramid shape, similar to Rong Chen in Mahendraparvata, both identified as early example of Khmer temple mountain.
In addition, the Bakong pyramid temple has been covered with high bas-relief, representing asuras in battle. Large stone statues of elephants are positioned as guardians at the corners of the three lower levels of the pyramid and statues of lions guard the stairways.
Phnom Bakheng Temple (Cambodia: late 9th to 10th centuries): Phnom Bakheng temple is a mountain temple located in Angkor. Phnom Bakheng is one of three hilltop temples in the Angkor region that are attributed to Yasovarman’s reign (889-910 C.E). The other two are Phnom Krom to the south near the Tonle Sap lake, and Phnom Bok, northeast of the Eastern baray reservoir. Phnom Bakheng is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. This is a similar configuration with Rong Chen temple in Mahendraparvata/Phnom Kulen and Bakong temple at Hariharalaya Rolous. However, The Bakeng temple is built in a pyramid form of seven levels, representing the seven heavens. There are five sandstone sanctuaries on the top level. Originally, 108 small towers were arrayed around the temple at ground level and its tiers. Bakeng temple built on a rectangular base and rise in five levels and is crowned by five main towers. One hundred and eight are considered the level of the god and haven. These 33 can be seen from the center of any side, but thirty-three is the number of gods who dwelt on Mount Meru. The center one represents the axis of the world and the 108 smaller ones represent the four lunar phases, each with 27 days. The seven levels of the monument represent the seven heavens and each terrace contains 12 towers, which represent the 12 years cycle of Jupiter. Thus, it is an astronomical calendar in stone.
Baksei Chamkrong (10th century): Baksei Chamkrong is a small Hindu temple located in Angkor. It is dedicated to lord Shiva and used to hold a golden image of him. It was also dedicated to Yasovarman by his son, King Harshavarman I. This temple is constructed by bricks and laterite with architectural decoration in sandstone. There is an inscription on either side of the doorway, which details the dedication and praises the early Khmer kings, quoting Jayavarman II who settled in Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen. The main sandstone lintel is decorated with a fine carving of Indra standing on his three-headed elephant Airavata. The brick sanctuary tower and eight meters square on a sandstone base open to the east.
Borobudur temple (Indonesia: 9th century C.E.): Borobudur pyramid temple was constructed by the Sailendra dynasty in the 9th century, in Central Java. It is dedicated as a Mahayana Buddhist temple, consisting of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circulars, topped by a central dome. The temple demonstrates the influences of Gupta art and reflects India’s influence on the region, but there are more elements to make Borobudur unique. Borobudur indicates a similarity with Bakong at Rolous and Rong Chen on Mahendraparvata/Phnom Kulen during 9th century C.E. The structure of Rong Chen and Bakong took shape of stepped pyramid, popularly identified as temple mountain of early Khmer temple architecture, but Borobudur worshiped on Buddhism. The striking similarity of both temple sites demonstrate similar into architectural details such as the gateways, sculpture decoration, stairs to the upper terraces.
My Son (Vietnam: 4th to 14th centuries C.E.) and Hoa Lai: My Son site was constructed between the 4th and the 14th centuries by the Kings of Champa. The temples were built by brick and sandstone materials, and were dedicated to Hinduism, to worship the god Shiva. My Son site records and uses of sanskrit as well as architectural formulas demonstrate some similarity between some of Phnom Kulen temples (Damreï Krap, Khting Slap). Hoa Lai cham temple illustrates some similarity with Damrei Krap with its architecture and brick decoration. On a regional scale, iconography and decoration motives have been shared in all South-East Asia and similarities can be found in other historical complexes in Southeast Asia, such as Borobudur in Java, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Bagan in Myanmar
Sahasralinga or Shalmala river (India: 17th century C.E.): The River Shalmala is located in the town of Sirsi, which is known for its Shiva linga carved on the rocks, along the banks and in the riverbed of the Shalmala River, in the Karnataka state, India. This decorated river with Linga is similar to the one found in Cambodia, and represented by only two sites, both located in Phnom Kulen National Park. One is Kbal Spean, located on the western range, the other on the Phnom Kulen plateau, the One thousand Linga.
During angkorian period, the river was identified with Ganga, the sacred river of India, and by association, Phnom Kulen itself must have been associated with the mythic Himalayan mountains of Meru and Kailasa in India. Thus, both sites were a very holy place and it remains an important site of worship and pilgrimage until recently. This comparison emphasizes significant features with India of which are similar the form, believe, and sculptures. However, they do not have water management function rather a symbolic one.
The Khajuraho (India:950 to 1050 C.E.): The Khajuraho is a group of Hindu temples and Jain temples in Chhatarpur district, Madhya Pradesh, India. Khajuraho temples were built of sandstone on a granite foundation and dedicated to Hinduism and Jainism. Khajuraho temples was entirely inspired by the Hindu temple design, following a grid of geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala. The Khajuraho temples are not constructed as step pyramids like Rong Chen on Phnom Kulen, Bakong, Phnom Bakeng, and Prasat Thom at Koh Ker temple. However, some Khajuraho temples were built and dedicated to Hindu gods as in Rong Chen on Phnom Kulen and other temples of Angkor region.
Kaifeng City (China: 10th century C.E.): Kaifeng City is constructed many canals to link a local river to the yellow river, in east-central Henan province, China. It is best known for being the Chinese capital in the Northern Song dynasty. Indeed, the new technology of hydraulic power was used to turn the water wheel and a water clock. Kaifeng City is surrounded by three rings of city walls. Kaifeng was transformed into a major commercial hub when it was connected to the grand canal as well as through the construction of a canal running to western Shandong, in the early 7th century. Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen is also a capital city in Cambodia that setups a water management resource system by establishment large reservoir and smaller water ponds, dams, and dyke on the hilltop of Kulen mountain.
Machu Picchu (Peru: 15th century C.E.): Machu Picchu is an ancient city on the hilltop located in Machu Picchu district, Southern Peru. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was contracted for the Inca emperor Pachcuti (1438-1472). Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style with polished dry-stone walls. There are three primary structures such as the temple of the sun, the room of the three windows and the ritual associated with the calendar. Furthermore, Machu Picchu was a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and it was voted one of the “New Seven Wonders of the world” in 2007. Machu Picchu considered being a royal city for kingship, similar with Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen. However, it was used for 80 years before being abandoned and it was similar used of Mahendraparvata/Phnom Kulen. There are more similarities with Cambodia with a royal palace and settlements on the hilltop of the mountain. Machu Picchu was used the farming done on its hundreds of man-made terraces. They built to ensure good drainage and soil fertility while also protecting the mountain itself from erosion and landslides. On the other hand, it is different from Phnom Kulen, the farming done on the hilltop.
Chichen Itza (Mexico: 7th-13th centuries C.E.): Chichen Itza presents a multitude of architectural styles of the Northern Maya lowlands. Chichen Itza is the largest Maya city and shows densely architecture and residential architecture at the site. This site demonstrates a natural sink holes with water and some attractive of settlement sites. The town planning of Chichen Itza with the relatively densely clustered architecture of the site is at least 5 square kilometers. Some greatest effort was put for the levelling of the landscape to build the Kukulcan pyramid, grand Ballcourt, temple of warriors and El Caracol. The kukulcan temple at Chichen Itza was built as a stepped pyramid and serves to showcase an ancient light show during every equinox of the Maya.