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The Archeological complex of Banteay Chhmar

Date of Submission: 27/03/2020
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Banteay Meanchey Province
Coordinates: N14 4 16 E103 5 59
Ref.: 6456

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Banteay Chhmar Temple was an ancient site in the Angkorian period (802-1432). It is located in Banteay Chhmar commune, Thma Puok district, Banteay Meanchey province, about 65-km north of Sisophon city, via Road Number 56. The site face the Dangrek Mountain chain at the north, and it is surrounded by  four villages, namely Banteay Chhmar west, Bnateay Chhmar north, Banteay Chhmar south and Chrey, about 110-km from the Angkor World Heritage Site in Siem Reap province. It was situated strategically along the network of royal roads leading to the furthest northwest reaches of the territory controlled by Jayavarman VII (reigned c.1122-1218) during the Angkorian Empire. Recent surveys show that the site was continuously occupied from  pre-historical times until now.

The temple was situated at the heart of a new city located on a dry plain, requiring an elaborate hydrological system to bring water from the Dangrek Mountains to the north. To the east of the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar a rahal, or reservoir measuring 1.6 x 0.8 km was built, with a mebon, or artificial island at its centre. On the hill of this island today stands a crumbling sanctuary, surrounded by rice growing in the baray.

Banteay Chhmar Temple is a large complex, with the main temple, built of grey sandstone, measuring 770 x 690 metres. The central complex of colonnaded galleries, measuring approximately 250 x 200 meters, enclosed five interconnected sanctuaries aligned along an east-west axis. The area included six artificial ponds or pools, two structures known as “libraries” and two elevated, terrace-platforms.  This central core of the structure is surrounded by an expansive moat, 63 meters wide. The area outside the moat includes eight monuments that may have been hospital or monastery structures.

Banteay Chhmar Temple was consecrated to the memory of Prince Srindrakumara, son or protégé of Jayavarman VII, and to four of the Prince’s companions in arms who had saved his life in battle against the Cham. The exquisitely rendered relief carvings of Banteay Chhmar depict scenes of battle on land and water between the Khmer and Cham, preparations for war, processions, royal audiences and a unique multi-armed Avalokiteśvara on the wall of western gallery.

Banteay Chhmar was one of the most extensive architectural undertakings Jayavarman VII built in a politically sensitive region in the final years of his reign.  The architecture shows signs of haste in its construction, as do his other temples, and it appears to have been left unfinished.  There are clear indications that new architectural forms were still being developed at the site in the course of building.  The iconography expresses both Buddhist and Hinduist beliefs, as well as the supremacy of the king, themes that are also represented in his other temples.  However the representations of individual deities and their juxtapositions are in many cases unique to Banteay Chhmar.

From the epigraphy that survives, however, it is clear that the temple was intended to be a major Mahāyāna institution in which the supremacy of Buddhism over both Hinduism and indigenous Khmer cults was strongly emphasized. The locations of the face-towers show that these structures were not erected exclusively above shrines of any particular cult, but uniformly above buildings belonging to all the religions that were practised in the temple.

Some of the Mahāyāna reliefs suggest that the Buddhism of the time was undergoing internal development in Cambodia.  But in broad outline Banteay Chhmar continued to represent the same mixture of religions for which Jayavarman’s earlier temples at Angkor had been built, with the peripheral inclusion of new forms of Lokeśvara.  These forms were based on descriptions of Avalokiteśvara in Indian Sanskrit texts such as the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, which had been written in Kashmir in the 4th century CE, 800 years before Banteay Chhmar was built.  Eight of these Lokeśvara images were depicted at Banteay Chhmar in the reliefs facing the sunset beside the western gatehouse of the third enclosure.

In keeping with Jayavarman’s Khmerisation of religion, the indigenous cult of the transfiguration of the dead was also performed in numerous shrines of the central complex, a form of religion which had become a standard feature of all his temples.  At Banteay Chhmar this cult was thoroughly organized, not in a vertical concentric arrangement as in the Bayon, but on a horizontal linear plan.  This resulted in the architectural expansion of the sacred center from a single enclosure into three walled complexes joined together, which accounts for the extraordinary length of the principal enclosure.

The importance of this cult of posthumous deification was powerfully expressed at Banteay Chhmar.  The names of these immortalized individuals, and of the gods and goddesses who represented them posthumously, are given in the Khmer inscriptions.  This is the context for the well-known Sanjak cult, which was practiced in the east complex, while members of royal families were deified in the center, and buddhicised Hindu and local deities were installed in the west complex.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The temple of Banteay Chhmar is a unique complex of Angkorian period of structural style with the associated baray and water control systems, reflect outstanding aspects of architecture, engineering, arts, skilled craftsmanship, stone building, irrigation, governance and theology, landscape, human settlement and land use. However, a special feature of Banteay Chhmar temple is that in the middle on the island in the baray  a sandstone sanctuary was erected, surrounded by a double moat. In the golden age, water was vital to the endurance of the Angkor’s civilization, and at Banteay Chhmar, uniquely the Dangrek Mountain acted as reservoirs.

On the eastern side of Banteay Chhmar,was contructed a large artificial reservoir named Baray Mebon with a capacity of 2 million cubic metres. Water from the Dangrek Mountain flowed down natural canals to the Baray, and was used to irrigate the rice fields.

The temple complex was designed to reflect Hindu theology and astrology. The main towers were built on the axis of four directions encircled with rectangular walls and galleries and surrounded by the moat, representing Mount Meru, home of Shiva and axis of the universe. The main temple bears four gates flanked with images of devata and giants holding the naga snake on the four main directions (east-west and north-south) representing the sacred Hindu universe. The urbanization of Banteay Chhmar brought to life a whole complex of communities in the surrounding area -- evidence as a great and enduring masterpiece of Angkorian art and architecture.

All structures in the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar were built of sandstone and laterite of the highest quality. It was said that the quarried stone blocks were transported by rafts, elephants and carts to the location of the construction place. The techniques of stone masonry followed here involved placing  roughly shapedstone blocks on top of each other from foundations to the top with, and then the stone was decorated in situ. Technically, the weight bearing of the stone elements for building construction was skillfully managed, leading to fine preservation over nine centuries, and making restoration feasible. Then, the master sculptors of the day embellished the temple complex with floral and human designs depicting scenes from the daily life, war between Khmer and Chams, religious events, churning of the sea of milk, local fighting, etc.

Criterion (ii): It might be added up to the process of nomination, if there are sufficient supported evidences from more comprehensive researches and inventories that will be carried on later in an actual nomination process.

Criterion (iii): The Banteay Chhmar complex is unique in the Angkorian world for its juxtaposition into a complete whole. The temple complex was selected for the construction of sacred monuments by the local elite lineage. Based upon the architectural and iconographical evidence, the temple complex was built during the end of 12th to early 13th centuries C.E in Bayon style of Angkor Civilization. The sanctuaries themselves represented kingdoms of deities, and comprisedmain face towers, walls, galleries, gopura with realistic stone carving depicting the Great Epics of Buddhist iconography (notably Lokeśvara), a processional walkway, ponds and reservoirs in a unified architectural plan.

The iconographical forms of Lokeśvara were based on descriptions of Avalokiteśvara in Indian Sanskrit texts such as the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra, which had been written in Kashmir in the 4th–5th century CE. Eight of these Lokeśvara images were depicted here in the reliefs facing the sunset beside the western gatehouse of the third enclosure. This location clearly indicates the importance of Amitābha, Red Tathāgata of the West and spiritual father of Lokeśvara, the most popular of the Mahāyāna’s five transcendent Buddhas with his western paradise of Sukhāvatī.

All these elements reflect the symbolic connection between the gods and humans. Scientifically, the sandstone material and laterite used for Banteay Chhmar and the stone carving is as beautiful as the Bayon Temple in the Angkor site in Siem Reap Province, and serve to form the unique and outstanding appearance of this tangible heritage complex in Banteay Meanchey Province.

Criterion (iv): An outstanding example of a provincial city comprising an ensemble of sacred monuments and the associated artificial water control system that reflect outstanding aspects of architecture, engineering, irrigation, and landscape. Banteay Chhmar consists of several concentric enclosures.

Each enclosure is surrounded by a wall. Modern archaeologists number these enclosures from the center outwards. The innermost and smallest enclosure is therefore always named Enclosure 1.  However, we approach the temple from the outside, of course, therefore from the outermost enclosure, and proceed inward.

Banteay Chhmar has five enclosures.  The outermost, fifth enclosure of the temple, bounded by earthworks, measures 2.2 by 1.7 kilometers and contains a large rectangular moat, 63 meters wide, surrounding the main temple buildings in an area of 770 by 690 metres.

Between the earth rampart and the moat, four satellite temples are located in the cardinal directions. There is also an additional temple in the south, and one more in the southeast. So there are altogether six satellite temples inside the fifth enclosure.

Outside the earth rampart stand two further axially-sited satellite temples, in the north and west. The original purpose of all these satellite temples is not known, because unfortunately they do not contain any inscriptions.

The earth rampart is penetrated on its eastern side by a large rectangular artififical water reservoir or baray, known as the Rahal (1700 x 800 meters), which has an island-temple (mebon) at its center.  The reservoir is bordered with laterite steps to facilitate the fetching of water, and at its western end there was a landing stage from which worshippers could cross to the temple on the island by boat. The waters of the moat are crossed by four axial causeways having balustrades in the form of statues of gods and demons pulling on Nāgas, as at Angkor Thom and Preah Khan at the Angkor site.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Banteay Chhmar site had been lost in the jungle for many years, and very few major restoration procedures have been applied to the site. Most of its ruins are still intact and in situ, revealing its authenticity as a whole.

From 2005 untilthe  present day, the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has undertaken  field archaeological studies, clearance, conservation and restoration of the Banteay Chhmar temple, funded by Royal Government and local donations. In 1998, 2000 and 2002, the World Monuments Fund , under its World Monuments Watch programme, cooperated with the  Ministry  to remove dangerous vegetation and   to implement remedial measures to improve the stability of the remaining structures.

From 2007 to 2012, the American Global Heritage Fund began collaboration with the Ministry  in a Conservation Training Project, preparing a Master Conservation  Plan for protection and preservation of the relief galleries and stabilization of the central temple complex.It was found that  more than 95 percent of the architectural building materials of the main temple of Banteay Chhmar (including stone sanctuaries, galleries and walls) had collapsed on top of and and underground of  parts of the building. Moreover, many of them had been looted and even destroyed . Some of these stone artefacts were able to be returned to their original position during restoration work. Many bas relief carving on the galleries’ walls still lie buried under the collapsed stone materials and  very few items of the looted sculpture has been returned.

Banteay Chhmar Cultural Heritage, the Ministry is protected under the Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Arts, as amended in 6th January 1996, and   by the Royal Decree dated on11th March 2003.

From the present state of knowledge relating Banteay Chhmar, its authenticity has been indicated through remaining attributes such as; form and design; materials and substance; location and setting. But since it lay long abandoned and ruined for hundreds of years, some of these many attributes are relatively weak and will require further research and definition, as for example; techniques and management systems; the use and function; traditions, language and other forms of intangible heritage; as well as spirit and feeling.a

Since the Banteay Chhmar site and the main temple complex and the sattelite temples have not yet been fully investigated or restored, almost all of the ruins’ features are still intact in situ  and many of them are unexplored, it can be concluded that most of the original attributes remain within the property. None are lost or have been significantly damaged.

Comparison with other similar properties

One unique feature of the Banteay Chhmar temple is the relief carving on the East Gallery Wall, of a series of extraordinary, images of multi-headed Avaloketdshvara Bodhisattvas, one bearing 32 arms. The relief carvings of this section of the gallery of the temple depict an array of remarkable Tantric Buddhist images, evidence of Banteay Chhmar’s significance as a sacred site for Buddhist practice.

Banteay Chhmar was compared with twenty-three sites using not only the criteria under which these World Heritage sites were inscribed (Criteria (iii) (iv)), but also the attributes that are embodied in the national, regional, and universal value of Banteay Chhmar. Firstly, heritage sites in Southeast Asia were considered, followed by India, and other sites throughout the world. The primary focus was to compare and confirm the attributes representing the Universal Value of Banteay Chhmar with comparable sites throughout the world.

Each historical/cultural site was evaluated against the physical and intrinsic attributes exhibited by Banteay Chhmar. These attributes include architecture, art, hydraulic systems, agriculture, religious affiliation, commerce and economic, social and political environment, special site attribute, subjective site condition, and urbanization as well as size and site chronology regardless of their categorization in World Heritage.  The evaluation criteria measures sites which:

The aim was to identify habitat complexes worldwide, preferably rural, which include a temple or religious monument, and appear to express Criteria (iii) and (iv)), defining the significant development of a low-density urban landscape occurring worldwide, but especially in Southeast Asia with a focus on the late 12th early 13th century CE (Criterion (iv)). In this way, Banteay Chhmar was compared with important historical sites in Southeast Asia and Asia.

 Comparable sites currently inscribed on the World Heritage List that cover a similar development period but not necessarily the same time frame are Vat Phou, My Son Sanctuary, Prambanan Temple Complex, and the complexes of Beikthano-Myo, Halin, Sri Ksetra in Myanmar, and, currently on the tentative list, Angkor Borei and Phnom Da. The comparative sites exhibit a variety of elements, such as trading networks, religious affiliation, city-state development, and monumental art, which are shared with Banteay Chhmar, but lack the vital, substantial combination of urban complexity, spiritual significance, artistic innovation, and religious polity which Banteay Chhmar accomplished in less than a century. Some of the sites display hydraulic systems, however they encompass a far smaller area with substantially less monumental artistry and engineering then that displayed at Banteay Chhmar. While many sites contain artistic and architectural elements of note, only a few combine these with the hydraulic features incorporated into the religious and urban centre as found at the Banteay Chhmar.

Banteay Chhmar bears unique testimony to the cultural values and artistic and architectural stylesof Southeast Asia in the late 12th early 13th century CE. Only My Son Sanctuary, and the heritage sites of Beikthano-Myo, Halin, and Sri Ksetra in Myanmar exhibit this to a similar extent. However, the monuments of the Myanmar serial sites effectively span nine centuries (1st-9th CE). The sites in Myanmar are Buddhist and do not exhibit the engagement with Hinduism elements  as exemplified by My Son and Banteay Chhmar. Additionally, few sites in Asia exhibit the religious eclecticism and syncretism that is expressed in the religious arts of Buddhism, along with Animism, and Hinduism as at Banteay Chhmar.   Other early Hindu/Buddhist sites in Southeast Asia, such as Angkor Borei, similarly lack extant architecture to the extent of Banteay Chhmar. Together with the statuary and decorative elements that comprise the distinctive “Bayon Style” and the important historical evidence contained in the site's inscriptions, the site preserves the most significant record of the artistic and architectural achievements, together with their associated religious and political elements, that emerged from the uptake and transformation of Buddhism during this period.

Banteay Chhmar is a key example of the development of the agrarian-based, low-density urban landscape believed to lack adequate agrarian elements for long-term sustainability. This pattern of urban complex has been identified in three locations: Southeast Asia (Cambodia’s Khmer Empire) and Sri Lanka. The rise and fall of this type of urban formation is of international importance, particularly in understanding the relationships between urban planning and the environment. The Sri Lankan site is currently well-represented on the World Heritage List associated urban centres of the late 12th early 13th century CE.

However, the development of the urban hydraulic complex in Southeast Asia is currently under-represented: of Southeast Asian cultural heritage sites on the World Heritage List, only the Myanmar city-state Pyu Ancient Cities and the Angkor Archaeological Park have habitat components dating to around this period. The economies represented by sites contemporaneous with Banteay Chhmar are substantially different: Vat Phou was a religious center for the most part with habitat components, while the Myanmar walled city-states of Pyu were primarily trading capitals.

Banteay Chhmar must be considered alongside other urban formations in Southeast Asia, including those on the Cambodian Tentative List for World Heritage inscription, such as Beng Mealea and Preah Khan Kampong Svay, as well as other important sites. When compared to these other sites in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, Banteay Chhmar stands out for its size, the quality of its extant architectural and artistic components, and the complexity of design. Again, many of the other early urban landscapes in Southeast Asia were city-states with their economic bases in trade, unlike Banteay Chhmar, with its emphasis on agriculture and religion as well as trade. Banteay Chhmar provides outstanding evidence of the evolution of the agrarian, low-density urban landscape in Southeast Asia, and the associated developments in the formation of the state and its supporting religious ideology.  The habitat of Banteay Chhmar marked the appearance of a new kind of urban complex almost solely dedicated to the royal family and its extension of power and politics.

Accompanying the habitation and temple complex zone was a substantial system of canals, moats, ponds and other water management features. Water management at the site would have been crucial, given that the region where Banteay Chhmar is situated is subject to annual fluctuations in water flow. Scholars have designated such examples of Angorian-era monumental complexes including extensive water management systems as “theocratic hydraulics”, arguing that their primary purpose was to ensure a supply of water for temple ponds, baray and moats. At Banteay Chhmar, the technology for large-scale water management certainly existed, but may have been directed towards other secular purposes, including transport, town water supply, and defence against periodic inundation.

Banteay Chhmar is a site of immense historical importance. There is currently no site on the World Heritage List, tentative list, or as yet identified that exhibits the unique combination of a religious building complex and art from this period that are accompanied by a sizeable urban complex with the hydraulic and agricultural features of a polity that is found at Banteay Chhmar.

Banteay Chhmar can be compared to World Heritage sites, Tentative Listed sites and others within the Kingdom of Cambodia. Based on the architectural and engineering style, belief, faith arts and site location the Angkor Archaeological Park is comparative in all aspects while Sambor Prei Kuk has a similar hydraulic system, although from centuries earlier. Sites on the Tentative List as Beng Mealea, and Preah Khan Kampong Svay are also contain aspects identical to those noted at Banteay Chhmar.