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Koh Ker: Archeological site of Ancient Lingapura Or Chok Gargyar

Date of Submission: 27/03/2020
Criteria: (ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Preah Vihear Province
Coordinates: N104 32 14.324 E104 32 14.324
Ref.: 6458
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Description

Koh Ker or Chok Gargyar, as it is known in Old Khmer inscriptions, is a 10th-century temple complex and former capital of the Khmer Empire, situated in northern Cambodia. The name of the site, Chok Gargyar, is in itself unique, as it is the only site we know of to be named in the Old Khmer language (Khmer ancient capital are usually named in Sanskrit) and referring to a natural feature, namely the tree now known as Koki or iron wood tree (Hopea odorata) which can reach up to 45 m and is valued for its dense wood quality that is water and termite-resistant. The densely forested site containing a total of 169 archaeological remains, including 76 temples, as well as civil structures, ponds, dykes, and ancient roads, is located centrally between three other Cambodian World Heritage Sites - Preah Vihear, Angkor, and Sambor Prei Kuk. It stands at a distance of 102 km to the north-east of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, 126 km to the south of Preah Vihear Temple Site, and north-west to Sambor Prei Kuk Site at a distance of 171 km. Situated between the slopes of the Dangrek and Kulen mountains, Koh Ker has a landscape characterized by rolling hills of variable heights ranging from 70 m to 110 m, forming a gentle slope from South to North, and coinciding with the watershed of the Steung Sen River.

Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Empire for a brief period, between 928-941 C.E. under its founder King Jayavarman IV. As yet, the only authentic, contemporary information about the political ideology of Angkor comes from the Koh Ker inscription which establishes a clear shift of Khmer political ideology from ‘rāja’ or king, to ‘rājya’ or the kingdom and its people. In support of this new ideology, no war was waged by Jayavarman IV; his reign was the most peaceful phase of the Khmer Empire, which enabled a cultural resurgence. This time of peace allowed Jayavarman IV to carry out projects of regional, social, economic and architectural development, town planning and rural infrastructure, of which the ensemble of monuments at Koh Ker bear testimony. The art and architecture of Koh Ker was also developed to reflect and affirm the dominance and uniqueness of Jayavarman IV’s political identity, particularly with the use of a monumentality of scale in architecture, and dynamism in sculpture, both of which is unmatched in other Khmer legacies.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Koh Ker represents a unique vision in the arts, architecture and introduces new technologies, which changed urban planning for the coming centuries.​ The most important monuments of the capital are situated close to and in the immediate vicinity of the Prasat Thom complex, where the seven-tiered pyramid, also known as Prasat Prang, the only one in Southeast Asia, forms the apotheosis of an eccentric building style known only in Koh Ker. Prasat Thom complex is also the central axis around which the capital is geometrically formed.

Another exceptional characteristic of Koh Ker is the development of water management techniques. The water management system at Koh Ker was a hybrid one, combining elements of a highland system of damming river valleys with elements of the classical lowland system of huge reservoirs, canals and bunded fields. An earlier form of this system may be observed at the World Heritage Site of Sambor Prei Kuk (6th-7th centuries C.E.), while a far more elaborated system was later in use in Angkor. Koh Ker thus served as a huge laboratory for what was to come, situating itself perfectly between early drainage (Oc-Eo) and catchment trials (Sambor Prei Kuk) and the far more sophisticated hydrological system can be observed in the later Angkor period. Along with management of water, the structures of Koh Ker, particularly the Lingas and the Rahal were planned using the natural terrain in such a way that the flow of water through the site becomes an act of sacralising.

The Hindu character of the site is best revealed through its monumental art of which the sculptures are the most prominent, executed in the ronde-bosse technique. Drawing on earlier styles, its creators soon developed a distinct art, advancing sculpting techniques while inventing the hybrid figure. The best examples are the Dancing Shiva with a presumed height of 6 m at Prasat Kraham and the recently discovered ensembles at Prasat Chen depicting scenes of the Mahabharata (the last fight in the battle of Kurukshetra between Bhima and Duryodhana) and the Ramayana (the fight between Valin and Sugriva). Scenes like these may well be found at other temple sites but is the first time and also last that they have been brought alive through monumental sculpture formations, whether in and outside the Khmer Empire. Its iconography is unique and is currently referred to as the Koh Ker style.

Koh Ker’s sphere of influence too was secured through a well developed network of cultural routes that connected it not only to every corner of the Khmer Empire but beyond, to subcontinental Asia. Cultural sharing enabled by Royal Roads ensured that the buildings, artwork, inscriptions and landscape design of Koh Ker and surrounding temples constitute the most significant and comprehensive early expression of a distinct Khmer culture that drew upon and adapted Indian religious concepts and iconography and their accompanying artistic and architectural styles. The site is thus an outstanding example of how influences from Indian architecture and artworks were assimilated and refined in the distinctive Koh Ker style. The Indian concepts were modified to meet the specific needs of this emergent empire and its social, religious and agrarian order, which ultimately evolved into a distinct Khmer culture that constitutes a milestone in urban planning and the plastic arts in Southeast Asia.

Criterion (ii): Koh Ker: Archaeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar is an outstanding example of ideas and values expressed through the monumental arts in the early 10th century C.E. in Cambodia. As evidenced by the site, the political structure, religious practices and material culture marked important advances that had a lasting impact in the country and region. The buildings, artwork, inscriptions and landscape design of Koh Ker and other surrounding temples constitute the most significant and complete early expression of a distinct Khmer culture that drew upon and adapted Indian religious concepts and iconography and their accompanying artistic and architectural styles. The site is an outstanding example of how influences from India in terms of architecture and artwork were assimilated and refined in the distinctive Koh Ker style. The Indian concepts were modified to meet the specific needs of this emergent empire and its social, religious and agrarian order, which ultimately evolved into a distinct Khmer culture that constitutes a milestone in urban planning and the plastic arts in the Southeast Asia region.

Its outstanding architecture, a distinct and original adaptation of Indian influence, introduces to the Southeast Asia region colossal-sized statues and construction in new aesthetic forms. This shows a creative idea and concept that originated at Koh Ker, giving rise to the so-called Koh Ker style. The scenes of Mahabharata and Ramayana were narrated in the form of individual characters carved in stone rather than carvings in the form of bas-relief. The extraordinary architecture of the religious shrines is apparent in the stepped-pyramid temple of Prasat Thom and other temples dedicated to Shiva.

Criterion (iv): Koh Ker: Archaeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar embodies the remains of a very well-organized urban complex, the capital of a unique past civilization. The ancient capital city is an exceptional testimony of a cultural tradition with centralized political power, bearing Hindu religious features. Its civilization was deeply influenced by the Indian subcontinent in terms of social institutions, religion and art which were assimilated into indigenous customs, ideology and artistic expressions. Koh Ker marks the time when a distinctive Khmer culture/identity emerged from this cross‐cultural exchange. It is at Koh Ker that we find the first evidence of the giant-size infrastructure symbolizing powerful elements in Cambodian and Southeast Asian history. The infrastructure was the biggest not only in Cambodia, but in Southeast Asia. Jayavarman IV introduced the first artificial giant structure in his capital, where he established the stepped pyramid of Prasat Thom, as well as its giant sculptures. The uniqueness of the architecture and sculpture in Koh Ker represents the technological prowess exhibited in Khmer art.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The extent of the Koh Ker nominated property under the Royal Decree of May 5, 2004 conforms to integrity of all the attributes (natural, historical, monumental and archaeological features and artifacts of the ancient complex, manifestations of its city planning, hydraulic features, road network and number of monumental remains, ritual and spiritual expression) identified for its nomination as a World Heritage Site. All components and elements that contribute to the potential Outstanding Universal Value of the property are within this nominated area and intact in all respects. These characteristics demonstrate the potential Outstanding Universal Value of Koh Ker, represented by as many as 76 temples, a road network and the structure of an ancient city, extensive and largely intact archaeological deposits, a large water reservoir, moats and other water management features. An important array of statues, sculptures, inscriptions and rare traces of mural paintings and frescoes are integral to the abiding value of Koh Ker. The site represents many generations of Khmer people attesting to the resilience of a powerful civilization in terms of the range and number of surviving monuments. The boundary also includes its pristine environment and forested area.

Koh Ker: Archaeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar has suffered from the ravages of time, looting during the Cambodian war (1970s-1990s), a difficult climate and recent historic events. The weathering process and encroachment of vegetation caused degradation of the monuments and in some cases their entire collapse. Over time, parts of the monuments and objects belonging to the site were relocated and/or looted. The gravest harm to the site, however, came with the international conflict, turning Cambodia into a war zone between the late 1960s and early 1990s. The area became isolated and was vulnerable to looting and destruction by humans as well as war. A number of statues were relocated to Phnom Penh or other areas for safety, while other were looted and went into private hands or other museums overseas. Although some have recently been returned, some remain unaccounted for.

Despite those tragic events, the site has been remarkably conserved in all its integrity. The property retains a large number of monuments and features which demonstrate the exceptional technological, architectural, artistic, historical, cultural and hydraulic values of the site. The major temples of the site retain their original form and fabric. Modifications and repairs were carried out on some of the buildings in the 10th century.

A number of the decorative elements, statuary and inscriptions from these monuments have remained in situ. Many of the masterpieces have been stored or are on exhibit in museums in Cambodia and abroad. The system of hydraulic features is intact, many of which are still in use today. Excavation surveys have also indicated that many of the buried structures remain in good condition. Protection of the site is secured by the Cambodian government, and regular clearing and restoration efforts in recent years have contributed to the preservation the site.

Koh Ker: Archaeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar constitutes a living site. Continued human habitation, agricultural production, commerce and religious worship have kept the area from turning into a deserted site. These archaeological properties, continuing religious practices and local communities dwelling on the site epitomize the potential Outstanding Universal Value of Koh Ker.

Most of the ancient temple shrines continue to be used as places of worship by the local people as well as visitors. Local communities furthermore consider Koh Ker as a “sacred place” in which deities are worshipped in everyday ritual performances. Some shrines for Neak Ta (powerful spirits) share the space of the monuments and many more are scattered throughout the site.

Low-population density villages (Koh Ker and Romchek) with their traditional gardens and tree cover largely retain the pattern of settlement that would have been exhibited by the historic urban complex.

The local village inhabitants of Koh Ker today depend on agriculture, mostly rice cultivation and livestock raising (water buffaloes, cattle, pigs and chickens) and forest gleaning. Carbon dating has indicated that water features and earthworks still in use today are contemporary with​ the historic buildings.

The site has retained its authenticity in terms of use and function as a place of worship and continuous religious practices.

Comparison with other similar properties

The Koh Ker archaeological site is compared at four levels of nine different of World Cultural Heritage sites: on a national, sub-regional, regional and international level, not only complying with World Heritage criteria, but also reflecting the period of time, characteristics and/or features such as the influence of religion, language, governance, architecture, materials and hydrology.

1. NATIONAL

Bakheng Temple (Cambodia: late 9th to early 10th century C.E.):
Phnom Bakheng is one of three hilltop temples in the Angkor region that are attributed to Yasovarman’s reign. The other two are Phnom Krom to the south near Tonle Sap Lake, and Phnom Bok, northeast of the East Baray.

East Mebon Temple (Cambodia: 10th century C.E.) :
The East Mebon and Pre Rup temples in the Angkor area were built of bricks, laterite and sandstone with three tiers, which clearly mark a transition period in construction and architecture between Prasat Phnom Bakheng, Prasat Thom at Koh Ker and Pre Rup at the Angkor capital. Moreover, the concept of erecting an elephant at the corners of the tiers that existed at Koh Ker is still seen at the East Mebon.

2. SUB-REGIONAL

Prambanan (Indonesia: 9th century C.E.):
The Prambanan temple as a world heritage site is similar to Koh Ker site dedicated to Hinduism and especially the Trimurti god (Shiva Vishnu and Brahma).

Pyu City States (Myanmar: 2nd century B.C.E. to 11th century C.E.) :
The Pyu city-states in Myanmar as well as the Koh Ker site in Cambodia were influenced by India from the early centuries C.E., such as the writing system, city layout, architectural buildings, as well as religion. However, the temples in Myanmar are only Buddhist temples while in Cambodia, both Hindu and Buddhist temples coexisted.

My Son (Vietnam: 4th - 14th century C.E.):
The site of My Son built between the 4th to 14th centuries of brick and sandstone temple dedicated to the Hinduism religious and use Sanskrit that illustrate some similarity between some of the temples at Koh Ker and in the Angkor region: Prasat Phnom Bakheng, East Mebon, Damrei and Prasat Thom.

3. REGIONAL

The Khajuraho (India: 950 to 1050 C.E.) :
Khajuraho temples were in active use through the end of the 12th century. In the 13th century, the army of Delhi Sultanate, under the command of the Muslim Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak attacked and seized the Chandela Kingdom. The Khajuraho temples were built of sandstone on a granite foundation dedicated to Hinduism and Jainism. Moreover, the Khajuraho temples are not constructed as stepped pyramids like Prasat Thom at Koh Ker. However, some temples at Khajuraho were built and dedicated to Hindu gods as in Prasat Thom and other temples of Angkor.

Fatehpur Sikri (India: 16th Century C.E.) :
The ensemble of Fatehpur Sikri monuments were constructed to serve the purpose of a new capital, albeit briefly, under the command of Akbar who also wanted to express his spiritual and political ambition of syncretism through the architectural expression of the site. This symbolic architectural expression of political dominance and emerging religious expressions, combined with the monumental scale of buildings is particularly comparable to the motivation behind the construction of Koh Ker by Jayavarman IV. 

Kaifeng City (China: 10th Century C.E.):
Many canals in the Kaifeng City were constructed, linking a local river to the Yellow River. Hydraulic power was used to turn the water wheel and a water clock, thus inventing a new technology. Kaifeng City is surrounded by three rings of city walls. Koh Ker is also a capital city in Cambodia that managed water resources for religious purposes and agriculture by building small and large water reservoirs and dams.

4. INTERNATIONAL

Chichen-Itza (Mexico: 7th-13th Centuries C.E.) :
Chichen-Itza is the largest of Mayan cities, with densely clustered architecture and residential architecture beyond this. The greatest effort was the levelling of the landscape for building the Kukulcan pyramid, grand Ballcourt, temple of warriors and El Caracol (observatory). 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, while the stepped pyramid of Prasat Thom at Koh Ker features a Hindu linga.

Historic Centre of Cordoba (Spain: 10th Centuries C.E.):
The historic Cordoba reflects occupation by different cultural groups with the urban and architecture reached during the Roman era and the great Islamic city, between the 8th and the 10th centuries.