Visit a Khmer Temple @ Phimai Historical Park

The Phimai Historical Park (ปราสาทหินพิมาย in Thai) is the location of one of the most important Khmer Temples within Thailand. It is in the town of Phimai, in Nakhon Ratchasima province.

The temple marks one end of the Ancient Khmer Highway from Angkor. As the enclosed area of 1020 x 580m is comparable with that of Angkor Wat, Phimai must have been an important city in the Khmer empire. It is oriented so as to face Angkor as its cardinal direction.

Most buildings are from the late 11th to the late 12th century, built in the Baphuon, Bayon and Angkor Wat style. However, even though the Khmer at that time were Hindu, it is thought that the temple was built as a Buddhist temple, as Buddhism in the Korat area dated back to the 7th century. Inscriptions name the site Vimayapura (meaning city of Vimaya), which developed into the Thai name Phimai.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767, attempts were made to set up five separate states, with Prince Teppipit, a son of King Boromakot, attempting to establish Phimai as one, holding sway over eastern provinces including Nakhon Ratchasima. The weakest of the five, Prince Teppipit was the first defeated and was executed in 1768.

The first inventory of the ruins was done in 1901 by the French geographer Etienne Aymonier. They were put under governmental protection by announcement in the Government Gazette, Volume 53, section 34, from September 27, 1936. Most of the restorations were done from 1964 to 1969 as a joint Thai-French project. The historical park, now managed by the Fine Arts Department, was officially opened by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on April 12, 1989.

Khmer influence

Because of its location deep in the northeastern part of Thailand, which was once a territory of the Khmer (modern day Cambodia), Phimai’s architecture and cultural decorations are heavily influenced by Khmer culture. Art and architecture shown on the temple itself shows great evidence of the ancient Khmer civilization. 

Similar in its look and design to Angkor Wat, it also has the same function for worshiping the gods in the Hindu religion.

Despite the fact that Phimai has been built in a similar fashion to Angkor and other Khmer Buddhist temples, some religious structures located within Phimai’s walls are still being debated with regards to its original religion. Evidence such as the sculpture of “the Wheel of Law” and the statue of Buddha that were built in Dvaravati style shows that Phimai was certainly an important Buddhist spiritual location. 

Though a large quantity of Buddhist artwork has been shown in Phimai, evidence such as the large pots that were embedded in some corners of the structure suggest that spiritual practices other than Buddhism may have been practiced in Phimai. In other words Phimai may have been an important religious landmark for Animists, Buddhists, and Hindus.

There has not been much evidence of how Phimai or the Khmer civilization in Thailand came about. There are pieces of evidence that archaeologists have studied regarding the history of these Khmer art forms. The earliest engraved records of the Khmer, dating from the 6th century AD, were found in the northeast of Thailand, such as in Surin where Sanskrit inscriptions in stone     have been found. There were statues and engraved images of Hindu gods   such as the image of Shiva’s bull Nandin. Later the King during that time, Mahendravarman, ordered his men to obliterate the engraved inscription.

Phimai along with other Khmer-influenced temples in Thailand have been built mainly under the cause of the “Deveraja cult”, or in other words “King that resembles a God”. Jayavarman II was the most mentioned “Devaraja”. The Devaraja cult developed the belief of worshiping Shiva and the principle that the King during the certain reign was an avartar of Shiva. The Kings under this principle built temples to glorify the reign of the king along with the spread of Hinduism.

The 10th century was the time of the reign of King Rajendravarman II (944-968 AD), which was also a time when the Cambodian Khmer control was spreading into the northeastern Thai territory. Consequently, temples with the Kleang and Baphuon styles were left as a heritage in Thailand. These structures shared the same signature of having three brick towers on a single platform, for instance the Prasat Prang Ku in Sisaket province and Ban Phuluang in Surin province.

Each individual building has its own special features or functions. For example, Prang Brahmadat was built of laterite blocks that form a square. Or Prang Hin Daeng which translates to “Red Stone Tower” which is also a square but was made of red sandstone. Or the main sanctuary built of white sandstone that is almost 32 meters long. The southern lintel has a statue of Buddha meditating with “seven hoods of naga Muchalinda”. Adjacent to the statue is a collection of statues of evils and animals that was depicted from the Tantric Mahayana Buddhist scripture.

Today Phimai is a well-known tourist attraction, especially among people interested in history and archaeology. Located in the middle of Phimai is a small gallery which forms a rectangle surrounding the courtyard which has been newly built for commercial purpose. Within the gallery there is a pre-Angkorean (Buddhist) inscription that tells the story of Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama) and his journey to becoming Buddha, along with other classic Buddhist stories. Along with the prangs which symbolize that the area is a sacred area.

Within Phimai’s Wall

When tourists enter the area of Phimai from the old town on the south, they have to cross a river about one kilometer to the south and enter an ancient laterite landing stage which acheologists believe used to be the bathing place for a heroine in local myths. The north gate is the city main gate, known as the “Pratu Chai”, which has recently been reconstructed by the Royal Fine Art Department. Its size is enormous; it is said that the size is big enough for a royal elephant to enter. The Royal Fine Art Department has also built an inner gallery which shows ancient Buddhist inscriptions and small sculptures as well as pieces of wrecked architecture. The rest of Phimai remains the same only with a little restoration by the Royal Art Department.

Architectural Style

Having a lot in common with Angkor Wat, Phimai shows a great example of classical Khmer architecture. Ancient Khmer architects were best known for their superior use of sandstone over the traditional bricks and laterite architectures. Sandstones are used on the outer layer where they are visible. Laterite on the other hand was used for the outer wall and other hidden parts. All the structures are constructed from huge sandstone blocks. There are many lotus shaped roofs which represent Mount Meru (A holy mountain in Hinduism).

Khmer temples, including this one, were intended to resemble the universe. The main building resembles the peak of the mountain that centers the universe. The surrounding walls resemble the water and encircling mountains. The Khmer didn’t develop the technique of true Vault architecture during their time. This resulted in the fact that large areas could not be spanned over. The motivation to come up with developing the techniques of true vaulting were unnecessary because the religion didn’t require it. For them, large open areas are fine. They instead developed the use of multiple chapels.

Construction Materials

The Khmer learned how to efficiently use bricks, sand stones, and laterite. They were the three principal structural materials. They generally cut the lintel at 45 degrees to produce a triangular wedge.

Archaeological Projects

In 1998, the Origins of Angkor Project, a joint project between the Royal Thai Fine Arts Department Anthropology Department and the University of Otago, New Zealand, began excavations to investigate the underlying sequence. Temple construction during the Angkorian period involved the deliberate deposition of layers of fill, which can clearly be seen in the stratigraphy of the site.

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