Temple architecture

When a temple in southern Laos was an important Hindu pilgrimage center

In 2022, it’s hard to imagine that the predominantly Theravada Buddhist republic of Laos, traditionally part of the Sinosphere, was once home to a civilization and temple complex that was a major center of Hinduism in Southeast Asia. East. Almost all traces of Hinduism in what includes modern Laos were wiped out after major empires in the region, such as the Khmer, adopted Buddhism. However, in the southern province of Champasak, near the borders with Thailand and Cambodia, there is a mountain with a Shiv Lingam-shaped protrusion on its top that reminds visitors of the time when the worship of Shiva and Vishnu was common in the area.

The Vat Phou temple complex, which sits at the foot of Phou Khao mountain, dates back to the 5th century CE and houses a series of structures that were mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries. “The cultural landscape of Champasak, including the Wat Phou temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape over 1,000 years old,” according to UNESCO. “It was shaped to express the Hindu view of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis running from the top of the mountain to the bank of the river to trace a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and aqueducts extending for about 10 km.

Hindu inscriptions found in Southeast Asia date back to at least the early Christian era. There is enough archaeological evidence to suggest that the earliest temples in the complex appeared as early as the 5th century CE, nearly 500 years before the founding of the Khmer Empire.

“A spring at the foot of one of the cliffs undoubtedly prompted the ancient kings of the region in the 5th century to erect a sanctuary,” said French director Alain Dayan in his 2002 documentary titled Of rivers and men – The Mekong (A river and its inhabitants – The Mekong). “A few centuries later, when Vat Phou was assimilated into a vast Khmer territory, the site was linked to the famous temples of Angkor, a few hundred kilometers to the southwest.”

Pediment at Vat Phou showing Vishnu riding a garuda. Credit: Markalexander100/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License].

It is unclear who built the first temple in the area. “The foundation of the site is dated to the middle of the 5th century AD when the Kingdom of Chenla (5th-7th c. AD), began its expansion into northern Cambodia,” said the Global Heritage Fund, an organization at nonprofit founded in California in 2002. says in a report. Some historians, however, doubt that the Chenla kingdom even existed. For their part, Laotians believe that the first temple was built by a king named Kamata. At the complex, local pilgrims pay homage to the statue of a dvarapala (guardian) who they believe to be Kamata.

Traces of the Hindu past

Once the Khmers became a powerful force in the 11th century, they built a very sophisticated community on the Champasak Plain from Phou Khao to the Mekong. At its height in the 12th century, Vat Phou had six terraces on three levels. The main shrine was built at the highest level and contained a cell which housed the main Shiv Lingam. The water system was so advanced that the lingam was bathed using a system of sandstone pipes that carried water from a sacred spring. The lingam was later replaced by Buddha statues when the Khmer Empire converted to Buddhism.

The spring that once bathed the lingam is still considered sacred by Buddhist pilgrims who visit the temple complex. “The holy water originates at the top,” local tour guide Oudomsy Kevsaksith said in Dayan’s documentary. “It then crosses the Linga Parabata and flows downward. From the beginning of time, until today, people come to Vat Phou of Champassak. They take a few drops of holy water and pour it over their heads. By this act, they express the wish for a long and healthy life. This stream, which comes from the mountains, will flow into the Mekong. The people of the region can receive all the blessings from the union of the sacred source of Vat Phou and the Mekong.

The complex still has traces of its Hindu past, including images of Hindu gods. Another distinct feature is a Khmer-style Trimurti in the complex, depicting Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Pediment showing Krishna killing Kamsa. Credit: Markalexander100/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License].

Surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, Wat Phu was probably the most important Hindu pilgrimage center of the Khmer Empire until Nagara, better known as Angkor Wat, was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. . The Khmers even built a direct royal road connecting the two temple complexes. The road to Vat Phu began at a pavilion housing an image of Nandi, the mount of Shiva.

Decline and fall

The transition of Wat Phou from a Hindu temple to a Theravada Buddhist temple probably occurred around the same time as that of Angkor Wat, at the end of the 12th century. The Shiv Lingam has been removed and replaced with statues of the Buddha. After its conversion, the temple was used for the worship of warriors before battles. Children of warriors were also brought to seek the blessings of the Buddha and Hindu deities whose statues were still widely present in the complex.

At the crossroads of several empires, Vat Phou has been attacked many times by invaders from the east and west. In 1427, a Champa army from Vietnam occupied the complex and refrained from plunder when the weakened Khmer Empire promised to pay the Champa kingdom.

The Khmer empire collapsed a few years later when it was attacked by the Siamese (Thai) kingdom of Ayutthaya. One of the bitterest events in Cambodian history is the fall of Angkor Wat in 1431, when the Thais looted it and nearby Khmer temples. Wat Phou suffered the same fate as Angkor Wat when the Thais attacked. Both temple complexes lost their importance in the mid-15th century, but were never completely abandoned.

View from the upper level of Vat Phou. Credit: Mattun0211/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication].

Khmer literature was also lost during the Thai invasions of the 15th century, including many sacred texts in Sanskrit. Sanskrit was the main language of Khmer inscriptions before the invasion of Ayutthaya. After the invasion, it was replaced by the Middle Khmer languages.

The area housing Wat Phou changed hands between empires and was in the possession of the Thais, the Lao Lang Xang Empire and the French, who colonized Indochina. The complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, with the United Nations body declaring that it features “a remarkable complex of monuments and other structures over a wide area between river and mountain, some of outstanding architecture, many containing great works of art, and all expressing intense religious conviction and commitment.

International cultural bodies and NGOs have worked to preserve the complex which is threatened by climate change and heavy rains. The World Heritage Fund has played an important role in the preservation of the complex’s main Nandi pavilion. In a 2009 report, the non-profit organization said: “The monument, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is one of the most important examples of Khmer architecture due to its plan, historical significance and religious and the value of its sculptures. ”

The ancient Hindu temple is now a popular stop on Mekong night cruises. Not as well known as Angkor Wat, it gets a small fraction of the foreign visitors who flock to Cambodia’s huge complex. As is the case throughout Southeast Asia, Hindu traditions and rituals were integrated into conservative Theravada Buddhism at Wat Phou. Many Buddhist pilgrims ascending the frangipani-scented path to the main shrine are happy to pray for the earthly and material comforts of the Hindu deities. Once at the top of the complex, they pay homage to the Buddha and try to imitate his path to enlightenment through meditation.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Historical and Heritage Writings for 2022.