Phnom Kulen (30 kilometers northeast of Angkor, 25 kilometers from Banteay Srei, and 60 kilometers from Siem Reap) was originally called Mount Mahendraparvata. Located in Svay Leu and Varin districts of Siem Reap province, it is the holy mountain where, it is said, King Jayavarman II (reigned A.D. 802-850) proclaimed Khmer independence from Java in 802, giving birth to the Angkorian Empire. As many as 20 minor temples are found around the plateau, including Rorng Chen temple, the first pyramid built by an Angkorian King, but many of them are difficult to reach. Numerous important sites lie scattered across the mountaintop, which is accessible by foot or by car.

Phnom Kulen: Archeological Site-Ancient Site of Mahendraparvata was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “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 kilometers to the south of the Dangrek Mountains, and 30 kilometers 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.

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.

Ancient Mahendraparvata

Mahendraparvata is believed to have been the first capital of the Khmer Empire, which existed during the Angkor period from the 9th to 15th centuries. This mountain plateau served as the capital of the first Khmer Empire for more than half a century before it relocated south to Hariharalaya, known today as Roluos. Later the heart of the Khmer Empire shifted to Angkor, which lay to the south on a floodplain and is the site of the famous 12th century Angkor Wat temples. Predating Angkor Wat by 350 years, Mahendraparvata contains roads, temples and carvings are still being unearthed. It location had long-eluded archeologists, who knew of its existence but were unable to map it out because of the difficult terrain. That changed in 2019 (See Below).

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: “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.[Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

“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.

“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.

Mahendraparvata Found Using LiDAR Aerial Mapping

In 2019, it was announced that the location of Mahendraparvata had been found using LiDAR aerial mapping. Nicola Smith wrote in The Telegraph: “An ancient settlement, known as the ‘lost city’ of Cambodia, has been rediscovered by scientists using aerial mapping after remaining hidden in dense jungle for centuries. Studies of the city were further hampered by landmines leftover from the Khmer Rouge, who used the location in the Phnom Kulen highlands as a last stronghold when their regime came to an end in 1979 in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. In a new paper, published this month in the academic journal, Antiquity, an international team has revealed what they say is a definitive reconstruction of the form of the early Angkor-period capital, with the help of airborne laser scanning, a technique known as Lidar. [Source: Nicola Smith, The Telegraph, October 16, 2019]

“Despite its importance as the location of one of the Angkor period's earliest capitals, the mountainous region of Phnom Kulen has, to date, received strikingly little attention,” point out the report’s authors, led by Jean-Baptiste Chevance from the Archaeology and Development Foundation in the UK. Their recent efforts began in 2012 when Damian Evans of the French Institute of Asian Studies in Paris and his colleagues scanned the region with lasers from planes. It gave them an incomplete snapshot of the ruins and so they returned in 2015 to scan a larger area alongside a ground-based survey. The result was “a very full and detailed interpretation of that city,” Mr Evans told the New Scientist.

“The city was built on a plateau, covering some 40 to 50 square kilometres, and the team found that it was laid out in a grid structure, with each square in the grid revealing traces of buildings, including temples and grand palaces. “It shows a degree of centralised control and planning,” he said. “What you’re seeing at Mahendraparvata.. speaks of a grand vision and a fairly elaborate plan.”

“Experts now aim to date the structures. Mahendraparvata, does not seem to have been used as the capital for long because its mountainous location was unsustainable for inhabitants. It has remained a source of fascination to historians, however. “The city may not have lasted for centuries, or perhaps even decades, but the cultural and religious significance of the place has lasted right up until the present day,” said Mr Evans.

Layout and Infrastructure of Phnom Kulen

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “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). [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

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.

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. 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).

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.

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. Phnom Kulen is known to have hosted 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.

Temples, Pyramid and Royal Palace at Phnom Kulen

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: 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. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

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).

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).

Impact of Phnom Kulen on Angkor Settlement Patterns and Urbanization

According to the report submitted to UNESCO: 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. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

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). [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

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.

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).

Art and Architecture at Phnom Kulen

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The architecture and art of Phnom Kulen, 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. [Source: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Cambodia to UNESCO]

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.

At 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.

Conservation at Phnom Kulen

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen is a proposed site, already projected as a National Park by the Cambodia Government, under a royal decree as Preah Jayavarman-Norodom Phnom Kulen National Park. It was established in 1993 and covers 373.73 km2.

The systematic archaeological surveys and excavations have identified an array of cultural features. These sites are representative of the integrity for all attributes such as ‘historical, monumental, archaeological feature, natural landscape, and artifacts of the ancient complex; infrastructure of city planning, hydraulic feature, road network, water system, ritual and spiritual expression’, which characterized the nomination for a World Heritage Site. These significant elements contribute to the potential Outstanding Universal Value of the Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen represented by more than 40 brick temples, an urban network, water-management, infrastructures, and composing the structure of an ancient city. In addition, rock shelters, riverbed sculptures, and prehistoric rock painting sites, enhance the value of the site. The boundary of Phnom Kulen National Park includes the Phnom Kulen plateau and its environment, such as the protection forested area. Recently, remote sensing data have revolutionized our view, revealing the remains of a city with a complex and important extensive network of urban infrastructure.

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.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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