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Bagan and Angkor: An architectural comparison

Cambodia and Burma can be seen as "parallel" civilisations. Both countries established powerful empires at about the same time and came to dominate most of mainland Southeast Asia between the 11th and the 13th centuries. Bagan and Angkor served as capitals during this "classical" age and represented large, prosperous conurbations. All domestic and utilitarian structures were, however, built in perishable materials, so the two former capitals survive to-day purely as temple sites, in fact the two most important such sites in mainland Southeast Asia.

The culture of classical Cambodia and Burma was heavily indebted to India. This is particularly obvious in their religious landscapes which are dominated by Buddhism and Hinduism. On the material side we find a great deal of Indian concepts and forms in evidence as well, as both Burmese and Cambodian sculpture, architecture and painting (the latter surviving only in Burma) amply demonstrate. Yet while the sources for the temples of Bagan and Angkor are to be found in India the local architects achieved a particular and largely independent interpretation of the models that were handed down from Indian masters.

This study looks at the way in which architectural traditions were established in the two countries, how these traditions relate to their original models and how the results compare between the temples of Bagan and those at Angkor. It is striking how few points of contact there were between the two civilisations on the level of architecture and how faithful both remained to their early established traditions. Rather than to look across the border at the respective neighbouring country, both applied themselves strenuously to the development of their own concepts. While some of the differences between Bagan and Angkor can be attributed to practical, technical or iconographic motives, both groups of temples demonstrate the power of tradition combined with the ability to be creative within the parameters of one's own typology.

The illustrations show some of the features that are discussed in the study.

1. Shwesandaw, Bagan: built under Anawratha in the 11th century, it introduces revolutionary elements into Burmese stupa architecture like the concave anda (bell shape) and the stepped pyramid with axial stairways, one of the few example of a direct borrowing of a Khmer feature in classical Bagan architecture.

2. Nan-hpaya (mid-11th century): one of the earliest examples of the Burmese “gu”, a hollow structure with a cella, surmounted by a _ikhara, and a deep porch extending towards the East.

3. Lei-myet-hna (“four-faced”) ground plans, characteristic of Bagan: Thambula (left) and Myinkaba Gubauk-nge (right).

Alope Bagan
4. Alopye, Bagan (11th century): “gu” crowned with a st_pa, in contrast to the _ikhara finial, as in 1. Nan-hpaya.

Khmer Prasat Phnom Krom
5. Khmer prasat (Phnom Krom): this early-10th century example shows the fully-formed tower sanctuary with its superstructure of diminishing storeys.

Chau Say Tevoda
6. Chau say Tevoda (mid-12th century): the large protruding hall at the front of the prasat is the “mandapa”, characteristic of many main sanctuaries in Khmer temple complexes after the middle of the 10th century.

Ta Phrom ground plan
7. Ta Prohm, Angkor, Hall of the Dancers: one of the most ambitious attempts in Khmer architecture to create a large-scale interior space.

Banteay Kdei
7a. Banteay Kdei, Angkor, Hall of the Dancers: a similar – possibly slightly earlier – version of the same type of building; it still shows the system of four overlapping cloisters that form this rectangular hall.

Pya-tha-da, Bagan
8. Pya-tha-da, Bagan: this probably unfinished temple of the mid-13th century demonstrates the crucial importance of vaulting in the “hollowing out” of the structure.

Beng Mealea
9. Beng Mealea, Siem Reap Province (first half, 12th century): partially collapsed corbel vaults demonstrate the limitations of this construction technique.

9a. Phimeanakas, Angkor (c.1000): the undercutting of the corbel vault in parabolic shape may indicate an, at least visual, knowledge of true vaulting techniques.

10. Phnom Bakheng, Angkor: the most perfect realisation in Khmer architecture of the concept of the cosmic Mt.Meru as the abode of the gods (early 10th century).

Prang Koh Ker
10a. The oddly named “Prang” at Koh Ker, Preah Vihear Province (first half, 10th century): the tallest stepped pyramid ever built by the Khmer, unsurpassed in its monumentality and clarity of line.

Phimeanakas Angkor
10b. Phimeanakas: located within the palace enclosure at Angkor and reconstructed c.1000, it shows an increasing preoccupation with the decorative mouldings of the terraces and stairways.

Candi Sewu
11. Candi Sewu, Central Java (2nd half of the 8th century): the concentric layout of both Hindu and Buddhist temples in Java is regarded as a major influence on the compositions of Khmer State temples.

12. Mahabodhi, Bagan (c.1215): a close paraphrase of the Vajrasana Temple at Bodhgaya which introduced several un-Burmese features to Bagan in the early 13th century.

Baksei Chamkrong
13. Baksei Chamkrong, Angkor: begun in the early 10th century, it stands at the beginning of decades of experimentation with the State/mountain temples and its compositional complexities.

Ta Keo
13a. Ta Keo, Angkor (late 10th century): this unfinished temple represents perhaps the apogee of early-Angkorian architecture, in its clarity of composition and dramatic sequence of spaces and level changes.

Preah Vihear
14. Preah Vihear, Dangrek Mountains (first half, eleventh century), uppermost levels: in this temple complex, Khmer mastery at interpreting natural settings and enhancing them by architectural means, is most clearly expressed; Preah Vihear is also the most radically axial of all great Khmer compositions.

15. Baphuon, Angkor (mid-11th century): the first of a triad of State temples built for the three main religions that dominated the Khmer Empire (_aivism, Vaisnavism, Buddhism).

Angkor Vat
15a. Angkor Vat (first half of the 12th century): regarded by most as the pinnacle of Khmer architecture, and one of the most monumental religious buildings in the world. It does, however, not stand by itself but the result of generations of compositional, aesthetic and technical exploration, firmly embedded in the Khmer architectural tradition.

Angkor Thom
15b. Bayon, Angkor Thom (late 12th – early 13th centuries): conceptually, compositionally and historically the most complex Khmer temple.

Preah Khan ground plan
16. Preah Khan d’Angkor.

Ta Prhom ground plan
16a. Ta Phrom.

Naga Yon
17. Naga-yon, central chamber: the dramatic verticality is emphasised by the parabolic vault that springs from ground level; the effect of lighting devices in the form of openings in the upper parts of the structure is diminished by the modern whitewash.

17a. Pa-hto-tham-ya: even though reduced to featuring a restored Buddha image, this late 10th-century temple is a good example of the mystical cave/”gu” effect of early Bagan sanctuaries.

Ananda ground plan and section
18. Ananda: this temple can be regarded as the apogee of early-classical Bagan architecture. It combines the “gu” effect with the ancient lei-myet-hna configuration of four Buddha images around a solid core and, as harbinger of things to come, increases interior lighting and accessibility from all four sides.

19. That-byinn-yu: this temple represents the most radical emphasis on the upper storey, by treating the ground floor as a mere plinth and through a powerful accentuation of cubic masses, crowned by a curiously squat sikhara.

20. Shwe-gu-gyi: one of the most uncompromisingly vertical structures in Bagan, albeit only single-storey, by virtue of its extremely high plinth and elongated sikhara.

21. Sula-mani: this temple is often seen as the ultimate statement of Bagan-period architecture; in it is achieved a harmonious equilibrium of horizontals and verticals. The best indication of the accuracy of this view is the fact that most subsequent projects on this scale follow the “Sula-mani type”.

Bagan panoramic view
22. Bagan, panoramic view.

Preah Khan d'Angkor
23. Preah Khan d’Angkor, Eastern gopura of the 3rd enclosure: even when taking the profuse growth of vegetation into account, this massive entrance pavilion would have blocked any view of the complex behind it; whilst approaching on this main axis, the visitor has no idea what awaits him behind the gopura.

Angkor Wat causeway
24. Angkor Vat, naga causeway and view of the central mass from the West: the clear lines suggest a simple, regular, concentric layout of the main building.

Angkor Wat courtyard
24a. The cruciform courtyard across the 3rd enclosure of Angkor Vat is one of the most remarkable achievements of Khmer design. Not only does it interrupt the concentric configuration of the central mass, it is spatially and visually closed towards all other parts of the complex and rests entirely in itself.

Roluos Map
25. Roluos site plan: note the alignment of all of Indravarman’s projects, i.e. Bakong, Preah Koh and the baray; furthermore that of Bakong and Lolei, and the reference made to the (earlier) Prei Monti.

Bagan Map
26. The Bagan map shows the irregularly laid-out city walls of the 9th century and clusters of temples radiating from this centre in all directions in a wholly unplanned fashion.

Angkor Map
27. Despite encompassing several layers of urban planning and major changes over a span of at least three centuries, all main features of Angkor correspond to a geometrical grid. The central square of Angkor Thom, in fact the youngest of these features, was an ingenious scheme of reconstructing the capital around the old palace site and central temples (Baphuon, Phimeanakas).

Preah Khan
28. Preah Khan d’Angkor: the linking of spaces (see also figs. 16, 16a) is characteristic of late Angkorian architecture; it emphasises the compositional nexus between sub-enclosures but also makes the understanding of the complex as a working space extremely opaque. Contrast this with the Theravada/Burmese isolation of individual structures within the greater context of the monastery.

Wat Chai Watthanaram - Ayutthaya
29. Wat Chai Watthanaram, Ayutthaya (1630): the Siamese “prang” is a direct descendant of the Khmer prasat; the arrangement of towers and galleries can also be traced back to the Cambodian flat-land monasteries of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Kuthodaw Mandalay
30. Kuthodaw, Mandalay (1857-68): the numerous stele pavilions that surround the central st_pa (itself a copy of Shwe-zigon), are ultimately derived from the Bagan-period “gu”.