Khmer Mythology

Ancestor Cult

From time immemorial, the Khmers grow rice and venerate the spirits of their ancestors who own the land.

Ancestor spirits are known as Neak Ta or Anak Ta.

The Naga

The Naga symbolizes the Water, the Earth, the Nature, the female and maternal energy and principle.  Heis the great Ancestor of the Khmers.

He is a God, residing in the deepest Underworld.

The Naga King is depicted as a cobra-shaped serpent with multiple heads.

Nagini (Naga Princesses) take shape as beautiful young women with Naga heads in their hairdo.

The Naga is proudly guarding the causeways of the Bakong and other temples.

Indian influence

During the first centuries of the Christian era, enterprising traders sailed to the Mainland and the islands of Southeast Asia. They took contact with the local chiefs and settled down. They brought with them among other things the script, Sanskrit language, Buddhism and Hinduism, the conceptions of kingdom and building temples.


In Angkor, Shiva is regarded as the supreme god. The kings of Angkor ruled on behalf of Shiva, “the Lord of the World”, and built pyramid temples for him, Bakong, Phnom Bakheng, Prasat Thom (Koh Ker), Pre Rup, Ta Keo, and Baphuon.

Lingam and Yoni

Lingam means “Symbol”, symbol of Shiva. In Angkor, the Lingam stands in the Yoni.

Yoni is vulgarly translated as “vulva”, but it is square and a symbol of the Earth, receiving the divine energy of the Lingam.


Shiva also manifests himself as Kala, the absolute time, devouring everything. Kala reliefs are omnipresent in Angkor.


Durga killed the Buffalo Monster. She was venerated in pre-Angkorian temples. Durga was the spouse of Shiva, in Angkor she was replaced by Uma.


Devatas are Goddesses, spouses of the Gods.

The walls of temples were adorned with Devatas, guarding the temples.

Their beauty is legendary; they give their divine blessings to those who face them respectfully.


Vishnu is the preserver of the World. To save the World he incarnates as Krishna and Rama.

Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu.

Vishnu directs the Churning of the Sea of Milk.


He is the mount of Vishnu, the king of the birds, a symbol of the sun, of light and reason.

He is also a trickster. He tries to tame the Naga, of course in va


Indra, on his three-headed elephant Airavan can be seen in many reliefs.


The Apsaras, celestial nymphs and dancers, were created with the Churning of the Sea of Milk, for the amusement of the Gods.

The Buddha

Legends of the Buddha are sparsely depicted in Angkorian temples.


In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is the re-incarnation of an enlightened being, a mortal God.



Ancestor Cult

The indigenous religion of the Khmers

Angkor Wat: Leang Neak Ta Reach
Angkor Wat: Leang Neak Ta Reach
Phnom Bakheng: Animistic stone setting,
Phnom Bakheng: Animistic stone setting,


Wat Preah Cup (Phnom Kulen): Buddhist and animistic shrine
Wat Preah Cup (Phnom Kulen): Buddhist and animistic shrine

"At places where narrow pathways intersected the perimeter of the villages - beside a termite mound, in a sacred wood, at the foot of an aged tree - we would find little altars dedicated to divinities of the soil. Sometimes the guardians of the bounds would be ancient sculptures, exhumed by the rains; sometimes they would be crudely carved of wood; sometimes they were simply a stone. The passing peasants would pay their homage with a handful of fresh leaves."
(François Bizot, The Gate)

The belief in ancestor spirits in Cambodia, the best known type of which are called neak ta, is older than Hinduism and Buddhism. There was a ancestor cult in the pre-Angkor period.

By local belief neak ta maintain "the ownership of temples and sites, where they guard and watch over the conduct of people at vantage points to ensure the maintenance of social order and welfare." (Keko Miura, p.56.)

They are venerated in boulders, statues, ore fragments of statues.

Every ancient temple and sacred site has at least one neak ta. Several temples are named after neak ta such as Ta Keo, Bakong and Ta Prohm.

The statue of Vishnu in the southern door of the West Gate of Angkor Wat (see photo) is inhabited by a neak ta called Neak Ta Reach, a high ranking spirit  who is passionately adored by local people.

Neak ta can affect the welfare and lives of people.

Inappropriate conduct by visitors around neak ta shrines and within the temple is seen to anger the spirits. If neglected or disturbed, neak ta can affect the welfare and health of local villagers. There have been several reports of villagers being struck by misadventure and illness after witnessing disrespectful behavior and failing to then provide offerings to gain the forgiveness of the neak ta. Neak ta seem only to turn against local people. Therefore lack of respect in visitors has deleterious effects on locals. (Georgina Lloyd)


  • ANG Choulean, 
    - The human-nature relationship seen through animistic belief and ritual in Cambodia. PDF. 
    - The place of animism within popular Buddhism in Cambodia: The example of the monster. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 47, 1998, p. 35-41. PDF.
    - People and Earth, Phnom Penh 2000.

  • Miura, Keko, Contested Heritage People of Angkor , PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 2004.

  • Georgina Lloyd, The Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Law and Policy, PhD Thesis, Sydney 2009.

The Hidden Story of the Naga

The Naga Raja (Naga King) is a cobra-shaped serpent with five, seven or more heads.

The realm of the Naga is at the deepest storey of the Underworld.

He symbolizes the earth, the water, nature, the female and maternal energy and principle.  

Nagini (Naga Princesses) take shape as beautiful young women with Naga heads in their hairdo

The Naga - the Lord of Cambodia

Soma (“The Moon”) was the daughter of the Naga King, the Lord of the Land near the Mekong. She was "celebrated for her virile force and her exploits ".

Kaundinya, a Brahmin, came from India by sea. He landed at the bank of the Mekong. He had a sacred javelin with him which he drove into the ground to mark the centre of his kingdom and capital.

Soma attacked him with her female warriors but they could not defeat him.

At last they fell in love with each other. The Naga king married them; he swallowed the water and so dried up the land for rice fields.

Thus Kaundinya became King of Kampuchea. The king ruled the country; the queen owned it.

Till to this day it is the women who own the rice fields in Cambodia.

Sprawling Naga

At the Shiva temples Bakong, Koh Ker and Preah Vihear as well as at the North Khleang, Beng Mealea, Neak Pean and Banteay Chhmar, the Naga is sprawling on the ground, in touch with his elements, water and earth.

The sprawling Naga protects the entrance of the temple; he is escorting devotees from the secular world into the sanctuary.

The sprawling Naga also protects causeways which are crossing the water. 
This is a crucial task, in some South-East Asian armies, including the Communist ones, there is a rule: Crossing a river, the last soldier in the line has to call for imaginary comrades behind him. In this way the malicious spirit of the river is diverted from catching him.

At Neak Pean a pair of Naga with twisted tails is sprawling around the circular central island

At the Creation of the World

Between the times, Vishnu is reclining at the Naga Ananta.

At the Churning of the Sea of Milk, the Naga Vasuki makes the rope.

The Naga and Garuda

Garuda is the King of the Birds and the mount of God Vishnu, representing light and fire, the male principles, the culture.

Along the outer wall of Preah Khan, Garuda shows up in forty huge reliefs. He wants to get the Naga under control by taming him. He holds the Naga by his hands and his claws.

Traditionally Garuda and the Naga are regarded as deadly enemies but they are partners like man and wife; obviously Garuda just tries hard to tame the Naga and never hurts him.

Giant balustrades

Giant balustrades are at the entrances of Preah Khan, Angkor Thom, and Banteay Chhmar. Looking outside you see gods to the right and demons in equal number to the left.

Zhou Daguan writes about a gate of Angkor Thom:

"The fifty-four deities are all pulling at the snake with their hands, and look as if they are preventing it from escaping."

What a mistake!

Left alone the Naga is guarding loyally, but separated fromthe Earth and forced to service, he will resist.

Lifted from the ground, the Naga loses the contact with the Earth, the source of his power.

Balustrades with Naga heads

In the Bayon era, the Naga is presented as defeated: His heads have to decorate balustrades. Sometimes the heads are decorated by Garuda.

Balustrades with Naga heads are almost omnipresent in Angkor; they were also added to temples from the Angkor Wat era.

The Naga at the Phimeanakas, a legend

The Naga has withdrawn from the World, the daylight. But in the darkness, in the Underworld, the king has to submit to the supreme power of the Naga.

Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy in the late 13th century, relates a legend:

"Inside the palace there is a gold tower [the Phimeanakas], at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine - headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die. If for a single night he stays away, he is bound to suffer a disaster."

An ecological disaster

In the 13th century, Angkor's irrigation system got overstressed and broke down. The limit set by nature – the female principle – was ignored and eliminated; the male principle had to fail. Angkor was abandoned.

When the Naga - who controls the water - was superficially eliminated, the irrigation system in Angkor collapsed.

This may be mere coincidence; anyhow the failure of water supply was the main reason for the decline of Angkor.

The roots at Ta Prohm

After the breakdown of Angkor, the Nagas return in the guise of trees and their roots, transforming or destroying the works of civilization, and restoring nature.

The Naga Mucalinda

The Buddha was meditating when a fierce thunderstorm attacked him. The Naga King Mucalinda coiled his body around him and spread the array of his heads over him, thus covering and protecting him like a powerful mother.

Homage to the Buddha

In reliefs at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, the Naga King and Garuda pay their respects to the Buddha.

The Buddha enthroned at the Naga

In Angkor the body of the Naga was transformed to a triangular coil, the array of heads makes a decorative frame to the Buddha's head.

The Naga has been degraded to a piece of furniture.

The Buddha on the Naga is the icon of Mahayana Buddhism in the Bayon era.

Photo album


  • Roveda 2002, p. 200-202.
  • Roveda 2005, p. 212.
Wat Phu: Shiva between Vishnu and Brahma
Wat Phu: Shiva between Vishnu and Brahma

Shiva the Supreme God

Angkor Wat: Shiva appears to the wives of the hermits
Angkor Wat: Shiva appears to the wives of the hermits
Banteay Srei: Ravana shaking Mout Kailasha
Banteay Srei: Ravana shaking Mout Kailasha
Banteay Srei: Shiva and Uma on Nandi above Kala
Banteay Srei: Shiva and Uma on Nandi above Kala
Preah Vihear: Shiva dancing (PW)
Preah Vihear: Shiva dancing (PW)


Baphuon: Shiva and Arjuna
Baphuon: Shiva and Arjuna

Shiva was the national god of Kambucha. From the beginnings to the 11th century, kings erectted temples to hir honor.

"First the Blessed was unique. At the time of the creation of the world, [He] divided himself into three to take pleasure in the form of [the god with] four faces (Brahma ), [the god with] four arms (Vishnu ), and Shambhu [The Being]. At the end of the Cosmic time period (Yuga) He assumes his unified form. Homage to Him, Shiva!"
(Inscription of Lolei, 886. by Sahai 2009, p. 96.)

Shiva is the Lord of the ascetics, the Great Sage, the Meditater of universal Wisdom and Power.

Shiva appearing to the wives of the hermits

To try out the loyalty of his keenest disciples, the hermits, Shiva appears to their wives as a seductively beautiful youth, almost naked. They are fascinated and are beside themselves.

Shiva killing Kama

The demon Taraka is wreaking havoc amongst the gods. No other god can defeat him but a son of Shiva. Shiva shall make love with Uma and father a son. But he is sitting on Mount Kailasha in endless meditation. Indra tells Kama, the God of Love, to wake up Shiva and bring his attention to lovely Uma. With his bow of sugar cane, Kama brandishes a flower arrow to Shiva. Angry about the interruption, Shiva kills him with the energy of his third eye. Then he recognizes the beauty of Uma from whom his son will be born.

Arjuna encounters Shiva

Hunting in the forest, Arjuna, is attacked by a fierce boar. He kills the beast with an arrow. But then another hunter claims the bag. They start fighting; Arjuna gets into trouble and prays silently to Shiva for help. Then he realises that his antagonist is Shiva. He submits to him and worships him. Shiva gives him a magical bow and arrows.

Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha

The Demon King Ravana is an ardent devotee of Shiva. When he wants to enter Mount Kailasha a monkey faced guardian refuses access. Furious Ravana shakes the mountain. Shiva lifts the mountain and buries the demon king. Prostrated, with the mountain in his back, Ravana is singing hymns of praise to Shiva for one thousand years. At last he wins Shiva's friendship.

Shiva and Uma on Nandi

Shiva, the supreme god and the national god of the Khmers, appears without pomp and is unassuming. He is riding on Nandi, his sacred bull. Uma, his consort, sits behind him with the legs sideways. The two are like a contemporary Cambodian couple on their motorbike.

The oath of loyalty

In 1011, king Suryavarman I ordered that all dignitaries to take an oath of loyalty to Sikhareshvara. The text of this oath is engraved at the entrance gate of the Royal Palace and at the South Khleang in Angkor Thom. (Sahai 2009, p. 8 f.)

Dancing Shiva

In Preah Pithu, Shiva is dancing on Kala between Brahma and Vishnu.

In Preah Vihear, Shiva dancing on an elephant's head in the open sky Shiva 's most powerful appearance is as nataraja, the King of the Dance. At the end of time, getting intoxicated, Shiva is dancing the tandava, the dance he has created. Under his feet he destroys the world making space for a new creation.
(Sahai 2009, p. 96. Roveda 2005, p. 162 f. Photo on top: Banteay Srei.)

Shiva Trimurti

Shiva, as supreme god, is standing in the middle. He has five faces (four are visible) and ten arms (one is missing). Brahma, kneeling at the left, has four faces (three visible) and eight arms (four visible). Vishnu, kneeling at the right, is the smallest, he has one face and four arms.

In Hinduism Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva are supreme gods. In Cambodia, till about 1100 AD, Shiva was the national god.

Shiva temples often open to the east; they feature three towers, the north tower is dedicated to Vishnu, the central tower to Shiva, and the south tower to Brahma.

Shiva's names

  • Sambor Prei Kuk: Gambhiresvara (Inscrutable Lord), Sri Ratnesvara (Lord of Precious Stones), Prahasitesvara (The Smiling Lord)
  • Banteay Srei: Tribhuvanamahesvara (Great Lord of the Threefold World)
  • Preah Vihear: Sikhareshvara (Lord of the Summit).


Kala is a manifestation of Shiva in his terrible aspect.

"Maha Kala or Absolute Time is one of the names of Shiva."
(Sahai 2009, p. 90.)

    Linga and Yoni

    The Linga or Lingam is the symbol of Shiva and his creative, preserving and destroying power.

    The Origin of the Linga

    When the World is being created, and when Vishnu and Brahma are struggling, Shiva has his appearance coming out of an immense and expanding column of fire and hot energy, growing to the depths of the Earth and increasing to the heights of the Heaven.

    When this column of fire crashes the Earth it threats to put the Universe on fire, Brahma and Vishnu sheathe the head of the column, inside the Earth, in order to prevent a catastrophe.

    In summary, the linga is

    • The symbol of Shiva.
    • The vertical axis stabilizing the World.
    • Connecting Earth and Heaven.
    • Marking the centre of the World.
    • A symbol of fertility.

    Lingas in Angkor

    The Linga presents Shiva in the form of a phallus.

    In Angkor the top of the Linga is circular, the middle - sheathed by Vishnu - is octagonal, and the base - sheathed by Brahma - is square.

    The Yoni

    The Linga is standing in a pedestal, called the Yoni.

    Then the Yoni represents the Earth, fertilized by the Linga.

    A snânadroni (gargoyle) runs from the yoni to the north. Sometimes the lips of a vulva are depicted at the end of this gargoyle.

    Water was consecrated by pouring it on the Lingam and collected at the end of the snânadronî. (Ashley Thomson, in AC, p. 233-234.)

    Photos 01, 02

    Royal Linga

    The Linga represents the king, ruling on behalf of Shiva. The Yoni represents the Earth.  Linga and Yoni are a symbol of royal power over the World.

    Thousand Lingam

    Aggregations of Lingam in the square pattern are  at the tributaries of Stoeng Siem Reap at Kbal Spean and near Preah Thom (Phnom Kulen).

    We also find them at the bottom in the northern section of the central basin in Neak Pean.

    The Thousand Lingam pass on the thousand-fold energy of Shiva to the water that irrigates the plain of Angkor, fertilizing it. (Roveda 2005, p. 150.)

    Photos 03–05

    Huge Lingas

    Photo 06, Linga at Phnom Bok (about 900). It was 4 m high, with 1.20 m diameter, and more than 10 tons of weight. Courtesy of Ota Veverka.

    Koh Ker (2nd quarter of 10th century): By an inscription we know that the lingam on top of the Pyramid was 4.5 m tall, its diameter was 1.5 m. If made of sandstone, the weight would have been 24 tons (!); perhaps it was made of metal which has vanished. The tower itself was probably made of wood.

    Photo 07, Linga at Koh Ker, Prasat Balang, c. 2 m high, courtesy of Alex Angkor.

    Reliefs showing the cult of the Lingam are rare in Angkor.

    Photo 08, courtesy of Heang Song.


    • Phnom Bakheng
      Phnom Bakheng
    • Drawing by Glaize
      Drawing by Glaize
    • Kbal Spean
      Kbal Spean
    • Kbal Spean
      Kbal Spean
    • Neak Pean
      Neak Pean
    • Phnom Bok
      Phnom Bok
    • Koh Ker, Prasat Balang (khang tbong)
      Koh Ker, Prasat Balang (khang tbong)
    • Banteay Chhmar
      Banteay Chhmar

    Durga - The Killer of the Buffalo Monster

    Tracing the lost Goddess

    Durga, Banteay Srei
    Durga, Banteay Srei
    Sambor Prei Kuk, S1
    Sambor Prei Kuk, S1

    Durga of Sambor Prei Kuk, National Museum Phom Penh
    Durga of Sambor Prei Kuk, National Museum Phom Penh

    The origin of THE GODDESS

    The asura (demon) Mahisha had won a battle against the gods and conquered the Heaven. The gods could not help themselves and got furious; they concentrated their powers and anger, it burst as fire from their mouths and created THE GODDESS: a superior and invincible fighter.

    The Slayer of the Asura Mahisha

    THE GODDESS fought the asura, who took the shape of a giant buffalo monster, and killed him. She was called Mahishasuramardani (The Slayer of the Asura Mahisha).
    (Zimmer, p. 210 - 214.) 

    A relief at Banteay Srei 

    Durga with eight arms, assisted by her lion, is holding the monster's tail. In the moment when she kills the buffalo, Mahisha escapes by his mouth in human shape. A Naga ties him, and Durga cuts off his head with a sword. This head is eroded. 
    This image of Durga is unequalled. Located at the west face of the inner eastern gate pavilion of Banteay Srei, it is now within the closed area, and not accessible for visitors. It should be better presented! 

    The cult of Durga in Cambodia

    Several statues of Durga, from the 7th century, were found in different places in southern and central Cambodia. These statues indicate a cult of Durag as an autonomous goddess. Three of them are now to be seen at the National Museum Phnom Penh. (Dalsheimer, p. 80-86.)

    At the central tower of the South Group of Sambor Prei Kuk, built in early 7th century, is a relief of a "flying palace" showing an autonomous Goddess in her own Heavenly residence. 

    Huei Thamo, a temple near Wat Phu in Laos, was dedicated to Rudrani (= Durga) by King Yasovarman in 893 AD.

    When compared to the Indian pantheon, the Khmer version was limited though consistent. Female deities were reduced to the role of partners or consorts of the gods ...”
    (Roveda 2005, p. 11.)

    Durga is regarded as the spouse of Shiva. While in India Durga is mostly venerated in her terrible aspect as Kali, the Black, in Angkor she turns to the more convenient Uma, the Favourable.

    Devatas at Angkor

    Beautiful Goddesses on the temples' walls

    Devata at Trapeang Phong
    Devata at Trapeang Phong

    Devata at Prasat Lolei
    Devata at Prasat Lolei

    Devata at Banteay Srei
    Devata at Banteay Srei

    Devata at the West Gate of Angkor Wat
    Devata at the West Gate of Angkor Wat

    Devata at the Bayon
    Devata at the Bayon

    The earliest Devatas

    Devata show up for the first time at Trapeang Run, a brick tower, 14 km east of Dam Daek, probably built in the 8th century. Than at Trapeang Phong, early 9th century, in the era of King Jayavarman II who unified Cambodia. 

    Devatas and Dvarapalas at Lolei

    Dvarapalas are Gods or Demons who serve as guardians of temples.

    At the frontal central tower of Lolei, dedicated to Shiva, the Dvarapalas are emanations, appearances of Shiva him-self.

    Emanations of Uma are depicted as a Devata at the second central tower. The Devata is an emanation of the Goddess.

    Devatas are Goddesses, nothing less than this.

    Devataas at other early Temples

    At Phnom Bakheng and Phnom Bok, each tower shows, or showed, eight big reliefs of Devatas.

    Among the Devatas of the south-western tower of Pre Rup are Sarasvati and the spouse of Varaha as Devata. (Varaha is the Vishnu's incarnation as a boar; Sarasvati is the spouse of Brahma.)

    Angkor Wat

    In Angkor Wat are said to be 1850 Devata reliefs: at the outer walls of the four gates and of the three tiers of the pyramid, outside and inside.

    In the beauty of eternal youth, Devatas are guarding and embellishing the temple. Their outfit is stunning: fantastic hairdos, heavy jewellery, effectively designed and draped sarongs, their hands in charming gestures. According to the customs of the period they are bare breasted.

    Their charm and sensuality are an obvious representation of the divine. They help to transform the man-made building into a sanctified area.

    Not knowing the rules of the perspective the sculptors had problems to depict the feet in these flat reliefs; they turned them unnaturally.

    Who are the Devatas?

    As Goddesses the Devata are invisible. Their images are in the likeness of worldly females: queens, princesses, other ladies from the court, ore just of pretty girls and women.

    Buddhist Devatas 

    The Devata reliefs in the Bayon era are deeper carved than in Angkor Wat. The figures get more relaxed, with their feet now in a natural position

    Nearly every temple of the Bayon era is adorned by Devata reliefs.

    At the Bayon, Devata are distinguished by own shrine-like niches and splendid crowns, adored by kneeling female figures.

    Some Devata reliefs depict Preah Thorani (Mae Dhorani), the Goddess of Earth whom the Buddha invokes by touching the Earth with his hand. (Roveda 2005. p. 234-236.)


    Local people are regarding some Devata reliefs as Tevoda; they belief that these images are possessed by tutelary spirits and work like guardian angels.

    The central temple of Preah Khan is framed by two galleries, standing next to each other. The outer gallery is adorned by dvarapala, the inner gallery is embellished by Devata in niches. The most beautiful reliefs are in the north-east corner. Hidden in winding and narrow passages which are often blocked by crashed down stones; some of them are well preserved.

    Local people venerate special reliefs. They are called Srei Krup Leak. They figure the spirits of Jayarajadevi and Indradevi, the two wives Preah Khan of King Jayavarman VII, the builder of Preah Khan.

    Women or couples, some of them well-known people from Phnom Penh, visit the site to pray for fertility. Neak Srei Sumpon, the attendant in this part of the temple, told us that they have often returned to thank for the fulfilling of their wishes.

    The concept of Tevoda is only one aspect of the Devata complex. That does not mean that the Devata in Angkor are generally to be subsumed to Tevoda.

     Temples of the Devatas 

    The temples of Angkor were originally consecrated to male gods. As these gods are no longer venerated in their temples and received no more offerings, they left the temples. Now they look “godforsaken”.

    See how on some temples the Goddesses have taken centre stage.

     Blessings of the Devatas 

    Henri Mouhot, who was the first to describe Angkor Wat (1863) writes 18 pages and does not mention the Devata with one word. In the Victorian era their semi-nakedness was a problem.

    Now we know that in the Angkor era bare breasts had no erotic or sexual meaning.

    The sun has taught them to be half naked unashamed.
    (Helen Churchill Candee, Angkor the magnificent, 1922  2010.)

    But the Devatas are still widely misunderstood. It's beyond me that they are commonly mistaken for Apsara.

    Meeting them respectfully the Devatas become present. The Goddesses will give us their blessing. 


    Prasat Kravan: Vishnu
    Prasat Kravan: Vishnu's Three Strides
    Prasat Kravan: Lakshmi
    Prasat Kravan: Lakshmi
    Banteay Srei: Narasimha
    Banteay Srei: Narasimha

    Whilst in Shivaism (or: Shaivism) Shiva is regarded as the supreme god, in Vishnuism (or: Vaishnava belief) the supreme god is Vishnu.

    Vishnu is the pervader, the creator, and the preserver. He is the manifestation of solar energy. (Roveda 2005, p. 50.).

    Vishnu with eight arms

    Of enormous size, he is showing eight arms, that means universal power. In the background are numerous adorants. Vishnu is the preserver of the world.

    The creative Vishnu

    Between times Vishnu is reclining on the Naga Ananta , an endless Naga, swimming in the Cosmic Sea. The array of the Naga's heads is protecting Vishnu.

    In Angkor he is often depicted on a reachisey, a sea monster.

    Lakshmi, his consort, is holding his legs. A golden lotus is growing up, in its blossom appears Brahma; he will create the world. 

    The Churning of the Sea of Milk

    The most prominent representation of this myth is in the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs at Angkor Wat.


    Vishnu's mount is Garuda, the king of the birds. He has an eagle's face, wings, and feet.

    The belligerent Vishnu

    Vishnu is holding weapons in two of his four arms, a club and a discus.

    Vishnu and Garuda are ready to fight against any demons who want to disturb the harmony of the world, that means the dominance of the Gods and the suppression of the Demons.

    Vishnu's Three Strides

    The demon king Bali has gained power over the three worlds - the heavens, the earth, and the sea by penance and bravery. The gods are homeless and they don't receive any more offerings. Vishnu knows what to do. He appears to King Bali as a Brahmin boy and asks him for a small piece of soil for meditation, three steps long. Bali grants the request. Now the tiny boy changes to a giant. With his first step (depicted in the relief) he conquers the earth and the sea, with the second he conquers the heavens. There is one step over; King Bali cannot keep to his grant; for this Vishnu banishes him to the hell.

    Bali is survived by numerous descendants; many of them will become fierce enemies of Vishnu. From now on, Vishnu will get many reasons to fight angry demons.


    The demon king Hiranyakasha , a son of Bali, persecutes his son Prahlada , who is an ardent follower of Vishnu. Vishnu wants to avenge this insult of his divinity and to protect Prahlada. But god Brahma has promised to Hiranyakasha that he cannot be killed, by a man or by a god, or by an animal, at daytime or at night, indoors or outdoors, by a weapon or by poison. Vishnu comes to him at night break, as a narasimha, a "lion man" - neither god, nor man, nor animal, and "tore him apart with his claws' at the threshold of his palace. 

    Gods inviting Vishnu to descend on earth

    The asuras (demons) had “overthrown the ... world ...” The gods demand Vishnu to descend on earth to kill the demons. (Roveda 2003, p. 133-138.)  

    Vishnu's best known incarnations are Krishna and Rama.


    The female aspect of Vishnu is his consort Lakshmi. She is the goddess of luck; she manifests Vishnu's creative energy. 


    Angkor Wat: Krishna receiving offerings
    Angkor Wat: Krishna receiving offerings
    Preah Khan: Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana
    Preah Khan: Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana

    Krishna, ("the one with dark skin") was born as the son of a prince. His brother Balarama is also an incarnation of Vishnu. They were related to the Pandava. Their step uncle, King Kamsa, had received a prophecy that he would be killed by his nephew. He prosecutes Krishna and Balarama, without success.

    Young Krishna subjugating the Naga Kaliya

    When King Kamsa had ordered to kill all young boys, Krishna is saved and hidden in a family of cowherds. Once there is a Naga called Kaliya housing in the watering place of the village. The villagers get sick of its poison. As a child Krishna is extraordinarily strong, he fights against the Naga, tramples on his heads and forces him to move to another site. (Baphuon)

    Krishna receives offerings allocated for Indra

    Indra has ordered the cowherds to worship him as supreme god. Krishna disapproving of this behaviour tells them better to worship the mountain. The cowherds bring their offerings to the holy Mount Govardhana. In front of their eyes the mountain becomes Krishna. The cowherds shout for joy; they are from then on his proselytes. (Angkor Wat)

    Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana

    When Indra sees himself robbed of the offerings, he becomes furious. He sends a thunderstorm to destroy the cowherds and their herds. The cowherds turn to Krishna for rescue. He lifts the Mount Govardhana, holding it with one hand. They take refuge under the mountain. After seven days Indra gives in. He calls Krishna Govinda ("Protector of the Cows") and Lord of Golaka ("Lord of the Cows"). (Preah Khan)

    Krishna in the Mahabharata

    The Mahabharata, an epos of 100 000 verses, tells the story of the Kandava and Kaurava, two royal clans, related to each other. They are fighting for kingship. Krishna is a cousin of the Pandava. A big relief in Angkor Wat depicts the final battle of Kurukshetra between the clans. Krishna is taking part as the charioteer of Arjuna, the leader of the Pandava (Angkor Wat).


    Banteay Srei: Rama killing Valin
    Banteay Srei: Rama killing Valin

    His story is told in the Ramayana. Vishnu incarnated as Rama to get rid of the demon king Ravana who has gaiend too much power.

    In Cambodia a 17th century version of the epos is known as Reamker.

    Ravana abducting Sita

    Rama, his consort Sita, and his brother Lakshmana are living in a forest. Ravana orders a demon to show up as a golden gazelle. While Rama and Lakshmana are hunting the supposed game, Ravana forces Sita and brings her into his kingdom at the island of Lanka.

    Rama killing Valin

    Valin is the king of the monkeys. Rama forms an alliance with his (Valin's) brother Sugriva to kill him and to gain the throne. Whilst Sugriva is fighting with Valin, Rama shoots him (Valin) with an arrow from behind. Sugriva becomes king and his army of monkeys goes to war against Ravana (Banteay Srei)..

    The Battle of Lanka

    See The Gallery of the Bas-Reliefs at Angkor Wat.

    Rama's triumphant return to his capital

    Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are sitting on Pushbaka , a magical chariot, carried by hamsa (wild geese) and flying in the air.


    • Roveda 2003, p. 91-173.
    • Roveda 2005, p. 74-143, 347-350.
    Baksei Chamkrong: Indra on Airavan
    Baksei Chamkrong: Indra on Airavan


    God Indra is the Guardian of the East, and of of many temples' entrance doors.

    East Gate of Angkor Thom: Indra on Airavan
    East Gate of Angkor Thom: Indra on Airavan

    The king of the Heaven

    In the oldest Indian myths Indra was the king of the Gods.

    The king of the Sky

    After he had killed the brahmin Vritra he was dethroned and became the lord of the air, the weather, and the thunderstorms.

    In his right hand he holds a thunderbolt. His mount is Airavan, a white elephant with one or three heads. (Photo on top: Banteay Srei)

    The guardian of the East

    As the guardian of the East he is protecting the entrance of many temples.

    Indra is also guarding the five gates of Angkor Thom. Gigantic reliefs in the four corners show Indra with two spouses, mounted on Airavan. The trunks of the three-headed elephant are pulling out lotus stems.


    • Roveda 2005, p. 177-187.
    • Roveda 2003, p. 93.
    Preah Khan, Hall of Dancers
    Preah Khan, Hall of Dancers

    Apsaras, seducing beauties

    Angkor Wat: Churning of the Sea of Milk
    Angkor Wat: Churning of the Sea of Milk
    Baphuon: Sunda and Upasunda
    Baphuon: Sunda and Upasunda
    Angkor Wat: West Gate
    Angkor Wat: West Gate


    Apsara are creatures, not divinities. Ravishing beauties, they are dancing in the heaven for the amusement of the gods. (The flying dancers in the temples of the Preah Ko era are male.)

    The apsaara were created at the Churning of the Sea of Milk. The gods used them in two ways:

    • Apsara were to enjoy the gods.
    • Apsara had to make an instrument for getting through the superior strength of the gods.

    In recent Khmer language apsara means a women in disrepute.

    Apsara are to be seen at Angkor Wat. In the great bas-relief, depicting the Churning of the Sea, where they are soaring to the sky (photo on top).

    The apsara Tilottama

    Sunda and Upasunda , two powerful demon brothers, could not be killed; they could only kill by each other. When they decided to conquer the World together, the gods created an enticing and irresistible apsara. The brothers, overwhelmed by greed for her, battered each other to death. Peace on Earth was restored. (Baphuon. Roveda 2005, p. 104.)

    The legend of Mera

    The apsara Mera was said to be "most renowned of beautiful deities". Shiva had adopted her as a daughter and gave her to his loyal adherent, the Naga king who owned the land. The Naga king married her to the maharishi (great sage) Kambu, who came from “Aryadesa” and was also a disciple of Shiva. Kambu ruled over the land Kambuja ("born of Kambu").  (Jacobsen, p. 46-48.)


    Comparison with the Legend of Soma

    (see: Soma) Shiva – in whose name the king is ruling – is now the universal wirepuller, Mera is his puppet. Shiva is declared the lord of Cambodia, which is owned by the Naga king; this is a take-over, a coup. 

    Mera is a typical apsara: She is beautiful, she is passive; her power may only emerge from her capacity to arouse desire and thus exert control over men. She may be used as an instrument for intrigues. Mera was given to the Naga king and then to Kambu, she was never autonomous. (Jacobsen, p. 45-48, modified.)

    Rajendravarman (944 - 968) was the first king to trace his lineage to Mera/Kambu (as well as to Soma/Kaundinya). A new model of women's role in society is announced, effective till nowadays.

    Images of Apsara

    At the passages of the west gate of Angkor Wat they are depicted in medallions. Then they are at Preah Khan, the Bayon, and at more temples of this era.

    Apsara are always dancing, their legs open, theirs hips covered just with a short cloth. They are flying in the sky or based on lotus petals.

    Their reliefs are not as well executed as those of the Devata. Many Apsara reliefs at the Bayon are just shown in sketches.

    In Angkor Wat they are single; at Preah Khan they dance in a line, at the Bayon they are dancing in groups of two or three.

    Photo album

    Wat Chedei: Asault of Mara
    Wat Chedei: Asault of Mara

    Buddha, “The Fully Awakened”

    The presence of the Buddha in Angkor

    Ta Prohm: Crowned Buddha in meditation
    Ta Prohm: Crowned Buddha in meditation
    Preah Palilay: Transcending Buddha over Kala
    Preah Palilay: Transcending Buddha over Kala

    The Buddha, “The Enlightened” (strictly speaking: “The Fully Awakened') is a person of history; traditionally his life is dated 563 to 483 BC, following recent research he lived from about 450 to about 370 BC.

    In Cambodian history are two branches of Buddhism:

    • The Mahayana Buddhism, the cult of the bodhisattvas, started in the 7th century, and became state religion in the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1218/20).
      After the iconoclasm in the middle of the 13th century it disappeared.
    • The Theravada Buddhism, which is attested from the 6th century. After the 13th century it gradually became the state religion. (Roveda 2005, p. 226-227.)

    What visitors in Angkor can see in many reliefs:

    Departure of the future Buddha

    The future Buddha secretly leaves the palace of his father. Heavenly beings support his horse's hoofs to avoid noise.

    The future Buddha cutting his hair

    After cutting his hair with his sword, the future Buddha dismisses his squire and his horse.

    The assault of Mara

    Sitting under a tree the Bodhisattva is meditating until enlightenment. Mara, the God of the Evil, attacks him with his army of monsters.

    The Bodhisattva touches the ground with the fingertips of his right hand and calls the Goddess of the Earth to help him. She shall testify that the he has won a wealth of good works in former lives and deserves enlightenment.

    The Goddess appears. In her thick hair she has collected water as a symbol of the future Buddha's merits collected in former lives. Wringing her hair the water washes away the assailants. The Bodhisattva can get enlightened.

    A naga protects the meditating Buddha see Naga.

    The Buddha entering the Nirvana

    At the end of his life the Buddha lays down on his right side, his head to the North, looking to the West. At the end of the night he passes away. He reaches the Nirvana (the total release).


    • Roveda 2005, p. 226-261.
    Prasat Prei Prasat: Pediment
    Prasat Prei Prasat: Pediment

    in Angkor

    Ta Prohm: Prajnaparamita
    Ta Prohm: Prajnaparamita
    Neak Pean: Avalokiteshvara
    Neak Pean: Avalokiteshvara
    Neak Pean: Horse Balaha
    Neak Pean: Horse Balaha


    In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is the re-incarnation of an enlightened being, a mortal god.

    The Bodhisattva Prajnaparamita

    Prajnaparamita is the bodhisattva of universal wisdom. She is depicted in a relief at the East Gate of Ta Prohm. This temple was dedicated to her and was the seat of a monastic university. 

    The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara

    During the reign of King Jayavarman VII, images of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara became popular in his temples. As the god of universal compassion, the Bodhisattva is healing and blessing suffering people. The water sanctuary Neak Pean was a place of spiritual or magical healing. The temple Preah Khan nearby was dedicated to the Bodhisattva, and it was the core of a medical university and a hospital.

    Faces of the Bodhisattva

    • They look at the cardinal directions - in harmony with the Universe,
    • They look at the four cardinal directions – everywhere, He is universal.
    • They show the Khmer Smile

    The Bodhisattva is the Buddhist God of Universal Compassion and Loving Kindness.

    His Face is on the gates of Angkor Thom, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm and Ta Som. And at all the Towers of the Bayon and Towers at Banteay Chhmer and Preah Stoeng (Preah Khan of Kampong Svay).

    He gives us His Blessings.

    The Horse Balaha

    Merchants who had left their country, were shipwrecked and fell into the hands of ogresses at the island of Lanka. The Bodhisattva turns into the flying horse Balaha to rescue them.

    The Bodhisattva goes Shiva

    The towers of the Bayon show the smiling Bodhisattva of Universal Compassion spreading divine blessings all over the world.

    But: There is the frontal Eye of Shiva!

    "During the Mahayana period, when the Buddhists were trying to vie with Hinduism in multiplying their deities, they added deities somewhat similar to them."
    (Dr. S. Aryan, New Delhi)

    "As a result, the cults of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and [...] Shiva became similar, with the Avalokiteshvara assuming many of the miraculous properties associated with Shiva. Thus his representations appeared with four arms, four faces, moustaches and the frontal eye of Shiva. He also carried the rosary, primarily associated with Shiva, symbol of the continuous recitation of mantras. Occasionally he was also given Shiva's trident and snakes. Both Shiva and the bodhisattva received the title of lokeshvara; 'Lord of the Worlds'. Such a conflation of Shiva and Avalokiteshvara may be present in many faces of the Bayon towers. [...] the bodhisattva figure became the godly model to claim the divine right to rule [...]”.
    (Roveda 2005, p. 262.)

    The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara between Vishnu and Brahma

    The Bodhisattva is standing in the middle, adored by the gods Vishnu and Brahma. He has usurped the place of Shiva, and he has taken Shiva's title lokeshvara ('Lord of the World').


    About the middle of the 13th century images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva were systematically destroyed by scratching out the reliefs; statues were defaced or smashed to bits, all together some 50 000 (!) images. This was a backlash against the policy of King Jayavarman VII, who had pushed the supremacy of the Bodhisattva, and displaced Shiva. (Coe, p. 128; Roveda 2005.)

    The "syncretism" of King Jayavarman VII

    The iconoclasm is seen as happening out of the blue. Let us look close:

    The syncretism ("The mixing of different religions, philosophies or ideas", Oxford Dictionary) of Jayavarman VII was not as peaceful as it is commonly described.

    The Bodhisattva going Shiva was an affront against the Brahmanic religion.

    At Preah Khan, Avalokiteshvara gets the prime location in the central tower, Vishnu gets the western shrine, while Shiva must put up with a third class shrine, the northern complex, on the same level as the king's uncle in the southern complex.

    Jayavarman VII also robbed and destroyed essential parts of the central Shiva temple Phnom Bakheng.

    I dare say, this is not “syncretism”.