The temple, dedicated to the god Shiva, was the core of Hariharalaya, the first Angkorian capital, located 8 km east of Siem Reap, near Roluos village.
The centre of the temple is a sandstone pyramid of five tiers, 14 m high.
At the fourth tier are twelve small sandstone towers.
Elephants at the three lower tiers take care of the corners.
Four stairways run down from the top, protected by guardians and lions, each headed by a gate pavilion and a reclining Nandi (a sacred bull), ready to take Shiva into all directions. (The best preserved Nandi is at the West.)
The central tower
The pyramid is topped by a tower, 15 m high. This tower was rebuilt in the late 11th century.
"If one studies the ornamentation in detail one finds evidence of a veritable collection of different styles ranging from the art of the Preah Ko to that of Angkor Wat or to the start of the Bayon... Some of the Devata with their hair set in tiaras under the miniature towers are however inspired by models from the ninth century …"
(Glaize, p. 200.)
The pyramid is surrounded by:
- eight big brick towers, two in front of each of the four stairways,
- two enclosure walls with gate pavilions,
- between them the inner moat,
- an outer chain of twenty-five brick towers,
- eight square water basins,
- and the outer moat, 850 m square.
Axes make the world stable. All temples and complexes in Roluos are arranged by these axes.
- The Baray of Lolei and the Prasat Lolei determine the north-south axis.
- Preah Ko and Preah Monti are facing the north-south axis.
- The Bakong makes the intersection with the east-west axis.
- Gates mark the intersection of axes and enclosure walls.
- The central tower on the pyramid and the lingam mark the vertical axis.
Built by Jayavarman III (835/50 -877) and Indravarman I (877-885), as an abode of Shiva, the national god, the Bakong was the state temple of the kingdom, inaugurated in 881.
The king's chief duty is to worship Shiva. Shiva's goodwill is crucial for the welfare of the kingdom. The king will pay his respects to Shiva by visiting him and prostrating himself in front of the god. Only the king may approach directly to the god's image. All other visitors have to keep their distance.
The temple mountain depicts the Mount Meru in the middle of the world, the peaks of which make the residence of the gods; they loom into the Heaven. From the cardinal points five towers are visible (like in Angkor Wat). The enclosure walls and moats symbolize the mountains and waters surrounding the Mount Meru, that means: the world. The ground plan of the temple is a mandala, a microcosm.
The Avenue – A hypothesis
The avenue is the route of the royal procession to the state temple . It is going straight from the east to the central sanctuary.
- Along an elevated laterite road, starting some 1000 m east of the temple, the first stage of the procession takes place in public, giving a chance for everybody to watch the king and his awe inspiring retinue. (See: Zhou Daguan.)
- Crossing the outer moat, the procession enters the outer temple complex. In front of the outer east gate, a wide square opens. It is framed by brick towers in north and south. The southern tower is still standing upright. (The ruin of the northern tower is well hidden beyond the toilet.) Here the entourage is reduced and gets more exclusive. The entrance to the third stage means the transition from the secular world to the sacred space of the temple.Two enclosure walls and a wide moat demarcate the temple's inner compound. The dyke is bordered by sprawling Naga.
- The court is framed by large halls. Huge brick towers (now mostly dilapidated) loom above these halls.
- The king may surrender his offerings to the priests who will ritually burn them at the fire shrines. The king will unaided enter the gate and climb up the stairway.
- At the entrance door of the Central Tower, the king is in front of Shiva; he will prostrate himself and worship the god. – The interior of the tower, the cella, is exclusively the space of Shiva.
East of the pyramid are four fire shrines (called libraries), made of brick. They sheltered the Holy Fire or were used for ritually burnt offerings. See the latticed holes in the walls for ventilation.
Eight brick towers
All brick towers have monolithic sandstone doors and false doors. They are in different state of preservation. And they show a lot of pretty features, like lintel reliefs, guardian lions, etc.
Now lessened by its location off the touristic main roads, by a Buddhist monastery in the north-east of the second enclosure, and by the inevitable motor bike drivers, Prasat Bakong in its time was the largest building in Mainland Southeast Asia, testifying the power of the Khmer kings and their culture.
!! Before to visit the temples of Roluos, you must get your ticket at the ticket booth, located at the road to Angkor Wat.
It is recommended to start your visit to Angkor at Prasat Bakong: it is the oldest state temple, well preserved, complex but clearly arranged. And it is stimulating! After the Bakong you can visit Preah Ko and Lolei nearby; you may also add a trip to Trapeang Phong, Trapeang Totoeng Thngai, and Prasat O Ka-aek.
Best time for your visit is in the morning.
You start in the east at the outer moat and walk along the royal avenue, straight to the central tower on the top of the pyramid; only make a detour after Gopura I to the fire shrines in the Southeast. Then you climb up the pyramid. On the top you get an overview of the complex, you can study the frames and axes. Then you go around. Note the reclining Nandi in front of the west stairway.
Leave the temple at the west Gopura III, where your driver can pick you up. Or look for the towers, roaming the north of the outer enclosure, and return to the east entrance.