Preah Khan, translated as Royal Sword or the Holy Sword, is a temple at Angkor, Cambodia, built in the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. It is located northeast of Angkor Thom and just west of the Jayatataka baray, with which it was associated. It was the center of a substantial organization, with almost 100,000 officials and servants. The temple is flat in design, with a basic plan of successive rectangular galleries around a Buddhist sanctuary complicated by Hindu satellite temples and numerous later additions. Like the nearby Ta Prohm, Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins.

Overview of Preah Khan Temple

The temple of Preah Khan is one of the largest complexes at Angkor, a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework. It is a good counterpoint to Ta Prohm and generally sees slightly fewer visitors. Like Ta Prohm it is a place of towered enclosures and shoulder-hugging corridors. Unlike Ta Prohm, however, the temple of Preah Khan is in a reasonable state of preservation thanks to the ongoing restoration efforts of the WMF.

Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII and probably served as his temporary residence while Angkor Thom was being built. The central sanctuary of the temple was dedicated in AD 1191.

A large stone stela tells us much about Preah Khan’s role as a centre for worship and learning. Originally located within the first eastern enclosure, this stela is now housed safely at Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap. The temple was dedicated to 515 divinities, and during the course of a year 18 major festivals took place here, requiring a team of thousands just to maintain the place.

Preah Khan covers a very large area, but the temple itself is within a rectangular enclosing wall of around 700m by 800m. Four processional walkways approach the gates of the temple, and these are bordered by another stunning depiction of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, as in the approach to Angkor Thom, although most of the heads have disappeared. From the central sanctuary, vaulted galleries extend in the cardinal directions. Many of the interior walls were once coated with plaster that was held in place by holes in the stone. Today many delicate reliefs remain, including rishi and apsara carvings.

A genuine fusion temple, the eastern entrance is dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism with equal-sized doors, and the other cardinal directions dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma with successively smaller doors, emphasising the unequal nature of Hinduism.

The main entrance to Preah Khan is in the east, but most tourists enter at the west gate near the main road, walk the length of the temple to the east gate before doubling back to the central sanctuary and exiting at the north gate. Approaching from the west, there is little clue to nature’s genius, but on the outer retaining wall of the east gate is a pair of trees with monstrous roots embracing, one still reaching for the sky. There is also a curious Grecian-style two-storey structure in the temple grounds, the purpose of which is unknown, but it looks like an exile from Athens. Nearby is the Hall of Dancers, a former performance space that has some impressive apsara carvings.

Another option is to enter from the north and exit from the east. Given its vast size, it is sensible to set aside at least 1½ to two hours to explore this temple.

Below is the glimpse of Preah Khan in 360o viewing:

Planning Your Visit to Preah Khan

Temple Facts

  • Date: 1191 A.D (late 12th century AD)
  • Religion: Buddhism
  • Built By: Jayavarman VII
  • Dedicated To: King's Father
  • Style: Bayon
  • Best Time to Visit: Anytime
  • Length of Visit: 1 - 2 Hours
  • Temple Pass: Required (included in the pass to the Whole Angkor Complex)

Location and How to Get There

Preah Khan is part of the Grand Circuit within Angkor Archaeological Park, which is a 26-kilometer loop that’s an extension of the small circuit. To access this temple and to tour the rest of the circuit, it’s advised to hire a tuk-tuk driver. The smaller circuit can easily be completed by bicycle, however it can be challenging to accomplish the larger circuit in one day on a bicycle.

Preah Khan is located to the north of Angkor Thom. To the east of Preah Khan lies the Jayatataka Baray, which is a man-made body of water that offers beautiful reflections of the surrounding temples and jungle. In the middle of this reservoir, there is an island with Neak Pean temple at the center. Once dried up, the Jayatataka Baray is now filled with water again. At the end of each rainy season, all excess water is diverted directly back into it.

Be careful not to confuse Preah Khan of Angkor Archaeological Park with the identically named temple in Kampong Svay, located 100 kilometers east of Angkor.

Check the location of Preah Khan on the below Google Maps for your reference.

Preah Khan Tours

Preah Khan is a popular temple on the tourist trails and is featured on the Angkor Grand Circuit Tour. If you’re not part of a tour and you’re making your own way around the park, then stop by Preah Khan after leaving Angkor Thom by the North Gate.

If you’re just on a one day tour of the temples, you will probably not have time to visit as most people prefer to see the “big three” – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.

Accommodation

As Preah Khan is located in the Angkor Archaeological Park, you won’t find any hotels in the area. Instead, nearly all visitors to the Angkor Park will find suitable accommodation in Siem Reap town. There are hundreds of hotels to choose from from small family-run guest houses to large international-quality resorts.

Why Visit Preah Khan?

Preah Khan is a stunning temple which has the jungle growing right through the middle of the structure. Visit Preah Khan early in the morning to get some great photo opportunities before the crowds start to arrive. The temple is also pretty quiet in the late afternoon just before the park closes.

What to see at Preah Khan Temple?

The Preah Khan stele

In 1939 Maurice Glaize, the French conservator of Angkor, discovered the Preah Khan stele under a pile of rubble. The stele measuring 2 meters by 0.60 meters is inscribed on all four sides.

It contains a wealth of information about the history of the temple. The stele contains an invocation to Lokeshvara and Prajnaparamita as well as to the three jewels of Buddhism, namely the Buddha, the Dhamma or Buddhist teachings and the Sangha, the Buddhist community. The text praises Jayavarman VII, the King who built the temple and mentions that the King founded a city named Nagara Jayasri, which translates to “the City of the Sacred Sword”. From the texts it is known that close to 100,000 people were dedicated to serve the temple, including rice farmers, monks and dancers. It also lists the wealth of the temple, including silver, gold and gems.

The stele mentions that in 1191 a statue of Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion was consecrated, carved to resemble the father of Jayavarman VII.

Eastern approach to the temple

In front of the temple’s Eastern entrance are the ruins of a small landing area for boats with a couple of lions standing guard. The pier is situated on the Western bank of the Jayatataka baray, a huge water reservoir (now dry) immediately East of the temple. From this pier, the King could embark a boat to the Neak Pean temple, which is located in the center of the baray. From the landing area a 100 meters long walkway with boundary stones leads to the causeway crossing the moat. The Buddha images carved into the boundary stones have been destroyed. The moat is crossed by a bridge lined with giants holding the body of the mythological Naga snake.

The 4th enclosure with the Dharmasala

The temple grounds are divided into four enclosures. The 4th enclosure contained within the moat is over 900 meters long and 750 meters wide. This space was occupied by long gone wooden houses of villagers and servants.

The wall of the fourth enclosure contains 5 meter high Garudas fighting Naga snakes. Dozens of the mythological half man, half bird creature are placed at regular intervals around the more than 3 kilometers long fourth enclosure. The gopura gate of the Eastern main entrance consists of 3 towers, the central one being the largest, which contains an entrance gate large enough for elephants to pass. Along the walkway to the third enclosure is a well preserved Dharmasala or “house of fire”.

The 3rd enclosure with the Hall of Dancers

The third enclosure measures 220 meters long and 165 meters wide. At the gopura of the East entrance which consists of 3 towers is a very well preserved guardian lion statue. The carved depictions of the Buddha have been altered to praying Rishis. Just past the gopura is a well preserved Hall of Dancers with beautiful devatas carved above the entrance doors.

North of the Hall of Dancers is a two storey building with large circular columns. Although it is not known what the purpose of this structure was, some speculate it might have been a granary building. Between the Hall of Dancers and the second enclosure is a courtyard with two very small library buildings.

The 2nd enclosure

The second enclosure was added at a later stage. As a result, the space between the first and second enclosure is very small. Six sanctuary buildings were built between the two enclosures on the East side of the temple.

Inner sanctuary

The first enclosure which contains the inner sanctuary, the most sacred part of the temple, is a square area measuring 55 meters on all sides. The surrounding wall contains Buddha images, that have escaped the destruction of the Hindu reaction of the 13th century.

The inner sanctuary consists of four parts, divided by a gallery with a cruciform floor plan. The small space is cramped with a large number of small chapels, among them funeral chapels and tombs. Most depictions of the Buddha have either been destroyed or altered into praying Rishi figures. The Western entrance to the inner sanctuary is guarded by a well preserved Dvarapala guardian. The sanctuary’s lintels and pediments contain several depictions of Vishnu, Krishna and the Buddha.

Just West of the central sanctuary is a linga on a pedestal, which was probably moved from its original location inside the sanctuary. In the center of the central sanctuary, at the location where originally the Lokeshvara image would have been, is a circular stupa that was built centuries after completion of the Preah Khan temple. In the Eastern vestibule of the main tower is a large statue of an eight armed Lokeshvara.

Satellite temples

Between the second and third enclosure are three satellite temples. While the Southern sanctuary building is in a ruined state, the Northern building is in a much better condition. The pediments and lintels contain several well preserved carvings including Vishnu reclining on Ananta, Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana, depictions of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu and several battle scenes.

The entrance of the Western satellite temple is guarded by two huge Dvarapalas armed with a sword. The structure contains a library building opening to the West, away from the inner sanctuary. The lintels and pediments contain several depictions including Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana to protect the people and their cattle from torrential rain, Krishna, Vishnu and battle scenes from the Ramayana epic, like the battle of Lanka.

Architecture of Preah Khan

Preah Khan’s architecture is intricately decorated, especially the outer wall, which is adorned with five-meter-tall Garudas that are frozen in battle with fighting Naga snakes. A moat surrounds this outer wall.

There are four gates that allow entry into the temple complex, and each has a causeway over the moat. The main entrance is the eastern one, where there are the ruins of a small landing stage for boats, and two lions standing guard. This pier lies on the western bank of the Jayatataka Baray. From here, the King would depart by boat to the Neak Pean temple at the center of the reservoir.

On the north side of the complex is a House of Fire, which was created in a style similar to the houses of the same name located at Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar. Historians speculate that these houses probably functioned as rest houses with fireplaces for travellers.

The complex consists of four enclosures. Long ago, wooden houses of servants and villagers could be found along the edge of the fourth enclosure, or the outer wall.

Also similar to Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan has a stunning and majestic Hall of Dancers. This is within the third enclosure and located just beyond the Gopura of the east entrance. Just above the entrance doors are beautiful and meticulously carved Devatas.

The second enclosure has only a narrow gap between it and the first, and it contains six sanctuary buildings on the eastern side of the temple.

The first enclosure, also called the inner sanctuary, is the most sacred part of the temple. Buddha images cover the walls, and small chapels line the small space, as do tombs.

History of Preah Khan

Preah Khan was built on the site of Jayavarman VII's victory over the invading Chams in 1191. Unusually the modern name, meaning "holy sword", is derived from the meaning of the original—Nagara Jayasri (holy city of victory). The site may previously have been occupied by the royal palaces of Yasovarman II and Tribhuvanadityavarman. 

The temple's foundation stela has provided considerable information about the history and administration of the site: the main image, of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in the form of the king's father, was dedicated in 1191 (the king's mother had earlier been commemorated in the same way at Ta Prohm). 

430 other deities also had shrines on the site, each of which received an allotment of food, clothing, perfume and even mosquito nets; the wealth and treasure of this ruin includes gold, silver, gems, 112,300 pearls and a cow with gilded horns. The institution combined the roles of city, temple and Buddhist university: there were 97,840 attendants and servants, including 1000 dancers and 1000 teachers. 

19th Century to Today

The temple is still largely unrestored: the initial clearing was from 1927 to 1932, and partial anastylosis was carried out in 1939. Since then free-standing statues have been removed for safe-keeping, and there has been further consolidation and restoration work. Throughout, the conservators have attempted to balance restoration and maintenance of the wild condition in which the temple was discovered: one of them, Maurice Glaize, wrote that;

The temple was previously overrun with a particularly voracious vegetation and quite ruined, presenting only chaos. Clearing works were undertaken with a constant respect for the large trees which give the composition a pleasing presentation without constituting any immediate danger. At the same time, some partial anastylosis has revived various buildings found in a sufficient state of preservation and presenting some special interest in their architecture or decoration. 

Since 1991, the site has been maintained by the World Monuments Fund. It has continued the cautious approach to restoration, believing that to go further would involve too much guesswork, and prefers to respect the ruined nature of the temple. One of its former employees has said, "We're basically running a glorified maintenance program. We're not prepared to falsify history". It has therefore limited itself primarily to stabilisation work on the fourth eastern gopura, the House of Fire and the Hall of Dancers.

Photos of Preah Khan

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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