Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Black Virgin

The best-preserved south tower at Prasat Neang Khmau
The gist of the story is that the lady in question was locked in the prasat to deter the advances of her sweetheart. Where the 'black' part of the story comes from, I didn't find out, on a recent visit to Prasat Neang Khmau, a worthwhile stop around 50kms south of Phnom Penh on Route 2. The two remaining brick towers are located a few meters from the modern pagoda, though it's believed there were at least three if not five towers when it was orginally constructed in the first quarter of the 10th century. It's dedicated to Vishnu, it's sister temple is Prasat Kravan at Angkor and though I didn't know they were there, there are supposed to be barely-legible wall-paintings inside the south tower. At Neang Khmau I met with 80 year old Chea Chhang, who unlocked the bolted door to show me the altar and tell me what he knew; what he forgot to show me were the frescoes on the wall and why she's called the black lady! Chhang needs to brush up on his guiding skills but otherwise, he's a nice old guy.
The best-preserved tower opens to the east and is crowned with a magnificent lintel in excellent condition. The figures atop and below the horizontal floral swag held in the mouth of the grinning kala are most likely Vishvakarma with numerous worshippers in support and in the top register. At the ends of the floral swag, the makaras spew out a trio of naga heads. The octagonal colonettes are in great condition too and an inscription on the doorframe is also in good nick. The tower is square with four receding tiers and false doors in the middle of each side. The lintel and colonettes are made of sandstone, the rest of the towers are of brick construction.

A gorgeous lintel with kala as its central theme, at Prasat Neang Khmau
Detail of Vishvakarma and a grinning kala, aided by worshippers, that adorn the lintel
Inside the tower is the main altar, dedicated to the Black Virgin
A well-preserved inscription on the doorframe to the south tower

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,
Thought you'd like to know that Prasat Neang Khmau is thought by most scholars to be dedicated to Kali. In fact, Neang Khmau (as you rightly say the Black Virgin) is the Khmer name for Kali. There's a also a Khmer legend associated with the place ( Nice work though - Prasat Neang Khmau has always been one of my favourites!
Sam Campbell