Prasat Hin Phimai From Asia’s earliest bronze-age culture 4000 years ago to present-day Thai nationhood, Isan northeastern Thailand has played a role in virtually every key historical transition mainland Southeast Asia has seen. Of these important cultural phases perhaps none has captured the world’s imagination as much as the Angkor civilisation, which flourished in northeastern Thailand and northwestern Cambodia from the 9th to 13th centuries. Inspired by the Hindu-Buddhist architecture of central Java, where he was educated, King Jayavarman II became the first ruler of Angkor in the 9th century and was the first in mainland Southeast Asia to sponsor the building of religious monuments bearing brick or stone towers.
Over the next 350 years, this style of architecture evolved into a sophisticated set of walled and moated temple complexes extending from northwestern Cambodia across northeastern Thailand and as far west as Kanchanaburi in central Thailand. Connected to 12th-century Angkor Wat by a sacred ‘superhighway’ lined with ceremonial shrines, Prasat Hin Phimai bears key architectural milestones in the development of Angkor design and ritual. It is considered the most significant Angkor site in Thailand.
Started by King Jayavarman V in the late 10th century and finished by King Suriyavarman I in the early 11th century, the complex predates Angkor Wat by a hundred years or so, but it nevertheless shares a number of features with its more famous cousin, including the design of its prasat, the temple’s most prominent feature.
The Prasat Hin Phimai Temple original Sanskrit term, prasada, applied to cube-like religious structures, but in Thai and Khmer contexts such sanctuaries are elaborate monuments of brick, sandstone or laterite, richly carved with religious themes empowering the shrine for ritual use. Featuring a cruciform floor plan and a 28-metre, prang-topped shrine chamber, the prasat at Phimai represents a masterpiece of white sandstone sculpture, with every cornice, lintel, pediment, and pilaster carved to represent depict scenes from Hindu or Buddhist mythology.
The presence of Mahayana Buddhism at Phimai at the beginning of the 12th century was unusual since in Cambodia at this time the principal religion was still Hinduism. However it is likely that at Phimai a mixture of animism, Buddhism, and Hinduism was practiced not unlike mainstream Thai Buddhism today.
The most important relief carvings are almost always found on lintels, the assemblage of stone or brick along the tops of doorways. The southern lintel at the main shrine bears a sandstone relief of Buddha meditating beneath a seven-headed naga. Meanwhile the eastern portico is topped by a relief depicting Krishna defeating the demon Kamsa. Adjunct shrines on the grounds, made of pink sandstone, are equally impressive.