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The ancient, Vedic 'King of the Gods' and his role on lintels and reliefs at Angkorian temples in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand

The Hindu god Indra ought to be very familiar to anyone who’s undertaken even the briefest of visits to any of the famous Angkorian temples, whether it’s Angkor itself, Wat Phu in Laos or Khmer temples such as Phanom Rung or Phimai in northeastern Thailand. His likeness is carved into myriad lintels over eastern doorways, ensconced on his ubiquitous 3-headed elephant Airavata. (Known as Erawan in Thai.) Indeed Airavata even makes appearances without his deified ‘mahout’ such as on the impressive gateways at Angkor Thom or the Terrace of the Elephants. (1)

Indra above the eastern door at Prasat Kuha Nokor
Indra above the eastern door at Prasat Kuha Noko

In the Hindu pantheon, Indra is the god associated with the east; the most auspicious of the cardinal points, the direction of the rising sun and which – give or take a few degrees – corresponds to the alignment of the majority of early Khmer temples and sanctuaries. He’s only rarely depicted elsewhere on temple walls and reliefs and, among the thousands of Angkor-period temples in Southeast Asia, we can’t think of a single one that is dedicated specifically to that particular deity.

Airavata with missing Indra plus a depiction of the churning of the sea of milk in the upper register. (Prasat Enkosei)
Airavata with missing Indra plus a depiction of the churning of the sea of milk myth in the upper register. (Prasat Enkosei)

Sanctuaries are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu or Harihara and – in later times – the Boddhisatva Lokeshavara, (Avolokitesvara), while pediments and lintels depict scenes from the Ramayana or Jatakas; mythological events such as the birth of Vishnu, the churning of the sea of milk creation myth, the heroic deeds of Krishna or Prince Siddharta’s escape from the palace. Meanwhile, Indra sits above the eastern door clutching his famous vajra – variously described as a club, cudgel, or even thunderbolt-conjuring staff.

However, in early Vedic mythology, Indra was the most revered deity – the king of the gods – the god of the skies, thunder, storm, and lightning. He was an ancient deity, dating back to the Indo-European pantheon and likely to be the same deity who later evolved elsewhere into Zeus, Jupiter, Thor et al as the Indo-European language – and mythology – migrated westwards. (Indra is said to be praised in no less than 250 or some 25% of the hymns in the Rig Veda.) Yet in post-Vedic times, as more ‘classic’, Puranic, Hinduism spread into Southeast Asia, he seems somehow to have been relegated to the position of – no disrespect intended – a kind of VIP doorman to shrines dedicated to more popular gods. (2)

As Indo-European-speaking, migrant peoples, (often broadly categorised as Aryans), crossed the Khyber Pass into the Indus Valley and the north Indian Plain their culture, DNA and ancient Vedic religion fused with indigenous, elements already present in the subcontinent. (3)

Yama, (missing head) on a buffalo featuring on a pediment at Banteay Ampil
Yama, (missing head) on a buffalo featuring on a pediment at Banteay Ampil

The relegation and promotion criteria for specific deities in this Hindu synchronisation are unclear but older gods such as Indra, Agni (fire), Varuna (water and seas), Surya (the sun), Vishvakarman (the divine architect) and Yama (death) – while retaining positions in the pantheon – clearly slipped down the pecking order as the newly promoted Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma Trimurta saw a rapid rise. (The majority of pre-Bayon-period Khmer temples are dedicated primarily to Shiva although the deity’s origins are unclear. Some academics suggest he evolved from the Vedic figure Rudra, while others theorise that he may have originated in the pre-Indo-European Harrapan or local tribal religions of the region. A combination of the two appears most likely. The Tamil – a non-Indo-European, Dravidian language – term Å›ivappu is sometimes cited as a cognate.)

Nonetheless, the above deities can still be regularly seen on Angkorian lintels and pediments; Yama clutching his club and mounted on his buffalo, Varuna on his makara or Agni guarding southeastern doors while a frequently seen, albeit somewhat featureless, ‘default’ figure seen on many – particularly 11th-century – reliefs may correspond to the architect god Vishvakarman. Indra is almost uniquely seen above east-facing doorways and – if he is seen elsewhere – it’s likely an error by the builders. (For example, a re-used, south-facing, 7th-century lintel at the 11th-century sanctuary Prasat Kok Roka, on which the figure of Indra can be seen, is simply a rudimentary mistake by some possibly theologically-challenged builders.)

A figure possibly representing Vishvakarman can be seen on several lintels at Phnom Chisor
A figure possibly representing Vishvakarman can be seen on several lintels at Phnom Chisor

So, if you ever find yourself lost in one of the larger temple sites – surprisingly easy to do – then a glimpse of Indra straight away indicates the east. As we said, a somewhat ignominious end for the former king of the gods.

(1) Note that this post is a commentary on the role of Indra in Khmer Hinduism during Angkorian and pre-Angkorian times from the 6th and 12th centuries, rather than the broader Hindu world.

(2) Not to say that there weren’t significant ‘homegrown’ aspects to early Khmer Hinduism such as the widespread popularity of Harihara in the 6th to 9th century period – a fusion of Shiva and Vishnu and a relatively minor figure in ‘standard’ Hinduism.

(3) The migration of Indo-Europeans into the subcontinent has been a highly contentious matter until relatively recently. Some historians envisaged a violent invasion by ‘barbarian’ Aryan tribes sweeping down from Central Asia and subjugating the local peoples – including of course the sophisticated early Indus Valley cities – while other academics, (particularly certain at the more nationalist, Indian end of the spectrum) even put forward ‘out of India’ theories where migration was in the opposite direction. However, archaeological evidence tends to imply an abandonment, rather than destruction, of the Harrapan sites and today’s archaeological consensus is one of more gradual migration, admixture and fusion with preexisting peoples, cultures and religions. Therefore, while deities such as Indra, Agni, Varuna et al arrived with the migrants, Shiva and Vishnu for example may already have been present in one form or another.