Cambodia, Angkor period (ruler: Udayadityavarman II), 11th-13th century, Sandstone
Although Cambodia is best known for its soaring structural temples, the landscape is also rich with sacred sites that are integrated with the natural environment. Just to the northwest of Phnom Kulen’s lush forested expanse stands another mountain separated by a low pass. A jungle trail leads up to Kbal Spean, an elaborate network of stone carvings that runs along and inside a river.
Kbal Spean’s Hindu carvings date primarily to the eleventh century. Like many Khmer sites, Shaiva and Vaishnava imagery is layered side by side.
Several Buddhist carvings were added later, most likely in the thirteenth century when Buddhism became the dominant religion for the Khmer Empire.
At Kbal Spean, Shiva is represented mostly in his symbolic form—numerous circles indicating the tops of lingas, some supported by yonis (square pedestals, female symbol), are carved directly into the living rock. When the river flows over the carvings, the water is symbolically blessed by the gods.
In several images, Shiva and Uma ride on their bull vehicle, named Nandi, and are worshiped by Shaiva ascetics carrying tridents and water pots.
One such scene overlooks the pathway to a steep waterfall where fluttering butterflies often congregate.
Vishnu is repeatedly depicted in a scene that represents the creation of the universe. In this image, Vishnu reclines on a serpent, floating on the cosmic ocean of bliss. As he sleeps, he dreams that the god Brahma emerges on a lotus that grows from his navel. Brahma is known as the creator, and it is within the context of the dream that Brahma fashions the world as we know it. In Indic philosophies, this story is meant to prompt us to contemplate the nature of reality.