Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dancing Architecture at Angkor: 'Halls with Dancers' in Jayavarman VII's Temples

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dancing Architecture at Angkor: 'Halls with Dancers' in Jayavarman VII's Temples

Article excerpt

The ascent of the ancient Khmer empire to its apogee in the twelfth century is attested in the vast, unprecedented expansion of ceremonial architecture under Jayavarman VII. In a long reign from 1182/83--c. 1218 CE, the king built the temple complexes of Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, Bayon and Banteay Chhmar, as well as the 9 sq. km walled city of Angkor Thom. (1) His architecture projected powerful new concepts in what French historians called the 'Bayon style', named after the towering Buddhist state temple erected at the heart of Angkor Thom. Several of the king's temples went through different construction phases as religious and ceremonial demands on space evolved, and during the last building phase large, open, pillared halls adorned with female dancing figures were added to all his temples on the main axis, creating the final approach to the temple. (2)

French scholars remained unsure of their function and chose the term salles aux danseuses ('halls with dancers'), based on the reliefs of dancing female figures carved into the architraves and pillars of the halls. (3) The structure and positioning of large, open pillared halls erected on the axial entrances to Jayavarman's central sanctuaries recall the Indian mandapa design of colonnade and sculptural pillars set in large temple compounds. Mandapa literally means 'the one that protects the decoration'. (4)

Focusing on the halls with dancers, a distinct architectural feature of Jayavarman VII's temples, this article explores the possibility of a link between the architecture, associated inscriptions, dance and music rituals (5) evolving in Angkor and the contemporary Indian Chola temples that housed several mandapas. The article argues that the architecture of the halls with dancers worked in tandem with ritual practices to provide a symbolic and possibly actual space for encountering the divine.

Plan and design of the 'halls with dancers'

Both Ta Prohm and Preah Khan have such pillared structures situated at the eastern axis and principal approach to the main sanctuary (Fig. 1). They are rectangular cruciform structures with approximately one hundred pillars dividing the space into four courtyards with surrounding galleries. The central bay of the hall corresponds in width to that of the central sanctuary. Two side aisles are half the width of the central aisle. Several female figures in ardhaparyanka (half cross-legged) (6) dance posture adorn the columns and gopura (ornamental entrance) friezes. The halls with dancers are set between large water tanks between the second and the third enclosure walls of the temple complexes. They would have been covered with high barrel-vaulted roofing as can be seen today in the restoration work at Ta Prohm.

At the Bayon temple, according to Olivier Cunin, in the last phase a long causeway was built to project out from the main eastern entrance and was lined with naga balustrades and flanked with artificial water tanks. A raised platform in the shape of a Greek cross (Fig. 2) was later built onto the causeway and a large, pillared wooden structure added. (7) This open wooden hall, in front of the eastern gopura and sanctuary BY55, composed the final approach to the central sanctuary of the temple. As the wooden structure of Bayon temple was positioned on the axial approach to the central sanctuary, like the halls with dancers in the king's other temples, this building classifies alongside the others, by its structure and positioning, as a 'hall with dancers'.

The halls with dancers are a prominent architectural feature and are noteworthy for two reasons: they contain finely carved reliefs of several hundred female dancers and they are a dateable architectural element distinctive of the final phase of the king's construction programme. Jayavarman's purpose in providing this sacred space on an unprecedented scale as the final addition to these temples has yet to be studied. …

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