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Notes on the Geography of Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean

At the center of the baray or reservoir excavated east of Preah Khan, a square block of ground--300 meters on a side--was left unexcavated to form an island. In the middle of the island, five pools were dug: one at the center, and one flanking each side of it. In the middle of the middle pool, a circular island was built to house a shrine to the Compassionate Buddha.

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Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 1

The ensemble is Neak Pean, "entwined serpents." The flaring hood of one of the seven-headed serpents is straight ahead. Its body coils around the base of the island.

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 2

Standing back a bit, you can see two sides of the large square pool that surrounds the island. In the foreground you see two sides of one of the four smaller pools. It was fed by water that poured into it from the main pool.

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 3

Coming closer, the lamblike heads of one of the two serpents, or nagas. The two have names: Nanda and Upananda. They are brothers. They reside in mythical Lake Anavatapta, which the main pool symbolizes and which is next to Mt. Meru. They are responsible for bringing rain, and the rain that fills the lake pours into the world's four great rivers, which are symbolized by the streams pouring to the four smaller pools.

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You can walk around, inspect the serpent scales, and...

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 5

...see the entwined tails that give the place its name.

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Between the heads of the two serpents there is a horse to which men cling. This is Balaha, a manifestation of the Compassionate Buddha, Avalokiteshvara. He is rescuing men from a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean.

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 7

Here, the emsemble of serpents and horse, with the central shrine at the island's center.

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 8

The shrine and one of the 7-headed nagas.

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The shrine once had four entrances. Three have been blocked: this is the former south door, now with a representation of Avalokiteshwara.

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At the corners of the shrine: lions.

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Also, triple-headed elephants, sadly broken.

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Pilgrims once poured water from the main pool into this Sphinx-like outlet, from which water flowed to the eastern pool, to the left.

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 13

The pilgrims also stood in the dark chamber, where their sins were washed away by water pouring into the smaller pool through...

Cambodia (Angkor): Neak Pean picture 14

... this gargoyle. Each of the four smaller pools was similarly fed, though the gargoyles in the other three cases are animal-headed.

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Hence the elaborate decoration of the roof over the four purifying chambers.


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