You can’t help but fall in love at first sight with Banteay Srey. Its diminutive scale and beautiful pink-red sandstone make it stand out in a land full of grand and imposing temples. The carvings here are so intricate that for years many scholars believed it had to be from a later period. But it turns out it was built in the tenth century, making it all the more impressive.
The only temple in Angkor not built by a king, this one was built by a courtier, Yajnavaraha. A grandson of King Harsavarman I, Yajnavaraha dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate, and was also a trusted Brahmin counselor to King Rajendravarman. Banteay Srey is a tribute to Yajnavaraha’s favorite Hindu god, Shiva. He called it Tribhuvanamaheśvara.
It’s modern name, Banteay Srey, translates as Citadel of the Women or Citadel of Beauty – a nod to the carvings that are so delicate that a woman’s hand had to have carved them. Others believe it is a tribute to all the devatas carved into the temple’s walls.
Because everything here is on such a small scale, it’s easy to quickly walk around the complex. But there is so much detailed carving work, and it is so exquisite, that we found ourselves spending a great deal of time here examining the details.
Banteay Srey was rediscovered by french archaeologists in 1914. But it didn’t become well known on the international scene until 1923, when the french novelist, Andre Malraux, stole several carvings from the temple and tried to sell them in order to pay off debts for money he lost in the stock market crash. He was quickly arrested and the carvings were returned, but the incident drove interest in the site. In an odd twist of fate, Malraux was later named Minister of Cultural Affairs by Charles de Gaulle.
In the 1930s, Banteay Srey became the first temple at Angkor to be restored using anastylosis. Anastylosis is a process in which a ruined monument is reassembled from the fallen pieces, which are placed back in their original spots. New versions of the original materials can also be incorporated into the restoration, where necessary. Some of the carvings at Banteay Srey have been restored using this process. Many of the statues are also reproductions, replacing missing or destroyed statues, as well as those which were removed from the site in order to protect them from looters. Today you can still see examples of anastylosis in many of the temples throughout Angkor, including the statues at Banteay Srey. In the photo below, new statues in a pale color mix with original and older copies.