Thailand // The northeast: Isaan //

Prasat Muang Tam

Down on the plains 8km southeast of Phanom Rung, and accessed via a scenic minor road that cuts through a swathe of rice fields, the small but elegant temple complex of Prasat Muang Tam is sited behind a huge kilometre-long baray (Khmer reservoir), which was probably constructed at the same time as the main part of the temple, in the early eleventh century. Like Phanom Rung, Muang Tam was probably built in stages between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, and is based on the classic Khmer design of a central prang flanked by minor prangs and encircled by a gallery and four gopura. The history of Muang Tam is presented in brief at the Tourist Information Centre in the temple car park.

The ruins

The approach to Muang Tam is nothing like as grand as at Phanom Rung but, once through the main, eastern, gopura in the outside wall, it’s a pretty scene, with the central gallery encircled by four L-shaped ponds – such important features that they are referred to in a contemporary inscription that states “this sanctuary is preserved by sacred water”. The shape of the ponds gives the impression that the prasat is set within a moat that’s been severed by the four entrance pathways at the cardinal points. Each pond is lined with laterite brick steps designed to enable easy access for priests drawing sacred water, and possibly also for devotees to cleanse themselves before entering the central sanctuary. The rims are constructed from sandstone blocks that form naga, the sacred water serpents.

The rectangular central gallery was probably roofed with timber (long since rotted away) and so could be punctuated with real windows, rather than the more load-bearing false versions that had to be used at Phanom Rung. Inside, the five red-brick towers of the inner sanctuary are arranged on a laterite platform, with three prangs in the front (eastern) row, and two behind. The main, central, prang has collapsed, leaving only its base, but the four other towers are merely decapitated and some have carved lintels intact. The lintel above the doorway of the front right tower is particularly lively in its depiction of the popular scene known as Ume Mahesvara (Uma and her consort Shiva riding the bull Nandi). There are interesting details in the temple complex, including recurrent motifs of foliage designs and Kala lion-faces, and figures of ascetics carved into the base of the doorway pillars on the eastern gopura of the outer wall.

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