Historical profile of the prangs of Angkor and Ayutthaya, sacred towers built by the Khmers and Thais in their Hindu and Buddhist temples.
Whether gazing at the spectacular ruins at Angkor Wat or viewing the Temple of the Dawn over the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, you’re likely to have noticed ornate and iconic towers reaching into the sky. These towers are called prangs and have become an staple in southeast Asian architecture.
Prangs, also called prasats, are stone or brick towers built independently or as part of a larger Hindu-Buddhist religious structure. They represent Mount Meru, a sacred mountain that stands in the center of the universe. Prangs were first built by the Khmer Empire in Cambodia & later by the Thais of Ayutthaya.
Hundreds of these prangs, both ruined and living, populate the landscapes of Thailand and Cambodia. These impressive stone monuments are feats of engineering and often remain popular tourist attractions. This article covers the history of the prang religious structure through its long lifespan in Southeast Asian kingdoms.
What Are the Prang Towers of Thailand and Cambodia?
The religious monuments regularly called prangs (also prasat or ku) are large, stone towers, which were built by both Khmer and early Thai civilizations. These towers are religious places, built to worship Hindu and Buddhist gods. The shape of the structures is designed to resemble Mount Meru, which Hindus, and later Buddhists, believe sits in the center of physical, religious, and metaphysical universes.
Who Built the Prang Towers of Thailand and Cambodia?
While towers dedicated to Hindu deities date back well over 2000 years, the concept of the prang towers in Southeast Asia dates back ~1500 years. The earliest examples of what would become the prang concept come from the Funan culture, the first Indianized kingdom in the region.
Initially, prangs were built by the several independent Khmer kingdoms during the Chenla Period from the 6th Century CE to worship the Hindu pantheon. These prangs were more prominent and refined as the Chenla evolved into the Khmer Empire, and was later adopted by Ayutthaya following the fall of Angkor.
Cambodia in the Chenla Period
In the centuries following the introduction of Indianized culture to mainland Southeast Asia, the Chenla culture would grow out of the Funan, whose home was centered in the Mekong Delta. The Khmers of the Chenla Period are not generally thought to have been a unified state, but instead a collection of loosely affiliated city-states.
Chinese documents refer to two states of Water Chenla and Land Chenla, presumably being grouped together due to their proximity to the coast and mouth of the Mekong.
Through the latter centuries of the 1st Millennium CE, these Khmer polities would engage in a persistent system of rivalries, alliances, and conflicts. However, they were also among the first monumental builders of mainland Southeast Asia.
The Chenla people’s architectural works carved away at the Cambodian jungle and included canals, city walls, and religious monuments made of stone and brick. Centuries later, the monuments would become the first drafts of some of the greatest examples of architecture from the ancient world, found at Angkor.
The Khmer Empire and Angkor
The Khmer Empire of Cambodia emerged from the Chenla culture after the Khmer King Jayavarman II underwent a Hindu ritual atop Kulen Mountain, a peak near modern-day Siem Reap. By way of this ritual, he was declared (or declared himself) a god-king fit to rule over all the Khmer people. This was the official founding of the Khmer Empire.
The Khmer Empire settled near their holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, where they created several successive capitals in the region known generally as Angkor. This allowed them to display their influence and power. Over time, the Khmer Kingdom would spread. It would cover Thailand, Laos, and South Vietnam. Despite the size of their territory, the biggest achievement of the Khmer Kingdom was their buildings.
As they branched out from Angkor, the Khmers created roadways and canals. The main highway stretched for over 800 kilometers. They also built the city of Angkor. According to satellite data, this was the largest pre-industrial urban center on the planet. Angkor came to be known for its ornate buildings, perhaps most iconic of which were their prangs. Some accounts of these attest to them being coated with gold.
As the city of Angkor fell at the end of the 15th Century, so too did the widespread reach of the Khmer Empire, retreating from their once-held territories and abandoning their monumental building practices. However, there is some historical evidence that a smaller Khmer group survived and continued to use Angkor to celebrate important traditions.
The Ayutthaya Kingdom and Modern Thailand
As the influence of the Khmer Empire dwindled in central Thailand, several independent Thai kingdoms began rising up to fill the power vacuum. These included the Sukhothai Kingdom and the powerful Ayutthaya Kingdom, the latter of which engaged in several conflicts against both Angkor and Sukhothai, eventually claiming most of their territories.
The Thais at Ayutthaya began adopting and building their own variations on prangs. While they can be found in other areas of Thailand, Thai prangs are most commonly associated with the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350 to 1767 CE) and its successors, the Thonburi and Rattanakosin Kingdoms. These periods are considered to be a precursor to modern Thailand. Because of this, these prangs are protected by modern Thai governments.
While initially, they followed a similar design to the Khmer, but over time they started to make changes. They used stairs to go into the prang. Next, they started to close the entrances to the prangs. The Thai also changed the way that they created the spires, to create a more seamless rise to the peak. These designs give the Thai prangs their unique style.
Design Elements of Thai and Khmer Prangs
The shape of a prang was selected so the building would resemble Mount Meru, which is an important element of the Hindu religion, and an aspect that was adopted in the later cosmology of Buddhism. It’s believed that this location forms the center of the physical, spiritual, and metaphysical universes.
Throughout the many centuries the design has been implemented across Khmer and Thai cultures, each subsequent kingdom has adapted the design to their own use However, there are certain qualities found in all Thai and Khmer prang designs that have been maintained through its 1500-year history.
The Eastern Entrance of a Prang
To enter a prang, you must go through a narrow porch. This is known as the mandapa. Once inside, you will enter the cella, the central hall. This is where worship would occur and occasionally important religious relics would be placed inside the cella.
This entranceway was aligned to face in an easterly direction. This is because of the significance that the direction assumes in Hindu culture and, by extent, Buddhist culture. It’s believed that the gods resided in the east. Because of this, those who built the prangs knew they would be facing the gods during worship.
The Interior Chamber of a Prang
From their earliest iterations in the Chenla Period, prangs have generally had a small interior that was used as a shrine. The initial reason for this was that the early Khmer kingdoms didn’t yet understand how to build larger structures. They needed a larger, heavy base to support the high and heavy roof.
Centuries later, the Thais would overcome this architectural challenge, building larger, taller, and thinner prangs. Oftentimes, these would still have an interior chamber, but it would be located at a higher level. Because of this, these later Thai prangs took on a grander scope and it was uncommon to see these structures incorporating stairs.
Inside these chambers would be some item of devotion. Most commonly in Khmer prangs were a pairing of a Shiva-lingam housed within a yoni. Meanwhile, Thai prangs generally have a Buddha idol or some other icon of Buddhist reverence.
Whether Thai or Khmer, the small interior space made for access and use limited to high priests and royalty. The interior space is only large enough for one or two people and allowed these social leaders to re-enforce their privileged position within society.
While the space inside the prang might have been limited, the outside structure was very large. Sizes will vary. It can depend on which civilization built them. But they will usually measure between 15 to 40 meters tall.
One of the most distinctive features is the shape of the roof. Particularly in Khmer prangs, the roof often resembles a pyramid, tapering to a point at the top of the structure.
How the prang would taper off will often depend on who constructed it. Khmer structures will often have steps. However, the Thai structures won’t have any visible receding levels. Because of this, they reach their point more smoothly, garnering their “corncob” shape reputation.
Differences Between Thai and Khmer Prangs
With all their commonalities, there are some key differences between Khmer prangs and their Thai descendants.
The Shape of Thai and Khmer Prangs
The most noticeable of these is their overall shape. Whether the early Chenla single-tower prangs, the classical ornate prangs places on the Angkorian temple-mountains, or the mass-produced Bayon-style prangs of the Late Angkorian Period, Khmer prangs were always made of heavy stone with a straight body and angled, receding levels at the top.
Meanwhile, Thai prangs are much straighter and smoother as they rise up, before curving to their point at the top. This has earned their design the nickname “corn cob-style”, as they resemble an ear of corn coming to a smooth, curved point.
Roof Finials on the Top of Thai and Khmer Prangs
Both Thais and Khmers placed different symbols at the top of their prangs. Khmer prangs are topped with a stone carving of a lotus flower, symbolizing untouched beauty. It’s a reminder of how humans should try to conduct their lives, being untouched by sin. Meanwhile, Ayutthayan prangs were often topped by a thin metal spire, representing a vajra.
Building Materials of Thai and Khmer Prangs
Another significant difference between Thai and Khmer prangs was the type of materials used in their construction. The Khmer used sandstone and laterite, which were abundant in the area. However, Thai prangs tended to use bricks, which were then covered with stucco.
Origin and Purpose of Thai and Khmer Prangs
Regardless of which culture built the prang, the purpose will be the same. It is a place of worship. The prang was designed to honor religious gods. From the structure resembling Mount Meru to the eastward entrance, it was built to be a place of worship. Leaders would use this place to pray and seek guidance.
Some of the earliest religious towers built in mainland Southeast Asia were the brick towers of the Funan people. This ethnically ambiguous culture grew up along the India-China maritime trade routes, adopted Indian social structures, and is widely considered the first Indianized civilization of the region.
As these traditions began to diffuse further inland (by way of the Vietnam coast and Mekong River) and the Funan’s influence gave way to the Chams and Chenla (Khmers), these two cultures adopted this architectural idea into their own styles, with the Chams creating Thap Cham (Cham Towers) and the Khmers creating their prangs, and later temple mountains that utilized prangs as a centerpiece.
Khmer Prangs in the Chenla and Angkor Empires
In the early Khmer cultures, the Hindu prangs were originally single towers that served as community centers. They could have been places where people came together to celebrate their leaders and worship as a group.
As the Khmer culture became more sophisticated, so too did their religious architecture. While single prangs continued to be built as the religious centers of remote communities, such as in Isaan (modern Northeastern Thailand), the urban center in central Cambodia began building more ornately decorated prangs, often in groups of three to represent the Hindu Trimurti (trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). These three towers would often stand on a shared platform made out of laterite and raised about 1 meter off the ground.
With the establishment of the Khmer Empire and the unified capital set at Angkor, Khmer emperors began building their temple mountains. These giant pyramids that are the most
Thai Prangs in the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin Kingdoms
Thai prangs are uniformly Buddhist have another purpose than their Khmer counterparts. They serve as stupas and are built to surround important religious relics or the bodies of significant people.
Sometimes, the cella would be omitted entirely. In their place would be niches. This is where small Buddha statues could be placed. Often, these structures would be in the four cardinal directions. Over time, even these niches were left up, so the cella is completely sealed up.
Legacy of the Thai and Khmer Prang Towers
Because of their importance to the Khmer and Thai peoples, a significant amount of work went into constructing the array of both ancient and modern prangs found throughout the region. As a result, many are still standing today. In the modern day, they are seen both as tourist attractions and places of worship, drawing in both locals and people from around the world. By touring around the prangs, they can learn more about Thai history and culture.
Because of the significance of these structures, even private businesses are involved in protecting them. For example, insurance companies are helping the government repair damaged prangs.
In Cambodia, where the largest and most spectacular examples of Khmer architecture are located, the government relies heavily on the tourism industry centered around Angkor and Siem Reap. Due to this, they put a large amount of work into maintaining the structures and keeping them open to as many people as possible. This is sometimes to the detriment of the structure themselves, with too much foot traffic actually doing damage to some of the monuments,
Likewise, the Thai government also recognizes the importance of these structures. Because of this, they are willing to invest resources to keep them in good condition. This includes paying for any repairs that can be required after storms and other destructive natural events.
Hindu Prangs Now Used as Buddhist Temples
As the Thais expanded into the former frontiers of the Khmer Empire, they would find the Khmer’s abandoned, yet imposing monuments scattered about the landscape. Some of these would be Hindu and others Buddhist, although more likely Mahayana Buddhist rather than the Thai Theravada Buddhist.
By the time the Thais would encounter these ruins, most were already centuries old. Many of them were simply left to be reclaimed by the landscape and forgotten about. Others were reformed into new Thai Buddhist temples. New wooden and brick buildings would be constructed around them and shrines would be placed into the empty prangs, replacing the Shiva lingam and yoni if need be.
Others, like the plentiful arogayasalas were already built as (Mahayana) Buddhist temples during Jayavarman VII’s reign.
The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is a fascinating and complicated one, but the two religions are very closely linked. Perhaps the closest and simplest analogy is that Buddhism emerged from Hinduism much like Christianity and Islam emerged from Judaism.
Because of this, many of the ancient Southeast Asian cultures and empires fluctuated between both religions during this period of their history. Throughout the centuries, these cultures adopted traditions of both religions into their own. This happened not only in the Khmer Empire and the early Thai kingdoms, but also in most major cultures in the region (including the Cham, Mataram, and Srivijaya).
Khmer Temples Named “Prang Ku”
One of the most common names you’ll come across when researching Khmer temples across northeastern Thailand is “Prang Ku”. While commonly used to refer generically to arogayasalas from the Jayavarman VII (1181–1218 CE) period, the Prang Ku title is also used for other Khmer temples containing prangs.
The name is a compound of “prang”, the Khmer stone towers discussed in this article, and “ku” a colloquial word referring to a stupa or other brick or stone tower. This makes the many instances of the name Prang Ku throughout Isaan not only generic, but also very redundant.
Notable Examples of Thai and Khmer Prangs
A selection of Thai and Khmer prangs from across the region.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is considered the crowning monument of the Angkorian Khmers. It was built as a temple to Vishnu in the 12th Century CE and is now a Buddhist temple.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phnom Bakheng is the first temple mountain built at Angkor with seven levels, each containing multiple prangs.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Pre Rup is an early Khmer temple mountain (961 CE) and is topped with several levels of individual prangs.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The East Mebon temple is a large temple mountain that once stood on an island in the large (now dried up) eastern reservoir of Angkor, and is topped off with several Khmer prangs.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Banteay Srey is a small, intricately carved set of 3 Khmer prangs built of pink sandstone.
Prasat Suor Prat
Siem Reap, Cambodia
The Prasat Suor Prat towers are a set of 12 individual prangs located inside the Angkor Thom city wall
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Prasat Bakhong was the first of the temple mountains built in the Angkor area and is topped with a Khmer prang.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Kampong Thom, Cambodia
Sambor Prei Kuk is an archaeology site in Cambodia containing several prangs dating back to the Chenla Period (6th-9th Centuries CE).
Wat Arun or the Temple of the Dawn is an iconic temple on Bangkok’s western riverbank.
Prasat Hin Phanom Rung
Prasat Hin Phanom Rung is a Shiva temple built on top of an extinct volcano and one of the largest Khmer temples in Thailand.
Prasat Hin Phanom Wan
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Prasat Hin Phanom Wan located outside of modern Nakhon Ratchasima was originally a Hindu temple but was repurposed into a Buddhist temple.
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Ratchaburana in Ayutthaya was built in 1424 CE and its crypt was looted in 1957 CE.
Prang Sam Yot
Prang Sam Yot is a Bayon-style temple featuring the iconic 3 prangs of Khmer architecture, representing the Hindu Trimurti. It has since been converted to a Buddhist temple and is inhabited by Lopburi’s famous monkeys.
Wat Chai Watthanaram
Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand
An iconic temple in Ayutthaya, it was built in 1630 CE in a style imitating Angkor Wat.
Wat Mahathat Worawihan
Wat Mahathat is an Ayutthaya-style prang built over an older Khmer temple.
Wat Si Sawai
Wat Si Sawai is a set of 3 Khmer prangs inside the Sukhothai city wall that were later repurposed as a Buddhist temple.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat Rajaworaviharn
This tall Ayutthaya-style prang was built in the ancient Khmer section of Si Satchalanai.
Monument No. 1
Monument No. 1 is a Bayon-style sanctuary at the far western edge of Khmer territory in the walled city of Muang Sing. The monument was dedicated to Avalokiteshvara.
Prasat Hin Phimai
Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Prasat Hin Phimai is a Mahayana Buddhist temple that sits in the center of the walled Angkorian city of Phimai at the end of the royal Dhammasala Route.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Walled city and final capital of the Khmer Empire built by Jayavarman VII.
Signature monument and Hindu temple mountain built by Khmer king Suryavarman II.
Standardized hospital temple design built throughout the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman VII.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Thai kingdom based in central Thailand, later referred to as Siam. Its capital was the city of Ayutthaya until the city was destroyed by the Burmese, forcing the state of Siam to relocate to modern Bangkok and found the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
Khmer architectural style lasting from 1180-1230 and characterized by laterite construction, less intricate carvings, and Buddhist themes.
An Indianized Hindu kingdom in ancient Vietnam known for constructing Tháp Chàm, their iconic Cham Towers dedicated to Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Thai word meaning “stupa”
Early period (6th-9th Centuries CE) of independent Khmer states before being united into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II.
Early mainland Southeast Asian culture (1st-6th Centuries CE) which grew along the Mekong Delta coast with influence from the China-India maritime trades routes. Funan was among the first regional cultures to adopt an Indianized society.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. It stems from Vedic teachings and one of the oldest extant religions in the world.
Common name for the northeastern region of Thailand.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Common name in Thailand for an ancient stone tower. Often used interchangeably with, or in combination with, prang, prasat, or chedi.
Red clay-like soil which hardens when dry and is used in many types of construction.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lavo Kingdom founded by the Dvaravati culture. It was subsequently ruled by the Khmer Empire and the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
A sect of Buddhism focused on the reverence of bodhisattvas.
The metaphysical mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Walled city of the Khmer Empire dating back to at least the 600s CE. The city stood at the end of the important Angkorian Dhammasala Route.
Signature monument of the Khmer consisting of a tower representing a lotus bud and housing a Hindu lingam or Buddhist idol. The design was later appropriated by the Thais in their monuments.
Thai and Khmer word meaning “castle”, “tower”, or “temple” most often used in reference to Khmer stone prangs and ruins, and occasionally for Thai brick stupas.
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Thai kingdom based in central-northern Thailand, after the overthrow of Khmer rulers. Its capital was the city of Sukhothai, which was later conquered and absorbed by the Ayutthaya Empire.
Thai word meaning “temple”
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· Manote Tripathi, “The spires that inspire”, The National Thailand, https://www.nationthailand.com/lifestyle/30193115
· Guido Vanhaleweyk, “The difference between Khmer prangs and Thai (Ayutthaya) prangs”, Ayutthaya2020, http://www.ayutthaya2020.com/prang.asp