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House with Fire
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    House with Fire

    House with Fire

    The Dharmasala Route (also known as The Royal Route) from Angkor to Phimai


    A stone-inscription discovered at the Preah Khan temple, Angkor Thom, states that the Mahayana Buddhist emperor Jayavarman VII (1181 – ca. 1220 A.D.) initiated the construction of 17 arki-salas on the route from the capital, Angkor Thom, to Phimai.
    Arki-sala literally means 'house with fire'. In modern literature they are mostly referred to as dharmasalas (dharma: Buddhist Teaching, sala: pavilion) or 'rest-houses'.
    Dharmasala is apparently a later term but for convenience used hereafter. The surviving stone structure is most likely to have been used as a religious shrine for travellers (pilgrims), who accommodated in nearby and now decayed structures made of lighter materials such as tree and bamboo.
    Seven of the hitherto eight discovered dharmasalas in NE-Thailand are made of laterite with only the door- and window-frames made of sandstone. The size is relatively small: Approximately 4 by 15 meters. The western part is adorned with a spire. Only the southern wall has windows. A pedestal for a religious image is located inside the western door. The orientation of the eastern door can varies from 50.0º to 97.5º - none of them straight 90º east.
    Only two of the dharmasalas have been renovated: Prasat Ta Muan and Prasat Huai Khaen. The rest are still in a ruined state. Artefacts are generally missing, but Mahayana Buddha figures can be seen in nearby temporary Buddhist temples near 3 of the sites.


    The ancient route from Angkor to Phimai is in the literature often referred to as The Royal Road. In this article it is called The Dharmasala Route, as there were at least two routes from Angkor to Phimai, the Dharmasala Route being the latest.
    An older and easier accessible route entered the Khorat Plateau at the 11th century Prasat Bai Baek, which is located exactly on the alignment from Angkor to Phimai. Prasat Bai Baek is like the 12th century Angkor Wat dedicated Vishnu and shares the same unique orientation of straight west, the cardinal direction associated with Vishnu.
    The later (12th – early 13th century) Dharmasala Route started at the Preah Khan temple right outside the northern gate of Angkor Thom, where the first dharmasala is located. After passing the flat plane of lowland Cambodia the route crossed the Dangraek Mountains right south of Prasat Ta Muang, which is the first dharmasala on the Khorat plateau.
    Jayavarman VII apparently changed the Phimai-routing to the Ta Muan Mountain Pass some 12 km east of the Sai Taku Mountain Pass at Prasat Ta Muan and constructed a 'rest-house', Prasat Ta Muan and a 'hospital', Prasat Ta Muan Tot, close to the already existing late 11th century Shiva temple, Prasat Ta Muan Thom.
    From there the Dharmasala Route was not continuing directly towards Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam – the 2 most famous temples of a cluster of all together 9 Hindu temples. The route passed the cluster in the eastern perimeter. The 2nd dharmasala on the Khorat Plateau is Prasat Thamo, the 3rd is Prasat Ban Bu, which is the dharmasala closest to and some 4 km east of Prasat Phanom Rung and 4 km north of Prasat Muang Tam.
    The Mahayana Buddhist sanctuary Prasat Phimai was the ultimate and final destination for the travelling pilgrim – not Prasat Phanom Rung, which might have been an 'extra option' on the pilgrimage and a detour adding 5 km to the stretch to the 4th dharmasala, Prasat Nong Kong. The presence of a Jayavarman VII 'library' inside the walls of Prasat Phanom Rung indicates that this temple like most other Hindu temples was transformed into a Mahayana Buddhist Temple.
    Near Prasat Phanom Rung and at Prasat Muang Tam as well, Jayavarman VII built 'hospitals', for curing the maladies of his subjects – but no 'rest-houses' for the pilgrims.

    Asger Mollerup
    Buriram, 2004 September 12
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