In 2022, it’s hard to imagine that the Theravada Buddhist-majority republic of Laos, which has traditionally been a part of the Sinosphere, was once home to a civilisation and temple complex that was a major centre for Hinduism in South East Asia. Almost all traces of Hinduism in what comprises modern-day Laos were wiped out after the major empires in the region, such as the Khmer, adopted Buddhism. However, in the country’s southern Champasak province, near the borders with Thailand and Cambodia, there is a mountain with a Shiv Lingam-shaped protuberance at its summit that reminds visitors of the time when worship of Shiva and Vishnu was common in the region.
The Vat Phou temple complex, which lies at the base of the Phou Khao mountain, traces its origin to the 5th century CE and houses a series of structures that were mostly built between the 11th and 13th centuries. “The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou Temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old,” according to UNESCO. “It was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.”
Hindu inscriptions found in South East Asia date back to at least the beginning of the Christian era. There is enough archaeological evidence to suggest that the first temples in the complex came up as early as the 5th century CE, almost 500 years before the founding of the Khmer Empire.
“A spring at the foot of one of the cliffs had undoubtedly prompted the ancient kings of the region back in the fifth century to erect a sanctuary,” French director Alain Dayan said in his 2002 documentary titled Des fleuves et des hommes–Le Mékong (A River and its People–The Mekong). “A few centuries later, when Vat Phou had been assimilated into a vast Khmer territory, the site was linked to the famous temples of Angkor, a few hundred kilometres to the southwest.”
It is not entirely clear who built the first temple in the area. “The foundation of the site is dated to the mid-5th century AD when the Chenla Kingdom (5th-7th c. AD), started its expansion towards northern Cambodia,” the Global Heritage Fund, a non-profit founded in California in 2002 said in a report. Some historians, however, doubt the Chenla Kingdom even existed. For their part, Laotians believe the first temple was built by a king named Kamata. At the complex, local pilgrims pay their respects to the statue of a dvarapala (guardian) who they believe to be Kamata.
Traces of Hindu past
Once the Khmers became a powerful force in the 11th century, they built a highly sophisticated community on the Champasak plain, from the Phou Khao to the Mekong. At the peak of its glory in the 12th century, the Vat Phou had six terraces on three levels. The main sanctuary was built on the uppermost level and contained a cell which housed the main Shiv Lingam. So advanced was the hydraulic system that the lingam was bathed using a system of sandstone pipes that carried water from a sacred spring. The lingam was later replaced with Buddha statues when the Khmer Empire converted to Buddhism.
The spring that once bathed the lingam is still considered holy by Buddhist pilgrims who visit the temple complex. “The sacred water has its source at the summit,” local tour guide Oudomsy Kevsaksith said in Dayan’s documentary. “It then passes through the Linga Parabata and flows down to the bottom. From the beginning of time, right down to the present day, people have been coming to the Vat Phou of Champasak. They take a few drops of the holy water and pour them on their heads. With this act, they express the wish for a long and healthy life. This stream, which comes from the mountain, will flow into the Mekong. The inhabitants of the region can receive all the blessings of the union of the holy spring of Vat Phou and the Mekong.”
The complex still has traces of its Hindu past, including images of Hindu gods. Another distinct feature is a Khmer-style Trimurti in the complex, depicting Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, Vat Phu was probably the most important Hindu pilgrimage centre in the Khmer Empire until Nagara, better known as Angkor Wat, was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. The Khmers even constructed a direct royal road connecting the two temple complexes. The road from Vat Phu began at a pavilion housing an image of Nandi, Shiva’s mount.
Decline and fall
The Vat Phou’s transition from a Hindu to a Theravada Buddhist temple probably happened around the same time as that of Angkor Wat, at the end of the 12th century. The Shiv Lingam was removed and replaced with statues of the Buddha. After its conversion, the temple was used for worship by warriors before battles. The children of warriors were also brought to seek the blessings of the Buddha and the Hindu deities whose statues were still widely present in the complex.
Being at the crossroads of several empires, Vat Phou was attacked numerous times by invaders from both the east and the west. In 1427, a Champa army from Vietnam occupied the complex and refrained from total pillage when the weakened Khmer Empire promised to pay the Champa Kingdom.
The Khmer Empire collapsed a few years later when it was attacked by the Siamese (Thai) Ayutthaya Kingdom. One of the most bitter events in Cambodian history is the Fall of Angkor Wat in 1431, when the Thais looted it and nearby Khmer temples. Vat Phou met a similar fate as Angkor Wat when the Thais attacked. Both temple complexes lost their prominence in mid-15th century, but were never completely abandoned.
Also lost in the Thai invasions of the 15th century was Khmer literature, including many sacred texts in Sanskrit. Sanskrit was the main language in Khmer inscriptions before the Ayutthaya invasion. After the invasion, it was replaced by Middle Khmer languages.
The area housing the Vat Phou changed hands between empires and was in the possession of the Thais, the Lao Lang Xang Empire and the French, who colonised Indochina. The complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, with the UN body saying it exhibited “a remarkable complex of monuments and other structures over an extensive area between river and mountain, some of outstanding architecture, many containing great works of art, and all expressing intense religious conviction and commitment.”
International cultural bodies and NGOs have been working to preserve the complex that is threatened by climate change and heavy rains. The Global Heritage Fund has played an important role in preserving the main Nandi pavilion in the complex. In a 2009 report, the non-profit said, “The monument, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is one of the most important examples of Khmer architecture because of its plan, its historic and religious significance and for the value of its sculptures.”
The former Hindu temple is now a popular stop on overnight Mekong River cruises. Not as well-known as the Angkor Wat, it receives a small fraction of the foreign visitors that throng the enormous complex in Cambodia. As is the case across South East Asia, Hindu traditions and rituals have been incorporated into conservative Theravada Buddhism at the Vat Phou. Many a Buddhist pilgrim climbing up the frangipani-scented path to the main shrine are happy to pray for earthly and material comforts from Hindu deities. Once they are at the top of the complex, they pay their respects to the Buddha and try to emulate his path to enlightenment through meditation.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.