Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape

The Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou Temple complex, is a remarkably well-preserved planned landscape more than 1,000 years old. 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. Two planned cities on the banks of the Mekong River are also part of the site, as well as Phou Kao mountain. The whole represents a development ranging from the 5th to 15th centuries, mainly associated with the Khmer Empire.

Historical context

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of South-East Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire, which dominated the region in the 10th-14th centuries. It is an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings, expressing the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity.

The origins of the site lie before AD 600, at least at the city of Shrestrapura, where archaeological research has produced evidence of pre-Angkorian times (until c . AD 900). The development of the site as a whole, however, was intimately bound up with the origin, development and zenith of the Khmer Empire between the 7th and 12th centuries.

A new line of kings probably centred in the Champasak region expanded its authority from its capital at Isanapura from the 10th century onwards, until it encompassed not only most of modern Cambodia but also much of what is now eastern Thailand. The floruit of the elaborate landscape at Vat Phou occurred during these centuries. Its historical significance lies in its role as an imperial centre and its demonstration of Indian rather than Chinese influence in the clear evidence of Hindu religious belief. The last major developments to the Champasak cultural landscape were in the 13th century, just before the collapse of the Khmer Empire.

There is no evidence of any maintenance of the monumental buildings since then, although various other occupations and events have occurred on the site. Vat Phou itself, in contrast to what it represented in the first millennium, was converted to Theravada Buddhism and remains a local centre of worship today. Essentially, however, the area reverted to secondary forest, which covered most of it when the first Europeans arrived in the 19th century. An annual Vat Phou Festival demonstrates the continuing place of the site in the lives of the local community.

Champasak District lies 500 km south-east of the capital, Vientiane, on the west bank of the Mekong River. It contains the Vat Phou temple complex, a major example of both early and classic Khmer architecture of the 7th-12th centuries. Recent research has shown that this complex is the focal point of a sophisticated cultural landscape centred on the Champasak Plain, taking in the Phou Kao (mountain) to the west and the banks of the Mekong River to the east. Between them are temples, shrines, water tanks, water channels, quarries, historic field systems, settlement sites and an ancient road to Angkor.

A planned pre-Angkorian ancient city (4 ha) on the banks of the Mekong appears to have been replaced as the urban centre by another planned city immediately south of Vat Phou itself in the Angkor period. A probably contemporary road leads southwards from it, past quarries and other industrial works. Many of these features exist in a carefully planned landscape laid out to reflect its sacred character as perceived by the builders of Vat Phou. The terraced Temple Complex lies at the foot of Phou Kao, stretching west-east to a freshwater spring on a rock terrace where the shrine was built. An axial line from the natural linga (phallic-like point) on the mountain summit through the shrine was used as the basis for the layout of the temple complex: it is 1,400 m long, with lakes as well as buildings to either side, bisected by an axial processional way.

The use of a natural mountain-top eye-catcher (elevation 1,416 m) and the relatively high degree of survival of landscape and its structural components, assist present-day appreciation of the grand concept of the original design of what was always intended to be a 'cultural landscape'. Much of it continues in use now as shallow paddy-fields for rice.

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion iii The Temple Complex of Vat Phou bears exceptional testimony to the cultures of south-east Asia, and in particular to the Khmer Empire which dominated the region in the 10th–14th centuries. Criterion iv The Vat Phou complex is an outstanding example of the integration of symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings. Criterion vi Contrived to express the Hindu version of the relationship between nature and humanity, Vat Phou exhibits 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.

Comments