Leper King Terrace
The Terrace of the Leper King is located immediately north of the Terrace of the Elephants, in the north-west corner of the Royal Square of Angkor Thom. The terrace is worth seeing and studying it, as the best example of an ornate open-air wall with an abundance in deeply carved reliefs. They depict gods and demons, Garuda halfbirds and multi-headed Naga serpents and other mythical beings, many of them female.
The 6 m high and 25 m long terrace was named for the kneeling statue on the top. There are four more statues of guardians surrounding the central statue. They carry swords, their costumes are ornate, but they are headless. The larger central "Leper King" is naked, but without genitals, he has long hair and a moustache. He once carried a mace on his right shoulder. Its kneeling position with the right knee raised is uncommon in Khmer art, but a typical Asana (sitting position) of sculptures on the island of Java. The Leper King statue on display now on the terrace is a cement replica. Nevertheless, even the copy was once decapitated by art thefts. The original sandstone statue is exhibited in the courtyard of Cambodia's National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Why this statue was believed to depict a king suffering from leprosy is not quite clear, mabe because its fingers, toes and earlobes were broken. The most common explanation is that its lichen-eaten condition gave it the appearance of the blotchiness identified with leprosy and that's why it was connected with an Angkor king suffering from leprosy mentioned in Khmer legends. When a minister refused to prostrate, the insulted king hit him with his sword, but he was infected by the minister's venomous spitle that fell on him, and thus became a leper. Many believe that King Jayavarman VII himself was that legendary leper king, and that his own suffering was a reason why he built so many hospitals.
Even the real model for the statue is a matter of debate. Suggestions include Khmer kings such as Angkor founder Yashovarman I, Angkor Thom founder Jayavarman VII, the Buddha, and several Hindu gods, e.g. Kubera, or a combination of Jayavarman and the Buddha. The name etched at the bottom of the original statue was interpreted as "Dharmaraja", usually a title of the Mahabharata hero Yudhishtira, who perfectly embodied the rule according to the eternal world order, called "Dharma". "Raja" simply means king.
Not even the date of this statue is certain, 12th, 13th or even 14th or 15th century. A common interpretation is that the Terrace of the Leper King dates to the times of Hindu resurgence in the 13th century and that the statue is from the early 15th century. This assumption is based on dating the letter type of its inscription. According to this most common interpretation, the statue depicts Yama, the Hindu god of death and underworld and judgement. As he judges according to the laws of Dharma, he can be called a Dharmaraja, too.
This interpretation is connected with an assumption, that the U-shaped structure of the Leper King terrace was used as a prestigious platform for public crematorium ceremonies for members of the royal family and high dignitaries. Inside the terrace there were found human bones, charcoal, ashes, and an inscription with further hints, that the Leper King terrace was cremation site.
The Terrace of the Leper King probably was the result of renovations done to the Royal Palace during the reign of Jayavarman VIII, in the second half of the 13th century. There is evidence that the wall was entirely rebuilt after parts of it had collapsed. An older wall from the begin of the 13th century was left intact within the new one, but completely covered and hidden behind it. Only accidentally the older inner wall, 2 m behind the outer one, was discovered during EFEO restoration works in the 1960s. It was completely excavated by French archaeologists in the late 1990s. Fortunately, today's visitors can view the once hidden reliefs using a newly created zig-zag corridor, as a modern ambulatory. So both sets of reliefs can be seen, they are quite similar.
There is an alternative interpretation of the hidden wall, refusing that it had to be replaced because of instability. The renowned French Southeast-Asia historian George Coedès suggests that the inner wall was an invisible one deliberately. This means, covering it would have been an integral part of the original layout, in fact, because of religious rather than functional reasons. Coedès refers its sculptural decoration to the chtonic world or underworld, hidden under the soil or under Mt. Meru. This would be in accordance with the funerary purpose of the Leper King terrace.
Besides divine beings in human form and Nagas and Garudas already mentioned, there are also carvings of fish, crocodiles, and turtles, particularly at the bottom of the walls. The outer wall arranges the abundance of sculptures in up to seven registers. The finest carvings are found on the eastern wall. They depict deities with swords and parasols, and their consorts, attendants, disciples and other figures in palaces, featuring their happy lives in the seven heavens.
For studying the outer wall of the Leper King terrace, the early morning hours are the best. Because of the narrow corridor in front of the inner wall, the noon is a good time to see as much as possible of those "hidden" inner carvings under direct sunlight. Tickets are checked rarely at this monument, but never enter Angkor Thom without one.