Prasat Kravan is not as spectacular as other Khmer monuments, but well worth a stop for a visit when driving along the Grand Circuit or the Small Circuit, both of them lead to Prasat Kravan. It is located about 3 km east of Angkor Wat. The modern name "Kravan" or "Kravanh", pronounced "krauvan" or "krouvan", means cardamom. It refers to a cardamon tree that stood here. The original Sanskrit name of the sanctuary is unknown.
Prasat Kravan was a private temple. This means it was not founded by a king, but by a dignitary or priest. From the tenth century onwards, kings granted this privilege to Brahmins or other court officials. Prasat Kravan was consecrated in 921 by a nobleman called Mahidharavarman, who was a high official at the court of Harshavarman I (ca. 910-925). Harshavarman was the less powerful son of the very first king residing in Angkor, Yashovarman I. Harshavarman I's cousin was a local commander in Koh Ker who became more powerful than the kings of Angkor and defeated them and became their successor, but he continued to reside in Koh Ker. It was during this period of Angkor's weakness that Prasat Kravan was built. It takes up elements of the style of Koh Ker, particularly those dynamics in sculptural illustrations the style of Koh Ker is famous for.
Remains of the foundation inscription can be seen at the door slabs of three of the five Prasat towers. They mention the surrounding villages supporting this temple.
The five brick towers in one row from north to south share a single platform. In front of the five Prasats is a terrace with the foundations of a former Gopuram. The temple is surrounded by a moat. Today only the central and the southernmost Prasats still have superstructures, consisting of receding tiers.
No mortar was used in the construction of Prasat Kravan. The Khmer technique of that period used a vegetable gum to hold the bricks together.
The best preserved lintel on the southernmost sanctuary shows Vishnu on his mount Garuda, this sun-eagle is clutching the head of a Naga.
Inside the central tower and the northernmost tower there are brick bas reliefs at the inner walls of the sanctums. This kind of decoration on a brick wall is rather common at Cham temples in central Vietnam, but it is unique in Angkor monuments.
The principal shrine was dedicated to a cosmic form of Hindu god Vishnu, called Trailokyanatha. The contempory state temple Prasat Prang (Prasat Thom) in Angkor's powerful rival Koh Ker was dedicated to Tribhuvaneshvara, that's Shiva as the lord of the three worlds, heaven, earth and underworld. Presumably, this contrast between Shiva and Vishnu as "Three worlds Lord" reflects the political power struggle between the two cities in religious imagery.
The brick reliefs in this central Prasat were once covered with polychrome varnish. The left wall shows Vamana, Vishnu's dwarf-Avatara, stepping over the ocean, which is represented by the wavy lines below him. He liberates the world from the powerful demon Bali by three strides. In his four arms are Vishnu's four attributes: discus, lotus, mace, and conch. On the western wall there is another Vishnu carving, a rare illustration of this god with eight instead of four arms and hands. Six rows of attendants and a reptile surround him. The Vishnu on the right wall is riding his bird Garuda.
The north tower was dedicated to the five aspects of the goddess Shri Lakshmi. Vishnu's consort is depicted on three walls inside the northern tower, and on the lintel. Her fifth aspect was represented by a statue, now missing. The wall on the left shows a four-armed Lakshmi, strangely holding attributes indicating Shiva's instead of Vishnu's consort. Two attendants kneel down at her side. The two-armed Lakshmi sculpture on the east wall is less well preserved, here Lakshmi is accompanied by four adorants. There are only few parts remaining from the reliefs on the northern wall.
Prasat Kravan was cleaned from vegetation by French archaeologists in the 1930s. The two towers with superstructures were restored in the 1960s. Modern replacement bricks are labeled CA ("Conservation Angkor"). New research and restoration works began recently and are still in progress. They are supported by the G.A.C.P. (German Apsara Conservation Project).
There are two very good times to visit Prasat Kravan, the early morning and the late afternoon. In the morning the main facades are lighted up in the sun, in the afternoon you can see the five towers mirrored in the surrounding moat, but it is usually dry between February and May. You need an Angkor ticket for access to Prasat Kravan.