Pre Rup (pronounced "prae roop", the last "p" almost not audible) at the south east-corner of the Grand Circuit is the largest Khmer temple from the first millenium (except for the ensemble of Prasat Krahom, Prasat Thom and Prasat Pranh in Koh Ker, if regarded as a single structure).
Pre Rup is architecturally and artistically of superior interest. The art of this era is called Pre Rup style. It marks the transition of the pre-classic to the classic period of Angkor art. Some tourists climb this pyramid also for the nice view of the surrounding countryside.
Pre Rup, founded in 961, is the most significant legacy of Rajendravarman II (941-968), who is one of the "big names" among Angkor kings. After empire-founder Jayavarman II, Roluos-founder Indravarman I and Angkor-founder Yashovarman I, King Rajandravarman II can be regarded as the "Angkor-restorer", as he was the one who decided that the capital was returned to Angkor, after a period of political turmoil and of dominance of Koh Ker, where Jayavarman IV had resided.
Rajendravarman did not built his monuments in the area of the first Angkor capital, which was Yashodharapura founded by Yashovarman I, but further eastwards, in the vicinity of Angkor's water reservoir East Baray, which was built already by Angkor's founder Yashovarman, too. King Rajendravarman II erected the East Mebon on an island close to the centre of this huge man-made lake, which is dry now, and one decade later the similar, but much more massive Pre Rup, probably in the centre of his new capital.
There is some debate if Pre Rup was a state temple like those more ancient pyramids, such as Bakong in Roluos and Bakheng in Angkor, or a funerary temple, meaning: a kind of tomb pyramid for the king's ashes or in commemoration of his cremation at this site. The earlier East Mebon already was a state temple for the main symbol of the official state cult, the Shiva-Lingam bearing the king's name: Linga Rajendreshvara. The Linga venerated at Pre Rup is called Rajendrabhadreshvara. "Rajendreshvara" combines the king’s name with "Ishvara", Shiva as "Lord of the World". Instead of Ishvara Pre Rup’s "Rajendrabhadreshvara" includes the name of Bhadreshvara, who was a local mountain god worshipped at Wat Phu (today’s southern Laos) and at earlier Cham sanctuaries (central Vietnam) and later on at the mountain temple Preah Vihear (Thai border), too. Bhadreshvara was considered to be a manifestation of Shiva, too.
But why a second state temple for a royal Shiva-Lingam? Each of the other significant Angkor kings built only one. Rajendravarman's Mebon was an ancestor temple at the same time. It is not at all uncommon, that ancestor and state temples of Khmer kings were separate structures, as in the case of Preah Ko and Bakong built by Indravarman I in Roluos. Analogous to them the almost flat East Mebon and the pyramidal temple-mountain Pre Rup could have been ancestor and state temple of Rajendravarman II respectively.
Definitely Pre Rup was Rajendravarman's imperial state temple. There is not much evidence that it was his funerary temple as well. The so-called sarcophagus in front of the main stairway of the pyramid was more probably a pavilion that housed Shiva's Nandi bull. The modern Khmer name "Pre Rup" means "turning the body". This procedure is part of a cremation rite. But such modern interpretations are not at all reliable sources. The nearby edifices are sometimes called Agni shrines, meaning fire-altars, but they are more likely normal Khmer library structures.
Even if Pre Rup was Rajendravarman's cremation site, this would not mean it could not have been his state temple, too. Khmer temples had not to be restricted to only one purpose. For example, they could be sanctuaries for Shiva worship and ancestor cult at the same time, as in the case of Preah Ko or Baksei Chamkrong earlier on. Worshipping the king's power symbol Linga and commemorating the dead king's funeral is not contradictory at all, both is adoration of his almost supernatural status. However, the adoration for Rajendravarman's ancestors was left to the earlier state temple East Mebon. Maybe there was a very simple reason for this ambitious king to build a second state temple: His first one, the not very tall Mebon, was not at all such an impressive artificial mountain as the pyramids of Rajendravarman's predecessors in Roluos, Angkor and Koh Ker. In order to surpass them he had to create a huger monument, thus another state temple, and he achieved it. Pre Rup remained to be the most imposing Khmer monument until the Baphuon was erected one century later on, whereas Ta Keo, the state temple of Rajendravarman's son and successor Jayavarman V, does not fully match in the dimension of Pre Rup.
The foundations of Pre Rup are sandstone. But the warm reddish tone of laterite dominates this monument, as enclosure walls and pyramidal tiers are built from this porous volcanic stone. Only Prasat towers and central sections of the Gopuram gates are made of bricks.
Nine long rectangular laterite buildings run parallel to the wall of the second enclosure. These long structures called galleries are of unknown function. They mark the transition to continous outer galleries surrounding temple courts, introduced at the next state temple, Ta Keo. Aligned with those nine gallery-edifices there is an unusual small kiosk in the north-east corner. The square structure is built of large blocks of laterite, the laterite roof is well preserved, too. The room is open to all four sides.
The foundation stele of Pre Rup was found nearby, but not inside this kiosk. This famous inscription of Pre Rup is not in situ any more. Its 298 verses are the longest Sanskrit inscription in ancient Cambodia and in the enntire world. Nothing compares to it even in India. It it not only long, it is a masterpiece of classical Sanskrit poetry called Kavya. Almost certainly its poetic elegance is the result of direct contacts with Indians. There was a renaissance of Indian cultural influence at the Khmer court of Rajendravarman II. By the way, this is the first and only inscription in Angkor giving the name of the architect, Kavindrarimathana.
Beautifully carved false doors are noteworthy at the five Prasats on the upper level. The central tower once enshrined the Lingam Rajendrabhadreshvara mentioned above, the north-east tower a statue of Shiva, the north-west tower a statue of his consort Uma, the south-east tower a statue of Vishnu, and the south-west tower a statue of his wife Lakshmi. The north-east Prasat tower dedicated to Shiva has an inscription on its door jambs that dates from Jayavarman VI. It is the only original record of his reign in Angkor.
Richly detailed and well-preserved carvings can still be seen at some lintels of these Prasat towers.
One more remarkable carving is downstairs, at the southernmost of the five eastern brick towers (later-on additions) in front of the pyramid. It depicts one of Vishnu's ten most venerated Avatars, the man-lion Narasingha.
The exterior temple wall, encompassing these five front towers, measures 127 metres by 117 metres. But Pre Rup was surrounded by more temples connected to it. The nearby Leak Neang, on the other side of the road, is the only remaining one.
The best time to visit Pre Rup is the very early morning. The Angkor ticket will be checked at the entrance gates.