The modern Khmer name "Banteay Thom" means "Citadel big". The "o" in "Thom" is open and short.
Due to its secluded location to the northwest of Angkor Thom, the very cute medium-sized temple Banteay Thom is still a site free of tourists. You will hardly find any other temple in the Angkor area that is as tranquil and breathtaking at the same time. Banteay Thom and Phnom Bok are the real big stuff for those seeking to experience the "forgotten civilization in the jungle" or simply the perfect setting for contemplation.
Banteay Thom can only be reached by motorbikes or mountainbikes. It’s not easy to find it.
The temple is overgrown by thicket and grass. One impressive wall-strangling tree, when already rotten, finally fell down from the gallery's roof into the main temple courtyard in March or April 2013. Only its roots are still covering the inner (so-called first) enclosure wall at the south-eastern corner.
Banteay Thom was erected under the famous first Buddhist ruler of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (1181 - ca.1218).
Not surprisingly, it has an outer enclosure wall of quite stately appearance. The walls are made of laterite, the gate of sandstone. The main entrance is from the east, as usual. There is no second gate at any other side of the outer enclosure. The eastern gate is preceded by a typical cruciform terrace. The outer East Gopuram is of impressive size and crowded with Bayon style ornamental and figurative decoration, male guardians (Dvarapalas) and female Devatas (Apsaras) in particular. Regrettably, many Devata carvings of Banteay Thom were rudely damaged recently. Due to its secluded location, Banteay Thom became a victim of looting.
The outer Gopuram's pediment facing south showed a Bodhisattva being tortured by two demons (Ashuras), identifiable by their grim faces with fangs. The Bodhisattva sculpture is now missing. A third male figure still in situ, small in size, is rendered holding a long stick in both hands. Four flying female figures are at the top of the carving.
Similar carvings depicting a Bodhisattva being tortured can be seen on several lintels of Preah Khan in Angkor as well as at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei and Preah Palilay in Angkor and at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham and at Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati. Usually the tortured Bodhisattva is seated in the gesture of meditation, which is called Samadhi Mudra.
Though an episode where the Buddha is beaten or tortured is unknown, the theme of a maltreated Bodhisattva can already be found in the Buddhist canon of Holy Scriptures, the Tipitaka (Tripitaka), namely in the Temiya Jataka (also known as Mugapakkha Jataka). In one of his previous lives, the Buddha was born as Temiya, son of the King of Benares. But seeing the pain caused by punishments of criminals, which are part of the royal duties, Temiya decided never to ascend the throne. Therefore, he pretended to be unable to use his limbs and to be mute, too. When his parents tried to delight him with delicious food and with nice toys, he remained unmoved. Then they tried to terrify him, Temiya underwent hard tests including a sharp sword swivelled over his head, resembling the weapons displayed on the Khmer carvings. Definitely the theme of the "tortured Bodhisattva" is intended to emphasize the imperturbability of an enlightened being.
A moat or, more precisely, a series of water basins, is inside the second (outer) enclosure. The pools are embanked by laterite steps.
The first (inner) enclosure is entirely surrounded by galleries. Their roofs are overgrown with grass, but nevertheless in a good condition. Visitors can walk through long dark tunnels full of spiderwebs.
The ring of laterite galleries is interrupted by the inner Gopuram at the east, which is of sandstone. Facing the three main towers, the western pediment of this Gopuram of the inner enclosure depicts a Buddha, he himself now defaced, flanked by two flying figures and accompanied by female worshippers. Two of them are kneeling in the upper register and thirteen are standing in a row in the lower register, each of them holding a lotos. A similar scene can be seen at the northern Gopuram of Preah Khan. Women depicted with lotos flowers, similar in style to enlightened disciples, are rare in Khmer Buddhist art. In the case of Preah Khan, they are probably worshippers of the female representation of highest wisdom, Prajamaparamita. But at Banteay Tom, it is not entirely clear whether they are adorants of the Buddha or a Bodhisattva or of Prajnaparamita.
The main structures are three Prasat towers, lined north-south. They are built of sandstone. Facing them, there are two library buildings. Inside the northern tower, robbers have dug a hole in search for treasures.
The Prasat walls are neatly covered with reliefs. There are numerous figurative carvings in the inner enclosure, though not in the best state of preservation. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were scratched out presumably during the late 13th century when under the rule of King Jayavarman VIII the reemerging Hinduism turned out to be intolerant. The Hindu carvings depict Vishnu on Garuda and Aniruddha imprisoned by ropes. Some more carved stones lie on the ground.
The southern pediment of the southern tower depicts the so-called "Great Departure", the royal Prince Gautama Siddhartha leaving his family and the palace on his horse Kantaka. In order to facilitate a silent departure of the future Buddha, the gods (or Lokapalas, guardians of the directions) plunged the inhabitants of the palace into a deep sleep, opened the city gates and supported Kantaka's hoofs with their hands, the latter being represented on the carving. The depiction at Banteay Thom shows the "Great Departure" particularly speedy, with the horse galloping and the carrying gods running.
The northern pediment of the central tower illustrates the "Assault of Mara" (also known as "Defeat of Mara"). In the central register, a female representing the deity of Earth is flanked by two horsemen. The destructive Mara may be represented by the Kala mask in the lower register. The Buddha at the top is defaced.
In Khmer depictions of this famous event, the Goddess of Earth, Bhumi or Dharani, called Preah Thorani in Khmer, is often depicted as a person, in contrast to Indian representations of Mara’s defeat. Dharani responded to the Buddha-to-be's call to witness his attainment of enlightenment. By twisting her hair, Dharani produced a flood that drowned the advancing cavalry of Mara. Mara, the Lord of Death, was attacking the meditating Buddha-to-be to prevent him from overcoming death (Mara) by attaining enlightenment.
Definitely the best time to see Banteay Thom is the morning. Banteay Thom can be visited without ticket.