The East Mebon is located 1.3 km to the north of Pre Rup. The East Mebon's architecture may be less impressive than that of the similar Pre Rup, which is only one decade younger. But the lintel carvings at the East Mebon are in a much better shape and of superior craftsmanship, best examples of the Angkorian Pre Rup style.
The East Mebon is neither a flat temple nor a real temple mountain, but a less steep kind of step pyramid with three levels. It originally was an artificial island in Angkor's main reservoir of 7.5 km length and 1.8 km width. To judge by the laterite steps that surround the East Mebon platform, the original depth of water was approximately three metres, this means the reservoir's volume must have been about 40 million cubic metres.The so-called East Baray was supplied by waters from the Siem Reap river and monsoon rain. The reservoir already dried up in late medieval times. Its original name was Yashodharatataka, named after its founder Yashovarman I, the first Khmer king residing in Angkor.
The East Mebon island temple was built half a century later than the surrounding lake. In the meantime Koh Ker had been the capital under the usurpator Jayavarman IV. After taking the capital status back from Koh Ker to the Angkor area, King Rajendravarman II (944-968) decided to built the Mebon temple on the island of the huge Baray. The inscriptions indicate that it was also built to reestablish the continuity of kingship at Angkor. The Mebon's architect was Kavindrarimathana, the only Angkorian architect whose name came down to us. He also constructed the even larger Pre Rup later on. Construction activities at the East Mebon started already in 947. According to its founding inscription the island temple was consecrated on Friday, 28th January 953, at about 11.00 am. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, in honour of the king’s parents.
The foundation of the East Mebon measures 126 m by 120 m, it has a boat-landing platform on each side. As in the case of other temples constructed in the tenth century, the entrances were covered by wooden roofs. Only the laterite walls and sandstone window frames and columns still remain. The entrances are guarded by two seated lion statues.
The outer enclosure wall on the first level measures 108 m by 104 m, it is built of laterite. There are many holes on it, as the top of the wall originally had sandstone sculptures in the forms of candles. Some of them are still in situ. The spouts of the drainage are designed as lion heads. There are long rectangular shrines for pilgrims on this first level surrounding the higher platform. They are sometimes called galleries, though they are only predecessors of those continuous roofed aisles called galleries at later temples. As with most Angkor temples, the east side is slightly wider than the west side, indicating that the temple is oriented to the east.
The basis of the second level measures 65 m by 62 m. Most striking features are eight monolithic elephant statues in the corners of two levels. The most complete ones are in the south-west and north-west, the most photogenic in the south-east, the most freestanding in the north-east. The 2 m high elephants are majestically positioned outside the second enclosure in particular, on an intermediate tier.
Inside the inner (first) enclosure are five so-called library buildings at the corners (two in the southeast). There are eight more smaller brick towers surrounding the uppermost platform, in pairs at the cardinal points. They symbolize the eight Hindu guardians of the world's eight cardinal directions. Furthermore, they enshrined eight Lingams, symbolizing the eight aspects of Siva, called "Murtis": heavenly bodies Sun and Moon; elements earth, water, wind, fire and ether, last not least the transindividual eternal soul, Atman. The fire shrine, without roof now, is also attributed to Agni, the fire god.
Some of the libraries and gateways on this second level bear well-preserved sandstone lintels with exquisite carvings. The most remarkable stone carving is at the east side of the west gate (facing the central platform). It depicts the lion-man Narasingha (Narasimha) clawing the demon Hiranyakashipu. Narasingha is one of the ten principal Avatars of Vishnu, this means, the lion-man is an embodiment of the god. Vishnu had to transform himself into a man with a lion head, because the mighty demon threatening the world was otherwise invincible, neither man nor animal could kill him.
At the north-east corner building there is a lintel depicting Lakshmi flanked by two elephants with raised trunks sprinkling water on her, a common Hindu and Buddhist motif called "Gajalakshmi", meaning "Elephant-Lakshmi". The south-east tower has a Garuda on its east side. The lintel of the south-west tower depicts Indra on Airavata, a common subject. A lovely swirling garland surrounds small figures. The rectangular library buildings in the south-west are decorated with motifs of the nine planets or the seven ascetics.
The uppermost platform is 3 m higher and measures 30 m by 30 m. Five brick towers are arranged in quincunx order. The central tower, in particular, has excellent lintel carvings.
The central tower was dedicated to Shiva, it sheltered the main Lingam. The northeastern tower was dedicated to Vishnu. The southeastern tower was dedicated to Brahma, completing the Hindu trinity. The northwestern tower was dedicated to King Rajendravarman’s mother, the southwestern one to his father. According to the foundation inscription, the latter two Prasats sheltered sculptures of Shiva’s consort Uma and of Shiva himself respectively, "in the likeness of the mother and the father" of Rajendravarman II. Each of the five towers originally also had Linga sculptures on Yoni pedestals. As already mentioned, eight more Lingams were placed inside those eight small towers of the surrounding courtyard. The Lingam in the main sanctuary was called Rajendreshwara, "Rajendra, Lord of the World", indicating that the East Mebon served as Rajendravarman's state temple. It connected worshipping Lord Shiva, as mighty protector of the king, with venerating the royal ancestors.
The holes in the brickwork originally carried stucco dressing the towers. Most lintels remaining in situ are of high-quality craftsmanship. On the central tower, to the east, there is the common subject of Indra on his three-headed elephant, with flights of figures on a tendril disgorged by a Makara crocodile. A narrow frieze of hermit figures in meditation is above the main panel. To the west there is Skanda, the god of war, on his peacock, with a line of figures holding lotus flowers. Because of the western direction this depiction the god is sometimes identified as Varuna, on a bird instead of his usual mount, the Makara crocodile. To the south is Shiva on his sacred bull Nandi (or Yama on a bullock). On the south lintel of the south-east tower there is another lintel with Shiva on Nandi. At the north side of the same Prasat, which was dedicated to Brahma, is a monsterhead devouring an elephant. The east side of the north-west tower depicts Ganesha curiously riding his own trunk, thereby transformed into a mount. The south lintel of the same Prasat has another strange motif, a figure dancing on a lion.
The foundation inscription already mentioned was found to the right of the eastern front tower, it is now in the Conservation office for safekeeping. It is remarkable in many respects. It has 216 verses, this is the second longest Sanskrit stone inscription in the world, only the Pre Rup inscription is longer. The Mebon inscription not only contains a lot of text, being a most valuable source of information for historians. It is a masterpiece of art of poetry, too. The poem is written in the classical Indian Sanskrit metre called Kavya. Almost certainly foreigners from India were the authors. The inscription describes the temple construction, it furthermore reports events of Rajendravarman's war with Champa in 965/66, and the capturing of the gold statue of goddess Bhagavati from the Cham city Kauthara. It was later on replaced by a stone statue. The inscription reveals a slightly distanced attitude of King Rajendravarman II. towards Buddhism, though his counsellor and architect Kavindrarimathana was Buddhist.
The best time to visit the East Mebon is the very early morning. The second best option is the late afternoon. There is a ticket checkpoint at the foot of this monument.