Ammai in Banteay Srei and the Tamil Maritime Links in South East Asia


The temple of Banteay Srei  in Siem Reap Province of present day Cambodia, is a 10th century ACE temple loaded with aesthetic architecture kneaded from stone to stone. It is of utmost importance to the research on iconography of Karaikkal Ammaiyar in the temples of South East Asia, due to the eastern courtyard pediment, which carries Dancing Shiva with Karaikkal Ammai sculpted with beauty and elegance.

Banteay Srei or translated as ‘Citadel of Women’ or ‘Citadel of Beauty’ was originally named after the Presiding Deity of the temple – Shiva in Linga form – Tribhuvanamaheswara or the Supreme Lord of the Three Worlds.

It is a unique temple restored with contributions of additional innovations by successive rulers through their master craftsmen. The abundance of visual narratives makes it indeed one of the ‘Jewels in Stone’ among Khmer Temples.  The date of the temple’s consecration is recorded on its foundation stele, as 22 April 967 ACE. While Rajendravarman II died in 968 ACE, a section of researchers state that Banteay Srei must have been started during the last reignal years of Rajendravarman and first phase of construction proceeded with Jayavarman V.


The Brahman Yajnavaraha (10th century), initially in the service of Rajendravarman II, was involved in the conception of the temple of Banteay Srei during the reign of Jayavarman V, to whom he was the spiritual guru.

Vittorio Roveda,  The Archeology of Khmer Imagespg 12,


Inscriptions of Suryavarman I (1011 ACE) and Shrindravarman (1304 ACE) have been found from this ornate premises. Vittorio Roveda further refers to Coedes and Dupont, who point out the inscriptions of the stele of Phnom Sandak and Preah Vihear, which provide information on Suryavarman II, who sent his spiritual advisor Divakarapandita to Banteay Srei  ‘to restore the temple and re-install the Shaivite cult initiated by Jayavarman V’.

One sample among the innumerable classy features of the temple is the admirable Ravana Anugraha Murthy – Ravana trying to lift/shake Mount Kailash – Lord Shiva’s abode and Shiva effortlessly calming Ravana’s Rage with a gentle press of His Toe.


IMG_0594 (3)
The sculpture is very beautifully carved out in four tiers, each representing different categories of creatures – from the four legged in the fourth, half-human/half animal in the third, Rishis in the second and Shiva and Uma on the top-most pedestal, all of whom look petrified other than Lord Shiva.


The first three tiers

The Supreme God sits majestically oppressing Ravana’s strength with his toe and one cannot take his/her eyes off Shiva’s consort Uma/ Parvathi – created with a fear filled jerk.


shiva with uma on lap

IMG_0594 (2)
While Roveda attributes the mature narratives and decorative complexities of Banteay Srei to later years – 12th century, especially to Suryavarman II, the specific pediment of Dancing Shiva with Karaikkal Ammai is our main concern.


The Pioneer Woman Saint of Indian Bhakti Movement in the ‘Citadel of Women’ – Banteay Srei

The most important pediment, which is of great significance to the study of the travel of Karaikkal Ammaiyar to Cambodia and Thailand or yesteryear Khmer Kingdom is this one shown below-

adalvallan/dancing siva with karaikkal ammai to his right

IMG_0578ammai with cymbals

IMG_6703oru muga muzhavu/percussionist to Shiva’s left

Few authors view Banteay Srei as a temple wholly built and completed during the reigns of Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V in the second half of the tenth century by his South Indian spiritual advisor Yajnavaraha. There are a few other researchers, who bring in the concept of continued renovations done by successive Kings to the temples, during the Angkor Era. Hence, any temple structure which is preserved today after the ‘colonial’ efforts of early twentieth century in Cambodia and Thailand, is a product of continued restoration done by successive Khmer rulers over centuries.
In The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations by Charles Higham, he mentions that Dr. Vittorio Roveda, researcher and author of various books on Khmer Architecture –


‘has suggested that the eastern gopura was constructed in 1011 CE in the reign of Suryavarman I. This ruler also added a pillared causeway and the western gopura in his reign’


While Suryavarman I is attributed with the eastern gopura in Banteay Srei, he is also acknowledged to have done the eastern entrance pediment of Phnom Chissor with Dancing Shiva and Karaikkal Ammai.

The space marked by arrow, which is the eastern courtyard after entering through eastern gopuram, is where the pediment of Dancing Shiva and Karaikkal Ammai is sculpted.


02_09_Banteay_Sreiphoto courtesy:


In the above picture, Point 7 is where Nandi is placed and Point 8 is the Dancing Shiva Pediment. The prominent place that has been given to Dancing Shiva and his devotee Karaikkal Ammaiyar is something striking in a Khmer Temple.  While Karaikkal Ammai is not found in neighboring South Indian states of Tamilnadu, namely Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka or Kerala or scarcely one or two that this writer might not know, the fact that Shiva’s unique devotee has been sculpted beyond high seas certainly is a key point for analytical research for the Tamil connection.

This image of the temple shows the placement of Adalvallan and Ammai.



As mentioned earlier, the sculptures of the inner libraries of this temple have been assessed by a few researchers as the handiwork of Suryavarman II, while a section of others feel that Banteay Srei was built and completed, much before him in the second half of the tenth century ACE, during the reigns of Rajendravarman I and his successor Jayavarman V.

In the temples of Phnom Chissor, Preah Vihear, Vat Baset and Vat Ek apart from Banteay Srei in Cambodia that Suryavarman I had undertaken restoration, Dancing Shiva has occupied an important place. Wherever he installed the sculpture of Dancing Shiva, the inclusion of Karaikkal Ammai is prominent.

While in Banteay Srei too, where Dr. Vittorio Roveda states that Suryavarman I built the eastern gopura, it could be the same King who could have sculpted the Dancing Shiva with Karaikkal Ammai immediately next to eastern gopura on the eastern courtyard pediment.

Mireille Benisti, French scholar and researcher of early Khmer Art and Comparative Indian Art and Iconography,  in her article titled ‘KARAIKKALAMMAIYAR’ in the ‘Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient’ under the topic – ‘Notes d’iconographie khmère’ – in 1969, refers to the pediment of Ammai in Banteay Srei. She goes by the fact that Banteay Srei belonged to the second half of the tenth century. Hence, Ms. Benisti places the pediment of Karaikkal Ammai in Banteay Srei, as earlier than the sculptures of Ammai in Rajaraja Chola’s Thanjavur and his son Rajendra Chola’s Gangaikonda Cholapuram which belong to the first half of the eleventh century.(underlined text below)


D’autre part,le temple d’Isvarapura étant exactement daté, la première manifestation du thème de Kâraikkâlammaiyàr en pays khmer — – que nous avions placée dans la deuxième moitié du xie siècle avec le linteau de Vát Basët — remonte donc, grâce au fronton de Bantây Srëi et jusqu’à plus ample informé, à la seconde moitié du xe siècle. Nous tenons même ainsi, avec cette pièce, la plus ancienne représentation plastique connue, celles de Tanjore et de KankaikontacôLapuram ne se situant que dans les premières années du xie siècle12.


Before Rajaraja I in early 11th century ACE,  his grandmother Chembian Madevi had already pioneered the initiation of the portrayal of Karaikkal Ammai with Dancing Shiva in the Temples of Tamilnadu by mid 10th century ACE. (refer-

As per earliest available evidences till today, the concept of Adalvallan/Dancing Shiva in stone has been found in Tamilnadu since the Pallavas, as early as 7th century ACE in Siyamangalam. While the conceptualization of Dancing Shiva is traced several centuries prior to its stone representation, the credit of introducing the portrayal of Adalvallan/Nataraja as a cosmic dancer is given to the Pallavas of Kanchipuram.

Coming to Karaikkal Ammai –

Portrayal of a Tamil Saint in Khmer Temples before getting prominence in Tamil Land is a topic of great ambiguity.


It was in the mid-decades of the 10th century ACE, that Chembian Madevi came up with the renewal of Temple Architecture in Chola country, followed by Great Chola Emperor Rajaraja I (984 ACE -1014 ACE) who unveiled temples at their massive best through Thanjavur Periya Kovil. The same trend of delivering master sculptural strokes through temples was carried forward by his ocean conquerer son Rajendra Chola I (1014 ACE – 1044 ACE), one of the greatest ever Emperors of the Indian sub-continent, through his best temples like Gangai Konda Cholapuram . The father-son duo of Rajaraja and Rajendra completely dominated the Temple Building Scenario of the first half of 11th century ACE with their impressive artistry in Temple Architecture. This stands as one of the greatest achievements and innovations of Temple styles of the Chola Empire of Medieval Tamilnadu.

Another factor of unparalleled importance during the reigns of the Rajaraja and Rajendra was their reach as far as China streaming across South East Asian kingdoms. They not only stand out in history for their larger than life temples, but for their political and economical victory in far-east countries of Asia. They were maritime champions in the long stretched Bay of Bengal and beyond, so much that the Bay of Bengal was also called the Lake of the Cholas by historians for their successful maritime wars and trade which was at its peak during the first half of the 11th century ACE.

This credit largely goes to the Trader Guilds settled in many of the Port towns and cities across Asia since the beginning of the first millennia (with archeological evidences from 1st century ACE and literary evidences even before Christian Era). These Merchant Guilds continued to prosper during the Pallava reign during 5th to 9th centuries ACE, and flourished at their zenith with successful endeavors in trade, culture and religion during the Medieval Chola Era. The Cholas proved that they were the most successful sea-farers of their times and are still revered for their maritime trade skills by researchers both Indian and Foreign alike.

The Maritime Trade and its effects on the spread of Tamil Culture and Religion form an indispensable part of Tamil Connection in South East Asia. Hence, the maritime accomplishments of the Pallavas and Cholas of the then Tamil Land and their well settled trader guilds in the yesteryear kingdoms of today’s Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and China extending several centuries should be judiciously discussed with the study of the sculptures of Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Temples.
Contemporary Rulers of Khmers andTamils in the 10th and first half of the 11th century ACE
While Rajendravarman I (944-968 ACE) and Jayavarman V (968-1000 ACE)  continued their unique ‘Banteay Srei’ style of temples through Yajnavaraha-  their spiritual instructor, whom a few researchers believe to have been of south indian origin, Chembian Madevi was making effective changes in the old brick temples of Pallava and earlier Chola temples in and around Thiruchirappalli, Thanjavur and Nagappattinam districts of today’s Tamilnadu.  Churning the artistic essence of her skilled sculptors, she was renovating the old brick structures and constructing new Shaivite temples in stone.

As discussed in detail in the previous post (refer-, her introduction of placing Dancing Shiva in a separate niche and additionally giving prominence to Shiva’s favorite devotee Karaikkal Ammai remained and was sculpted without interruption during the reigns of –

  • Gandarathitha Chola (950ACE – 957ACE) –  husband
  • Arinjaya Chola  (957ACE – 958ACE) – brother-in-law (Gandarathitha’s brother)
  • Sundara Chola (Paranthaka II)  (958ACE – 969ACE) – nephew (Arinjaya’s Son)
  • Uttama Chola (Madhuranthaka) (970ACE – 985ACE) – son of Gandarathithya and Chembiyan Madevi.

The above Rulers succeeded one after the other, but Chembian Madevi remained the Royal Chief Architect of Chola temple building, innovations, rituals and thereby the Grand Old Royal Patron of Culture and Religion in the Chola Empire.

The majestic-leadership qualities she has exhibited, not only in temple architecture but additionally in the spheres of inscriptional documentation and codifying elaborate rituals in temple worship cannot be ignored. The perfect mastery with which she took over the complete orchestration of temple functioning during her long era, is evidence to the above fact.

Besides successive Emperors taking charge of the Empire at very close intervals, the fact that there could be continuous temple constructions and renovations during her time is yet another proof of less turmoil inside the kingdom and friendly relations abroad, thereby providing smooth sailing across the high seas. The grand wealth that was inherited from the past and received from contemporary trading settlements abroad could have been used worthwhile in temple building too. Vice versa, with strong merchant guilds holding special economic arena in foreign soil, yet with deep rooted religious customs of the Tamil Land they hailed from, could have certainly played a crucial role in the host countries’ religious and cultural civilizations.

Political Non-turbulence at home, Cordial Diplomacy abroad and Economic Affluence beyond high seas are indeed factors to prove that overseas Tamil Trader Settlements would have played a quintessential part in Religious Acculturation of the Southeast Asian Kingdoms they were living in.
During the long reigns of Rajendravarman I and Jayavarman V in Khmer Land, the Cholas had six rulers from Paranthaka I (still in power in 944 ACE) until Rajaraja who succeeded power in 985 ACE, after the death of Uttama. From Gandarathitha to Uttama, for more than 30 years, Chembian Madevi was the Apex Guardian of Tamil Temple Culture and Religion under whom Adalvallan/Dancing Shiva and Karaikkal Ammai were depicted as a culmination of Grace and Devotion.

Madevi takes complete credit to have authored the deification of Karaikkal Pei to Karaikkal Ammai in stone in her temples, even before the great poet Chekkizhar could sculpt her life in words in his ‘Thiruthondar Puranam’ or Periya Puranam in the first half of the 12th century ACE. This was aptly understood by her grandson Rajaraja I and great grandson Rajendra I. Their temples stand evident of the legacy of Dancing Shiva with Ammai having been taken forward from 10th century ACE into 11th century ACE.

At the same time, after the political turmoil in the Khmer Kingdom, Suryavarman I comes to power in 1010 ACE, while Rajaraja is still in power in Tamil Land.


The importance of Suryavarman I in the study of Karaikkal Ammai
As discussed in earlier posts, Vat Baset, Phnom Chissor and Preah Vihear – the temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the Khmer Kingdom during the Angkorian Era, while being rebuilt, renovated or newly built by Suryavarman I, have an imprint of the Tamil Connection through the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai.

With limited epigraphical evidences, there are several other inconveniences in determining the year of inclusion of new structures in Khmer temples.

Khmer architecture grew and showed different shades in different phases, as the Khmer Kings added support to older temples and knew the art of preserving Hindu Temples without the restriction of Shaivite or Vaishnavite explicit leanings.

Each kingdom generally moves on to its respective successive ruler with the absorption of the previous King’s political, economic, religious, cultural and linguistic lineage. Carrying forward the past with contemporary ambitions creates a marvelous future. This holds true to Temples and Monuments which were essential facets of a King’s legacy.

Shaivism being the root of the religious lineage which spread from India towards Khmer Temples has been discussed and analyzed by several researchers. But Karaikkal Ammaiyar is the strong nerve coiled within the roots of Shaivism that travelled towards South East Asia from Tamilnadu. This is certainly a strong attestation to the Tamil Connection beyond oceans.

Upon reading available research materials on the subject, one gets an initial impression that it could be either Suryavarman I or Suryavarman II to have portrayed Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Temples. However, eliminating other possibilities, yet with an open view of accepting any new analytical views on the dates and builders of various structures in Khmer Temples, my suggestions to the claim that it could be Suryavarman I to have placed Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Temples, is presented below-

1. In accordance with currently available epigraphic evidences, the estimated time span of the construction of Dancing Shiva with Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Temples can be laid between 967 ACE (Rajendravarman I) until 1150 ACE (Suryavarman II) a span of almost two centuries.

2. Suryavarman I comes to power in 1010 ACE and Suryavarman II claims power in 1113 ACE, a time span of a century between both. Both the Kings developed friendly relations with the Chola Emperors of Tamilagam –

Suryavarman I (1010 ACE – 1050 ACE) with Rajendra Chola I (1014 ACE – 1044 ACE) and Suryavarman II (1113 ACE – 1150 ACE) with Kulottunga Chola I (1070 ACE – 1120 ACE).

3. Among the temples seen in Cambodia till this post, namely Vat Baset, Preah Vihear, Phnom Chissor and Banteay Srei –

i. Dancing Shiva in Vat Baset and Phnom Chissor bear signatures in stone i.e. inscriptional evidences of Suryavarman I;

ii. Preah Vihear and Banteay Srei have inscriptional evidences of renovations and restorations by both the Kings;

iii. Most of the structures of Preah Vihear are attributed to Suryavarman I. The interest of Suryavarman I in Preah Vihear’s Sikhareswara has been acknowledged by many researchers. Additionally,  the most number of inscriptions of the same King have been recorded in Preah Vihear. Regarding Suryavarman II, we come to know that his spiritual instructor Divakarapandita, in the year 1116AD, provided a golden statue of Dancing Shiva to the temple, which Sachidhanand Sahai feels should be that of a ‘uthsava murthy’ or ‘processional deity’ in his book, ‘Preah Vihear – An Introduction to the world heritage monument’ (pg.95).

4. Specific epigraphic evidences prove that eastern gopura of Banteay Srei was built by Suryavarman I which is an entry gate to the eastern pediment which exalts the God- Devotee : Dancing Shiva-Karaikkal Ammai relation to sculptural ecstasy; while the mature narratives are attributed to Suryavarman II.

5. Khmer Kings have always been commended for their secular mindset in culminating Saivism and Vaishnavism in their temples and providing equal freedom to Buddhism. Suryavarman II was religiously inclined to Vishnu in his later years and built the famous Angkor Wat in worship of Vishnu and promoted Vaishnavism than Shaivism unlike Suryavarman I who was a keen Shivaite.

6. Early Angkor Civilization was centred around Harihara – a culmination of Shiva and Vishnu. The temples were carved with Vaishnavite stories, but were solely dedicated to Shiva. Suryavarman I named the Shiva Lingams that he erected in the name ‘Suryavarmeswara’ and Suryavarman II called himself ‘Paramavishnuloka’. Writing on Suryavarman II, Briggs states-


The Sivaism of the period seems to have been perfunctory and official. The great inscriptions of the reign came from the old Saivite shrines – Preah Vihear, Vat Phu, Phnom Chissor, Phnom Sandak and Ban Theat – where foundations were being made.

This was the golden age of Vishnuism in Cambodia. Under Divakarapandita and the dynasty of Mahidharapura, this spirit seems to have developed slowly under Sivaic forms…. But it was a Vishnuism strangely interwoven with the old State Sivaism.

pg. 194, The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs


7. Inscription of Suryavarman I in Prasat Preah Vihear in the year 1018, says he chose Preah Vihear as one of the three places to install a Linga. The other two being – Phnom Chissor and Ishanathirtha (unidentified till date). At that point in time, Suryavarman I had already placed his personal Linga in Vat Baset. On this, Sachchidanand Sahai mentions-

It would be erroneous to think that these four lingas marked the limits of his empire. Suryavarman I’s authority spread as far as Lopburi north of Bangkok as his Khmer Inscriptions indicate.

pg. 62, ‘Preah Vihear – An Introduction to the world heritage monument’


Already in the first half of the eleventh century, Suryavarman I had spread, the Khmer boundaries in further provinces of today’s Thailand and Laos, apart from Cambodia. The expansion of the Empire and his utmost Inclination towards Shaivism were Pinnacle Points during his reign, which might provide supplementary clues to the introduction of exclusive Dancing Shiva with an imported Karaikkal Ammai.

8. With Rajaraja Chola’s successful friendly policies aiding the Tamil merchant guilds in various countries across the high seas, his son Rajendra’s initial diplomatic ties which converted into victorious conquests of several kingdoms of South East Asia, and the abundant inscriptions available regarding his conquests, provide clarity in the influence of the Tamil Emperors of the vast Chola Monarchy in the Asian Seas. This captures additional interest as the influence of the Cholas was at its peak, during the first half of the eleventh century ACE which corresponds with the rule of Suryavarman I in Khmer Land.

In view of the above, the Might of the Chola Kings from the southern part of India and their well organized Trader Guilds increase the possibility of Tamil Influence on the religious rituals of local Kingdoms.

The Importance of Rajaraja I and son Rajendra Chola I in South East Asian Tamil Links and the Dominating Position of Tamil Merchant Guilds during their reigns would be discussed in the next post.

In search of clear-cut evidences for the Tamil Connection of Karaikkal Ammai in South East Asia,  decoding of images seems to be one of the best ways. This stone-cut evidence in sculptures that has been left behind by the Khmer rulers for future analysis stands high in pediments luckily even beyond thousand years. Thanks to the archeologists and scholars who have revived it through modern techniques.


In 1926, Finot wrote that the danger of a history based uniquely on epigraphic sources is that the absence of inscriptions is seen as a reflection of the absence of events during a historic period, as if the ‘silence’ of the stones corresponds to nothing taking place. This unlikely scenario is being overturned by modern studies on architecture, by a re-reading of inscriptions and by the decoding of images.

Vittorio Roveda,  The Archeology of Khmer Images- pg 43,


When there is absence of epigraphic clues on the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai included in Khmer Architecture, the best option as per Finot is to decode the images; Decoding Images not only with the style of particular Kings but a comparative view of contemporary maritime kingdoms with the root of identical religious factors – in this case – Karaikkal Ammai. This needs a thorough analysis concentrated not only on political grounds, but an analogy between religious and economic links, that would follow in subsequent posts.



  1. Charles Higham – The Encyclopaedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations
  2. Sachchidanand Sahai – Preah Vihear – An Introduction to the World Heritage Monument
  3. Lawrence Palmer Briggs – The Ancient Khmer Empires
  4. Vittorio Roveda – The Images of the Gods: Khmer Mythology in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos
  5. George Coedes – The Indianized States of Southeast Asia
  6. Tamil Version of Herman Kulke, K. Kesavapani, Vijay Sakkuja – Nagapattina to Suvarnadwipa – Translated by Ettikkan Shanmugam


Web Links

  1. Vittorio Roveda,  The Archeology of Khmer Images – pg 12 –
  2. Mireille Benisti, Notes d’iconographie khmère’  –  Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient’ –



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