Ammai in Prasat Phanom Rung,Thailand

The next temple in Isan – North East Thailand, with the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai alongside Adalvallan/Dancing Shiva is Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. The temple is located in the present day Thai Province of Buriram, nearly 364 kms North-east, from the capital city Bangkok. 

Prasat Phanom Rung is yet another masterpiece temple, which seems to have undergone several innovative inclusions under various Kings, like other Khmer monuments in Cambodia and Thailand. According to the Thailand National Committee on the World Heritage Convention

The Phanom Rung sanctuary compound was constructed over several phases, dated by means of iconography of its art and architectural styles together with its inscriptions. These comprise two foundations of sacred brick buildings of 10th century C.E., the minor sanctuary of 11th century, the central sanctuary built by king Suryavarman II’s relative Narentratitaya in 12th century and two Bannalais (libraries) of the 13th century. Further sacred buildings built in the reign of King Jayavarman VII in 13th century, including the Royal attire Changing Pavilion, the Kudi Rishis of Nong Bua Ray, the medical centre or hospital (Arokayasala) and Prasat Ban Bu, a rest house with fire where travelers could shelter (Dharmasala) on the plain at the foot of Phanom Rung, alongside the road linking Angkor and Phimai.

Structural evidences show that the temple has had constructions and improvisations from 10th to 13th centuries CE.

Inscriptional Evidences found till date (see Database of Thai Inscriptions) shed light on the temple from the 8th century CE to 12th century CE.

The Restoration Project of Prasat Phanom Rung, a collaboration between the Thai and French Governments was launched in 1971. After 17 years of committed zeal and scientific archeological reconstruction, the temple with its additional Avatar as a Historical Park was made open to public in May 1988.

This is a huge temple complex with several features like the stairways, processional walkways, three Naga Bridges, a Pavilion, Inner Galleries and the most important Central Sanctuary or the Main Tower. The two brick sanctuaries, built around 10th century CE are believed to be the oldest structure in the Prasat. The Bannalai or the Library used to store Holy Scriptures – an early 13th century CE structure, appears to be the last Khmer addition in the premises. 

The Central Sanctuary is where the Principal Deity – Shiva in Linga form used to be housed. On the entrance pediment of the Main Sanctuary, the beautifully sculpted statue of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva stands majestically with the exceptional glowing smile on the face. 

As seen in the recent posts on Khmer temples such as Phnom Chissor, Vat Baset, Prasat Preah Vihear, Banteay Srei, museums in Phnom Penh and Battambang, all in today’s Cambodia and Prasat Hin Phimai in today’s Thailand, this particular sculpture, that of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva has been the core of analysis. In Phanom Rung too, the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai- the Demon Devotee of Shiva, sitting alongside Dancing Shiva, mesmerised by his celestial performance, is the focal point.

From the previous articles, it was comfortably construed that the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai could have been introduced in Khmer architecture, during the reign of Suryavarman I (1010-1050 CE), with sculptural evidences from Phnom Chissor and temples in Battambang province (Cambodia). Preah Vihear and Banteay Srei too, have had inclusions of structures by the same King.

In Thailand, the period of Prasat Hin Phimai is generally assigned to the last decades of the 11th century. As seen in the earlier post on Isan, inscriptional evidences show light on Suryavarman I’s imprint in the area around the Temple premises, signifying religious tolerance between Buddhism and Saivism. Additionally, the fact that the Khmer expansion in Isan (North-east Thailand) reached its culmination during the rule of Suryavarman I, should not be overlooked. 

Sculptural or Inscriptional evidences from Prasat Phanom Rung, like other Khmer Temples, do not provide any specific date to the inclusion of the sculpture of Dancing Shiva alongwith Karaikkal Ammai.

But more in-depth research of the province of Buriram and Prasat Phanom Rung (where the Main Sanctuary houses the sculpture of Dancing Shiva and two women with sunken breasts), might bring out new historical facts and links, on the inclusion of Karaikkal Ammai in yet another Khmer Temple, in Thailand.

Karaikkal Ammai at the feet of Adavallan in Prasat Phanom Rung

Adavallan/Dancing Shiva with Karaikkal Ammai 
display board in the Prasat

When we analyse the sculpture of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva in the above picture, what captivates the spectator the foremost, is the tranquil smile on the face of Adavallan. The sculptor has showcased his expertise even in the delicate sway of the arms of the Cosmic Dancer. Here too, Dancing Shiva is portrayed as ‘Natakesvara Dasabhuja’ – (Ten Armed Dancing Shiva) as mentioned in the Takeo inscription of Suryavarman I (refer – religious-development-under-suryavarman-i-karaikkal-ammai-in-prasat-hin-phimai/ ), as seen in Vat Basset, Battambang Museum, Banteay Srei, Preah Vihear and Prasat Hin Phimai.

There can be seen in the sculpture, two women seated to the right of Adavallan. The temple description reads, ‘one should be the evil incarnation of Goddess Uma and the other might be Karaikkal Ammaiyar’. Rather than naming her an evil incarnation, Goddess Chamundi can be referred as the fierce or aggressive form of Uma or Parvathi, wife of Lord Shiva. 

With the spread of Hinduism and its Mythological legends far beyond India, evidences of which are available from the mid centuries of the first millennium, Chamundi being part of Shiva’s sculptural panel need not be an inclusion of surprise. But the journey of Karaikkal Ammai, the Demon Devotee of Shiva, an exclusive personality from Tamil Land, to find a seat to view Shiva’s cosmic dance in the Khmer Temples of Cambodia and Thailand, certainly seems to be an astonishing one.

Chamundi is a fierce incarnation as per Hindu Mythology. Ammai was a fearless individual, rather a Human and one of the Pioneer Saints of the Tamil Bhakti Movement, with three literary works to her glory (in Tamil namely Arputha Thiruvanthathi, Thiruvalangaatu Mootha Thiruppathigam and Thiruvirattai Manimalai). She stood unrelented to the societal pressures of womanhood, and took up ‘Peyuru’ or ‘Demonic Image’, to realise and hail the intense dance of Shiva in the Graveyard in the midst of the dead. She threw a number of whips at several social issues as early as the 6th century CE – be it her freedom of choice to take up Spirituality at a young age or to emphasise worship in one’s own mother tongue rather than alien languages regarded sacred by several socio religious factions. 

She addressed herself in her hymns as ‘Karaikkal Pei’ (6th century CE)- the Ghost of Karaikkal and Sundarar in his ‘Thiruthondar Thogai’ (8th century CE) called her ‘Peyar’ – the revered Ghost. Her sculptural representation in her homeland ‘Thamizhagam/Thamilagam’, exactly symbolises her life, an emaciated skeletal figure enjoying the eternal dance of Shiva.

Hence, it is indeed with absolute astoundment that this series of articles regarding the sculptural representation of Ammai in far away Khmer Temples, that is very much similar to her representation at Home (Chola Temples of today’s Tamilnadu), is being written. 

In Prasat Phanom Rung, there is a change in the iconographical representation of Karaikkal Ammai. The usual skeletal depiction as an emaciated figure found in Tamil temples from 10th century CE and in the 11th century and later Khmer temples, seem to have received a transformation in this Prasat. 

The Sculptor or the Royal Architect of Prasat Phanom Rung chose to portray in the Sculpture, two dynamic and powerful Women in the life of Shiva, one – his Divine Spouse and the other – his Demon Devotee. It seems he also chose to give a subtle image to the fierce Chamundi and a more Human like appearance to ‘Peyar’ Ammai. The highly damaged lintel leaves very little to discuss about the facial features of both the Ladies, to comprehend better. The Women are adorned with ornaments in their neck and arms, a very unusual iconographic representation of Ammai. Additionally, each seem to be holding a child on their shoulder. Since the head of the sculpture has not survived, the only clue to holding another figure, is the hand of the women holding an arm with hanging fingers. A closer look would reveal tiny fingers on the right breast of both. The image close to the feet of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva additionally seems to hold a feet on the left side. 

Alternatively, since Ammai’s songs manifest the Lord’s Dance in the Funerary Grounds, the figure holding a tiny arm and feet could also suggest that she could be holding a corpse.

Let’s consider the other sculptures of Karaikkal Ammai alongside Adavallan in Khmer Temples, in Cambodia and Thailand. In almost all the temples, in the Panel that hosts Dancing Shiva, the lone woman to watch him dance is Ammai, always in a seated posture, sometimes with cymbals in hands. Only in the sculpture in Battambang Museum, the Museum booklet says, one figure is that of Devi- Shiva’s consort and the other is of Karaikkal Ammai. As interpreted in Battambang Museum as Devi, here in Phanom Rung too, one among the two women has been analysed as Chamundi, an incarnation of Devi.

Among the blessed to watch the Eternal Dance of Shiva, specifically in close proximity could be none other than His Demon Devotee ‘Peyar’. Ammai in Tamil Temples has always been kept in par with the ‘Ganas’ of Lord Shiva, as she wrote in her Arputha Thiruvathathi – ‘Peyaaya Narganathul Onraaya Naam’ – ‘I am one of His Ganas, in the form of a Ghost’. The same has been seen in Khmer Temples too. 

Like she herself described her appearance in Thiruvalangaattu Mootha Thiruppathigam as ‘Kongai thirangi narambezhunthu’- one with shrivelled breasts, she has always been portrayed as an emaciated figure with shrivelled breasts, with a ghost-like image.

கொங்கை திரங்கி நரம்பெழுந்து 
  குண்டுகண் வெண்பற் குழிவயிற்றுப்
பங்கி சிவந்திரு பற்கள்நீண்டு பரடுயர் 
  நீள்கணைக் காலோர்பெண்பேய்
தங்கி அலறி உலறுகாட்டில் 
  தாழ்சடை எட்டுத் திசையும்வீசி
அங்கங் குளிர்ந்தனல் ஆடும்எங்கள் 
  அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே. 

திருஆலங்காட்டு மூத்த திருப்பதிகம் 

courtesy: Karaikkal Ammai's Thirivalangaattu Mootha Thiruppathigam

The sagging breast is again a strong indication of Ammai’s depiction.

The sculptor has also given a human like iconography with ornaments adorning the ladies. Yet, they do not possess the aesthetic beauty of Goddesses, Apsaras or normal women found in other panels. This is what makes one strongly feel that, the two should be representations of demonic characters. As such, a Demonic Icon to find a place during Lord Shiva’s celestial performance could be none other than Karaikkal Ammai. Moreover, the ornate accessories could have been provided to synchronise their representation with the intricate carvings around Dancing Shiva and the Panel as a whole. This particular panel, when compared to the panels of Dancing Shiva in other Khmer Temples, is indeed more explicit in its craftsmanship.

Karaikkal Ammai has not only pictured her own appearance in her poetry. She has also illustrated the appearance of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva in beautiful Tamil words, which the Pallavas splendidly displayed (in different Karana postures) in their architectural marvels and the Cholas magnified and glorified as the King of Dances in their monumental Temples in yesteryear Thamizhagam. The Dancing Shiva of the Cholas are exact reproductions of Ammai’s Lord of Dance. That could be analysed in a different post.

Such was the connect that Ammai had with the Lord and His Dance. It was such a divine association, that could not be separated by Geographical boundaries, Kingdoms or Languages. The sculpture of Karaikkal Ammaiyar in Prasat Phanom Rung again reiterates the Tamil Trader Connect in South East Asia, specifically in Khmer Kingdom that covered Cambodia and Northeast Thailand. It asserts the Tamil influence over Hinduism, Temples and Temple Architecture in the above mentioned regions.

Apart from the iconographic representation of Ammai in Prasat Phanom Rung (in the 11th century CE or later), inscriptions in the temple decipher new facts. Further more, the collection of other inscriptions in Pallava Grantha Script around the Buriram Province of Thailand to which Prasat Phanom Rung belongs, illuminates the spread of the Tamils, mainly Traders as far as North East Thailand. The inscriptions stand as evidences to the Tamil influence on the Language of yesteryear Thai Kingdoms, prior to the introduction of the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Architecture.

If introduction of Ammai’s sculpture was a Chola influence, evidences of Pallava influence in Thailand are found as early as 3rd century CE. The touch stone of a goldsmith was discovered from Kuan Luk Pat in Krabi Province in Southern Thailand, on the shore of Andaman Sea. The Tamil words -‘Perum Pathan Kal’ was inscribed in the touch stone which Professor Karashima assigns to 3rd century CE.

Without getting into details of the overall Tamil influence in Thailand, the next post would concentrate on the Tamil influence seen in Buriram Province in North east Thailand, to which Prasat Phanom Rung belongs, to further strengthen the religious connect of the Tamils through the sculpture of Karaikkal Ammai in Khmer Temples of Thailand.


pg.182, Lawrence Palmer Briggs, The Ancient Empire


Ensemble of Phanom Rung, Muang Tam and Plai Bat Sanctuaries

Ancient Maritime Cross – cultural Exchanges Archaeological Research in Thailand

Chaowanee LekklaTracing Zhēnlà Beyond Cambodia: Archaeological Findings on the Lower Mekong River Basin


Thai Scripts: A 730-Year History

pgs. 40, 41/ K.A.N.Sastri, ‘South Indian Influences in the Far East

M D Muthukumaraswamy,

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