Sre Prang pagoda epitome of spiritual survival
The beautiful temple of Boeung Koh Sre Prang pagoda has stood for 58 years in Kampot province. Although no longer in daily use, its detailed paintings and ornate carved decorative sections have been restored and preserved by members of the local community and the local authorities.
The temple, in Russey Srok Khang Lech commune’s Damnak Trabek village of Kampong Trach district, stands as testament to the unbearable suffering of the Kingdom during the terrible years of Democratic Kampuchea, under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Gazing upon the structure from a distance, one can see four faces carved into the structure of the roof, with five layers of terracing roofing.
The temple features beautifully swept gables, each partially covered with ornate carvings.
The interior is filled with painted panels that illustrate the journey of Buddha.
Venerable Kao Khemara, the 41-year-old chief monk of the pagoda, told The Post that the ornate carvings and fading painted panels were beautiful in their own right, but it was the history they represented which gave them added gravitas.
“The temple was begun in 1965, but was delayed because of early skirmishes that eventually became the Cambodian Civil War. Construction was still not completed when the Khmer Rouge arrived,” he said.
He explained that only about 80 per cent of the temple was finished, as many people fled or were forced to move away by the cadres of the Khmer Rouge.
“The carpenters never completed all of the carving. The doors and window frames on the north and south-facing walls are incomplete. Despite the fact that the pagoda – along with the rest of the country – was liberated in 1979, we have chosen to leave it in its unfinished state,” he said.
When the Khmer Rouge controlled the area, one of their goals was to effectively erase history and tradition. One of the ways they tried to do this was illustrated by the fate of Boeung Koh Sre Prang pagoda.
A large Buddha statue that once stood in the centre of the temple was destroyed and cast into a nearby pond, after a local commander decided the temple should be employed as a rice mill. The ornate paintings were crudely whitewashed over with limestone paint.
“Loyal Buddhists washed away the dust and white lime that the Khmer Rouge murderers used to obscure the paintings of the Buddha, and now we are able to enjoy 90 per cent of them,” said Khemara.
Although the temple is no longer in use, he and the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts are determined to preserve it to educate future generations.
“This old temple’s walls are made of concrete, not bricks. It stands strong and firm, and is perfectly safe for people to enter. As it is just 5km from the Vietnamese border, we even see international visitors paying their respects here at various international festivals,” he added.
Khemara explained that in order to preserve the old temple, a newer two-story structure nearby had been constructed to take over its duties.
“The new temple was only recently completed, at a cost of $500,000. If people are in a position to support the pagoda financially, it would be much appreciated,” concluded the chief monk.
Pov Rattanak, deputy director of the provincial culture department, noted that the temple represented a special part of the Kingdom’s heritage.
“The department considers the protection of all of the province’s historic pagodas as its sacred duty,” he said.
“In addition, the Ministry of Cults and Religion, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Ministry of Interior have all issued letters which order the protection of all old pagodas against demolition or encroachment,” he concluded.