One of the great things about visiting Khmer temples is that most have their own unique style. But in Thailand there are two exceptions to this, the arogayasala (hospital) and dharmasala (resthouse) temples, all of which have the same general layout and design as the others.
Both of these were specialized temples commissioned by King Jayavarman VII (r. 1182-1219). One of the greatest Angkor kings, he restored a beleaguered empire to greatness and oversaw an immense public works building project. Some of his notable temples were the Bayon and Angkor Tom at Angkor and Muang Singh along the Burmese border. He also added to Prasat Phimai and Prasat Phanom Rung.
Jayavarman VII switched the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, and his quest for merit and beneficence influenced his work. According to an 1186 CE inscription found at Ta Prohm temple, he built 102 hospitals in towns across the empire. Another inscription, written in 1191 CE and found at Preah Khan, said he constructed 121 resthouses along three major roads. One of the more than twenty other inscriptions mentioning his hospitals says, “He suffered from the maladies of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public grief which makes the grief of kings, and not their own grief.”
It’s important to note (because so many articles get it wrong) that the buildings remaining today are not the hospitals and resthouses themselves, which were made of wood, bamboo, thatch, or other perishable materials and have long since vanished. The stone buildings that survived were the associated temples.
About half of Jayavarman VII’s arogayasalas have been identified (and perhaps more will as more outlying ruins are excavated) by their distinct layout. The standardized design features an east-facing single-tower main shrine with a bannalai (these are often called libraries, but their purpose is unknown) to its southeast, both surrounded by an enclosure with a single eastern gopura (entrance pavilion). All known arogayasala were built of mostly of laterite with sandstone trim for windows and doorways and the decoration on the towers. A stepped rectangular pond, presumably full of sacred water used for ceremonial purposes, sits to the northeast.
Pedestals with three holes for holding images have been found in the hospital temples and it’s assumed they held a Buddha sheltered by a naga in the middle with Avalokitesvara and Prajnaparamita, male and female bodhisattvas of compassion, on the sides.
Many of Thailand’s arogayasalas have been given the name Kuti Ruesi (กุฏิฤาษี), which means shaman’s quarters, by locals. But there’s no evidence they ever served this purpose. The original Khmer names of most Khmer temples in Thailand are lost to history.
The Khmer had an extensive road network crossing the empire, and the 250km track between Angkor and Phimai (sometimes called The Royal Road or the Northwest Road in the present day) was one of the main routes. It was certainly used by pilgrims, but probably also traders; a lot of pottery was produced near this road in what is now Buriram province and Phimai has abundant salt reserves.
The Preah Khan inscription said 17 dharmasalas were built on this road. Though the road’s exact winding route is unknown, they seem to be spaced about 10 to 20km apart, from a half to a full day’s travel depending on the purpose of the travel – pilgrims likely traveled faster than traders. These stone temples would have been part of a compound also including, at the very least, lodging for both travelers as well as for monks tending the temples, plus several ponds providing water for humans and animals.
While the term dharmasala (“dharma chamber” – dharma being the fundamental teaching of the Buddha) was coined by archaeologists long ago because similar structures are found in India, a direct translation from the original Sanskrit name, vahni-griha, means something along the lines of “fire shrine” or “fire chamber.” For this reason it’s assumed by most that these temple buildings housed a sacred fire. No inscriptions mention any specific purpose of the dharmasala, so even though the theory that they served roadside resthouses is not disputed, it’s not absolutely certain. According to Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy who lived at Angkor for a year from 1296 to 1297 and left behind the only surviving first-hand account of Khmer civilization, the Khmer called their roadside resthouses senmu.
The dharmasalas on the Angkor-Phimai road are long (about 15m x 4m) rather simple halls with a tower on the west end and windows only in the south wall. It’s assumed that the windows face toward the roadway. And like the arogayasalas, dharmasalas in Thailand were built of laterite; sandstone mostly only used around doors and windows and the carvings on the towers. The one known exception is Ku Sila which was built from sandstone. Few of Jayavarman VII’s other 104 dharmasala temples (all built in what is now in Cambodia) have been found, but those that have are larger with a more elaborate design.
Of the 17 Jayavarman-VII dharmasalas on the Angkor-Phimai road, it appears that nine were built north of the Dangrak Mountains, the present-day Thai-Cambodian border. The known dharmasalas in Thailand are Prasat Ta Muean, Prasat Thamo, Prasat Ban Bu, Prasat Nong Kong, Prasat Nong Plong, Prasat Nong Tha Pleng, Prasat Huai Khaen, and Ku Sila. Prasat Ban Samrong is also usually on this list (The Fine Arts Department calls it a dharmasala), but it has not been fully excavated and its inclusion is controversial. A look at its location, about seven kilometers from the next site, Huai Khaen, explains why. Complicating matters is that some of the dharmasala identifications along this road in Cambodia are also uncertain. So it will take a proper excavation to answer the question. Still, it seems more likely there would have been a dharmasala at Phimai instead of Ban Samrong, though none has been found there yet.
Hendrickson, Mitch. “Arteries of Empire: An operational study of transport and communication in Angkorian Southeast Asia (9th to 15th centuries CE).” PhD diss., University of Sydney, 2007.
Mollerup, Asger. Ancient Khmer Sites in North-eastern Thailand. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2018.