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20060110 

5 The Caves at Vat Phu

Mt Phu Kao was not only respected as a visible manifestation of Shiva's presence, but was also a mountain that provided the deepest caves for ascetics to retreat to and meditate in.

Directly behind the main sanctuary at Vat Phu is the oldest of all the temples. It was the cave of the sacred waters which flowed directly through a small sacred shrine before it entered the main sanctuary where the sacred linga would be anointed daily.

Sacred water shrine and inside cave looking east at Vat Phu

Many of the caves at Vat Phu can be found with devotional spirit objects and small statues of the Buddha in them. The cave throughout history has been known as an entry way into the earth and has been regarded since the beginning of recorded history as the original dwelling place of the first humans, many animals, birds and just about anything that could crawl. Caves are dark and mysterious places and are entry ways or portals to other worlds. It's deep within caves that ascetics would retreat for years on end gaining the deepest of spiritual knowledge before re-entering the world. The folk lore surrounding caves abounds in all cultures of the world. SE Asia is noted for its many caves and Laos has some of the most holy caves filled with all types of sacred relics.

Caves at Vat Phu

One of the most renowned caves is located at Mt Phu Kao where an ascetic by the name of Vaktrashiva had lived over 1,500 years ago. Inside the cave Sanskrit inscriptions can be clearly seen carved on the face of a flat stone which forms a wall inside the cave naming the cave Vaktraguha. Today the cave is called Tham Lek (cave of inscriptions).

The path to Vaktraguha (Tham Lek) is perhaps the most arduous journey an ascetic could make. I found this out as I began to follow Canhsavang cutting his way through the dense bamboo shoots along a very rocky cliff which wound its way up the mountain to Tham Lek. This pilgrimage proved to be much more difficult than getting to Vat Oubmong. There was no path to Tham Lek only the general direction of going up along the side of the mountain. What I began to notice was we were following the rocky path of a mountain stream. The water was running past our feet, as we jumped from stone to stone grabbing on to hanging bamboo trees to help pull ourselves to get to the next stone. On and on we climbed and the journey created an impression that an entirely other world had again been entered. There seemed to be no end to the enchantment which filled the holy land. Without Canhsavang cutting a path up the mountain a passage to Tham Lek would have been impossible. Dark green moss covered the rocks giving a green velvet look to everything. The further you ascend up the mountain the denser the bamboo would become.

On the way to Tham Lek

Truly nature had cast a spell over me. Large banana leaves curled over large stones, water was running under my feet making every stone slippery, and it was necessary to concentrate on every step to be sure I had secure footing otherwise what was pure enchantment could equally of been catastrophic especially if I slipped and fell over all the rocks. There was no question that timelessness had once again set in as never before.

This was Vaktrashiva's path, or at least one of many, which led to his home. I was extremely mystified as what his cave must look like. This path is not a path that can be readily seen. It's more as if you need an inner knowing on how to sense direction to a specific spot on the slops of the mountain. It was a path invented out of going in a general direction and knowing that high on the mountain side, by following the watery path of the mountain waters, a home was to be found. Then the announcement came as it did when we reached Vat Oubmong, "we are here" exclaimed Canhsavang, "the cave is just ahead".


Canhsavang was ahead of me so I looked around looking for some large gapping dark entrance into the mountain but that is not what I saw. What I saw nestled next to the rocks was a small space directly above the stream that was going down the mountain. I was surprised a cave could be so small. It was only large enough for one person to fit in and very difficult at that as I tried to get inside of it.

Canhsavang cut three large banana leaves to use as a mat which made sitting in the cave more comfortable. Once inside my head was touching the large flat rock above my head and the large flatten stone with the Sanskrit inscriptions was on my left.

Willard sitting in Vaktraguha Entrance of Vaktraguha

I slowly got out of the cave to get my camera when the thought came to me that if this was Vaktraguha's home what then what would he see outside of his cave. To my complete astonishment I knew why this was the ascetic's home. Directly ahead of the cave was the rock face of the mountain going straight up into the sky with water running down the face of it. Directly in the middle of the rocky face was a perfect pyramid created by the crevices in the stone. Here was a perfect meditation visual to focus the mind on.

When I went back in the cave I could see that the pyramid shape on the rock face was aligned perfectly with my line of sight. It was here I placed myself in the ascetic's mental space and could feel a union of nature and consciousness as I sat in complete silence. Sitting in the cave in the lotus posture with legs crossed and back erect I starred out upon the enormous rock faced cliff directly in front of me and at eye level was the peak of a pyramidal shape on the face of the cliff created by nature. Vaktrashiva found himself a small home fashioned by nature to attune himself to the solitude which surrounded this totally secluded retreat. The Sanskrit inscription on the cave wall identified the name of the cave, Vaktraguha, the resident of the cave, Vaktrashiva, and the location of the cave, Bhadresvara. There was also a request that the cave be preserved and not used as a place to live in.


Vaktrashiva's request has been honored and if you ever get the opportunity to visit Vaktraguha you will see forever set in stone the upward pointing triangle representing the lingam.

In Hindu cosmology this triangle is called the fire (Vahni). The Vahni-triangle symbolizes the essence of the male god energy. Vahni is also equated with the fiery heat within the ascetic (tapas). Here on the slopes of the rocky cliff resided one ascetics home who saw how to fuse his mind with the energy of Lord Shiva and enter the absolute realm where one goes beyond the cycle of life and death.

Visiting Vaktraguha is much more than an afternoon mountain trek where the burgeoning adventure tourism market would like to promote. Vaktraguha is a place where nature provides the pilgrim, the spiritual seeker, with a pristine locality where the attainment of the absolute permeates every crevice and moss covered stone. The roots from the trees which stand high on the cliff face roof top plummet down to drink the pure waters in front of Vaktrashiva's home. The image of the pyramid will always stay in my mind knowing that a small rocky shelter was all that was needed to become one with the supreme lord. To quote another Dutchman named Klaasen, who also searched for caves in SE Asia in the early part of the 20th century stated, "To attain quiet equanimity is the highest good that we can achieve in this life".

If Lingaparvata is the most visible outcropping of Shiva's manifestation at Vat Phu then it was here on these steep rocky slopes that the most hidden symbol of achieving spiritual enlightenment was to be found. At Vaktaguha you could prepare yourself to greet Lord Shiva. Here, at Vaktraguha, a single point of focus was available to help center the mind in order to cast away all vestiges of Maya in the material world. If there were any place to communicate with the gods on this earth then this humble home of Vaktrashiva's could certainly provide the pilgrim with such an experience.

Looking out of Vaktraguha directly to pyramid image

Vat Phu is much more than a temple complex. Van Phu is in Kuruksetra (holy land) and the holy land has nature spirits (Neak Ta's) which are far more instructive to the understanding of the way in which gods and men can communicate with one another. Jayavarman II most certainly received his lessons well at Vat Phu where the Devaraja, the wedding of gods and men, created the Cakravatin (God King) and Jayavarman II then inaugurated the beginning of the Khmer empire on top of Mt Mahendra in 802AD. After 500 years and a lineage of over twelve kings the influence of Vat Phu was finally concretized into a spiritual empire unequaled in the annals of human history. Only a few more hundred years would pass and then the largest religious monument ever built by man would rise above the Cambodian country side and be known as Angkor Wat. The ultimate spiritual expression of the Khmer empire reflecting the design of the universe and inspired by the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva would stand as an eternal symbol of the highest aspirations of the human spirit.

the author

  • is Willard Van De Bogart.
  • He lives in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand.
His profile
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