The origin of the Ounalom Pagoda can be traced to as far back as the 15th Century. It was built in 1422 by King Ponyea Yat, the last king of the Khmer empire. It is one of the five original monasteries in Phnom Penh that King Ponhea Yat had built, the pagoda founded in the 1440’s in Phnom Penh when the City was made the Kingdom’s capital. Today, it is the head quarter of the Cambodian Buddhist patriarchate and it houses the residence of the Chief Monk. The compound, forty four buildings in all, is about 250 meters north of the Royal Palace along Sisowath Quay at the river front. This monastery was home to over 500 monks and housed a huge library consisting of over 30,000 titles. During the regime of the Khmer Rouge, many of the buildings along with many religious statues and symbols were damaged, but most of which have since been restored. The buildings are used for a variety of purposes. There is the temple itself, schools, libraries, living quarters and the stupa that gives the temple its name; the stupa holds an Ounalum, a hair from the eyebrow of the Buddha.
The Wat’s main sanctuary (vihear) appears to have escaped the carnage. Located to the south of the Patriarch’s residence, it was built in the 1950’s, and holds a unique position – being one of the few sanctuaries in Cambodia with a third floor. It is on this floor of the vihear that paintings illustrating events from the literature of Buddhism are displayed. The choices of event are reportedly exceptional as it represents a break from the traditional iconography of the period. On the second floor, however, a large single frieze on the then favorite theme of “The lying Buddha” (The Buddha attaining Nirvana) is depicted behind His many statues.
Behind the vihear (to its west) stands the most historical structure in the Wat, dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. Built in the Angkorian tradition and from laterite, the old stupa (cheddi) once stood on a high hill. Today, it is only a few steps high and is surrounded on three sides by free-standing, single rooms. Statues of The Buddha, mostly sitting and in meditation, adorn the stupa and its labyrinth.
Also transliterated as onalom, unalom and unnalom, the word meaning eyebrows in the Khmer language, may refer to the hair from the eyebrows of The Buddha which is allegedly housed in the stupa somewhere within the statue’s pedestal. The stories related to this relic are many: one version narrates a shipwreck that had been washed ashore near Phnom Penh, and its sacred cargo distributed among its monasteries – Wat Ounalom receiving the Buddha’s relic.On the eastern ground of the stupa, slightly to the south, a wall extending 70-metre eastward to the Wat’s eastern boundary. The date of its construction is yet to be determined. However, all the seimas placed on the upper end of this 2.5-metre high wall bear the Buddhist.
The side of the wall facing the vihear depicts a story in bas-relief and in imitation sandstone. The narrative is interrupted in three places: around 10 metres of the wall is no longer present, and two sections – each three metres long – cannot be seen because they are hidden behind two makeshift doors. These green, corrugated metal doors may have once served as gates controlling passageways between the Wat’s north and south sides.
The story on the wall appears to begin from its eastern end, and although weatherworn, it portrays scenes from daily life. The depiction on the wall’s western end, is celestial with many heavenly bodies guiding devotees toward The Buddha who, standing in its graceful and compassionate pose, is greeting them.
The narrative on the panels between the wall’s two ends is less benign. The panels are strictly meant for the sinners – illustrating what awaits them on the many floors of hell.