Angkor Wat: Perpetual World Wonder
Angkor Wat in Northwestern Cambodia is the bestpreserved of all ancient Angkor relics. The site is the largest temple complex in the world, renowned globally for its delicate, relief-adorned temples.
Also called “Angkor Temple,” Angkor Wat in Northwestern Cambodia is the best-preserved of all ancient Angkor relics. The site is the largest temple complex in the world, renowned globally for its delicate, reliefadorned temples. Originally derived from the role of the capital city during the Cambodian Angkor Dynasty, the name “Angkor” has been used in posterity to refer to all architectural relics in Cambodia. Angkor Wat’s first name was Vrah Vishnulok, suggesting the temple’s association with Hinduism during the early reign of the Angkor Dynasty. In the 15th century, the Angkor Dynasty collapsed and the royal household was forced to relocate the capital to Phnom Penh, or Krong Chaktomuk. The once-bustling capital city quickly fell to ruins, and the Angkor complex gradually faded into the jungle.
Viewed as a whole, Angkor Wat faces west and forms a rectangle from above. The complex is surrounded by a double stone wall which is in turn encircled by a trench 190 metres (m) wide. Overall, the temple runs 1,500 m in length from east to west and 1,300 m in width from south to north, with a diameter of 5.6 kilometres (km) and a total area of 850,000 square metres (sq. m). The west-facing facade is connected via an avenue to the southern gate of Angkor Thom, the remains of the Chenla
Kingdom’s capital city. Above the gate stand three towers. Tourists can walk through the gate to a courtyard in the east, from which a 147-m linear walkway leads directly to an inner enclosure wall. The walkway is flanked by a library and a pond. Measuring 140 m in width and 270 m in length, the inner wall rests on top of three floors with a 23-m-high base. Except for the square third floor, both the first and second floors have a rectangular shape, with three stone steps on each floor rising to the next floor on the left, middle and right sides. On top of the highest floor stand five pagodas with spires symbolising the home of the gods and Mount Sumeru, the centre of the universe. The highest of the pagodas, located directly in the centre and standing 42 m high (65.5 m above the ground), are encircled and guarded on the four corners by four lower pagodas. The second floor has four truncated pagodas on each of the four corners as well. From above, one can see a stone cloister encircling each floor on all sides; this cloister houses the courtyard, sutra library, niches and god thrones. The complex has carved stone tower gates as well as stairs which connect all floors, their bannisters wrapped with seven stone boa constrictors and flanked by vibrant stone lions. Every pagoda and gate tower is embellished with lotus carvings;
Angkor Wat solemnly impresses as a quiescent Buddhist recess which brings out the best in aesthetics and art. For this reason, UNESCO included Angkor Wat as a World Cultural Heritage site, the first Cambodian site to win the honour.
Essences of Art
Angkor Wat indisputably embodies the artistic essence of the Chenla Kingdom. The site consists not only of the magnificent religious complex, but also its accompanying relief works, which combine to present a splendid scroll of the Khmer civilisation. Nonetheless, it is not simply because it embodies the traits of Cambodian national art that Angkor Wat continues to command the respect of the world. As a religious complex, it consolidates the artistic essences of two comparable religions— Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. In AD 802, Suryavarman II overthrew the then supreme ruler, made himself King of Chenla and relocated the imperial capital to Angkor. In order to consolidate his prestige, the king decided to enhance his capital city by erecting a temple much more majestic than any constructed by a previous ruler. This imperial temple would serve as a shrine to Suryavarman II. Since the ruler and subjects were adherents of Hinduism, Supreme Brahmin Priest Divakara designed Angkor Wat to enshrine Vishnu, a major Hindu deity, the source of the name “Vishnu Temple.” The temple was also constructed to sing the praises of the king deemed the avatar of the Hindu deity. From the 12th century onwards, Buddhism began to flourish in the Kingdom of Chenla, adding a multitude of Buddhist artistic elements to the Hindu site and transforming Angkor Wat into an irreplicable multicultural religious landmark. Such a landmark, influenced by two religious architectural styles, undoubtedly deserves to rank at the top of the greatest Asian religious complexes.
Angkor Wat takes pride in two fundamental features characteristic of traditional Khmer religious architecture: the multi-floor square pagoda built like a mountain-shaped cube, and the cloister shaped like a ground-level temple. Sloping like a pyramid, each pagoda consists of three rectangular platforms surrounded by a cloister and raised upwards in layers in imitation of Mount Sumeru, the centre of world in Hindu mythology. High above the mountain tower are five pagodas arranged like a plum blossom, designed to imitate the five mountains which comprise Mount Sumeru. The three cloisters represent the earth, water and wind in Mount Sumeru, while the trench that surrounds the mountain tower echoes the Salt Sea which encircles Mount Sumeru. EFEO relic restorer Maurice Glaize extolled Angkor Wat as equal to any of the world’s most splendid architectural wonders in every respect, be it the temple’s magnificent shape, balanced layout, coordinated proportion, slender lines or imposing appearance.
Walking among the mountain towers, visitors cannot miss the delicate and vivid relief works that are found in each corner of Angkor Wat: inner walls, pillars, cornerstones, lintels and rails. Based on centuries-old mythology, these relief works sing the praises of deities through their clear-cut fine lines. In contrast with the Buddhist relief works in other Southeast Asian countries, the pieces in Angkor Wat are deeply inspired by Hinduism and primarily tell the stories of Vishnu, a major Hindu deity. While most of these tales are based on the Hindu myths “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,’’‘‘mahabharata’’ and “Ramayana” (the three most famous Hindu epics), there are also worldly themes such as war, royal excursions, cookery, daily life and agricultural activities, all embellished by the tropical fauna and flora of Chenla. A cloister dubbed the Cloister of Relief encircles the first floor of the main hall and measures 800 m long and more than 2 m high. The cloister walls are decorated with countless relief masterpieces based on Hindu stories—"churning of the Ocean of Milk” on the eastern wall, “Vishnu Fighting the Demons” on the northern wall and “Hanuman in Battle” on the western wall. In contrast, a more worldly relief on the western half of the southern wall elates the military feats of Suryavarman II, shown seated on a war elephant. Seen from inside, the outer walls with their full-figured apsaras in relief differ a great deal from the solemn and stately works on the inner walls. These works vary greatly in facial expression, features and garb, and all deserve to be labelled exceptional masterpieces.
Mount Sumeru on Earth
The Angkor area is predominated by plains—except for Mount Bakheng, which commands an exclusive view of the main Angkor complex. Standing 67 m high and lying 1.5 km to the west of Angkor Wat, Mount Bakheng bears Phnom Bakheng on its flat top, a symbol of the Khmer Empire’s worship of the mountain. As the first national temple constructed by Chenla King Yasovarman I after he came to power and established the capital near Angkor in the 9th century, Phnom Bakheng is nearly 200 years older than the principal structures of Angkor Wat. A 1052 gravestone found in Sdok Kok Thom, Thailand, contained a paragraph in Sanskrit: “The Omnipotent Shiva continued the role as the guru of Suryavarman the Great when he became king of Chenla. As instructed by the king, Shiva had a lingam (a symbol of Shiva) built on Sri Yasodharagiri, the Supreme Mountain of Mountains.”
The builders surrounded Phnom Bakheng with a rectangular trench measuring 650 m in length and 436 m in width to simulate the Salt Sea which encircles Mount Sumeru, the centre of the world in Hindu mythology (at the same time, the trench served as a drainage infrastructure system). As an emblem of the boundless universe in Hindu mythology, Phnom Bakheng is marked with highly religious symbolism. The temple consists of seven floors intended to indicate the Seven Heavens. The uppermost floor, or the centre of the universe, has a high tower as a marker of the supreme god governing the universe; below the central tower are 6 floors on which 108 towers rest, indicating the
108 days of the 4 phases. Overall, the 7 layers were designed to simulate the Seven Heavens of Brahmaloka, with the 12 temple towers on each floor representing the 12 revolutions of Jupiter. From this celestial numerology, the Khmer people are believed to have been skilled astronomers as early as the Angkor Dynasty. According to University of Chicago scholar Paul Wheatley, the design combines oracular implications with an astronomically and meteorologically observable layout that simulates the movements of heavenly bodies; in this respect, the wonder is “nothing less than a calendar written on stone.”
More incredible is what the spatial design signifies. Looking at the central axis of each face on any floor, one can see 33 pagodas symbolic of the 33 gods living on Mount Sumeru. It is very difficult to imagine how the well-skilled and experienced Chenla craftsman turned the imaginary pagoda into reality; the endeavour required precise calculations that adhered to the strictures of Hindu tradition in both spatial rendering and inner significance. It is safe to say that the Chenla Kingdom’s pious belief in the Hindu deities inspired its people to construct Phnom Bakheng. It was this temple that liberated people from illusions, and it was the Chenla people, with their boundless wisdom and aesthetic pursuit, who turned dreams into reality.
Giant Kapok Tree
In the film Tomb Raider: Underworld, the explorer Laura (played by Angelina Jolie) looks for the treasure her father left behind in Angkor Wat of Cambodia. She is trying in vain to find the way when a mysterious Khmer girl appears before her and leads her through a Khmer-style stone gate to an ancient temple. Above the gate is a giant tree whose huge roots, like winding pythons, maintain a firm grip on the gate like a divine hand, adding to the mystery and appeal of the holy site.
Although the film is fictitious, the temple and the tree are real. This is the renowned Ta Prohm built in 1181, one of the largest buildings of the Angkor Wat complex. Ta Prohm, attributed to the legendary Chenla King Suryavarman VII in memory of his mother, lies opposite the distant Preah Khan which enshrines his father.
As the most artistic component of the Angkor Wat complex, Ta Prohm appeals to visitors not only because of its magnificent decor and embellishments, but more importantly because the entire temple has in large part been gulped down by the roots of tropical trees. When a French explorer rediscovered the temple, its main section had been tightly wrapped by the powerful roots of 100-year-old kapok trees, or snake trees. The roots ran wild in the uninhabited area and wound their way among the columns, stone joints, eaves, doors and windows, adding something of an eeriness to the temple. The sight amazed the European explorers from high latitudes. Some even attribute it to a curse from god.
Certainly, modern science has cracked this wonder for us. Like most of the Angkor Wat temples, Ta Prohm endured a protracted history of war, bringing with it dereliction and destruction. The local population was also forced to relocate. As human activity disappeared, tropical trees rooted in the stone joints of the temple. Meanwhile, the weathering-prone red earth rock used in the structure was easy for the roots to penetrate. After nearly a century, most of the roofs in Ta Prohm disintegrated, and the kapok trees seized the opportunity to become the new masters of the temple. Ta Prohm is, in itself, a rarity in human architectural history. The invasion of the roots satisfies people’s romantic imagination; any true cultural wonder is created jointly by man and nature.
Standing atop Mount Bakheng looking into the distance, one will see Angkor Wat lying in sound sleep as it has for a thousand years. Practically speaking, Angkor Wat has already played its splendid role in the history of world civilisations, surpassing all the world wonders of its time. Its enduring architecture has even eclipsed the accomplishments of many modern civilisations. The tangled wonder the French explorer stumbled upon represented but the earliest conquests of a great culture. Before it revealed itself once more to the world, the oracular masterpiece lay concealed in the tropical forest all along. Once upon a time it was hidden, and now it has reemerged This is the very greatness of Angkor Wat, a crowning jewel of the Khmer civilisation.