On the third day in Cambodia we started our journey with AngKor wat which is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed by humankind. Its name means “temple city.” This time we had tour guide Samart with us. Taking a guide immensely helps to enrich the knowledge and our guide made the whole trip really interesting.
We reached the temple at around 8:30AM. Even though weather forecast was telling that it was 100% rains, we didn’t face any rains that day. It was partially cloudy and very humid. After leaving the Tuk Tuk it is a long walk over sandstone causeway ray moat which surrounding the temple.
This moat was an important feature of the temple. It stabilized the soil under the temple thoughout the year and also saved it during 300-400 years of disuse from encroaching jungle.
Angkor Wat is visually, architecturally and artistically breath taking. It is a massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from ground level. Angkor Wat is the centrepiece of any visit to the temples of Angkor.
Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east. Angkor Wat’s alignment was due to its dedication to Vishnu, who was associated with the west.
Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the Suryavarman II ‘s state temple and capital city. As neither the foundation stela nor any contemporary inscriptions referring to the temple have been found, its original name is unknown, but it may have been known as “Varah Vishnu-lok” after the presiding deity. Work seems to have ended shortly after the king’s death, leaving some of the bas-relief decoration unfinished. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned, its preservation being due in part to the fact that its moat around the temple, also provided some protection from encroachment by the jungle.
This temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia, and has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version circa 1863. Angkor Wat, is a unique combination of the temple mountain (the standard design for the empire’s state temples) and the later plan of concentric galleries. The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods: the central quincunx of towers symbolises the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat symbolise the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean. Access to the upper areas of the temple was progressively more exclusive, with the laity being admitted only to the lowest level.
Angkor Wat is the prime example of the classical style of Khmer architecture-the Angkor Wat style-to which it has given its name. By the 12th century Khmer architects had become skilled and confident in the use of sandstone (rather than brick or laterite) as the main building material. Most of the visible areas are of sandstone blocks, while laterite was used for the outer wall and for hidden structural parts. Laterite is used a foundation material as it becomes hard with time. It is clad with Sandstone which can easily be carved. You can see the laterites visible where Sandstones have fallen off.
Although the Angkor Wat site originally was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and most of its images are from Hindu scriptures, the temple later became used as a shrine for Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the contemporary Khmer people of Cambodia (as well as majorities in Thailand and Burma) although it is influenced by earlier local ideas and practices, as well as the Hindu antecedents of Buddhism.
The outer wall, 1,024 m by 802 m and 4.5 m high, is surrounded by a 30 m apron of open ground and a moat 190 m wide. Access to the temple is by an earth bank to the east and a sandstone causeway to the west; the latter, the main entrance, is a later addition, possibly replacing a wooden bridge. There are gopuras at each of the cardinal points; the western is by far the largest and has three ruined towers.
Under the southern tower is a statue of Vishnu, known as Ta Reach, which may originally have occupied the temple’s central shrine. Galleries run between the towers and as far as two further entrances on either side of the gopura often referred to as “elephant gates”, as they are large enough to admit those animals. These galleries have square pillars on the outer (west) side and a closed wall on the inner (east) side. The ceiling between the pillars is decorated with lotus rosettes; the west face of the wall with dancing figures; and the east face of the wall with balustered windows, dancing male figures on prancing animals, and devatas, including (south of the entrance) the only one in the temple to be showing her teeth.
The outer wall encloses a space of 820,000 square metres, which besides the temple proper was originally occupied by the city and, to the north of the temple, the royal palace. Nothing remains of them except the outlines of some of the streets.
Most of the area is now covered by forest. A 350 m causeway connects the western gopura to the temple proper, with naga balustrades and six sets of steps leading down to the city on either side. Each side also features a library with entrances at each cardinal point, in front of the third set of stairs from the entrance, and a pond between the library and the temple itself. The ponds are later additions to the design, as is the cruciform terrace guarded by lions connecting the causeway to the central structure.
The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last.
Each gallery has a gopura at each of the points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Because the temple faces west, the features are all set back towards the east, leaving more space to be filled in each enclosure and gallery on the west side; for the same reason the west-facing steps are shallower than those on the other sides.
The outer gallery measures 187 m by 215 m, with pavilions rather than towers at the corners. The gallery is open to the outside of the temple, with columned half-galleries extending and buttressing the structure. Connecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister called Preah Poan (the “Hall of a Thousand Gods”). Buddha images were left in the cloister by pilgrims over the centuries, although most have now been removed. This area has many inscriptions relating the good deeds of pilgrims, most written in Khmer but others in Burmese and Japanese. The four small courtyards marked out by the cloister may originally have been filled with water. North and south of the cloister are libraries.
Beyond, the second and inner galleries are connected to each other and to two flanking libraries by another cruciform terrace, again a later addition. From the second level upwards, devatas abound on the walls, singly or in groups of up to four. The second-level enclosure is 100 m by 115 m, and may originally have been flooded to represent the ocean around Mount Meru.
Three sets of steps on each side lead up to the corner towers and gopuras of the inner gallery. The very steep stairways represent the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods. This inner gallery, called the Bakan, is a 60 m square with axial galleries connecting each gopura with the central shrine, and subsidiary shrines located below the corner towers. The roofings of the galleries are decorated with the motif of the body of a snake ending in the heads of lions or garudas.
Carved lintels and pediments decorate the entrances to the galleries and to the shrines. The tower above the central shrine rises 43 m to a height of 65 m above the ground; unlike those of previous temple mountains, the central tower is raised above the surrounding four. The shrine itself, originally occupied by a statue of Vishnu and open on each side, was walled in when the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhism, the new walls featuring standing Buddhas.
Integrated with the architecture of the building, and one of the causes for its fame is Angkor Wat’s extensive decoration, which predominantly takes the form of bas-relief friezes. The inner walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are considered greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving.
From the north-west corner anti-clockwise, the western gallery shows the Battle of Lanka (from the Ramayana, in which Rama defeats Ravana) and the Battle of Kurukshetra (from the Mahabharata, showing the mutual annihilation of the Kaurava and Pandava clans). On the southern gallery follow the only historical scene, a procession of Suryavarman II, then the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hinduism. On the eastern gallery is one of the most celebrated scenes, the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
Above you can see Rama stands on the shoulders of Sugriva surrounded by arrows; Laksmana, his brother, and an old demon, stand by Rama.
Nala, the monkey who built Rama’s bridge to Lanka, is between them leaning on the heads of two lions. He throws the body of one he has just beaten over his shoulder. A monkey prince tears out the tusk of an elephant, which is capped with a three-pointed headdress and throws him and the demon to the ground.
Angkor Wat is decorated with depictions of apsaras and devata; there are more than 1,796 depictions of devata in the present research inventory. Angkor Wat architects employed small apsara images as decorative motifs on pillars and walls. They incorporated larger devata more prominently at every level of the temple from the entry pavilion to the tops of the high towers. There is remarkable diversity of their hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewellery and decorative flowers, which were based on actual practices of the Angkor period.
The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. Henri Mouhot noted that most of the blocks had holes 2.5 cm in diameter and 3 cm deep, with more holes on the larger blocks. Some scholars have suggested that these were used to join them together with iron rods, but others claim they were used to hold temporary pegs to help manoeuvre them into place.
The monument was made out of 5 million to 10 million sandstone blocks with a maximum weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids which use limestone quarried barely 0.5 km away all the time, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried from Mount Kulen, a quarry approximately 35-kilometre canal connecting Mount Kulen and Angkor Wat.
Virtually all of its surfaces, columns, lintels and even roofs are carved. There are miles of reliefs illustrating scenes from Indian literature including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons pulling chariots as well as warriors following an elephant-mounted leader and celestial dancing girls with elaborate hair styles. The gallery wall alone is decorated with almost 1,000 square metres of bas reliefs. Holes on some of the Angkor walls indicate that they may have been decorated with bronze sheets. These were highly prized in ancient times and were a prime target for robbers. The labor force to quarry, transport, carve and install so much sandstone must have run into the thousands including many highly skilled artisans. The skills required to carve these sculptures were developed hundreds of years earlier, as demonstrated by some artifacts that have been dated to the seventh century, before the Khmer came to power.
To view Angkor wat, better time of the day is after 2 PM. That way west facing temple gets best lighting. We went there unfortunately during morning hours which in my opinion is not an ideal time for great photography. I had to struggle with bad light and too much of flare. Evening will be great. Please remember Temple entry closes at 5:30 PM. It is vast temple and takes over 3-4 hours to cover all what needs to be seen, nonstop. So be prepared for it.
In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. Thereafter the empire was restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII, who established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon respectively) a few kilometers to the north. These I will cover in the next part of my blog next week.
Thanks to all of you for being part of this journey and encouraging me to write this travelogue. If you have missed earlier, check all the 8 parts with links below.
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 1
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 2
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 3
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 5
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 6
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 7
- In Search of Lost Gods – Cambodia Part 8