The Art and Architecture of the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia

The Art and Architecture of the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia
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Angkor Wat

The Angkor Wat temple complex, which lies in southwest Cambodia near Siem Reap city, is one of the most well-known of the many ancient monuments from south-east Asia. Built by the Cambodian King Suryavarma II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat is a prime example of classical Khmer architecture melded with the Hindu architecture of southern India, producing a design of such harmony and charm that it has continued to enchant all visitors over the ages. Angkor Wat’s architecture has been compared in grandeur to that of the Greek and Roman civilizations.

The word Angkor is derived from the word “Nogor” which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word for city “Nagar.” In the Khmer language, ‘“Wat” means temple. So Angkor Wat means “City Temple.” This is a relatively modern name for the temple complex. No one knows for certain what it was originally called, since no inscriptions to that effect have survived, but the place may have been known to the locals as Preah Pisnulok or Vrah Vishnulok, after the presiding Hindu deity Lord Vishnu.

The building of Angkor Wat commenced soon after King Suryavarman II ascended the Cambodian throne in 1113 C.E. He has come to his position as King after had seized the throne by murdering his uncle, Suryavarman II. On the advice of his astrologers and priests, he decided to consolidate his position as King chosen by the gods by building a state temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. This temple, like the Pyramids of Egypt, was intended to hold the King’s remains upon his death and had to be completed before he died in order to ensure his place in heaven.

Angkor Wat Temple - Photo by Emile Gsell

The new Vishnu temple was constructed over an area of 500 acres to the northwest of his capital Hariharalaya, and the new capital city was then erected around the temple complex. Little trace of the ancient town plan remains in the present day as, unlike the sandstone temple, the city palaces and other buildings were mostly constructed of perishable materials. Building work on the Angkor Wat complex halted in 1150 on the King’s death, ending 37 years of labor undertaken by 5,000 artisans and 50,000 workers, and leaving some bas-relief incomplete.

The temple complex and city were overrun and sacked by the Chams in 1177, causing some destruction to the stonework and stripping the temple of its gilded decorations, but leaving most of it standing. In 1181, the Khmers were back in power with King Jayavarman VII, but he chose to move his capital from Angkor to Angkor Thom, which means Great City, and built a new state temple, the Bayon, at the center of it. Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist and the Bayon was dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avolokiteshwar.

In 1431, Angkor Wat was looted and damaged by the invading Siamese army, and soon afterward abandoned and forgotten for the next few centuries. By the time it was discovered by Buddhist monks, the jungle had taken over in a major way, adding to the mystery of the place. The news of the lost holy city spread and it began to attract pilgrims from Asia and explorers from the West, notably the Frenchman Henri Mouhot. The latter’s enthusiasm for the place led to its eventual restoration by French and Cambodian archaeologists, a work that received a serious setback during the period of the Cambodian civil war, when the Khmer Rouge fighters added their bit to the centuries old tradition of looting and despoiling the place. The restoration work has been undertaken once again since the end of the war.

Architectural Features of Angkor Wat

Angkor wat temple

The most notable aspect of the Angkor Wat temple complex is that, unlike other Khmer temples in the region, it is oriented to the west instead of the east. Hindu temples are generally oriented towards the east, but the presiding deity of Angkor Wat is Vishnu, a god that does not have too many temples to his name and who faces towards the west.

The Khmers also considered the west the direction of death and positioning the temple in that direction was supposed to make the King’s transition to the afterlife easier. The architects of Angkor Wat took special care to take astronomy into account and saw to it that the Angkor Wat complex was built in alignment to the solar equinoxes and solstices.

Angkor Wat was intended to represent Mount Meru, which, according to Hindu mythology, is the heavenly abode of the Hindu gods. The temple is built almost entirely from sandstone, apart from the outer walls and some structural sections of laterite, and apparently no mortar was used in the construction. Instead, perfect contact joints and interlocking stone blocks were used to hold the structure together. Other building features include keystone arches and corbelling.

Thomson, Carving from Angkor Wat Temple

The temple complex is made of three successively raised, galleried temples, each set on a sandstone plinth, with five towers, lotus-bud shaped and arranged in a quincunx design, rising from the center of the temple complex. These towers, which represent the five peaks of Mount Meru and can be reached by twelve very steep stairways, were once covered with stucco and gilded gold decorations; the bas-relief carvings too were gold-coated. Only traces of these grand decorations remain now, either as a result of the looting of Angkor Wat in olden times or the civil war in the twentieth century, not to mention due to the ravages of nature and weather over the years.

Buddhist monks in front of the Angkor Wat - Photo by Sam Garza

The wall surrounding the temple complex represents other mountain ranges and the wide moat around the whole place represents the ocean; the wall is 3.6 kilometers long, the moat is 200 meters wide, and there is 30 meters of open land between the moat and the temple walls. The main entrance to the temple complex is from the west by way of a sandstone road and leads to a high, three-way entrance capable, in ancient times, of allowing the royal elephants to enter without any trouble; there is another entrance road, an earthen banked one, to the east.

Angkor Wat architecture includes lavish and fantastic sculptural and bas-relief decorations of gods, apsaras, dancers, battle scenes, mythological events and adventures, stories from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and war scenes featuring the king and the Khmer army. One of the most famous carvings shows the churning of the ocean by the gods and the demons. While many of these sculptures and carvings were lopped off or destroyed during the civil war, plenty remain still to give the visitor a good idea of what the temple complex must have looked like in its heyday.

See some excellent photos of Angkor Wat by Jaroslav Poncar -