ANGKOR WAT – HEART & SOUL OF COMABODIA
Angkor Wat Temple
Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 500 acres (200 hectares), Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city.”
Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork.
Pools of water reflect the harmony and majesty of Angkor Wat’s structures, while its five soaring towers resemble the lush forms of the green trees surrounding them. The most recognizable landmark at the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor, the temple is regarded by many as the pinnacle of the dazzling, inventive culture that flourished in medieval Cambodia.
Built during the heyday of the Khmer dynasty in the 12th century, this extraordinary complex of Hindu and Buddhist monuments remained hidden and unknown, especially to European missionaries. It was only in 1601 that a Spanish monk, Marcelo de Ribadeneyra, compiled the experiences of missionaries, whose zeal had pushed them south from Siam (modern-day Thailand) into the thick jungle areas around the Mekong River. From there they brought back intriguing reports of “a great city in the kingdom of Cambodia” with “curiously carved walls” and huge buildings that had fallen into ruin.
A Moat, Tower and Hidden Paintings
Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a 650-foot-wide (200 m) moat that encompasses a perimeter of more than 3 miles (5 km). This moat is 13 feet deep (4 m) and would have helped stabilize the temple’s foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.
Angkor Wat’s main entrance was to the west (a direction associated with Vishnu) across a stone causeway, with guardian lions marking the way. To the east of the temple was a second, more modest, entrance.
Hidden paintings have recently been discovered in the central tower. One chamber in the tower has a scene showing a traditional Khmer musical ensemble known as the pinpeat, which is made up of different gongs, xylophones, wind instruments and other percussion instruments. In the same chamber, there’s also an intricate scene featuring people riding horses between two structures, which might be temples. These two paintings are among 200 that have been recently been discovered in Angkor Wat.
Approach to the Temple
Surrounding the temple complex is a 190 meter wide moat. At the Western end is a 12 meter wide bridge, in front of which is a terrace where lions and Naga snakes guard the temple. Crossing the bridge the visitor approaches the impressive Western gate, which was build to resemble the front view of the temple itself.
The structure consists of long galleries with a three part gopura topped by towers that have partly collapsed. At both ends of the structure is a pavilion, large enough to enable elephants to go through. The Western gate contains apsaras and devatas as well as magnificent carvings on its lintels showing Vishnu, Garuda, warriors and scenes from the epic Ramayana. Only after passing the Western gate, the Angkor Wat temple comes in sight.
Behind the Western gate is a 350 meter long processional walkway elevated about 1½ meters above the ground towards the temple. On either side of the walkway is a library building. Past the libraries are two lakes, reflecting the silhouette of the of Angkor Wat’s towers. The temple itself is built on raised platform about 330 meters long and 255 meters wide. The structure comprises of three rectangular tiers each higher one smaller than the one below it encircled by long galleries with corner towers and a gopura in the center of its sides.
Under constant attack by its neighbors, the Kingdom of Cambodia was in a weakened state by the 17th century. With little knowledge of the region’s history, the missionaries assumed that Angkor must have been built by another civilization.
In fact, it is now believed Cambodia was once a major world power. A 2015 survey of the site has confirmed that colossal cities once lay near Angkor, and that Cambodia could well have been the largest empire on Earth in the 12th century.
From the ninth century, under the Khmer dynasty, Cambodia built up an empire that covered swaths of what is now Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. When the Khmer king Suryavarman II built the Angkor Wat temples in the 1100s, the empire was at the peak of its power. Angkor Wat, meaning “capital temple,” was sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu, and the complex’s architecture was greatly influenced by Indian style. In a sign of the region’s shifting religious loyalties, it was later adapted for Buddhist worship.
In the 1400s, the empire declined. The city was partly abandoned and rapidly swallowed by vegetation. Hundreds of years later, its mystery gave rise to outlandish myths among the first Europeans who saw it: Spanish missionaries attributed it to leaders like Alexander the Great, while others theorized it had been built by Jews who had passed through the region before settling in China.
Apsara Statue at Angkor Wat
The overall profile imitates a lotus bud; several architectural lines stand out in the profile of the monument. The eye is drawn left and right to the horizontal aspect of the levels and upward to the soaring height of the towers. The ingenious plan of Angkor Wat only allows a view of all five towers from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the entrance. Many of the structures and courtyards are in the shape of a cross. A curved sloping roof on galleries, chambers and aisles is a hallmark of Angkor Wat. From a distance it looks like a series of long narrow ridges but close up from identifies itself. It is a roof made of gracefully arched stone rectangles placed end to end. Each row of tiles is capped with an end tile at right angles the ridge of the roof.
The steps to Angkor Wat are made to force a halt at beauteous obstruction that the mind may be prepared for the atmosphere of sanctity. Galleries with columns, towers, curved roofs, tympanums, steps and the cross-shaped plan occur again and again.
It was by combining two or more of these aspects that a sense of height was achieved. This arrangement was used to link one part of the monument to another. Roofs were frequently layered to add height, length or dimension. A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the limits of two prominent areas-the galleries and the entry pavilions. The long causeway at the entrance reappears on the other side of the entry pavilion.