Every year, hundreds of thousands of travellers from across the globe including the Buddhists and Hindus flock to Cambodia to experience the grandeur of Angkor. Built by the rulers of the Khmer Empire over the span of five centuries, these temples endure as one of Earth’s greatest archaeological wonders today. Join us as we shed light on one of the most enigmatic, mesmerizing civilizations in the history of mankind. We peel away the myth and legend to uncover the hidden story behind the creation of this ancient city.
In 1860, a French naturalist was cutting his way through the Cambodian jungle in search of exotic insects and suddenly came across one of the world’s most astonishing and enduring architectural feats: the nine-hundred-year-old remains of Angkor Wat. Who built these vast sophisticated temples deep in the jungle only to abandon them? A 13th Century Chinese author has described the great temple of Angkor Wat a fantastic citadel, while radar images from space revealed that Angkor was much bigger than originally imagined a vast city the size of London. Scientists now know that Angkor Wat was just a small part of one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world.
The five stone towers are intended to mimic the five mountain ranges of Mt. Meru—the mythical home of the gods, for both Hindus and Buddhists. The temple mountain as an architectural design was invented in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian architects quite literally envisioned temples dedicated to Hindu gods on earth as a representation of Mt. Meru. The galleries and the empty spaces that they created between one another and the moat are envisioned as the mountain ranges and oceans that surround Mt. Meru. Mt. Meru is not only home to the gods, it is also considered an axis-mundi. An axis-mundi is a cosmic or world axis that connects heaven and earth. In designing Angkor Wat in this way, King Suryavarman II and his architects intended for the temple to serve as the supreme abode for Vishnu. Similarly, the symbolism of Angkor Wat serving as an axis mundus was intended to demonstrate the Angkor Kingdom’s and the king’s central place in the universe. In addition to envisioning Angkor Wat as Mt. Meru on earth, the temple’s architects, of whom we know nothing, also ingeniously designed the temple so that embedded in the temple’s construction is a map of the cosmos (mandala) as well as a historical record of the temple’s patron.
The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: therefore so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga, representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.
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 (0.98 in) in diameter and 3 cm (1.2 in) 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 from 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.
Built by the rulers of the Khmer Empire over the span of five centuries, these temples endure as one of Earth’s greatest archaeological wonders today. Join us as we shed light on one of the most enigmatic, mesmerizing civilizations in the history of mankind.
Angkor Wat meaning holy temple is symbolic in every way. It is surrounded by 650-foot-wide moat that represents the oceans around Mount Meru – legendary home of the Hindu Gods. The main entrance to Angkor Wat was in the West (a direction associated with Vishnu) while the secondary entrance was in the East direction.
HOW WAS ANGKOR WAT BUILT?
The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The coordination of such an operation are mind blowing, consuming the labour of thousands. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants, yet it was still not fully completed.
Angkor is one of the largest archaeological sites in operation in the world. Tourism represents an enormous economic potential but it can also generate irreparable destructions of the tangible as well as intangible cultural heritage. Many research projects have been undertaken, since the international safeguarding program was first launched in 1993.
An aerial view of Angkor Wat demonstrates that the temple is made up of an expansive enclosure wall, which separates the sacred temple grounds from the protective moat that surrounds the entire complex (the moat is visible in the photograph at the top of the page). The temple proper is comprised of three galleries (a passageway running along the length of the temple) with a central sanctuary, marked by five stone towers.
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. Mannikka interprets these galleries as being dedicated to the king, Brahma, the moon, and Vishnu. 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.
Virtually all 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. While excavating Khajuraho, Alex Evans, a stonemason and sculptor, recreated a stone sculpture under 4 feet (1.2 m), this took about 60 days to carve. Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehner also conducted experiments to quarry limestone which took 12 quarrymen 22 days to quarry about 400 tons of stone. The labour 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 artefacts that have been dated to the seventh century, before the Khmer came to power.
Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination. In 1993, there were only 7,650 visitors to the site; by 2004, government figures show that 561,000 foreign visitors had arrived in Siem Reap province that year, approximately 50% of all foreign tourists in Cambodia. The number reached over a million in 2007, and over two million by 2012. Most visited Angkor Wat, which received over two million foreign tourists in 2013. The site has been managed by the private SOKIMEX group since 1990, which rented it from the Cambodian government. The influx of tourists has so far caused relatively little damage, other than some graffiti; ropes and wooden steps have been introduced to protect the bas-reliefs and floors, respectively. Tourism has also provided some additional funds for maintenance—as of 2000 approximately 28% of ticket revenues across the whole Angkor site was spent on the temples—although most work is carried out by foreign government-sponsored teams rather than by the Cambodian authorities.
WHEN TO VISIT
The sight of the grand monument towering over the landscape is breath-taking at any time of day. However, to maximise the effect it is suggested that the first trip to Angkor Wat be made in optimal lighting conditions, usually around 13:00~14:00. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is also a great sight to witness. Hence most of the tourists tend to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, then explore other ruins in the morning and then return to Angkor Wat later in the afternoon. The sun rises behind Angkor Wat and the best colours are seen just before the sun climbs into view. As the position of the sun as it rises varies according to the time of year, do position yourself accordingly. For example, in November-December time when you are facing Angkor Wat, the sun rises on your right-hand side. Hence grab a place to the extreme left of the entry tower to see the sunrise. Sunset at Angkor Wat is best viewed either on the top tier or outside the main temple structure.
According to Agama Shastra, God should be positioned on the West facing the East. The world’s richest temple, “Tirupati Balaji” is as per Agama Shastra – the sanctum sanctorum is on the west facing the east whereas Angkor Wat is the opposite. Here, it sits on the East facing the West with a huge corridor. As per Hinduism, the creator, the protector, and the destroyer – Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh respectively are the three forces of nature. Everything that is born, will have its time, and will eventually die.
Angkor Wat is one of the finest and biggest temples ever made in the history of mankind. The Harappa and Mohenjo Daro civilization gave a lot of importance to natural materials and grid formation of the city roads, spacing, and material used. At Angkor Wat, every bit of construction was well planned and thought with fine execution – maybe the construction phase lasted for hundreds of years.
The carving work is extraordinary here. As per Vaastu, any construction with grid format squares and rectangles with zero-degree north will stand for a long time. According to Agama Shastra, God should be positioned on the West facing the East. The world’s richest temple, “Tirupati Balaji” is as per Agama Shastra – the sanctum sanctorum is on the west facing the east whereas Angkor Wat is the opposite. Here, it sits on the East facing the West with a huge corridor.
Angkor Wat is no doubt a very popular tourist destination with a dichotomy of Buddhism and Vishnu temple. How many Hindus in the world know that the biggest Hindu temple exists in Cambodia and not India? Half of the world wasn’t even existent when the temple was built. As per Hinduism, the creator, the protector, and the destroyer – Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh respectively are the three forces of nature. Everything that is born, will have its time, and will eventually die.
Also, Lord Buddha appears to be one of the Dasa-Avatars. Whether it is Vishnu or Buddha temple, it doesn’t make any difference for either Hindus or Buddhists as Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism. Lord Buddha was born in India and found solutions to all his problems by making the world understand the meaning of understanding oneself – “Be the light itself.” Contrary to Jainism where in Jains used to starve to achieve salvation, Buddha said that starving wasn’t the solution; knowledge was. He himself didn’t eat for many days in a row and realized that body shouldn’t be tortured to find solutions. All these temples are a centre of knowledge, culture, and values for hundreds of thousands of future generations. This place is no doubt a Vaastu magnet, due to which it attracts a lot of visitors from around the world.