Adventures in Angkor – Angkor Wat

No visit to Siem Reap would be complete without visiting the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, or the City Temple. The distinctive pagoda spires represent the celestial Mount Meru, the home of the gods, and the temple’s profile is also on the Cambodian flag.

Again, like most Angkoran temples, the rectangular complex is lined on an east-west axis, surrounded by a man-made moat. Angkor Wat represents most clearly the hindu cosmological worldview, with the moat (1) representing the sea that surrounds the mountains at the edge of the world, represented by the enclosure wall (2). At the centre of the world is, of course, Mount Meru, represented by the temple. The scale of the complex is immense: Angkor Wat measures 1.7 km from east to west and 1.3 km from north to south. Unlike most temples, however, Angkor Wat is exceptional because it is oriented towards the west rather than the east. This strange feature is attributed to the temple being dedicated to Vishnu, who besides being the sun-god, oversees the western quadrant of the compass. As such, the main entrance to the temple is from the west, from the causeway that will bring us to three concentric galleries before reaching the peak. We’ll be seeing more of Vishnu in the bas-reliefs later at (4), but first we’ll visit some other spectacular bas-reliefs at (3).

The first gallery featured in this post is located on the Southwest quadrant (4) is a historical depiction of the Khmer king sending his troops for war against the Siamese. King Suryavarman II (whose name means Sun-protector) points the way for his troops to move against the Cham army, who both in the relief and geographically are from the east.

Several clues lead us to the identity of this person we now know as King Suryavarman II. For one, his size which is comparably much larger than his subjects. He is also sheltered by a number of parasols, which seem to be an indicator of rank. In fact, he’s got the most number of parasols covering him. He is also attended by servants holding fans and fly-whisks, positions we find in Angkoran inscriptions to be hereditary and jealously guarded.

Notice two types of troops in the Khmer Army, the Khmers on the left carrying shields, disciplined and keeping in rank. The ‘Syem’, either referring to their dark skin or possibly Siamese, were mercenaries stand in front of the main Khmer army. Probably as cannon fodder to wear down the opposition. Notice their generally ill-disciplined manner and long, unkempt hair. These troops, the Khmer army, march towards a battle against the Cham, who came from what is now Vietnam.

We’ll see the Cham later in the reliefs of the Bayon. The procession of Suryavarman II is the only historical relief on the galleries – the rest depict scenes and stories from vatious Hindu mythologies and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. One of the most famous of these scenes, located on the Southeast gallery facing east (3) is the Churning of the Milk Sea.

In this myth, the gods (the devas) and demons (asuras) cooperate in producing the amrita, the elixir of immortality. In order to do this, they must churn the sea of milk for a thousand years and to assist them, the giant snake Vasuki coils himself around the mountain Mandara to act as a pivot. The asuras (on the southern side, left of the relief) and the devas (northern side, to the right) alternate in pulling Vasuki so as to cause a churning action. In the middle, Vishnu oversees the production of amrita.

This relief, depicts the actual churning of the sea, and contains elements from other myths, such as Ravana and Hanuman, who are not part of the original myth and are in fact from the pages of the Ramayana. On the left, Ravana holds the head of Vasuki, the giant serpents and commands his army of asuras. Ravana, a giant compared to his other demonic brethren is identified by by his many different faces while notice the similar headresses worn by the asuras.

On the right, Hanuman, the king of the monkeys leads the devas in pulling Vasuki’s tail, causing the churning action which results in the creation of amrita. Again, note how the headresses identify the devas from the asuras.

In the middle, Vishnu, to whom this temple is dedicated, adjudicates the competion while sitting atop Mount Mandara. Below the mountain (not seen in the picture), a giant turtle rests – it is Kurma, an avatar of Vishnu, who is sent to the bottom of the mountain to help stabilise it. Flying overhead is Indra, who lends a hand by stabilising the mountain from the top.

At the end of the story, amrita is created from the churning and the precious truce between the devas and the asuras is broken as either side rushes to claim the elixir of immortality. The devas prove to be victorious. Beside being a really impressive bas-relief, Eleanor Mannikka posits an interesting theory that the Churning of the Milk Sea relief is in fact a gigantic calendar!

Up the second gallery, one passes through the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas. Yes, while Angkor Wat was a temple to Vishnu, it has in time become used by Buddhists, and in fact is still tended by a group of monks who live in a nearby monastery (5). Many of the statues here are defaced and beheaded, results from looting by collectors and antique dealers.

This broken corner of the Southwest corner of the upper gallery is a little cutaway view to the material used in the construction of Angkor. Khmer architecture basically uses two kinds of stone: sandstone and laterite. The latter is a porous rock, easily recognised because of its red colour and pockmarked surface. They usually form the base structure and the main building material. Sandstone, which is quarried from Phnom Kulen (or Kulen Hill some 40 km away), is hard, smooth and excellent material to carve reliefs and sculptures on.

The third and upper gallery really gives one a sense of being in the mountain home of the gods. Here, the ascent to the tower is very steep – about 50 degrees.

The central tower, once housing a statue of Vishnu, was converted to a Buddhist shrine around the 14th and 15th century, when the state converted to Theravada Buddhism. Besides the serenity of the upper shrine, there’s also the view to take in. Little wonder, this might be considered home of the gods.

Going down proves to be more tricky than going up – fortunately, there is one staircase with a railing attached. Queues are long in going down, because it still is an awfully steep descent. Accidents can and still happen though – a couple of years ago, a Korean tourist fell to his death while descending from the steps. You have been warned!

That’s as much of Angkor as I could cover in half a day – a truly, one needs three days to fully appreciates Angkor Wat alone!

As you can see the crowds are indeed present – and it wasn’t even peak season. To give you an idea of the level of crowds at Angkor in the off-peak season: when I first arrived in Angkor Wat, I counted all of six tourist coaches at the Angkor Archaeological Park entrance. And then another five more when I arrived at Angkor Wat!

In the next installment, we take a little segue to check out some of the wildlife in Angkor Wat… it’s not exactly archaeological,but I can assure you it’s not something you’ll see in your tourist guidebooks either!

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

8 thoughts on “Adventures in Angkor – Angkor Wat”

  1. I had an eye on the overwhelming Tempel of Ankor for long time now. I wanted to see this heritage of culture for myself. So according to my flight to Vietnam, i decided to spend 3 more nicht at Ankor. I went directly from Saigon to Siem Reap.

    Ankor itself reminds you of culture and the cruel times during the war. “Killing Fields” are omnipresence. Despite of that the people are all optimistic and friendly.

    Tourismus is a big deal in the part of the country. In most locations u have to pay in Dollar instead of Riel.

  2. There is a single temple complex called “Angkor Wat,” located near Siem Reap in northeast Cambodia, but it has come to represent a whole complex of wonderful temples and stonemasonry and artwork throughout the area. It is the single largest religious structure in the world, and surely one of the world’s wonders of art and architecture. In fact, within an area of 120 sq. miles, the ruins contain some of the most imposing monuments in the world, including about a thousand temples, mainly Hindu and some Buddhist; the ancient city, however, had an extent some three times that size, and was home to perhaps 750,000 people.

  3. Being a settlement archaeologist myself, I wonder how much is known of the settlement at Angkor apart from the temples? When I was there two years ago I could not see much house mounds in-between the temples. Can perishable structures be found, such as within Angkor Thom? I know from the Maya area in Mexico, Guatemala, etc. archaeologists sometimes talk about “invisible” structures, only indicated by a greater density of ceramic sherds. Is the situation similar at Angkor and other major SE Asian sites?

  4. Hi Johan! I can’t say much about specifics myself, but recent research has tended to focus on the non-monumental aspects of Angkor, such as the pre-Angkorian period and the irrigation/ water management systems. The reason we don’t see much other than the temple remains was because everything else was made from perishable materials such as wood. Also, the clear patches of land we see today in the Angkor ruins were once jungle overgrowth that has to be painstakingly cleared during Angkor’s modern discovery. That said, I’m pretty sure that there are large amounts of ceramic remains found within the settlements such as this study here.

  5. Thanks for the information. We have similar problems with the vegetation during surveys in Mexico as well. I remember that estimates of Angkor’s population has suggested that one million people lived there, and I wondered what that figure is based on (if no survey of house remains have been undertaken that figure must either be based on historical sources or educated guesses).

  6. The modern name, Angkor Wat, means “City Temple”; Angkor is a vernacular form of the word nokor which comes from the Sanskrit word nagara meaning capital. wat is the Khmer word for temple. Prior to this time the temple was known as Preah Pisnulok, after the posthumous title of its founder, Suryavarman.

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