- Curious Peoples
- Angkor Wat
The Sacred Heart of the Khmer Empire
Angkor, located in the northern province of Siem Reap, Cambodia, was once the world’s largest preindustrial city and is now a significant archaeological site in Southeast Asia. Covering approximately 155 square miles (400 square kilometers), including forests, Angkor Archaeological Park showcases the splendid remnants of the Khmer Empire.
From the late 9th to the early 13th century, the city of Angkor was the center of the Khmer kings’ rule, a dynasty that presided over one of Southeast Asia’s largest, wealthiest, and most advanced kingdoms. The city witnessed numerous construction projects, with Angkor Wat being the most prominent.
Spanning 400 acres (160 hectares), Angkor Wat holds the title of the world’s largest religious structure. Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to around 1150, commissioned it as a Hindu temple and a grand tomb for himself. However, he was never buried there, as he died in a military campaign against the Vietnamese kingdom of Dai Viet.
This 12th-century temple complex, initially dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, embodies the concept of human interaction with the divine realm. Its name translates to “City of the Temple,” highlighting its monumental nature. The five central towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred golden mountain at the universe’s center and home to the gods in Hindu mythology. The temple complex is surrounded by a vast moat, symbolizing the ocean at the world’s edge.
The central tower of Angkor Wat
Visitors access the temple via a 617-foot (188-meter) bridge and pass through three galleries, each leading to the next via paved walkways. Angkor Wat was strategically placed so that visitors could only approach from the west, a direction symbolizing both the land of the dead and the deity Vishnu. This deliberate orientation was meant to foster spiritual renewal as one moved closer to the temple’s divine energies.
The temple walls feature exquisite bas-relief sculptures depicting Hindu gods, Khmer scenes, and narratives from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The design, with its impressive height, aimed to draw the eye upwards, guiding visitors to the intricate stories of gods, heroes, and ancestors etched into the stone walls and columns.
Bas-relief scene at Angkor Wat
By the time Angkor Wat was built, the Khmer had developed a unique architectural style heavily reliant on sandstone. Consequently, the temple and the city’s outer walls were constructed with sandstone, while other structures used wood and less durable materials. Today, only the temple and parts of the city wall survive.
Forest and moat around Angkor Wat
The site’s grandeur also lies in its extensive water system, including canals, dikes, and reservoirs. The largest of these is the West Baray, which stretches 5 miles (8 kilometers) in length and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) in width. These structures not only mirrored the seas surrounding Mount Meru but also played a vital role in water management, supporting the needs of about 750,000 inhabitants of this metropolis and irrigating essential crops like rice.
Towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor faced invasions by the Cham people from present-day central Vietnam. This led King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Empire to conclude that the Hindu gods had let him down. He relocated the capital to Angkor Thom and the state temple to Bayon, both situated a few miles north of the original site. He then dedicated Angkor Thom to Buddhism, transforming Angkor Wat into a Buddhist shrine. This change saw the replacement of many Hindu deity carvings and statues with Buddhist art.
Buddhist monks in front of the reflection pool at Angkor Wat
As Angkor Wat’s significance in Buddhism grew, so did its myths. Many Buddhists believed that Indra, the king of the gods, commanded the temple’s construction, which was miraculously completed in a single night. However, modern research has revealed that Angkor Wat’s construction spanned several decades.
By the 13th century, while Angkor Wat had lost its political and commercial significance, it remained a vital Buddhist monument until the 1800s. It was never abandoned but slowly fell into disrepair. The temple was brought to international attention by the French explorer Henri Mouhot in the 1840s, who popularized it in the West. He described it as surpassing the grandeur of ancient Greek and Roman structures.
Today, Angkor Wat is a primary pilgrimage site in Southeast Asia and a popular tourist destination, even featuring on the Cambodian flag.
Words of wisdom
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” —Buddha
“Every artist was first an amateur.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” —Albert Einstein
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” —Confucius
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