One of the largest religious structures in the world, the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat is covered with exquisite carvings that form the longest bas-relief in existence. It was part of a vast complex of religious and administrative buildings constructed between the 9th and the 15th centuries by the Khmer empire, which ruled most of Southeast Asia at that time. The temple is an earthly representation of the Hindu cosmos. Its five towers, shaped like lotus buds, form a pyramidal structure symbolizing the mythical Mount Meru, home of the gods. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, and the moats, the cosmic ocean. Dedicated to Vishnu, the temple was built for the god-king Suryavarman II (r. 1113-50), probably as a funerary monument. It faces west, toward the setting Sun, a symbol of death.
GALLERY OF THE BAS-RELIEFS
Angkor Wat is covered with 12,917 sq ft (1,200 sq m) of intricately carved scenes that depict Khmer myths, Angkorian warfare, and stories from the great Hindu mythological epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Divided into eight sections, some of the most celebrated panels include the Battle of Kuruksetra in the West Gallery, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in the East Gallery, and the Judgment of Jama in the South Gallery. Angkor Wat also has 1,850 carved apsaras, or celestial dancers. These sensuous goddesses, who are naked except for ornate jewelry and elaborate head-dresses, wear enigmatic smiles, known as the “Khmer Smile,” and are the glory of Angkor.
THE FALL OF ANGKOR
The last great king of Angkor was Jayavarman VII (1181-1220). He founded the city of Angkor Thom, near Angkor Wat, where he built the Bayon Temple, among many others. This ambitious temple-building program probably depleted the kingdom’s coffers, as did wars with neighboring Siam (modern-day Thailand) and Champa (Vietnam). Little is known about the kings that succeeded him, but in 1432, the Siamese sacked Angkor and the last king, Ponhea Yat, was forced to move south toward Phnom Penh, the modern-day capital of Cambodia. Although Angkor Wat remained a holy place, the Khmer empire subsequently went into decline and most of the temples were deserted, gradually becoming covered in jungle.
REDISCOVERY OF ANGKOR
Although the ruins of Angkor Wat had been chronicled by a number of foreigners, their “rediscovery” was attributed to Henri Mouhot, a Frenchman traveling under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society in 1860.
A naturalist and botanist, Mouhot spent three weeks among the ruins, drawing and surveying the temples. He wrote a detailed and lyrical account of his work in his diaries, which were published after his death from malaria in 1861. His descriptions inspired numerous travelers, including the Scottish photographer John Thomson, who took the first black-and-white photographs of Angkor in 1866.
View of Angkor Wat
The elegance and grace of the temples, and their reflection in the moats that surround them, make Angkor Wat an awe-inspiring sight.
Angkor Wat’s majestic facade can be seen from the causeway at its west entrance . Balustrades terminating in the form of the naga. the seven-headed serpent, border the causeway on either side and extend all the way around the temple.
Gallery of the Bas-Reliefs
The outer side of the gallery comprises 60 columns, while the inner wall is carved with beautiful bas-reliefs of mythological and historical events .
Rising 213 ft (65 m) from the heart of Angkor Wat. The Central Sanctuary has four entrances, each facing one of the cardinal directions. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it now houses four statues of the Buddha.
Meditating Buddhist Monk
Angkor was originally a Hindu site, but it was later converted to Buddhist use. Today, Buddhist monks live in a pagoda by the side of the temple.
On the Judgment of Yama panel, the souls of the good are being carried on thrones on their way to
heaven, while the damned are dragged into hell.
Numerous celestial dancers are carved onto the walls, each slightly different in gesture and detail. The variety of hairstyles and headresses is extraordinary.
The bas-relief here shows scenes from the Battle of Kurukshetra, the main subject of the Mahabharata.
Khmer architects aligned Angkor Wat with the Sun and the Moon. At the spring equinox, it has a spectacular solar alignment with the causeway as the Sun rises over the exact center of the Central Sanctuary.
1113-50: Construction of Angkor Wat during the rule of the Khmer empire.
1432: The Siamese (Thais) sack Angkor Wat and the site is abandoned.
1860: Angkor Wat is “rediscovered” by French naturalist Henri Mouhot.
1898: The French Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient starts to clear the site.
1992: Angkor Wat is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1993: An international conservation project starts the preservation of Angkor Wat’s temples.