Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat (“City Temple”).  The most famous, the largest, and the most magnificent of the Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat was constructed in the first half of the 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman II.  Originally dedicated to Vishnu, it served not only as a hall of worship but also as the king’s personal mausoleum.  When in the 14th century the Khmer kingdom turned to Theravada Buddhism and much of Angkor was abandoned to the jungle, Angkor Wat remained active as a Buddhist temple.  A Portuguese traveller at the end of the 16th century declared that it contained all conceivable human refinements.  Though some of these refinements have fallen by the historical wayside, Angkor Wat continues to astound visitors with its magnificence.  The temple grounds consist in a large forested rectangle of 1.3 km by 1.5 km, surrounded by a moat that is almost 200 m wide.  The temple proper takes shape as a three-tiered pyramid at the center of which stands a tall tower.

A temple mountain dedicated to Vishnu

Angkor Wat as well as other Angkorian royal temples were constructed according to the scheme of the “temple mountain.”  The temple itself represents Mount Meru, the mythological center of the world.  The moat surrounding the temple represents the oceans that surround the world.  At the summit of the temple mountain, in the inner sanctuary, reside the gods, including the Khmer god-king after his death.

Traditionally, the Khmer kings had dedicated their royal temples to the Hindu god Shiva, and had reserved the central sanctuaries of their temples for the presentation of a symbol that expressed the union of Shiva with the power of the king himself; this symbol was the lingam, or phallic post. Suryavarman departed from the tradition of his predecessors to the extent that he dedicated Angkor Wat not to Shiva, but to Vishnu, with whom he identified in the way that his predecessors had identified with Shiva.  The famous bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat express the king’s reverence for Vishnu in that they deal predominantly with mythological themes having to do with Vishnu: Vishnu’s victory in combat over the Asuras; the victory of Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) over the multi-armed Asura Bana; the victory of Rama (another incarnation of Vishnu) over the Rakshasa Ravana in the Battle of Lanka; the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, in which Vishnu directed the combined efforts of Devas and Asuras to recover the elixir of immortality from the bottom of the ocean.

Why Suryavarman identified with Vishnu

Why did Suryvarman break with the tradition of his predecessors and dedicate his royal temple to Vishnu rather than to Shiva?

  • First, Suryavarman clearly thought of himself as a great military leader, and of Vishnu as the god most closely identified with military leadership.  As indicated, many of famous bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat deal with themes glorifying Vishnu as military a leader and field marshall.  Significantly, another scene in the series of bas-reliefs depicts Suryavarman himself reviewing his troops.  During his reign, which began around 1113 A.D. with the defeat in a civil war of a rival pretender to the throne, Suryavarman conducted numerous military expeditions against his neighbors.  In the 1120’s and 1130’s he launched a number of unsuccessful invasions into Dai Viet, a kingdom centered in the area of modern Hanoi (then called Thang Long) in northern Vietnam.  In 1145, he took an army into northern Champa and sacked the capital of Vijaya in modern Binh Dinh.  The conquest of Vijaya was to be Suryavarman’s greatest victory, though it was quickly reversed.  Only a few years later, in 1148 and 1149 a king Harideva of the southern Cham principality of Panduranga (near modern Nha Trang) defeated the Khmer generals and retook Vijaya from the puppet king whom Suryavarman had installed there.  Overall, then, Suryavarman’s expeditions against his neighbors were not particularly successful.  What he did manage was consistently to carry the conflict to the enemy rather than to wage war on native soil.  Surely he was the most militarily aggressive and dominant king of his generation in Southeast Asia, and as such must have felt some affinity with the divine field marshall Vishnu.
  • Second, Suryavarman came from a dynasty that had taken power at Angkor in 1080 A.D., but that came originally from a city called Mahidharapura on the Korat Plateau in what is now modern Thailand.  This dynasty was not as committed to Shaivism as the previous rulers of Angkor had been, as evidenced by the fact that its most famous religious foundations in Thailand, Prasat Phnom Wan and Prasat Phimai, were Buddhist.  To a king coming from this dynasty it would not have seemed obvious that the royal temple mountain had to be dedicated to Shiva.  Such a king might well have felt free to focus the state religion on the deity with whom he felt the greatest affinity.

Decorative Carvings of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is renowned for the quality of the stone carvings that decorate its walls.  Especially memorable among those carvings are the hundreds of devatas or demigoddesses that appear to stand guard around the temple.  Here is a video about the devatas of Angkor Wat:

Related pages on this website: 8 Churning the Ocean of Milk for Elixir of Immortality (the discovery of the elixir by the devas and asuras); 9 Devatas (demigoddesses positioned as guardians of the temples); 13 Battle of Lanka (bas relief at Angkor Wat depicting fight between monkeys and demons); 17 Demons (Rakshasas and Asuras at Angkor).  Here is a link to a terrific video of Angkor Wat made by world traveller Valpard for YouTube.

Every afternoon, a mass of tourists head down the raised causeway that leads from the bridge over the moat and through the main gate into the central temple complex.

Many tourbooks recommend staying at Angkor Wat until nightfall, in order to enjoy the changes of color and lighting created by the setting sun on the temple’s stonework.

Like other Khmer temples, Angkor Wat has its share of passageways and galleries.  However, it is most remarkable for its vast open spaces and generous architectural plan.

The highest level of the three-tiered pyramid consists in a square the corners of which are occupied by towers.  The stairs leading from the middle level up to the towers are famously steep.

Here is a view from below of such a set of stairs leading to the central enclosure.  One theory that has been advanced is that the stairs were made steep so that the central level of the pyramid could be built sufficiently tall.

A tourist struggles up the stairs, like a rock-climber scaling a sheer cliff.  Another theory is that the stairs were made steep so that devotees and tourists would not find it too easy to get to the realm of the gods.

The renowned bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat include a vivid depiction of the Battle of Kurukshetra, the subject matter of the epic Mahabharata.  Here, two mounted warriors square off with clubs and shields.

Another bas-relief consists in contrasting scenes from heaven and hell.    Here, demons heap abuse on those unfortunate souls whom Yama the supreme judge has consigned to the the underworld.

The gigantic man-bird Garuda was a always a favorite motif of the Angkorian artists.  In one of the bas-reliefs, he serves as a mount for Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, to whom Garuda had pledged his services.

The central tower of Angkor Wat, like many of the other towers found in Khmer temples, takes the shape of a closed lotus.  It is adorned with intricate carvings in stone.

These devatas (minor female deities) can be seen on the outside of the central tower.  Numerous devatas may be spotted on the walls of the temple pyramid’s third tier.

The view here is from the central temple complex toward the main gate.  The full extent of the grounds at Angkor Wat can be appreciated from the vantage point of a balloon.