Gods and Kings of Angkor

God and Kings of Angkor.  Angkorian representations of divinity come in at least two types: one type is that of religious images for worship or contemplation; the other type is that of illustrations of legendary stories about the deeds and sufferings of gods and other divine beings.  Images of some beings, like Buddha, are often religious in nature, while images of other such beings, like Indra, are merely decorative.  Since the temples of Angkor, with the notable exception of Banteay Srei, are royal temples (temples conceived and dedicated by rulers), the religion expressed in them is an official or state religion.

Religious Iconography

In the iconography of Angkor, gods and important supernatural beings are individualized and identified by means of standardized traits and attributes.  A basic understanding of these traits and attributes is necessary in order to make sense of the bewildering variety of images encountered in the temples.  The following are some of the most commonly encountered identifying features of the principal divinities: Shiva, Vishnu, Avalokiteshvara, and Buddha.

  • Shiva (Hara, Bhadreshvara) is represented either as a phallic post khown as a lingam or as a human being.  In his human form, he may appear as a bearded ascetic (as for example in the bas reliefs of the Bayon).  Frequently he is depicted with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.  His hairstyle is one of twisted dreadlocks, often piled up in the shape of a hat.  He may be in the company of his consort Uma or of his mount, the bull Nandi.  His attributes include the trident and the rosary.
  • Vishnu (Hari) is commonly represented as a human being with four arms bearing four standardized attributes: the conch shell, the baton, the discus, and a small ball or globe representing the Earth.  His mount is Garuda, the formidable man-bird.  Vishnu is often shown wearing a mitre style hat.
  • Avalokiteshvara (Lokeshvara), the bodhisattva of compassion, is often indistinguishable from Hindu deities, except for the fact that just above his hairline he wears a small image of Amitabha Buddha sitting in the position of meditation.  In the art of Angkor, Avalokiteshvara is depicted as male, though his counterparts in China (Guan Yin) and Vietnam (Quan Am) are generally portrayed as female.
  • Buddha is frequently shown in the seated position of meditation.  He is distinguishable from bodhisattvas such as Lokeshvara in that his hair is cropped short, and he does not wear the image of Amitabha at his hairline.  At Angkor he is often depicted sitting on the coils of the naga Mucalinda, who also shields him from above with his fan of hooded  serpent heads. 

The relation of Khmer Kings to Divinity as the basis for State Religion at Angkor

According to the thesis of French Angkor-scholar George Coedes, Angkorian kings identified themselves with the supreme deity and believed themselves to participate in the essence of that deity.  The king of Angkor was consubstantial with Shiva, or Vishnu, or Buddha, and his family members and high-ranking associates were identified with lesser divinities associated with the supreme deity.  This identification served as the basis for the official state religion of the Khmer empire.

The Identification of Angkorian Kings with Siva in the form of the Lingam

The Angkorian period began early in the 9th century A.D., when King Jayavarman II unified Cambodia for the first time and declared himself to be not only the Chakravartin (universal monarch), but also the Devaraja (god-king) of the empire.  As Devaraja, he identified himself with the Hindu god Shiva and with the representation of Shiva as a lingam or phallus.  In Khmer religion, the lingam came to unite symbolically god, king, the earth and the ancestors.  In the center of his capital city, the Angkorian king would build a state temple in the shape of a mountain.  The temple was to represent symbolically Mount Meru, the mountain at the center of the world which in Indian mythology was the home of the gods.  In the central sanctuary of the temple, the king would erect a lingam whose name would be a combination of the king’s own name and the suffix “-esvara,” which stood for Shiva.  In 881 A.D., for example, King Indravarman I erected a lingam called “Indresvara” on the temple known as the Bakong.

The Bakong is the first temple mountain constructed at Angkor by the kings of the Khmer empire.  It is located at Roluos, to the southeast of modern Siem Reap.  The city of which Bakong was the center was called Hariharalaya (“the city of Harihara,” where Harihara is a deity combining attributes of Shiva and Vishnu).  For most of the 9th century, Hariharalaya was the capital of the Khmer empire.  A few short years after the dedication of Bakong in 881, however, a sucessor of Indravarman I, King Yasovarman I moved the capital to the area north of Siem Reap now known as Angkor Thom.  There he constructed a new city called Yasodharapura, centered on a new temple mountain known as the Bakheng.

The following is a video about the Bakong, the first temple mountain of Angkor:

Angkor’s neighbor and rival to the East, the Kingdom of Champa, also stood under a state religion centered on the worship of Shiva and the lingam.  Unlike the Khmer, however, the Cham did not erect massive temple-mountains of grey sandstone to house their royal lingams, but constructed only smaller sanctuaries out of reddish bricks, similar to the Khmer brick temples of Hariharalaya.  Both Cham and Khmer raiding parties recognized the importance of the lingam as a political symbol, by trashing the shrines and carrying off the lingams of their enemies whenever possible.

Not all lingams had royal significance.  The Indresvara of Bakong and other lingams placed in the sanctuaries of major temples, were not the only lingams in religious use.  Since the lingam was not only the central symbol of Angkorian Shaivism, but also served as a religious object symbolic of the land and its fertility in pre-Angkorian Cambodia, it is ubiquitous at Angkor.  The most striking collection of lingams are perhaps the many hundreds carved into the riverbed of Kbal Spean, a small stream at some distance from Angkor itself.  Other lingams may be found in and around the shrines of major and minor temples.  Lingams may even be found in the originally Buddhist foundations of the late 12th century, either because they were added to those foundations by later Hindu monarchs or on account of ongoing syncretism in Angkorian religion.

Suyavarman II’s Identification with Vishnu

When King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the 12th century, however, he did not dedicate the temple to Siva, but instead to Vishnu.  In so doing, he broke with the tradition of his predecessors, and may have been influenced by the Vaishnavist movement that was then gaining strength in India.  In addition, Suryavarman was a king of many military conquests (as well as of several failed military expeditions), and as such would have been attracted by literary and mythological themes connecting Vishnu and his avatars with military generalship.  This theme is evident in the famous bas reliefs of the outer gallery at Angkor Wat:

  • The bas reliefs include numerous depictions of Vishnu as a successful military commander: Krishna leading an army against the asura Bana, Rama leading an army of monkeys against the rakshasa Ravana, a battle of devas and asuras.  (The carving known as Vishnu’s battle with the asuras dates from the 16th century, and therefore cannot be regarded as evidence of the king’s self-conception as a military conqueror.)
  • The great historical bas relief of Angkor Wat, known as the Procession of Suryavarman II, shows the king on parade with an impressive army of Khmer and Thai soldiers.  The king himself stands tall on the back of an elephant, bearing a traditional weapon called a phkak, and protected from the sun by numerous royal parasols.

As to Vishnu, both religious and illustrative images may be found at Angkor.  Angkor Wat itself has numerous artistic depictions of Vishnu’s legendary acts, either in his own anthropomorphic form or in that of an avatar.  The most frequently depicted avatars of Vishnu are the heroes of the great epics: Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the hero of the Mahabharata.

Jayavarman VII’s Identification with Buddha and Avalokiteshvara

Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Angkorian kings, who flourished at the end of the 12th century, was a devotee of the Buddha, whom he probably believed to be identical with Shiva.  The king’s faith was that of Mahayana Buddhism, and the temples he built were dedicated to Buddhist figures.  In his state temple, known as the Bayon, and on the gopuras (gatehouses) of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, he erected the famous face-towers identifying the king with the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.  He caused the creation of stone sculptures depicting himself engrossed in meditation.  His self-characterization in surviving inscriptions emphasizes his care for his subjects.

Despite his turn to Mahayana Buddhism, Jayavarman maintained symbolic continuity with the state religion of his predecessors.  When he built his capital city of Angkor Thom, he constructed the Bayon as a temple mountain at the center.  The walls of Angkor Thom represented the mountain range that lies at the outskirts of the known world, and the moat represented the cosmic ocean lying on the other side of the mountains.  The great innovation in the symbolism, of course, was that the central image in the shrine of the Bayon was not a lingam, but a statue of the Buddha.  After his death, the statue was vandalized and thrown to the bottom of a pit under the Bayon.  It has since been recovered and repaired, and is now on display in a pavilion a short distance from the Bayon.

Theravada Buddhism’s Undermining of Angkorian State Religion

Following Jayavarman VII’s death, the kingdom of Angkor went through a Hindu revival, before turning finally to Theravada Buddhism.  According to Angkor-scholar Coedes, this Buddhism of the “small vehicle” was a religion that proved hostile to the royal personality cult and to the proliferation of deities required by Angkorian state religion.  The triumph of Theravada Buddhism undermined the identification of the king with the supreme deity, and the erosion of Angkor’s religous-imperial ideology led to its gradual decline culminating in its fall and abandonment in the 15th century A.D.

This lingam is housed at the Bayon, originally a Buddhist temple constructed by Jayavarman VII at the heart of his capital.� The lingam may have been placed in the temple during the Hindu restoration following Jayavarman’s death.

Preah Khan, also founded by Jayavarman VII, is home to this Buddhist stupa, traditionally an object of veneration and a container for relics.� Both stupas and lingams can be found in the originally Buddhist foundations of Jayavarman VII.

Kbal Spean, the “River of 1000 Lingams” has hundreds of small lingam-bumps hewn into its bed.� The foreground of this photo shows row upon row of such bumps, the background, a lingam and yoni (male and female) motif.

(above)� Also at Kbal Spean, a row of lingam bumps is the foreground for a stone carving of the reclining Vishnu.� (to the right)� This reclining figure at the temple of Preah Khan is probably also Vishnu, meditating at the bottom of the ocean and awaiting the arrival of a new age.

According to the Mahabharata, the bottom of the ocean “becomes the bed of the lotus-naveled Vishnu when at the termination of every Yuga [cosmic age]�that deity of immeasurable power enjoys yoga-nidra, the deep sleep under the spell of spiritual meditation.”

Suryavarman (literally, “protected by the sun”), the founder of Angkor Wat, depicted himself and his court in all of its comfort and splendor in one of the grand bas-reliefs for which the temple has become famous.� Here, the king holds court while attendants wait upon him with fans and parasols.

At Angkor Wat, Vishnu was a character of myth and legend as well as the object of religious devotion.� Here a bas-relief depicts him as a character in the legendary Churning of the Ocean of Milk.� The bas-relief also shows Vishnu as his avatar Kurma the turtle, a form he assumed in order to take Mount Mandara on his back and to facilitate the churning.

The Buddhist monarch Jayavarman VII chose to represent himself as the boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara in a sea of stone faces atop the temple of Bayon.� The orientation of these serene faces in all four directions conveys not only the king’s administrative supervision of his subjects, but also his religiously inspired compassion for them.

Jayavarman VII constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom (“great city”) as a new capital, to replace the previous capital of Yasodharapura sacked by Cham invaders.� On the “naga bridge” leading over the moat into the city, he placed a four-sided tower with faces similar to those on top of the Bayon.� The gate at the end of the bridge is also surmounted by such faces.

Indra sits astride the three-headed elephant Airavata in this�stone relief�from Banteay Srei.� This work serves as an illustration of the Mahabharatan story of Khandava Forest.� Believing that his friend Takshaka was in the forest, Indra attempted through the release of rain to put out the fire�by which Agni threatened to engulf it.

At Angkor Wat, in the bas-relief illustrating the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Indra is depicted flying overhead and dousing the scene with rain.� According to the Mahabharata, the churning created such friction that a dangerous fire resulted.� As the god of the sky and the rain, Indra was tasked with extinguishing the fire.

In the ancient Vedic religion, Indra had been an important object of religious devotion, and the primary receiver of religious sacrifice.� By the Angkorian period, he was but a colorful character in well-known stories and legends.� In religion itself, he had been completely displaced by Shiva and Vishnu.� Here, he is depicted at Banteay Srei on the back of Airavata.