It is important to distinguish between the Angkor Wat temple and the Angkor complex of monuments as a whole. After being lost to the outside world for a few centuries, these magnificent monuments were rediscovered by French archeologist Henri Mouhot in 1860. Continued research has now resulted in the discovery of a great number of monuments spread over hundreds of square kilometers.

Angkor was the ancient capital of the Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia. The numerous monuments of Angkor (Nagar) are a reminder of human brilliance in the field of majestic Hindu/Buddhist temple construction and architecture, engineering, town planning, and water management. One can never get enough of the beauty of this magnificent complex. Angkor Wat is the largest and the most famous temple of this Angkor complex.[Aerial view of the Angkor Wat Temple]

Legend

The most widely accepted legend is that of a Brahmin prince by the name of Kaundinya who hailed from South India, married a Naga princess from this region and thus started the rule of the Somavansha or the race of the moon. This is supported by inscriptions found at Misan in Champa (present-day Vietnam). There are some other nonsupported legends about a banished Hindu prince, who married a Naga lady, daughter of Nagaraja and established the kingdom of Kambuja (old name of Cambodia). Another legend holds that the union of Maharshi Kambu and the Apsara Mera symbolized the merger of the Solar and Lunar Dynasties that resulted in Kambuja. Ancient Indian civilization had expanded towards the east and had come into contact with inhabitants of this area and thus was born the nation of Cambodia with Indic Influences (Hinduism and Buddhism).

History

This South East Asian region has been in constant touch with the Chinese civilisation and the history of this region is mainly traced through these interactions. The first recognized historical kingdom is the Funan or Founan, a predominantly Hindu kingdom established probably during the 3rd-5th Century CE. The traditions of this kingdom can be attributed to the influence and interactions with the Pallavas of Tamil Nadu and other seafaring coastal regions of India.

The rise of Angkor took place under Jayavarman II, a Javanese exiled prince who consolidated the area to become the king of Kambuja around the 8th century CE. He made Mahendraparvat (currently known as Phnom Kulen Mountain) his seat of power. He started the practice of linking kings with divinity by declaring himself God King or ‘Devraja’ and proclaimed himself ‘Chakravartin’ (Universal Monarch), a ritual having an ancient Indian Vedic origin. Later in life, Jayavarman II shifted to the plains near the great lake, Tonle Sap and established ‘Hariharalaya’ as his capital. This is the location of the earliest Angkor temples now called the Roulous group.

The Angkor kings ruled over a vast domain stretching from Champa (Vietnam) in the east to the Bay of Bengal in the West. The temples in this area were constructed by the kings of Khmer civilization between 800 – 1220 CE. These temple structures are astonishing architectural marvels of mankind. The entire area encompassing Angkor is replete with the remains of a magnificent incomparable megacity.

The Angkor Wat (temple) is the largest temple in this complex and it was dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, who reigned between 1113-1150 C.E. It is built as a three-level platform with five magnificent towers on the top level, representing the mythical Mount Meru, which is supposed to be the abode of gods in Indian legend. This temple has a west facing entrance surrounded by a huge moat. The moat is really massive and it played an important role in hydrological balance of the area to keep such a heavy structure stabilized in the porous landscape with a high water table. Beyond the moat, there is a corridor with a Gopuram as the entry gate into the complex. This is the only temple in the sprawling Angkor area to have its entrance on the west side as opposed to the traditional temple entrance to the east.[The Moat]

The floating bridge on the moat leads up to the outer gate area, where one of the alcoves has the statue of Vishnu, which is still being worshipped as the main deity. It is ironic that the only statue of Vishnu is outside the proper temple complex; that too in a temple considered the largest Hindu temple in the world. The image of Lord Vishnu has a beautiful smile and shows him with eight hands but without any attributes (most probably broken off). Irony does not end with this, as the donation box below the deity asks for “Donations for Buddhists”. It is symbolic of the civilization where Hinduism and Buddhism have existed together throughout history going through relative ups and downs. The current population is mainly Buddhist but the icons and symbolism of Hinduism are present everywhere.

Inside the gate, the majestic temple finally appears at the end of a long walkway with two water bodies on either side. Snakes (Nagas) have been represented as the balustrade on either side of this pathway. The snake motif is present everywhere in the Angkor civilization. The Indian and East Asian religion symbolism has the snake as a constant feature but the overwhelming presence in this area may be due to the legend of a Naga princess being the first one to have found a dynasty here.

The first structure in the main temple building is the outer corridor enclosing the main temple structure on all four sides. This corridor has innumerable bas-reliefs depicting myriad scenes from Indian mythology and a few panels with details of kings. The total length of the corridor is more than 1400 meters and every inch of that is filled with detailed carvings. It is one of those rare places in the world where even the most powerful superlatives used to describe the scene will not prepare the visitor from getting overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it. The local guide path mentions that it should be seen anticlockwise but here the description will follow the clockwise route, in tune with the temple circumambulation (pradakshina) process.

Outline of the temple structure drawn by the early French archeologists]

The bas-reliefs can be seen as a set of 8 different representations. Every side of the corridor has two sets of carvings punctuated by the entrance gates in the middle.

Western Gallery (North End) – Battle from Ramayana

The first panel on the left (from main entry gate) depicts the battle scene from the Ramayana. The whole northern half of the western wall is a jumble of images with furious fight scenes depicted with the Monkey army on one side and Ravana’s army on the other. The panels vividly depict the fight between the Rakshasas and the Monkey army.[Battle scene from Ramayana]

Around the centre of this imagery, one of the panels shows Hanuman carrying Ram on his shoulders with Lakshman and Vibhishan nearby.

They all are facing Ravana who is shown fighting from the chariot. The stylised depiction of Ravana with ten heads is a unique symbol of Khmer art where 10 heads are not arranged horizontally but arranged in 3 tiers.

Northern Gallery (west end) – Gods battle the Asuras after the Churning of the Ocean (Samudra Manthan)

This is the most interesting part of the carvings. There is a whole pantheon of Vedic Gods depicted in active combat with the Asura army. Within the furious fighting depicted throughout this panel, there are clearly identifiable Gods with their characteristic mounts. Prominent among them are: Captain of the Deva army Kartikeyan (Skanda) on his peacock, King of gods Indra on his Elephant, Airavat, The creator God Brahma on his swan and The protector God Vishnu on Garuda.

Apart from others in the god army, one of the most impressive figures is the water god Varuna shown as riding on a five-headed snake which has been harnessed into a mount. On the Asura side, there is a multi-headed figure (with heads depicted in 3 tiers) with multiple arms on a chariot. Early French archaeologists thought that this depiction represented the demon Kaalnemi, which seems to be the correct interpretation. Kaalnemi is said to have been reborn many times according to Hindu legends, including during the Ramayana and Mahabharata time. But this panel depicts a lot of specific gods fighting asuras who are represented chiefly by this multiheaded figure. As per the Puranic legends,  after the churning of the ocean, when the elixir of life (Amrit) was appropriated by the gods, there was a fierce fight where the Asuras were led by Kaalnemi. Even Indra was unable to subdue him and the Supreme Lord Vishnu mounted on Garuda had to come to the fight to defeat him. The overall theme of these carvings and the recurrent motif of Samudra Manthan throughout the Angkor civilisation makes this explanation the most likely one.

Northern Gallery (East end)

This gallery continues to have scenes showing battles between the Devas and Asura army, although the carving is of inferior quality compared to other galleries. There are multiple images of Garuda, some with Vishnu on his shoulder fighting with Asuras. It has been associated with Krishna’s fight with Banasura. One particularly impressive panel has Garuda in front of a wall of fire trying to douse it.

Eastern Gallery (north end)  – Asuras fight with Vishnu

In this gallery, the army of Asuras march as a big team with all the warriors in their distinguishing headdresses and leaders riding elephants and chariots led by fierce lions. Towards the end of this panel, the Asuras encounter Vishnu standing on Garuda, who fights them.

Eastern corridor ( south end ) – Samudra Manthan – Churning of the Ocean

This long panel with repetitive images is instantly recognisable as the famous mythological event called Samudra Manthan. The story of Churning of the Ocean by a combined effort of Devas and Asuras is present everywhere in the Angkor civilisation. Mount Mandar was used as the central pivot and Lord Vishnu took the form of a tortoise to support the mountain. The divine snake Vasuki was used as the rope. Asuras took up the side of the snake’s head and Devas were on the tail side. These carvings represent the mountain in anthropomorphic form. A lot of figures are shown hovering above the Devas & Asuras pulling on the snake acting as rope.[Samundra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean)]

The carvings show a repetition of similar figures in a seemingly endless frame. The Devas and Asuras are distinguished by their headdress, Devas have a conical headdress whereas the Asuras’ headgear has squarish shaped helmet effect. What an effort it must have been, to create such a large number of identical figures with exact same features. There must have been a large number of artisans bringing about such precision with standardisation which makes this effort without any parallel in the world. The Asuras have a few larger than life figures shown with ten heads arranged in a 3 tiered structure ( probably showing Ravana). The Deva team is anchored by a figure which can only be Hanuman. Although these two had no role in the churning of the ocean, the local artisans have created the sculptures to bring a sense of awe in the viewers. These corridors were the last points up to which the general population was allowed to come up during the height of the Khmer Kingdom.

Southern gallery (east end) – Depiction of Heaven, Earth and Hell

This long gallery has vivid displays of torment in the underworld on the lower panel. There are different types of punishment shown as the Hindu mythology stipulates punishments based on the actual crimes or wrongdoings.

The central panel represents the prosperity and general life in the earthly realms and the upper panels show peace and luxury representing the heavens. The almost universal concept of “ascending to reach heaven” and “descending into hell” has been beautifully captured.[Heaven, Earth, and Hell]

Southern Gallery (West End) – Display of King Suryavarman’s Army

This is the only panel where there is no mythological reference. The panels depict the might of Suryavarman’s army. There are some inscriptions which recognise him as “Paramvishnuloka”, consistent with the identification of kings with the divine in the Angkor kingdoms. The army captains are shown riding on elephants and the number of umbrellas above their heads denotes the relative importance in the hierarchy. The panel showing the king has the maximum number of 15 such umbrellas.[The Mighty King Suryavarman]

Western Gallery (south end) – War scenes from Mahabharata

This gallery has a  long panel depicting Mahabharata war scenes, showing Kaurava and Pandava armies facing each other. The long corridor shows every type of fighter, be it a footman, horse rider, a war elephant or a charioteer. The whole ensemble gives an uncanny effect of two large armies marching towards an epoch-defining war, which the Mahabharata War certainly was.

In the northwest and southwest corners, there are a large number of figures depicting myriad themes from Indian mythology. Every available surface has been utilised to show such scenes. It requires great knowledge and persistence to associate these images with particular legends.[Intricately carved corner area panel]

The scale of these magnificent carvings has to be seen to be believed. Although the depth of the carving is not comparable to the carvings being done at the same historical time frame in India (Pallavas, Cholas, Kalinga and central Indian kingdoms), the scale is incomparably huge here. In fact, the corridors by themselves are worth one full visit and the rest of the temple needs another visit. Even with substantial tourist traffic, the chance of photographing long corridors without anyone in the frame testifies to the grand scale of this wonderful achievement.[Juxtaposition of two halves of a corridor]

Entry into the Main temple building

The beautifully carved standing female sculptures depicting the celestial maidens (Apsaras) are found everywhere, especially near the entrance doors and the corners of the walls. These Apsaras have bare upper bodies with elaborate jewelery and magnificent tall headgears. Waist down they are depicted in flowing drapes with an elaborate jeweled waistband. The Apsaras wear heavy anklets that are very similar to the ones worn by ladies in India in earlier times. These Apsaras have differing hand gestures indicating dance poses, welcoming gestures, playing with their hair, holding lotus flowers etc.[The ubiquitous Apsaras]

The four temple tanks (Kunds) on the entryway in the pillared courtyards are eye-catching constructs. It gives the impression of a water tank that may have been used for a ritual dip before entering the main temple. There are steps that go down into the tank. These structures look similar to the temple tanks that are found in the temple compounds throughout India.[Temple tank at first level near entry]

The Indic religions have been the bedrock of Khmer civilization with Hinduism and various streams of Buddhism gaining prominence at different times in their history. According to the reigning king’s religious inclinations, these magnificent monuments were adapted to the monarch’s religion. The reemergence of Buddhism is reflected in the practices where Buddha’s idols have been placed on bases on which Hindu deities were installed originally.

[Idols placed in a random corridor]

Beyond the 4 temple tanks and the interconnecting corridors, one has to climb the stairs to reach the open area on the second level. This area is enclosed by an inner corridor with numerous carvings of Apsaras, but almost no one notices anything about the enclosing corridor as the whole attention is concentrated on the five magnificent Shikhars (Towers). The scale of the monument is clear by the fact that even at this height; the base of the Towers is still a steep climb away.

[Second-floor entry point- first view of the top (tower) Shikhar and the steep steps]

The early morning sun gives a wonderful glow to these towers. This motif of Mount Meru appears again and again in various Angkor monuments.  By the time this Angkor Wat temple was built, the form was firmly established and this magnificent structure was created to represent an empire at its zenith. It is ironical how little is known about this period of history in the other parts of the world, particularly in India, as the whole effect is of an Indian civilization in this land so far away from India.

These steps are so steep (an incline of almost 70 degrees) that it needs one to use all four limbs to safely climb it. There are 3 sets of steps on each of the four sides. The original entryway on the west side is crumbling and it is still to be restored. The other steps are in a better state. One of the flights of steps on the northeastern side has been fitted with a wooden overlaying step ladder and visitors are allowed to climb up in restricted numbers.

[Getting down is even more difficult]

The interconnecting corridors at this top level also form four temple tanks. The main central tower stands majestically tall, commanding awe from all visitors. Even after climbing up to the third level, the tower has a majestic presence and humans look insignificant in comparison. No wonder, it is called the largest temple, as there is nothing else in the world to really match it in scale. There are sculptures above the corridor portico areas depicting deities, Kirtimukhas and Toranas similar to the designs available in temples constructed in India during the same time period. Numerous carvings of Apsaras in various poses are also on the tower.

[The magnificent Central Tower]

The original deity in the centre of the main tower was removed by the later Buddhist kings. There are double porticos on all four sides on this central grand tower. At present, the centre of the inner sanctum is walled off and the Buddhist idols are placed in the side openings. When this site was discovered by the French, one side of the central area was opened and the French archaeologists dug out the earth and sand from the centre part to find out whether there was any treasure buried in the sanctum. No treasure was found even after reaching 25 meters, the depth of external ground level, but at the depth of 23 meters, two circular gold leaves (18 inches in diameter), set in laterite, were found with OM written on them. They must have been a part of the sacred rituals conducted while starting the construction of the temple.

To give an idea of the real size, this image shows the second level terrace form the top level corridors (after climbing those steep-steep steps). The size of humans gives a real idea of the grand scale of the monument. The ponds in the courtyard are far away in the background and the entry Gopuram area is almost like a speck in the background.

[Panoramic view from the top]

The Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a must view. Visitors line up at around 5:00 a.m. to enter the premises and literally jog to get a front view spot alongside the two square lotus ponds outside the main entrance to the first level of the temple. The initial dawn view is in the shades of mauve/pink. It is a heavenly sight. 

After an anxious wait, one can see the golden rays of the sun trying to find its way to the world by passing through the spaces amidst the Meru towers. The sun lights up the world but first it touches the abode of the Gods. The reflection of the scene is mirrored in the waters of the pond. This view is not only captured in the numerous cameras that click away continuously but it finds an imprint in the sub-conscious mind and gets internalised.

At the end of the day, when last of the tourists have departed, the temple stands majestically in its magnificent solitude, happy to be recognized as the great wonder it is. After being in danger of totally subsumed by the advancing forest, it is now a magnet attracting a large number of tourists throughout the year.

How does one say a final goodbye to this temple? My heart and mind kept telling me that this cannot be the last visit, as one has to visit this remarkable abode of the Hindu Pantheon again.

Conclusion

The Angkor Wat temple has been the best-preserved temple in the whole Angkor complex due to the restraining effect of the almost 200-meter wide moat all around, which protected it from the full fury of the advancing forest. According to the experts, the whole monument is a 3 dimensional representation of the universe. The central tower represents Mount Meru, The three levels of the temple represent the 3 platforms of earth, water, and wind. The outer moat represents the surrounding cosmic ocean. Construction of such a grand structure with complex engineering and mastery of architecture shows the greatness of the Khmer civilisation.

References / Footnotes

The 1944 publication – The monuments of the Angkor Group by Maurice Glaize

This article was first published by Pragyata http://www.pragyata.com/mag/angkor-wat-the-largest-hindu-temple-part1-637#