Angkor Thom or ‘The Large City’ is a resplendent reminder of the great Khmer rulers, whose magnificent vision was realized thanks to a number of learned architects, engineers, masons and workers. Angkor Thom was established as a city by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII during the last years of the 12th century after he defeated the Chams (present-day Vietnam), who had laid waste to the Angkor kingdom. The location of Angkor Thom overlaps with the earlier capitals of Angkor kings.
The first Angkor capital in this locality was Yashodharapura, which was founded in 9th century by Yashovarman. The 11th-century kings Suryavarman I and Udayadityavarman also had this area as their capital. In 1177, Angkor was defeated by the Chams and this area was devastated. Jayavarman VII, who became king in 1181, raised it back from the ruins and constructed this magnificent city with high walls all around it and surrounded it by a moat for further protection. The earlier Hindu temples like Baphoun and Phimeanakas along with other smaller buildings were integrated into Angkor Thom and he constructed the great Buddhist temple of Bayon at the centre of this city.
The surrounding walls and the entryway
Angkor Thom was a large city, square in shape and surrounded by a wall 8 metres high, on all four sides with an enclosure of 3 kilometers on each side. Beyond the wall, there is an external moat that is 100 metres wide. There are 4 small temples at the corners of this wall called Prasat Chrung (Prasat is the Khmer word for Tower or shrine), but access to these Prasats is not possible. This wall has 5 magnificent gates.
Just outside the gates, there are causeways with stone sculptures depicting the scene of the Churning of the Ocean (Samudra Manthan). The stylized depictions show the great Naga Vasuki being pulled by a team of Devas and Asuras. This depiction is not an exact depiction of the legend (as shown in Angkor Wat), as both sides are shown pulling on separate snakes on either side of the road leading into the city. Devas can be identified by their conical headdresses and serene faces, whereas the Asuras have grim faces and uneven headgears. The presence of 27 such warriors pulling on the nine-headed snakes on either side of the road is an intriguing vision that leaves one in awe. It looks otherworldly but welcoming, as the huge smiling faces greet you and ensure a smile in reciprocation.
[The grand entryway]
The 5 magnificent gates act as entry points into the Angkor Thom city. The four cardinal directions have one gate each and there is an extra gate on the east side, on the straight axis from the palace complex. This is called the Victory gate and this is the main way outside to visit the smaller temples to the east. The gates stand 23 metres tall and have 4 huge faces on the towers, facing 4 different directions. In keeping with the theme of Buddhist orientation of the builders, it is generally accepted that the faces represent the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara.
One of the main sources of authentic information about the Angkor civilisation and Angkor Thom is the accounts left by Zhao Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived there during 1296-97. According to him, there was a fifth head on top of the Gopuram style gates. This reference points to the uncanny resemblance to the Hindu Creator God, Lord Brahma, who is also depicted usually with 4 faces but also had a fifth face according to legend.
The content and calm expressions on the grand faces – West Gate]
The lower supports of these monumental gates are modeled like a 3 headed elephant with their trunks plucking lotus flowers from the ground. These trunks serve as pillars. On top of the elephant, The King of Gods, Indra, sits with two Apsaras on either side. This portion is broken in many of the gates and is best visible on the east gate and the victory gate. These stylized elephants are quite an ingenious creation. Apart from the Victory gate, the North and South gate function as the main entry/exit points into the city.
[The three-headed elephant, at Victory Gate]
Central Temple – Bayon
Jayavarman VII was the biggest builder among the Khmer kings. He created the big city of Angkor Thom and established a great temple called Bayon at its centre. He broke with the tradition of Hindu temples and created this temple to worship the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara (Lokeswara). The core Hindu mythological theme of a central celestial mountain surrounded by the outlying water as oceans was retained and only the presiding deity was Buddhist. This temple is famous for its 54 big towers with smiling faces (4 on each) looking out in all directions.
From a distance, the Bayon Temple immediately captures one’s attention due to its massive size, grey colour and the numerous towers with the central tower dominating the others. It appears a bit ruinous and the overall look lacks homogeneity but on the whole, the effect is magnetic. The passage of time has dealt a blow on the total construct and it is a wonder that the ensemble still remains.
[Bayon Temple from beyond the surrounding water area]
The main entrance to the temple is through a platform on the eastern side. This platform has guardian lions and snakes forming balustrades. The Naga motif is ever present in every construction in the Angkor civilisation. The entrance is through a small Gopuram type of structure in a gallery.
There are numerous pillars at the entryway that must have given support to higher structures that are not present today. At first, the entrance appears a bit cluttered due to its dilapidated condition but a careful look reveals beautiful carvings on the pillars. What strikes the visitor is the ubiquitous elegant and beautiful apsaras in varied poses dancing on a bed of lotus flowers. Three dancing apsaras with the central Apsara being the largest, forming a triangular shape unique to Bayon. Some pillars have two apsara depictions and some even one apsara. These apsaras not only add beauty but also create a feeling of animation and bring joy and liveliness to the viewers.
[Apsaras dancing on a bed of lotus flowers]
The Bayon Temple is 45 metres high and has three levels that are linked by a jumble of stairs and corridors. The two outer galleries have sculpted bas-reliefs. The innermost level has a central circular tower, which is unique among the Khmer constructions.
The Bas-relief Galleries
The third or outer level bas-reliefs on the towering walls are of exceptional beauty and detailing. The outer wall is a 160 by 140 metres rectangle, within which the temple is enclosed. The sculpting is striking and more deeply incised than the reliefs at Angkor Wat. The scenes depict historical events, battles, daily routine affairs of the commoners, processions and much more. Basically, the reliefs provide a source of documentation that is remarkable for the details and observations of the master craftsmen. It gives a good idea of the customs and conditions of life in ancient Cambodia during the times of King Jayavarman VII (late 12th century C.E.).
One panel depicts the diverse trade interactions that the Khmer people had with other kingdoms and people. There are rows of shops and some of these shops have Chinese merchants as sellers. The Chinese merchant is also seen having a business meeting with other Chinese people. This relief gives the understanding that trade with Chinese merchants was a common affair.
[A marketplace scene showing Chinese merchants as well]
The Khmer history reveals the friction it had with the Chams or Vietnam that was called Champa in those days. Jayavarman VII had to battle the Chams to regain control over Cambodia. This battle has been effectively depicted in one panel that shows the Khmer army in procession, heading towards the battlefield to fight the Cham army. The Cham soldiers are shown retreating along with their elephant mounted generals. The war scenes are rather vivid.
[A war scene showing the retreating Cham army]
Another portion of the outer wall bas-relief depicts scenes from daily life – processions, markets, flora and fauna.
[Scene depicting routine daily life]
A very interesting part of the relief depicts a naval battle with big ships wherein the Khmer navy is defeating the Chams. This battle took place in the great lake – Tonle Sap. We can see Cham soldiers being thrown overboard to be eaten by crocodiles. It is a rather vivid carved depiction.
[Naval warfare – Cham soldiers being thrown into the great lake]
The Second enclosure to this temple measures a 80 by 70 meter rectangle. It is not a regular gallery like the outer wall but has different levels. The bas-reliefs on these walls and corners are more to do with religious depictions, mythological scenes, the king’s might and the king’s army.
The scenes depicting religion are to do with the Hindu Gods. One area vividly shows priests performing pujas of the Shivlinga. Lord Vishnu in his iconic four hand pose stands to the left of the priests. Lord Brahma has been depicted on the right side. The lower area of the panel shows numerous rishis/priests in obeisance before the Holy Trinity.
[Priests performing pujas in a temple]
The king’s might has been elaborately depicted in these carvings. In the collage below there is a scene depicting a royal procession with the king on an elephant, army commanders, foot soldiers and cavalry. Another one shows infantry soldiers carrying arms and other equipment on their shoulders. Another area depicts princesses being carried in palanquins. Some areas near the outlets or windows have beautiful apsaras. Above the lintel level, we even come across rishis in yogic postures.
There are numerous panels devoted to the legend of the Leper King. It is still not clear as to whether the leper king was actually King Jayavarman VII. A dramatic scene shows the king fighting a snake. The King was bitten by the snake that led to the king getting infected, resulting in leprosy. The king has been shown with bites on his hands and lying sick with royal women around him.
[The Leper King fighting a snake]
The inner area of the Bayon has a central circular structure that is one of a kind in the Khmer architectural designs. The Bayon Temple lay deserted for some centuries when it was found in the 1910s. The inner area and the face towers were in a dilapidated condition. It was painstakingly restored by the French Archaeological team in the 1930s and 1940s by a process called Anastylosis method. This temple is built of sandstone, laterite and sand with dense, complex but careful ornamentation. This area has multiple corridors at different levels and the towers with the faces of Avalokiteswara come into view. Narrow Stairs lead to the top circular level.
[The complex structures and towers]
The inner area reveals pedestals that must have been used for positioning Hindu deities for worship. One shrine is dedicated to Lord Shiva as there is the presence of a Shivlinga. There were separate shrines for worshipping gods belonging to the Hindu pantheon. It is clear that although the Bayon was primarily a Buddhist Temple, Hindu Gods were also worshipped at some point in time.
[A Shivling in one of the central shrines]
An interesting facet is the sculpting of Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s Mount, shown holding up the towering structures, while he straddles the multiple headed Naga. This particular motif has been found in many temple structures in Cambodia and Thailand including recent temples.
[Garuda holding up the structure by his raised arms while straddling the hooded Naga]
Hindu motifs and iconography are prevalent throughout the structure and the tourist needs a keen eye for recognizing these ubiquitous motifs. The three-headed elephant with Lord Indra riding it is a good example. Indra is holding the ‘Vajra’ in his right hand with celestial beings around him. This carving is found at the base level of one of the towers at the top level.
[Indra riding the three-headed elephant]
The top inner level looks otherworldly with four-faced towers of Avalokiteswara all around. It is intriguing as to how this was conceptualized. Many towers have an inner shrine though these shrines are empty. The doors to these shrines have carvings and some even appear to have Kirthimukhas above the lintel. Although there is a presence of a substantial number of divinities, both Brahmanic and Buddhist, looking at the faces one definitely finds an uncanny resemblance to the idea of Brahma with his four faces. Jayavarman VII, although a Buddhist, may have translated the idea of God King in this temple as some say that the faces resemble that of Jayavarman VII.
[The Faces of Bayon]
Despite the presence of so many faces, one does not feel intimidated as the faces are welcoming. The faces exude calmness – the thick lips are curved into a delicate smile, the nose seems to contribute to the smile, and the eyes are closed with the eyelids also exuding a sense of serenity. The ends of the facial features all slightly curve upwards to reflect the famous ‘Smile of Angkor’. The real wonder is that this effect has been achieved by separate carvings on different pieces of stone and subsequently fitting them together. To achieve such harmony with so many different pieces is really a great example of the sculptor’s mastery.
[‘The smile of Angkor’]
The Central Sanctuary has eight towers with faces on all four cardinal sides. This central tower has been described as the ‘Golden Tower’ by the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who stayed in Angkor. There are porches all around this circular sanctuary. Steps lead to openings into the inner shrine of the tower. The windows with the distinctive wooden effect pillars are visible. Such windows are present in most of the Khmer constructions.
[The central sanctuary at the top level]
The elephant terrace is a raised terrace that is visible from the road that leads to the Bayon Temple. This terrace is 300 metres long, starting from the old palace area of Baphoun to the Terrace of the Leper King. It was built at the end of the 12th Century CE during the time of Jayavarman VII. The walls of this terrace are decorated with elephants and Garudas of a style similar to that of the Bayon. One can walk on the terrace as there are stairways flanked by three-headed elephants that take one there.
[The elephant terrace showing the long row of elephants and garudas that run along the length of the wall]
The northern stairway to the terrace is grand in comparison to the other stairways. This has two sets of three elephant heads, with trunks that form pillars and tug at lotuses. There is also a huge pedestal on top of these elephants. This area of the terrace was the royal pavilion where the king appeared to hear the complaints of his subjects. There is a parade ground in front of this pavilion that was used for festivals, games and processions. The King would sit on top of the pavilion to view the public ceremonies and his army.
The pavilion is rather damaged. The elephants are in place but the central area between the elephants reveal a jigsaw of stone pieces that do not make sense. The ground is strewn with carved stone remains that did not fit anywhere. Some of these stones have beautiful carvings but need to be assembled in its proper place to reveal the real beauty.
[The raised royal pavilion of the Elephant terrace with two sets three-headed elephants]
Terrace of the Leper King
The terrace of the Leper King is on the Northern end of the Elephant Terrace. It is a 7-metre high platform. There was a statue of an Angkorian King on top of this platform that is now kept in the Phnom Penh National Museum. The statue is nude and it is still a mystery as to who exactly was this Leper king. This terrace was also built during the time of Jayavarman VII. Some believe this terrace to be a royal cemetery. This terrace is majestically carved with seven rows of figures of humans, animals and celestial beings.
[The seven rows of bas-relief on the outer walls of the Terrace of the leper king]
There is an inner gallery in this structure where the inner wall also has a lot of sculpted figures in high relief depicting rows of figures, some human and some otherworldly. The multi-headed hooded Nagas are also represented at many places. It is quite like a maze with eyes looking at the viewer from all sides.
This temple dates back to the time of King Udayadityavarman II (mid 11th century) and it is located to the west of Bayon temple within the Angkor Thom compound. It was the part of old Angkor Thom which was the capital before Jayavarman built the walled enclosure. This is the type of temple which has the stepped pyramid as the dominant architectural feature. This temple was the centre of old Angkor Thom and it represented the Mount Meru with its impressive height. It is accessed by a long causeway and has a wide base on which the different layers are constructed. It must have been an impressive sight at its peak.
[The causeway to the temple]
This temple was a shrine to Lord Shiva and it had a Shivling as its prime deity. The top tower was very impressive but it has been totally damaged. Among all the temples which have been restored, Baphoun has the most tragic history. It was in a severely damaged condition and therefore it was carefully dismantled so that it could be reconstructed. The stones were arranged and mapped carefully with records created to help in restoration. Before the restoration could start, the Khmer Rouge problem started and the war resulted in wholesale destruction. All the records were destroyed and the end of the war saw a jumble of stones, sometimes referred to as the world’s largest 3D jigsaw puzzle without any clue. It is to the credit of archaeologists and historians that after an effort of decades, the temple has been rebuilt and is able to convey the sense of grandeur even in this dilapidated state. Some parts of the galleries can be seen in middle and upper levels and a few isolated bas-relief carvings survive in a few places.
[View from the top level of Baphoun]
As the sun sets, the view from the side shows the boldness and grandeur of the construct. Even with the foliage of trees, the stones shine through in the fading light. There was an effort to assemble the fallen stones in a shape resembling a sleeping Buddha. This jumble of stone is visible at the back side of the temple and it is discordant with the overall architectural theme of the grand structure.
The area behind the Elephant terrace was the location of royal palaces. As these structures were made of wood, nothing substantial has survived except parts of some enclosures and water structures. The Phimeanakas temple, located within this area, is the earliest structure of this area, probably constructed in the late 10th – 11th century. It is a Hindu temple and an example of the pyramid structure which was frequently used in the early Angkor period. It has three tiers in the shape of a step pyramid with access via steep stairs guarded by lions on the sides. It must have been an impressive structure because as late as 1296, Zhou Daguan, the Chinese diplomat referred to this temple as the Golden Tower located within the Royal Palace. Standing in front of this long forgotten monument, it is impossible to miss the resemblance with a similar monument on the other side of the Globe, The Stepped Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico, of the Aztec civilisation.
[Stepped Pyramid structure of Phimeanakas temple]
The Angkor Thom complex has numerous other small structures strewn around its densely wooded area. It has been the centre of Angkor civilisation for centuries and the various structures are a testament to the kings who once reigned from this magnificent capital city. On the North East side there a group of 5 small temples called Preah Pithu, which are almost in ruins. On the Northwestern side, among the serene jungle, there is a restored monument called Preah Palilay. It has a Gopuram entrance and lots of Bas-relief depicting events from Buddha’s life. Just in front of the Elephant terrace area, there are 12 separate tower structures called Prasat Suor Prat. They are situated on the side of the road leading to the victory gate and their purpose has not been conclusively deciphered.
[The row of smaller towers]
The area of Angkor Thom is still full of dense forest area. All the temples described in this article along with the roads, gates and associated cleared areas are but a speck of grey enclosed within the verdant greenery. No wonder it was lost for so many centuries, lying within the all-enveloping forest.
[A Google earth image snapshot of Angkor Thom walled city at present (Water in the moat at the outer edge is visible]
Through the centuries, the religion of the reigning monarchs changed many times. The existing structures were adapted to the changed religion with internal changes and changing the deities without damaging the overall structures.
Visiting Angkor Thom is a beautiful and memorable experience. It is not just the temples and structures that are captivating but even the journey that takes one to the gates and beyond. The lush green verdant foliage on both sides of the road is so refreshing that the journey can go on and on. The ride on the Remorque (tuk-tuk), motorized open vehicle is an amazing experience as it allows the traveler to feel the freshness of the air and a view of the entire expanse of the ancient surroundings.
This article was first published by Pragyata