Temple of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 500 acres (200 hectares), Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city.” Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork.
Its 213-foot-tall (65 meters) central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and be the home of the gods.
Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a 650-foot-wide (200 m) moat that encompasses a perimeter of more than 3 miles (5 km). This moat is 13 feet deep (4 m) and would have helped stabilize the temple’s foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.
Angkor Wat’s main entrance was to the west (a direction associated with Vishnu) across a stone causeway, with guardian lions marking the way. To the east of the temple was a second, more modest, entrance.
The heart of the temple was the central tower, entered by way of a steep staircase, a statue of Vishnu at top. This tower “was at once the symbolic center of the nation and the actual center where secular and sacred power joined forces,” writes researcher Eleanor Mannikka in the book “Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire” (Abbeville Press, 2002). “From that unparalleled space, Vishnu and the king ruled over the Khmer people.”
Hidden paintings have recently been discovered in the central tower. One chamber in the tower has a scene showing a traditional Khmer musical ensemble known as the pinpeat, which is made up of different gongs, xylophones, wind instruments and other percussion instruments. In the same chamber, there’s also an intricate scene featuring people riding horses between two structures, which might be temples. These two paintings are among 200 that have been recently been discovered in Angkor Wat.
The builder of Angkor Wat was a king named Suryavarman II. A usurper, he came to power in his teenage years by killing his great uncle, Dharanindravarman I, while he was riding an elephant. An inscription says that Suryavarman killed the man “as Garuda [a mythical bird] on a mountain ledge would kill a serpent.”
Suryavarman’s bloodlust would continue into his rule; he launched attacks into Vietnam in an effort to gain control over the territory. He also made peaceful diplomatic advances, re-opening relations which China.
He venerated the god Vishnu, a deity often depicted as a protector, and installed a statue of the god in Angkor Wat’s central tower. This devotion can also be seen in one of the most remarkable reliefs at Angkor Wat, located in the southeast of the temple. The relief shows a chapter in the Hindu story of creation known as the “churning of the sea of milk.”
As archaeologist Michael Coe writes, the relief “describes how the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) churned the ocean under the aegis of Vishnu, to produce the divine elixir of immortality,” (“Angkor and the Khmer Civilization,” Thames & Hudson, 2003). Scholars consider this relief to be one of the finest art pieces at Angkor Wat.
Suryavarman’s devotion to Vishnu is also shown in the posthumous name he was given, “Paramavishnuloka” which, according to researcher Hélène Legendre-De Koninck, means “he who is in the supreme abode of Vishnu.” (“Angkor Wat: A Royal Temple,” VDG, 2001).
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