July - September 2007

Angkor Wat: The Pinnacle of Cambodian Art and Architecture

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

The saying, “The pictures don’t do it justice” has become a bit cliché, but there are few places in the world that deserve that cliche as much as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is only one part of the ancient city of Angkor, which I wrote about in the previous article. But most everyone—historian, archeologist or tourist—would agree that it was the pinnacle of Cambodian art and architecture.

Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world, taking up over 500 acres, and has more stone than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. The outer wall has a diameter of over 3 1/2 miles. A bridge crosses the moat and leads to a gateway, the interior of which is carved with over 500 apsaras (angels or supernatural female spirits of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist mythology). The inside of the stone gateway is rather dark, making the first sighting of Angkor Wat even more impressive. There are actually five towers, four in a square and one in the middle, but from this point to the entrance of the temple there appear to be three towers, the middle one taller than the other two. The highest tower reaches 213 feet above the ground and is made to look like lotus buds about to open.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, the Largest Religious Building in the World

Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple. It is unusual in that it faces west (all other temples face east, toward the sunrise). For many years it was thought to be a tomb as it faced west, but it has since come to light that it was dedicated to Vishnu, not Shiva, and the west is sacred to Vishnu. It was built by King Suryavarman II around the year 1150, when the kingdom of Angkor, ancient Cambodia, was at its peak and stretched from northern Thailand to southern Vietnam. (For more on the history of Angkor, see my previous article.) Like many of the other temples, Angkor Wat is intended to represent Mt. Meru, the axis of the world in Hindu belief. At the very start is the huge moat, almost 700 feet wide, representing the cosmic ocean that existed before creation. There is also a representation of the cosmic ocean at the central sanctuary, suggesting one is traveling through time from the cosmic ocean that covered the earth before creation to the cosmic ocean that will again cover the earth at the end of the world.

There are three levels to Angkor Wat. From the walkway a set of stairs leads to the first level. It is rectangular and stretches around the other two levels. The inside has a remarkably high vaulted roof, which gives it the feel of a cathedral. Sanskrit inscriptions record the glorious deeds of the kings. On the outside is the gallery of bas reliefs, stone murals that cover over 800 meters of the outer wall.

Bas Reliefs on the First Level

Incredible Bas Reliefs on the First Level

The first one I came across showed a battle with the Siamese. Soldiers on foot and knights on elephant back battle equally impressive forces. Around the corner is another battle scene, but this one is different. In this one, giants do battle with ten armed demons, heroes are mounted on Khmer lions, garudas (a lesser Hindu divinity) and other mythical beasts, and arrows turn into snakes. This is no ordinary battle scene; this is a battle from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Turning a corner, I found myself looking at one of the most popular Hindu epics: the churning of the ocean of milk.

According to this very popular Hindu story the gods were trying to create the elixir of eternal life, but were not successful. Further, they were exhausted from fighting the demons so they went to Vishnu for advice. Vishnu told them that they would have to cooperate with the demons. Vishnu got the demons to agree to help by promising to give them the elixir once it was produced. The demons agreed so Vishnu took a mountain, placed it upside down over the ocean of milk, and wrapped the king of the Nagas (supernatural beings) around it. The demons stood on one side and held the tail and the gods stood on the other holding the head.

After many centuries, the churning produced treasures. Among them were the goddess Lakshmi, the three-headed elephant that became the mount of Indra, the cow of plenty (Shiva’s mount), and many other wonders. On the 999th year the churning produced the apsaras that emerged from the churning surface of the ocean. Finally, on the 1000th year, the elixir of eternal life was produced, enough to fill one goblet. Vishnu gave the goblet with the elixir to the king of the demons as promised. But before the demon could drink it, a stunningly beautiful and scantily clad girl appeared and danced seductively in front of the demon king. She asked the demon king for the elixir. He was so drunk with lust that he didn’t notice that she hadn’t offered him anything in return. The girl then darted away and gave the elixir to the gods. The girl was really Vishnu.

In the mural, the gods are shown on one side with calm-looking, almond-shaped eyes, while the demons are on the other side with big, round eyes. On another wall I found depictions of the Mahabarata, another great Hindu epic. While still popular in India, that epic has faded from South East Asia. Perhaps that’s because its morals involved the caste system and other Hindu values that are no longer a part of South East Asian culture. The Ramanaya teaches loyalty, dedication, respect and faithfulness. The Mahabarata teaches a rigid adherence to caste even if that means killing family members, an idea foreign to South East Asians. The bas reliefs pack an incredible amount of action into every inch. Characters are all very close together, and the word “busy” is an understatement. At one time the walls would have been lacquered and painted, which must have made them as exciting as any action show on TV.

Leaving all this behind, I climbed a steep set of stairs to the second level. Climbing to the second level means ascending into the heavens. Gone are the battle scenes and the hectic activity of the gallery of bas reliefs. They are replaced by smiling, serene apsaras. There are more than 1,500 apsaras with quiet, celestial faces, but they are spaced far enough apart that the busy feeling of the first level is gone. Large windows with carved stone bars looking out onto the green countryside and jungle add to the effect.

Asparas on the Second Level

Serene Asparas Residing on the Second Level

The third level seems even closer to heaven than the second. The four lotus-bud shaped towers are on each corner, and the central tower is elevated in the center. There is a walkway around the perimeter and four large, square-shaped pools represent the cosmic ocean with four bridges to Mt. Mehru. At that point I felt inspired to sit on the ledge of a window and just look out and smile back at the apsaras on the second level below. The wonderland of halls and galleries of the lower levels and the peaceful, green farms and jungles made me feel like it was heaven on earth, if part of earth at all. After indulging in the view for about half an hour, I climbed to the central tower sanctuary. The central sanctuary was something of an anti-climax as the center was partitioned off in the 1600s when Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple. There are now four chambers with modern-looking Buddhist altars. The center of the chamber is visible from only one part of the tower, and it is empty. In olden times it housed a gold statue of Vishnu mounted on a garuda.

Dragging myself away, I climbed back down the walkway. I stopped at the gallery of bas reliefs, which seemed to come alive in the orange light of the setting sun. As I walked from the first level back to the moat I found that I wasn’t the only person that had to stop to turn around and marvel at the temple every few steps. At the gate I just stopped and stared. There is much about it that is wondrous, not the least of which is its size. Not that a 213-foot building is that unusual these days. In fact, in most big cities a 213-foot building would be lost in the crowd of much larger buildings, but have you ever seen one shaped like a giant flower bud?

All this might beg the question, what was the rest of the city like? Only the temples remain as they were made of stone. You can only dream about what Angkor must have looked like when all the buildings of the city were still standing. There are very few sources of information on this. One of the few sources is a Chinese merchant who lived at Angkor in the 1200s, just after Angkor’s peak. The merchant, Zhou Daguan, wrote a book called The Customs of Cambodia. In it, he describes the palace: “Lentils and columns, all decorated with carved or painted Buddhas, are immense… In the chamber where the sovereign attends the affairs of state there is a golden window, with mirrors on square columns to the right and left of the window trim, 40 or so in number.”

Of the nobility and upper class dwellings he tells us they are, “Of wholly different in size and design from that of the people. The family temple and main hall are covered with tiles; all the outlying buildings are thatched with straw. The rank of each official determines the size of his house.” He then tells us, “Straw thatch covered the dwellings of the commoners, not one of whom would place the smallest bit of tile on his roof. In this class too, wealth determines the size of the house, but no one would dare to vie with nobility.”

The next day my driver took me out beyond Angkor to Banteay Srei. The temples of Banteay Srei are really small chapels. Still, they always rank among the visitor’s favorites. This is because they are very well preserved, intricately carved, and made from rare pink sandstone. The level of detail in the carvings is amazing. There are scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu epics, Khmer lions, Indra on his three-headed elephant, and many other images in the soft, pleasing pink sandstone. One popular motif is Vishnu awakening from cosmic sleep.

Banteay Srei

Bantey Srei, a Favorite Among Visitors

With that, my tour of Angkor was over. After traveling around South East Asia I had finally walked into its heart. It was from here that South East Asian culture was spread and adapted to the culture of the people whose soil it was planted upon.

The next day I boarded a bus to the border. The trip back was something of a shock. The monumental buildings of Angkor were truly built to last and to preserve the glory of ancient Cambodia. Modern Cambodia, recovering from years of war and genocide, couldn’t be more different. We rode down unpaved Highway 6, a collection of potholes and bomb craters, for about an hour before coming to a place where a truck was stuck in the mud. So stuck in fact that the local villagers had set up a market right in the middle of the national highway! The road wasn’t paved and there was a ton of dust. After filling out the exit formalities I walked across the border and back into Thailand. I had left Cambodian soil, but Cambodian soil had not left me. Nor would it until I had taken a very long shower in Bangkok that night.

Robert Wilson is an English teacher in northern Thailand. Pictures of his travels can be seen at photos.yahoo.com/robert_92122.

Other stories in this series:

Angkor, the Heart of Cambodia's Ancient Empire
Visiting with Thai Spirits and Ghosts
Visiting Heaven at Preah Vihear
Loy Kratong: Fireworks in the House? No Problem
Saksit and Other Thai Conundrums
Mandalay and the Road to It
Bago, on the Road to Mandalay
Kyaiktiyo:   The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair
Shwedagon:   Myanmar's Holy Land
Into the Burmese Supernatural
A Thai Funeral
Brunei: The Abode of Peace
A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo
Finding Religions—Plenty of Them—in Kuala Lumpur
Luang Phabang: The Lao Fairy-tale City
From Monkey to Monk
Along Cambodia's Backroads
Listening to the Rice Grow:   A Journey Up the Nam Ou River in Laos
(Part 1 and Part 2)

Don't miss future articles from Robert in our continuing series, Window on Southeast Asia series.

© 2005 - 2007 by Robert Wilson

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