Angkor Wat is a temple complex at Angkor, Cambodia, built for the king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. It is the world’s largest religious building. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple mountain and the later galleried temple, based on early South Indian Hindu architecture, with key features such as the Jagati. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs and for the numerous devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls.
The modern name, Angkor Wat, means “City Temple”; Angkor is a vernacular form of the wordnokor which comes from the Sanskrit word nagara meaning capital or city. Wat is the Khmer word for temple. Prior to this time the temple was known as Preah Pisnulok, after the posthumous title of its founder, Suryavarman II.
Angkor Wat lies 5.5 km north of the modern town of Siem Reap, and a short distance south and slightly east of the previous capital, which was centred at Baphuon. It is in an area of Cambodia where there is an important group of ancient structures. It is the southernmost of Angkor’s main sites.
The initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king’s state temple and capital city. As neither the foundation stela nor any contemporary inscriptions referring to the temple have been found, its original name is unknown, but it may have been known as Vrah Vishnulok after the presiding deity. Work seems to have ended shortly after the king’s death, leaving some of the bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. Thereafter the empire was restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII, who established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon respectively) a few kilometres to the north.
In the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually moved from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist use, which continues to the present day. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned, its preservation being due in part to the fact that its moat also provided some protection from encroachment by the jungle.
One of the first Western visitors to the temple was Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586 and said that it “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”. However, the temple was popularised in the West only in the mid-19th century on the publication of Henri Mouhot’s travel notes. The French explorer wrote of it:
Facade of Angkor Wat, a drawing by Henri Mouhot
“One of these temples a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
Mouhot, like other early Western visitors, found it difficult to believe that the Khmers could have built the temple, and mistakenly dated it to around the same era as Rome. The true history of Angkor Wat was pieced together only from stylistic and epigraphic evidence accumulated during the subsequent clearing and restoration work carried out across the whole Angkor site.
There were no ordinary dwellings or houses or other signs of settlement including cooking utensils, weapons, or items of clothing usually found at ancient sites. Instead there is the evidence of the monuments themselves.
French postcard about Angkor Wat in 1911
Angkor Wat required considerable restoration in the 20th century, mainly the removal of accumulated earth and vegetation. Work was interrupted by the civil war and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s and 1980s, but relatively little damage was done during this period other than the theft and destruction of mostly post-Angkorian statues.
The temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia, and is a source of great national pride that has factored into Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with its neighbour Thailand, France and the United States. A depiction of Angkor Wat has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version circa 1863.
The splendid artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate on 11 August 1863. This quickly led to Cambodia reclaiming lands in the northwestern corner of the country that had been under Thai control since the Thai invasion of 1431 AD. Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time.
During the midst of the Vietnam War, Chief of State Norodom Sihanouk hosted Jacqueline Kennedy in Cambodia to fulfill her “lifelong dream of seeing Angkor Wat.”
In January 2003 riots erupted in Phnom Penh when a false rumour circulated that a Thai soap opera actress had claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.
Site and plan
Angkor Wat, located at 13°24′45″N 103°52′0″E / 13.4125°N 103.866667°E / 13.4125; 103.866667, is a unique combination of the temple mountain, the standard design for the empire’s state temples, the later plan of concentric galleries, and influences from Orissa and the Chola of Tamil Nadu, India. The temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods: the central quincunx of towers symbolises the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean. Access to the upper areas of the temple was progressively more exclusive, with the laity being admitted only to the lowest level.
Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west rather than the east. This has led many (including Glaize and George Coedès) to conclude that Suryavarman intended it to serve as his funerary temple. Further evidence for this view is provided by the bas-reliefs, which proceed in a counter clockwise direction prasavya in Hindu terminology as this is the reverse of the normal order. Rituals take place in reverse order during Brahminic funeral services. The archaeologist Charles Higham also describes a container which may have been a funerary jar which was recovered from the central tower. It has been nominated by some as the greatest expenditure of energy on the disposal of a corpse. Freeman and Jacques, however, note that several other temples of Angkor depart from the typical eastern orientation, and suggest that Angkor Wat’s alignment was due to its dedication to Vishnu, who was associated with the west.
A further interpretation of Angkor Wat has been proposed by Eleanor Mannikka. Drawing on the temple’s alignment and dimensions, and on the content and arrangement of the bas-reliefs, she argues that the structure represents a claimed new era of peace under King Suryavarman II: “as the measurements of solar and lunar time cycles were built into the sacred space of Angkor Wat, this divine mandate to rule was anchored to consecrated chambers and corridors meant to perpetuate the king’s power and to honor and placate the deities manifest in the heavens above.” Mannikka’s suggestions have been received with a mixture of interest and scepticism in academic circles. She distances herself from the speculations of others, such as Graham Hancock, that Angkor Wat is part of a representation of the constellation Draco.