Angkor Wat (six kilometers — four miles — north of Siem Reap) is arguably the most beautiful and impressive historical monument in the world, outclassing even the great Egyptian temples in Luxor, the great churches of Europe and the great Mayan temples of Mexico. Perhaps only the Taj Mahal and Macchu Pichu are as impressive. One writer described Angkor Wat as the “Mother of All Lost Cities.” Another said it deserved the top spot on a modern list of Seven Wonders of the World. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it is the largest temple in the world and the largest religious structure ever built.

Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious edifice and the largest monument of the Angkor group and the best preserved. An architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, relief's and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world. Angkor Wat means “Capital City Temple.” Deeply revered by Cambodians, it is pictured on the Cambodian national flag and the Cambodia currency. It is also painted on fuselages of the national airline and featured on the bottles of Cambodia’s best-selling beer. In 2003, massive riots broke out and the Thai embassy was attacked after a Thai actress was accused of inferring that it belonged to Thailand.

Built by King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) and originally dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva and then Vishnu, Angkor Wat spreads out over 402 acres (about three quarters of a square mile) and required 37 years and an estimated 5000 stone carvers, workers and slaves, using 3000 ox-carts for carrying stones, to complete. Even though Angkor Wat is the most photographed Khmer monument, nothing approaches the actual experience of seeing this temple. Frank Vincent grasped this sensation over 100 years ago” “The general appearance of the wonder of the temple is beautiful and romantic as well as impressive and grand it must be seen to be understood and appreciated. One can never look upon the ensemble of the vat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up onto the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.”

Maurice Glaize wrote in “A Guide to Angkor Monuments” (1944): “The ornamentation is the triumph of Khmer art, where the architecture is but the realization of ritual.” In a single gallery, 12,917 square feet is devoted to bas reliefs.

What Exactly Is Angkor Wat?

Historians and archeologists are still not sure whether Angkor Wat was built as a temple, shrine, mausoleum, observatory or all of some of the above. It looks like a temple. But traditionally Hindu temples had their main entrance to the east. Angkor Wat has its main gate to the west, which is associated with death.

Wat is the Khmer name for temple (the French spelling is "vat "), which was probably added to "Angkor "when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. After 1432 when the capital moved to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks. Most scholars believe Angkor Wat was a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II and oriented to the west to conform to the symbolism between the setting sun and death. The bas-reliefs, designed for viewing from left to right in the order of Hindu funereal ritual, support this function.

Most scholars agree that the temple itself, like other Angkor temples, is a representation of Hindu cosmology. The central towers symbolize the peaks of Mt. Meru. The outer wall represents the edge of the universe, and the moat symbolizes the oceans around the Hindu universe. Many scholars believe the temple linked King Suryavarman II with the Hindu gods and was intended to boost to his divine status.

Angkor Wat originally was the center of royal phallic cult dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. A linga (the phallic symbol of Shiva) was installed in the temple’s main sanctuary. Later Vishnu became the most important Hindu god and his image was placed in the sanctuary at Angkor Wat. In the Angkor era, people who visited the temple walked down the causeway over the moat and made offerings to sacred Hindu statues at the entrance before entering the temple compound. Walking along the hallway toward the central tower they passed a cuneiform pavilion, where temple dancers sometimes performed. Located under the main tower, in the sanctuary, was a shrine dedicated to Vishnu. It once held a statue of Vishnu and was regarded as the cosmic vortex of the temple and its universe. Climbing up the steep stairs to the main sanctuary was regarded as an act of separating oneself from the world.

Angkor Wat Architectural Features

Angkor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 208 hectares (500 acres) defined by a laetrile wall. The first evidence of the site is a moat with a long sandstone causeway (length 250 meters, 820 feet; width 12 meters, 39 feet) crossing it and serving as the main access to the monument. The moat is 200 meters (656 feel) wide with a perimeter of 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles).

Angkor Wat is influenced by the Hindu temple architecture of southern India, which combines harmony and symmetry with a high degree of outer adornment. The five beehive-shaped domes that rise impressively from the center of the temple are adorned with rows of lotuses and are designed to look like lotus buds. The temple is conceived so that all five domes are visible when the temple is viewed from certain angles.

The largest dome sits over the main sanctuary. Four slightly smaller domes are organized in a square plan around the central dome. The five domes represent the five peaks of Mt. Meru, arranged in the shape of a lotus blossom. What makes the towers and Angkor Wat as a whole so beautiful are the way the small details harmonize and mix with the massive architecture. The dome-topped main sanctuary is surrounded by halls, arranged together in a square plan, with lower walls and ceilings, and smaller temples on their corners that represent the mountains on the edge of the world. The galleries, corridors and halls are aligned with directions of the compass.

The wall that surrounds Angkor Wat is 5/8th of a mile long on each side; the central tower is eight stories (213 feet) high; the square moat around the compound is three miles long; and the causeway that leads across the moat to the temple is 1,500 feet long. The sandstone blocks at Angkor Wat were quarried from at least 50 different quarries at the foot of Mt. Kulen 32 kilometers to the northeast. They are believed to have been transported by canals visible today with satellite imagery.

Architectural Plan of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp when walking through the monument because of the vastness. Its complexity and beauty both attract and distract one's attention. From a distance Angkor Wat appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the center but close up it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways.

The height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is greater than it might appear: 213 meters (699 feet), achieved with three rectangular or square levels (1-3) Each one is progressively smaller and higher than the one below starting from the outer limits of the temple.

Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and second levels. The third level supports five towers –four in the corners and one in the middle and these is the most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat. This arrangement is sometimes called a quincunx. Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point.

The overall profile imitates a lotus bud, Several architectural lines stand out in the profile of the monument. The eye is drawn left and right to the horizontal aspect of the levels and upward to the soaring height of the towers. The ingenious plan of Angkor Wat only allows a view of all five towers from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the entrance. Many of the structures and courtyards are in the shape of a cross. The. Visitor should study the plan on page 86 and become familiar with this dominant layout. A curved sloping roof on galleries, chambers and aisles is a hallmark of Angkor Wat. From a distance it looks like a series of long narrow ridges but close up from identifies itself. It is a roof made of gracefully arched stone rectangles placed end to end. Each row of tiles is capped with an end tile at right angles the ridge of the roof.

The scheme culminates in decorated tympanums with elaborate frames. Steps provide access to the various levels. Helen Churchill Candee, who visited Angkor in the 1920s, thought their usefulness surpassed their architectural purpose. The steps to Angkor Wat are made to force a halt at beauteous obstruction that the mind may be prepared for the atmosphere of sanctity, she wrote In order to become familiar with the composition of Angkor Wat the visitor should learn to recognize the repetitive elements in the architecture. Galleries with columns, towers, curved roofs, tympanums, steps and the cross-shaped plan occur again and again.

It was by combining two or more of these aspects that a sense of height was achieved. This arrangement was used to link one part of the monument to another. Roofs were frequently layered to add height, length or dimension. A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the limits of two prominent areas-the galleries and the entry pavilions. The long causeway at the entrance reappears on the other side of the entry pavilion.

Terrace and Causeway of Angkor Wat

Entry and exit to Angkor Wat can only be accessed from its west gate. The west entrance begins with steps leading to a raised sandstone terrace in the shape of a cross at the foot of the long causeway. Giant stone lions on each side of the terrace guard the monument. Looking straight ahead, one can see at the end of the causeway the entry gate with three towers of varying heights and with collapsed upper portion. This entry tower hides the full view of the five towers of the central group. A long covered failure with square columns and a curved roof extends along the moat to the left and right of the entry tower. This is the majestic facade of Angkor Wat and a fine example of classical Khmer architecture. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Helen Churchill Candee must have been standing on this terrace almost 70 years ago when she wrote Any architect would thrill at the harmony of the fasade, an unbroken stretch of repeated pillars leading from the far angles of the structure to the central opening, which is dominated, by three imposing towers with broken summits. This facade originally had another row of pillars with a roof. Evidence of this remains in a series of round holes set in square based in front of the standing pillars.

Before proceeding along the causeway turns right, go down the steps of the terrace and walk along the path a few meters for a view of all five towers of Angkor Wat. Return to the center of the terrace and walk down the causeway towards the main part of the temple. The left-hand side of the causeway has more original sand stone than the right-hand side, which was restored by the French.

In the 1920 when RJ Casey walked on this causeway he noted it was an oddity of engineering The slabs were cut in irregular shapes, which meant that each had to be chiseled to fit the one adjoining. The effect as seen under the noonday like that of a long strip of watered silk'10 On the left side just before the midway point in the causeway two large feet are carved in a block of sandstone. They belong to one of the figures at the entrances to Angkor Thom and were brought to Angkor Wat in this century the causeway was repaired with reused stones.

Serpent Balustrade and Entrance to the Main Temple Building at Angkor Wat

The upper portions of the three sections on this tower-one each at the center and the two ends – have collapsed. The porches on each end of the gallery may have served as passages for elephants, horses and carts as they are on ground level. When Helen Churchill Candee saw these entrances in the 1920 she remarked that architecture made to fit the passage of elephants is an idea most inspiriting. A figure of a standing Visnu (eight arms) is in the right inside the entry tower. Traces of original color can be seen on the ceiling of the entry tower at the left. Continue westward along a second raised walkway (length 350 meters, 1,148 feet; width 9 meters, 30 feet). [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

A low balustrade resembling the body of a serpent borders each side. Short columns support the balustrade. Looking west one sees the celebrate view of Angkor Wat that appears on the Cambodian flag. Standing at this point one teels compelled to get to the wondrous group of the five domes, companions of the sky, sisters of the clouds, and determine whether or not one lives in a world of reality or in a fantastic dream. Six pairs of ceremonial stairs with platforms on each side of the walkway lead to the courtyard.

A continuation of the serpent balustrade along the walkway frames the stairs. This arrangement is sometimes called a landing platform. The balustrade terminates with the body of the serpent making a turn at right angles towards the sky and gracefully spreading its nine heads to from the shape of a fan. Two buildings, so-called libraries stand in the courtyard on the left and right, just past the middle of the causeway. These 'jewel-boxes Khmer art 'are perfectly formed.

Inside the Main Temple Building at Angkor Wat

A large central area, four porches, columns and steps present a symmetrical plan in the shape of a cross. Some of the columns have been replaced with cement copies for support. An original pillar lies on the ground before the library on the left. In front of the libraries are two basins (length 65 meters, 213 feet, width 50 meters, 164 feet) the one on the left is filled with water whereas the other lone is usually dry.

The restoration of the Northern Library was completed in 2005 by the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA). The Northern Library is located north of the front approach of the temple and had been deteriorating from roofs collapsing over its porch area. The JSA, led by Prof. Takeshi Nakagawa of Waseda University, reassembled about 300 pieces of stone to their original position among the 800 collapsed and displaced pieces — work similar to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. The JSA started its restoration work in 1994. It also restored the Northern Library of the Bayon temple in 1999.

Turn left at the first steps after the library and before the basin and follow the path for about 40 meters (131 feet) to a large tree for a superb view of the five towers of Angkor Wat, particularly at sunrise. The walkway leads to a terrace kin the shape of a cross, known as the Terrace of Honor, Just in front of the principal entry tower of Angkor Wat.

Supporting columns and horizontal carved molding around the base accentuate the form of the terrace. Steps flanked by lions on pedestals are on three sides of the terrace. Ritual dances were performed here and it may have been where the king viewed processions and received foreign dignitaries. R Casey sensed such activity in the 1920s One cannot but feel that only a few hours ago it was palpitating with life. The torches were burning about the altars.

Companies of priests were in the galleries chanting the rituals. Dancing girls were flitting up and down the steps... that was only an hour or two ago, cannot have been more.. From the top of the terrace there is a fine view of the gallery on the first level, known as the Gallery of Bas-reliefs (215 by 187 meters, 705 by 614 feet). The outer side, closest to the visitor, comprises a row of 60 columns whereas the inner side is a solid wall decorated with bas-reliefs.

At this point the visitor has the choice of continuing straight to the central towers or turning right to see the Gallery of Bas-reliefs. The unit providing a link between the first and second levels is the Cross-shaped Galleries. This unique architectural design consists of two covered galleries with square columns in the shape of a cross and a courtyard divided into four equal parts with paved basins and steps. The method used by the Khmers to form corbel arches is visible in the vaults. Several decorative features in these galleries stand out windows with balusters turned as if they were made of wood, rosettes on the vaults, a frieze of Apsaras under the cornices, and ascetics at the base of the columns.

Some of the pillars in the galleries of this courtyard have inscriptions written in Sanskrit and Khmer. On either side of the courtyard there are two libraries of similar form but smaller than the ones along the entrance causeway The Gallery of 1,000 Buddha's, on the right, once contained many images dating from the period when Angkor Wat was Backlist. Only a few of these figures remain today. The gallery on the left is the Hall of Echoes, so named because of its unusual acoustics.

To hear the resonance in the Hall of Echoes walk to the end of the gallery, stand in the left-hand corner with your back to the wall, thump your chest and listen carefully. Those who want to visit the library should leave the door at the end of this gallery. There is a good view of the upper level of Angkor Wat from this library.

Apsaras and the Second Level of Angkor Wat

Return to the center of the cross-shaped galleries and continue walking toward the central towers. Another set of stairs alerts one to the continuing ascent. The outer wall of the gallery of the second level, closest to the visitor, (100 by 115 meters, 328 by 377 feet), is solid and undecorated, probably to create an environment for meditation by the priests and the king. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The starkness of the exterior of the second level gallery is offset by the decoration of the interior. Over 1,500 Apsaras (celestial dancers) line the walls of the gallery offering endless visual and spiritual enchantment. These graceful and beautiful females delight all visitors. They were crated by the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

When one first walks into the courtyard the multitude of female figures on the walls and in the niches may seem repetitive but as one moves closer and looks carefully one sees that every one of these celestial nymphs is different, the elaborate coiffures, headdresses and jewellery befit, yet never overpower, these 'ethereal inhabitants of the heavens' Apsaras appear at Angkor Wat for the first time in twos and threes. These groups break with the traditional of decoration kin other part of the temple by standing with arms linked in coquettish postures and always in frontal view except for the feet, which appear in profile.

Pang, a Cambodian poet, in a tribute to the Khmer ideal of female beauty wrote of the Apsaras in the seventeenth century. These millions of gracious figures, filling you with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart sated! They were never carved by the hands of men! They were created by the gods living, lovely, breathing women! Only the king and the high priest were allowed on the upper or third level of Angkor Wat, it lacks the stately covered galleries of the other two but is the base of the five central towers, one of which contains the most sacred image of the temple.

Upper (Third) Level of Angkor Wat

The square base (60 meters, 197 feet long) of the upper level is 13 meters (43 feet) high and raises over 40 meters (131 feet) above the second level. Twelve sets of stairs with 40 steps each one in the center of each side and two at the corners-ascend at a 70-degree angle giving access to this level. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The stairway to the third level is less steep on the west (center) but those who suffer from vertigo should use the south stairway (center, which has concrete steps and a handrail. the steps on all sides are exceptionally narrow. the visitor should ascend and descend sideways. All the repetitive elements of the architectural composition of Angkor Wat appear on the upper level. The space is divided into a cross-shaped area defined with covered galleries and four paved courts. An entry tower with a porch and columns is at the top of each stairway. Passages supported on both sides with double rows of columns link the entry tower to the central structure. The corners of the upper level are dominated by the four towers. Steps both separate and link the different parts. A narrow covered gallery with a double row of pillars and windows and balusters on the outer side surrounds the third level.

The Central sanctuary rises on a tiered base 42 meters (137 feet) above the upper level. The highest of the five towers, it is equal in height to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This central sanctuary sheltered the sacred image of the temple. It originally had four porches opening to the cardinal directions. The central core was walled up some time after the sacking of Angkor in the middle if the fifteenth century. Nearly 500 years later French archaeologists discovered a vertical shaft 27 meters (89 feet) below the surface in the center of the upper level with a hoard of gold objects at the base. At the summit the layout of Angkor Wat reveals itself at last. The view is a spectacle of beauty befitting the Khmer's architectural genius for creating harmonious proportions.

Walk all the way around the outer gallery of the upper level to enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside, the causeway in the west and the central group of towers. You have not quite an aerial view the Phnom is not high enough for that ...But you can see enough to realize something of the superb audacity of the architects who dared to embark upon a single plan measuring nearly a mile square. Your point of view is diagonal, across the north-west corner of the moat to the soaring lotus-tip of the central sanctuary, you can trace the perfect balance of every faultless line, Worshipful for its beauty bewildering in its stupendous size, there is no other point from which the Wat appears so inconceivable an undertaking to have been attempted-much less achieved by human brains and hands.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs

The walls of many of the galleries and halls are inscribed with long, detailed bas-reliefs that together extend for more than half a mile and are believed to have taken hundreds of craftsman decades to finish. The reliefs depict Hindu myths, images of the king and his court, and representation of the Hindu heavens. Many of the most famous ones are in the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, which contains 1,200 square meters of sandstone carvings. Some of the craftsmanship on the bas-reliefs is quite extraordinary. Some of it is mediocre. Most originally had Hindu themes. Later Khmer kings and Buddhist monks added some Buddhist images.

Many of the walls feature images of “asparsases”, voluptuous women that inhabited the heavens. The galleries were once filled with thousands of free standing statues of reclining standing, sitting figures. Now only 26 statues are left. Some of the statues were part of fountains and had water coming out of their belly buttons. Many were taken by invaders. Some prize statues were found in Burma.

By their beauty they first attract, by their strangeness they hold attention, Helen Churchill Candee wrote of the bas-reliefs in the 1920 .The Gallery of Bas-reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square meters (12,917 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The relief covers most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two meters (seven feet) from top to bottom. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The detail, quality composition and execution give them an unequalled status in world art. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the relief. The effect is one of textured wallpaper that looks like the work of painters rather than sculptors' The bas-reliefs are of dazzling rich decoration-always kept in check, never allowed to run unbridled over wall and ceiling possess strength and repose, imagination and power of fantasy, wherever one looks [the] main effect is one of "supreme dignity "wrote a visitor 50 years ago.

The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections, two on each wall of the square gallery each section depicts a specific theme. In addition the two pavilions at the corners of the west Gallery have a variety of scenes. The composition of the relief can be divided into two types scenes without any attempt to contain or separate the contents and scenes contain or separate the contents; and scenes contained in panels which are some-times superimposed on one another-this type is probably later. The panels run horizontally along the wall and generally consist of two or three parts. Sometimes the borders at the top bottom are also decorated. Themes for the bas-reliefs derive from two main sources-Indian epics and sacred books and warfare of the Angkor Period. Some scholars suggest that the placement of a relief has a relevance to its theme. The relief on the east and west walls, for example, depict themes related to the rising and setting sun. The word bas means low or shallow and refers to the degree of projection of the relief. The method of creating relief at Angkor Wat was generally to carve away the background leaving the design in relief. Sometime, though the method was reversed giving a sunken appearance. of some of the relief have a polished appearance on the surface.

There are two theories as to why this occurred. The position of the sheen and its occurrence in important parts of the relief suggest it may have resulted from visitors rubbing their hands over them. Some art historians, though think it was the result of lacquer applied over the relief. Traces of gilt and paint, particularly black and red, can also be found on some of the relief's. They are probably the remains of an undercoat or a fixative. Several primitive artistic conventions are seen in the bas-reliefs. A river is represented by two parallel vertical lines with fish swimming between them. As in Egyptian art, a person's rank is indicated by size. The higher the rank the larger the size. In battle scenes, broken shafts on the ceremonial umbrellas of a chief signify defeat. Perspective is shown by planes placed one above the other. The higher up the wall, the further away is the scene. Figures with legs far apart and knees flexed are in a flying posture.

As the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat were designed for viewing from to lefts the visitor should, follow this convention for maximum appreciation. Enter at the west entrance, turn right into the gallery and continue walking counterclockwise. If you start from another point always keep the monument on your left. If one's time at Angkor is limited, the following bas-recommended. Those who like to linger in this wonderful gallery of bas-reliefs will always be made happy by new discoveries will return as other joys of Angkor will allow.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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