Angkor Wat, the ‘city which is a temple’, is vast. This spectacular mountain temple is the largest religious monument in the world. When it was built, it stood at the heart of what was the biggest preindustrial metropolis on Earth.
Angkor Wat was meant to instil awe. Built under king Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th century, it was an expression of raw temporal power.
But it was also the great king’s mausoleum. Inscribed on one of the bas-reliefs is Suryavarman II’s posthumous name, Paramavishnuloka, or ‘he who has entered the realm of Vishnu’, the Hindu god to whom this temple was dedicated. The magnificence of Angkor Wat was meant not only to confirm the king’s devotion to Vishnu, but also to secure his place at the god’s side in the afterlife.
When one visits Angkor Wat today, one is certain to be impressed. But one is also struck by how bare the temple seems. The chants of monks, and the conversations of tourists and their guides, echo through its empty halls and corridors. Long gone are the hundreds of statues of the gods, each richly apparelled and adorned with precious metals and jewels.
The cult objects in the Preah Pean (Cruciform Galleries) and the galleries of the 2nd enclosure have either been pillaged over the centuries or removed to museums, and the ornate doors to the shrines have vanished. The sacred statue of Vishnu that once stood in the central shrine is now lost.
One can only guess how Angkor Wat must have looked in the time of Suryavarman II. The reliefs would have been brightly painted (there remain small traces of gold leaf in places), wooden buildings would have packed the courtyards, and there would have been a bustling city between the 3rd and 4th enclosures.
Imagine the sea of ceremonial paraphernalia, the bright flags fluttering above the crowds, the glittering lamp stands, the beautiful offerings brought for the gods. The nobles, with ornate head-dresses, carried along in their palanquins, the legion of priests and attendants dressed in their courtly robes.
Yet above all Angkor Wat was, and always has been, a sacred place. Like all sacred places, Angkor Wat is invested with elements which evoke both the supernatural sphere and the power of temporal ambitions.
Sacred Angkor Wat
It can be hard to accurately define what we mean by the word ‘sacred’. It has different meanings for other cultures and religions, and in different times. All concepts are necessarily limited by the language in which they are expressed.
Defining a place as sacred implies that it has its own rules and regulations regarding people’s relation to that place, and that it has a specific set of beliefs bearing on the non-empirical (I hesitate to use the word ‘spiritual’ since it is itself hard to define) world. These beliefs relate not only to powerful divinities, but also to the spirits of ancestors.
The concept of the ‘sacred’ is important because it evokes powerful emotions and shapes our attitudes to a place.
We will explore the sacredness of Angkor Wat through both the reading of its architectural symbolism and through the meaning of its narrative reliefs.
A History of Sacredness at Angkor Wat
There is a widely held belief amongst foreign visitors that Angkor Wat was “discovered” by French and British explorers during the 19th century, after being “lost in the jungle” for centuries. While this has some truth in it for some of the other temples of Angkor, it is blatant nonsense with regard to Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat has always been sacred to the Khmer people, and it has been a thriving religious centre since it was built in the first half of the 12th century. The sacredness of the site probably predates the construction of Angkor Wat by centuries.
In the 14th century, Angkor Wat was transformed from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist monastery, creating a dual system of beliefs. Angkor Wat continued to function as the main regional Buddhist temple and monastery until today.
You may ask why Angkor Wat, rather than the existing Buddhist sanctuary of the Bayon, became the major centre for Buddhist devotion. The answer is that Angkor Wat was simply more practical, it was a more suitable ‘space’ than the Bayon. Angkor Wat has large courtyards and spacious galleries where the monks could pray and perform their ceremonies. It also has large ‘libraries’ where instruments of the cult could be stored and donations from the faithful could be received. Bayon, with its narrow labyrinthine passageways, would have seemed too claustrophobic. Angkor Wat was a clearly defined, well-structured sacred place, whereas at the Bayon the space was dispersed well beyond the sanctuary itself into the extensive area of the city of Angkor Thom.
Over the centuries, restoring older images has been considered a pious deed, and the best way to gain merit was the donation of new images, which several inscriptions tell us happened in huge numbers. The donors included royalty and high functionaries, religious dignitaries, wealthy families, and groups of believers. The donations included cult objects, canonical texts, and gifts to the monks, usually made on the occasion of a pilgrimage.
We know from inscriptions that the bas-relief panels depicting Vishnu’s victory over the Asuras, and Krishna’s victory over the Asura Bana, were completed in the 16th century. The style of these panels is different from those made in the 12th century, they are charming but they lack the refinement of the earlier carvings.
One of the few remaining images stored in the Cruciform Galleries.
In the 17th century, over 300 statues were donated, of which about 140 were made from precious metals and 36 were carved from stone. From the 18th century, inscriptions detailing donations become rarer, although statues continued to be donated.
This long sacred tradition has continued through the centuries, and Angkor Wat has now assumed a historical and political significance as well. Even during the troubles of the 20th century, both the Khmer Rouge and the resident Vietnamese army showed great respect for Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is now the emblem of Cambodia, appearing on the national flag and on contemporary banknotes. It symbolises the nation’s pride.
The Sacred Architecture of Angkor Wat
The sacred complex of Angkor Wat, set amongst forests and surrounded by moats, has a colossal entrance gateway, the Western Gopura, leading to a sequence of four enclosures. Each of these enclosures has its own gopura, several staircases and cloisters, halls and corridors with hundreds pillars. The central shrine seems hardly reachable, set atop a huge stepped mound.
The whole complex invokes the dwelling of Hari (Vishnu) in his continent, the Harivarsa. The Kurma Purana, one of the great Hindu texts, describes Harivarsa as a marvellous imaginary continent outside of India, inhabited by people of a different complexion, and within it a magnificent palace of Hari. There was no model for this monumental pyramidal structure, of difficult access, in Indian architecture. It seems likely that the writers of the Kurma Purana based their grandiose description on Angkor Wat. We know from inscriptions that several brahmins travelled to the country of the Khmers and must have taken back descriptions of Suryavarman II’s splendid Vaishnava temple which inspired the Puranic description.
When one first enters Angkor Wat, the climbing of the steps leading to the causeway over the moat, and the long walk along the causeway, are the first act in the initiation that will be completed by passing through the Western Gopura.
[Note that, at the time of writing, the causeway is undergoing extensive restoration works, and one instead crosses the moat over a plastic floating bridge which, while a lot of fun, does distract a little from the sacredness of your entry to the Angkor Wat complex.]
The guidebooks don’t emphasise enough the ritualistic importance, the spiritual and religious significance, of this ‘passage’ into Angkor Wat. The magnificence of this gopura is meant to indicate to the pilgrim that he/she is not only entering Angkor Wat, the abode of Vishnu, but is also initiated into the mysteries of Vaishnavite beliefs.
Passing through the Western Gopura one enters a sacred space and a surreal world of imagery.
After this initiation, the pilgrim faces an even vaster, richer and more complex sacred space enlightened by narrative and decorative reliefs, sculpted with exquisite refinement, on all available architectural surfaces.
The 1st enclosure, with its magnificent central tower, was the realization of Mount Meru and the ultimate shrine of Vishnu. The impact that one feels when reaching it is all the greater because one is facing it after emerging from the shaded, intimate surroundings of the Cruciform Galleries, or from the darkness of a 2nd enclosure gallery.
Looking up from ground level, the elevation of the 1st enclosure is imposing, with a height of about 65 meters (213 feet). After climbing the high and steep staircase, which is in itself an arduous ‘separation’ from the rest of the temple, one reaches the gallery of the 1st enclosure, with its large windows with stately balusters, and pillared galleries inside. The symbolic use of light by the Khmer architects is masterly. The elevation is so high, the intense white Cambodian light seems to stream in from all directions, and the decoration is so sophisticated that one feels elevated far above the surroundings – perhaps even above the temporal realm, in the home of the gods.
The Sacred Reliefs of Angkor Wat
The function of Angkor Wat’s astonishing narrative and decorative reliefs was not just to embellish the temple, but to transform the temple into a heavenly place, the abode of the god.
The thousands of apsaras, celestial courtesans or dancing nymphs, depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat, in the galleries and towers of the four enclosures, were part of the temple’s cosmic design.
The decoration of the monument with tales from Sanskrit texts and scenes from the life of the king was used to add a new dimension to the complex functioning of the temple, to elevate it to the sacred.
When Khmer artists sculpted the walls of Angkor Wat, they created a ‘Khmerness’ typical of Angkorean art which is very different from Indian art. They had their own conventions for the representation of images, a particular visual vocabulary and grammar, paradigms for size and placement, layout, iconographic conventions, a unique sculptural style. Although the text of Angkor Wat is unquestionably sourced in India, its language is unmistakably Khmer.
A scene from the Mahabharata on the Battle of Kurukshetra panel.
The reliefs were not arranged according to a narrative sequence or logical order. Instead, they followed the Vedic tradition in which the content of the narrative is secondary to the sheer ritual of reciting it. The Khmers seemed to have adopted the primacy of ritual, perhaps chanting or reciting mantras or passages from the various sacred texts illustrated in the reliefs. From these rituals, a new understanding of the stories was created, a new way of thinking about them.
There are, however, visual themes in the reliefs, from the outside towards the centre of the temple, from complex mythological and epic stories towards single mythic events of great significance. They converge towards the para-Vasudeva (the Vaishnava 'Absolute Reality') at the centre of the temple, the symbolic column of light and the axis of the universe. The themes also move from the ground upwards, from the gopura and the galleries of the 3rd and 2nd enclosures, up towards the central shrine. The greatest variety of themes takes place in the 3rd enclosure with its pediments, half pediments, lintels and large panels, illustrating narrative reliefs from the Puranic myths of Vishnu and Shiva and the stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as from historic events. The 2nd enclosure has a greatly reduced thematic variety, inspired primarily by the Ramayana, and the decoration of the Cruciform Galleries that unites these two enclosures is purely Vaishnava in content, due to its ceremonial use.
When one reaches the 1st enclosure, a change towards prevailing Puranic myths occurs. There are no more pediments depicting Rama’s conflicts and adventures traditionally considered to reinforce the concepts of kingship. Instead, the symbolic actions of Vishnu and Krishna become clearer, as if to emphasise the spiritual aspect of the core of the temple, from where they radiate to the four cardinal directions, over the Khmer empire and beyond.
These visual representations of myths and legends from the Sanskrit texts charged the reliefs with intense metaphysical and allegorical meaning. Taken together with the architecture of the temple, the reliefs generate a rich symbolism with a variety and depth of meanings that is intrinsic to the overall religious and mythological symbolism of Angkor Wat.
The Indian texts were used to introduce, or reinforce, values in Khmer culture. The Purana, Harivamsa and Mahabharata addressed general philosophical, moral, religious, and political principles. The Ramayana emphasised personal values in the figure of Rama – the protagonist and hero – who could be easily identifiable with the exemplary figure of a king having the right to rule on Earth (chakravartin) in intimate association with the divine (devaraja).
The Sacredness of Angkor Wat
The narrative reliefs, together with the architectural symbolism of Angkor Wat, create an image of a universe ruled by the gods. Suryavarman II, as the patron of this immense temple city, perceived himself not only as the ruler of the Khmer empire, but also as the sovereign of the world of Indian myths and legends reinforced by Vaishnavite and Shaivite devotion, the cult of ancestors and Brahmanical precepts.
Suryavarman II used the sacredness of Angkor Wat as a symbol of his kingship, of his right to rule as devaraja, the ‘god-king’. Yet the foremost meaning of the temple remains that of a religious statement, a declaration of sacredness. Architecture and reliefs come together to produce sacred and metaphysical meaning far beyond that of the highest visual manifestation of devotion towards Vishnu.
Above all else, the construction of sacredness was the main objective of Angkor Wat.
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