Angkor Vat

Noted for its architectural and artistic perfection, not to mention its sheer size, Angkor Vat is the most famous and no doubt the most remarkable of all of Cambodia's ancient temples. Combining great technical mastery on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary architectural and artistic innovations, Angkor Vat has a unique place in the long ancient Khmer tradition of the royal "Temple-Mountain.". Built in the 12th century in the reign of King Suryavarman II, this was the residence of Vishnu, the divine palace in which the King himself was to reside after death. The construction is thought to have taken some thirty years of intensive labor.

Aerial View

View from the West

View from the Southeast

In the "Middle Period", notably in the 16th century, Angkor Vat, then known as Preah Pisnulok (the posthumous name of its royal founder), became a site of Buddhist pilgrimage not only for the Khmer people but for much of Southeast Asia, and indeed for other more distant Asian peoples. Today, the Khmer people see in "Little Angkor" (the familiar name of Angkor Vat), the symbol of their nation.

Angkor Wat, forming a rectangle of about 1,500 by 1,300 metres, covers an area including its 190 metre wide moats - of nearly 200 hectares. The external enclosure wall defines an expanse of 1,025 metres by 800, or 82 hectares. It is the largest monument of the Angkor group.

Angkor Vat Plan

Site

Constructed to the south of the capital (Angkor Thom), Angkor Vat is sited in the southeast corner of the ancient city of Yashodhara built by Yashovarman I and centred on Phnom Bakheng.

The westward orientation of Angkor Vat is opposite to the orientation of sanctuaries dedicated to divinities. In Brahmanic funerary rituals, the rites are performed in reverse of the normal order - the ritual procession does not follow "pradakshina" (keeping the monument to one's right), but rather in the opposite direction, the "prasavya?". Hence, the bas-reliefs are to be viewed in an anti-clockwise direction.

Moat

Cause Way

Exterior

The moats surrounding the external enclosure of the monument are bordered by steps with a moulded sandstone perimeter, and are five and a half kilometres in overall length.

They are crossed only at two places - to the east by a simple bank of earth, and to the west by a 200 metre-long and 12 metre-wide sandstone-paved causeway, lined with columns along its sides. A cruciform terrace decorated with lions, precedes this causeway and is bordered by naga balustrades.

The temple enclosure, formed by a high laterite wall incorporates a colonnade of 235 metres composed of a three-part gopura - the towers of which are cruciform in plan and galleries that link with two pavilions at either extremity which served as passageways for elephants.

Ta Reach Status

Kuk Ta Reach

Kuk Ta Reach, the "Sanctuary of the Royal Ancestor" is the traditional name of the series of porticos in this colonnade leading into the interior of Angkor Vat. Of the many divinities and spirits worshipped here, 'Ta Reach' is by far the most important. Embodied in a colossal four-armed statue worshipped in the portico to the south of the main entrance, Ta Reach's protective powers are known throughout the Angkor region. Over the past decades, local caretakers have restored parts of the Ta Reach statue with cement. In 2003, the cement replica head was replaced by the original that had been stored for safekeeping at the National Museum of Cambodia.

Bas-Relief Galleries

The bas-reliefs cover the inner walls of the galleries of the lower enclosure and comprise of panels two metres in height with a total area of more than 1,000 square metres excluding the corner pavilions. Limited to the zone that would have been accessible to the public, they represent legendary and historic scenes for the enlightenment of the faithful.

These galleries, which are open to the exterior and form the temple's third enclosure wall, are sculpted in bas-reliefs representing historical and epic scenes. The friezes were, for the most part, executed during, or shortly after, the reign of Suryavarman II. Only the northeastern corner - the northern section of the eastern gallery and the eastern section of the northern gallery were left bare at that time, to be sculpted later, in the 16th century. These late reliefs are notably inferior in quality of conception and execution, due most probably to a rupture in the artistic tradition between the fall of the capital at Angkor in the 15th century and the 16th-century restoration. The scenes represented are as follows:

 
Battle

1. The Battle of Kurukshetra, between the Pandava and the Kaurava families, from the Mahabharata epic tale.The reliefs sculpted on the southern section of this western gallery represent a concluding episode of the Mahabharata, a renowned Indian epic tale.This is the Battle of Kurukshetra, when the Pandava and Kaurava clans meet in final, deadly combat. Interestingly, the Mahabharata is virtually unknown in modern Cambodia. Unlike the Ramayana, which continues to permeate all aspects of Khmer culture, the Mahabharata would seem to have faded from cultural practice and memory with the decline of the Angkorian Empire.

Suryavarman II

2. Historical scenes depicting the reign of Suryavarman II.
The reliefs sculpted on the western section of this southern gallery commemorate a series of historical events from the reign of King Suryavarman II, the founder of Angkor Vat in the 12th century. As the brief inscription engraved next to the image of Suryavarman II identifies this king by his posthumous name, Paramavisnuloka, the reliefs themselves are thought to have been sculpted shortly after his death.


Hell

3. Heavens and Hells: the consequences of one's acts can be pondered as the blessed delight in celestial bliss above while the wicked suffer in agony below.
The reliefs sculpted on the eastern section of this southern gallery represent the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells derived from Indian tradition. The Hells, on the lower registers, are pictured in greater detail than the Heavens above. Each Hell is in fact identified by an accompanying inscription. Thus we read "Avici", "Raurava", etc., names still known and feared in Cambodia.

4. "The Churning of the Sea of Milk".
The reliefs sculpted on the southern section of this eastern gallery represent the "Churning of the Sea of Milk", a popular episode from Vishnu lore. The Gods (northern part) and the Demons (southern part) use the serpent Vasuki as a cord wound around Mount Mandara, emerging from the Sea; pulling alternately on either end of the serpent, together they churn the Sea of Milk in order to extract the nectar of immortality. Seizing the nectar as it is formed, the Gods are victorious, and thus thereafter immortal.

5. Victory of Vishnu over the Asura demons. The reliefs on this northeastern corner (northern section of the eastern gallery and eastern section of the northern gallery) were sculpted in the 16th century, some four hundred years after the original construction of Angkor Vat and the sculpture of most of the temple's gallery walls. These reliefs clearly demonstrate that, though Cambodia had by then become a Theravadin Buddhist nation, the Khmers had not yet forgotten their past Brahmanic culture. The scenes on the northern section of the eastern gallery, are thought to have been extracted from the Indian Harivamsa, show the God Vishnu, in the center, singularly defeating the Demons.

6. Victory of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) over the demon Bana.
The scenes on the eastern section of the northern gallery, thought to have been extracted from the Indian Harivamsa, show Krishna, one of Vishnu's many avatars, defeating his rival Bana. A variety of Gods are represented here, including Shiva at the western end.

7. Combat between the Gods and the Demons.
All the major Brahmanic Gods, identifiable by the attributes they brandish and the animal mounts they ride, are represented on the western portion of this northern gallery. Each God is shown in singular combat with a Demon. In a similar way to other sculpted galleries of Angkor Vat, the God Vishnu, pictured here in the center of the long panel, is pre-eminent.

8. The Battle of Lanka, from the Ramayana epic tale.
The reliefs of the northern portion of this western gallery illustrate a renowned episode of the Ramayana, the Indian epic tale which recounts the exploits of Prince Rama (an avatar of Vishnu). We see here the Battle of Lanka, in which Rama's monkey army led by the monkey General Hanuman fights the Demon King Ravana's army. Rama's army seeks to rescue his wife Sita, who has been captured and held hostage in Lanka, Ravana's island kingdom.


Preah Paon

budda

Preah Poan

The name of this cruciform gallery - 'the Thousand Buddhas' - dates from the Middle Period, when the prestige of Angkor Vat spread across Buddhist Asia. Over the course of time the faithful erected here a great number of statues of the Buddha in stone, wood or metal, hence the gallery's name. Some of the statues still remain while others are exhibited or kept in conservation storehouses. Others have, for diverse reasons, been lost forever. Together, these Buddhist statues testify to an artistic school unique to the temple of Angkor Vat.

The majority of Angkor Vat's 41 inscriptions dating from the Middle Period are found here, on the pillars of Preah Poan. Largely in Khmer, sometimes including Pali phrases, they date from the 16th to 18th centuries and record pious works performed at Preah Pisnulok by pilgrims, including members of the royal family. The authors inscribe their "vows of truth" and declare their "pure faith" in the religion of the Buddha. These stone inscriptions make an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the ideology of Theravada Buddhism as it became Cambodia's principal and official religion. Inscriptions in other languages, such as Burmese and Japanese, further demonstrate the cross-cultural attraction the temple has long exerted.

Bakan

Originally the principal sanctuary of Angkor Vat's uppermost terrace was open to the four cardinal points, and probably sheltered a statue of Vishnu, the supreme god of the temple. Later, when Angkor Vat became a center of Buddhist pilgrimage, the four entranceways into the central sanctuary were filled in with sandstone blocks; each of the newly constituted walls was then sculpted with a deep relief of the standing Buddha. In 1908 archaeologists opened the southern entranceway. In the place of any original Vishnu statue, they found multiple statue and pedestal fragments, as well as a sarcophagus. Further research carried out in the well of the central sanctuary in the 1930s revealed, at a depth of 23 meters, the temple's original foundation deposits: two circular gold leaves embedded in a laterite block.

A number of inscriptions at Preah Poan and Bakan, along with the artistic style of these Buddha figures, indicate that the enclosure of the central tower and its transformation into a Buddhist sanctuary was a royal work executed in the latter half of the 16th century. This architectural and iconographic transformation translated into space the conceptual transformation of the central Brahmanic sanctuary into a Buddhist stupa. Here the four Buddhas of the past, facing each of the four cardinal points, surround the garbha - the maternal matrix - which encloses Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. The Bakan illustrates in a most spectacular manner the evolution of Angkor Vat over time: as the ancient Vishnuite temple became a sacred Theravadin Buddhist site, Angkor Vat undoubtedly played a primary role in the conversion of Cambodia into a Theravadin nation.

Angkor Vat Today

Angkor Vat has always figured on Cambodia's national flag. The temple symbolizes the soul of the Khmer people, and the lasting grandeur of their past.

Since December 1992, Angkor Vat and other Angkorian monuments have been classed as UNESCO "World Heritage". This is a great honor for Cambodia, and a major national obligation. We are responsible for Angkor's preservation not only before history and in respect of our ancestors, but also, today, before the entire international community.


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