One of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia is the temple complex known as Angkor Wat, which is situated in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was built during the Khmer Empire, which ruled over much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos from the 9th to the 15th century.
Vishnu, one of the three main gods in the Hindu pantheon (the other two being Shiva and Brahma), is honored at Angkor Wat. King Suryavarman II, whose name translates as the “protector of the sun,” was Angkor Wat’s principal patron. Many scholars think that Angkor Wat was not only a temple dedicated to Vishnu, but that it was also intended to serve as the king’s mausoleum in death.
Work of Angkor Wat apparently started three years after King Suryavarman II ascended to the throne, in 1116 CE. Not long after the king’s death, in 1150, it was most likely finished. In addition to the confusing inscriptions, the architectural design, artistic style, and associated statues of the temple offer additional support for various dates.
Building temples was a way for Khmer kings to prove that their claims to political authority and divine protection were legitimate. Hindu temples serve as the residences of the gods rather than as places of religious assembly. In order to assert his political position, a monarch had to show that the gods did not support either him or his opponents. The ruler was needed to build the biggest temple or palace for the gods, which ended up being more lavish than any earlier temples, in order to achieve this. The monarch could then assert that the temple was the only place on earth where a deity would consider dwelling by demonstrating his ability to gather the resources and labor required to build it.
Approximately 300,000 people were probably needed to complete the construction of Angkor Wat, including architects, construction workers, masons, sculptors, and servants to provide them with food. The site’s construction lasted more than 30 years and was never finished. A detailed inspection of the temple reveals that practically every surface has been treated and carved with narrative or ornamental features, making it astonishing that the site is entirely made of stone.
The Stone Sculptures of Angkor Wat
The stone sculpture that can be found on practically all of the Angkor Wat temple’s surfaces, including its columns, lintels, and roofs, has earned it worldwide fame. There are literally miles of reliefs, most of which take the form of friezes in bas-relief that illustrate moments from Indian mythology. These reliefs include a dizzying assortment of animal and human forms as well as abstract patterns like garlands and lotus rosettes. They consist of dancing girls, warriors, griffins, unicorns, lions, garudas, snakes, winged dragons, and devatas (Hindu gods or spirits). The headdresses, hair, clothing, posture, and jewelry of the gods and human figures received thorough attention from Khmer sculptors, who are unquestionably among the best in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat also boasts many statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in addition to reliefs.
Carved Bas Reliefs of Hindu Narratives
There are 1,200 square meters of sculpted bas reliefs at Angkor Wat that represent eight different Hindu stories. The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which represents a tale about the beginning of time and the creation of the universe, may be the most significant narrative at Angkor Wat. It is also a tale of good triumphing over evil. In order to regain control and order for the gods who had lost it, the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) fight each other in the story. The elixir of life (amrita), which must be freed from the soil in order to recover peace and order, can only be done through cooperation between gods and demons. As a result, both parties are aware that obtaining the amrita once it is made available would be difficult.
The relief depicts the situation where the two sides are churning the milky ocean. The Naga or serpent monarch is acting as the divine rope in a game of tug-of-war between the gods and demons, as shown in the detail above. On Mount Mandara, which is Vishnu’s representation (in the center), the Naga is being spun. While the milk is being churned, several things take place. One result of the churning is the creation of apsaras, or celestial maidens, who are shown in relief all around Angkor Wat (we can see them here on either side of Vishnu, above the gods and demons). The Vedic god Indra, who is regarded as the monarch of the gods, is pictured coming down from heaven to collect the elixir once it has been released in order to prevent the demons from destroying the earth.
The Architecture of Angkor Wat
The architecture style of Angkor Wat is a blend of several architectural styles found in the Khmer empire. The complex represents the classical Khmer style of architecture, which is characterized by the use of pyramidal structures and ornamentation with intricate carvings.
The temple complex has a unique layout, with a central temple surrounded by a series of interconnected galleries and smaller temples. The central temple is built over three levels and is surrounded by a moat that represents the cosmic ocean. The temple’s five towers are symbolic of the peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology.
The complex is decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, stories from the Khmer empire, and daily life from the time period. The carvings on the walls of Angkor Wat are said to be some of the most extensive and detailed in the world, covering an area of over 1,200 square meters.
The architecture of Angkor Wat has had a significant influence on the development of Khmer architecture over the centuries. Its style can be seen in numerous temples and buildings throughout Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and is considered one of the most important cultural sites in the world.