Angkor Wat – An Architectural Marvel
Dedicated originally to Vishnu, the magnificent temple at Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Considered an architectural marvel, it is an awe-inspiring sight with a majestic facade and five tall and imposing towers, which are visible from a great distance. The symmetry and precision with which the temple was built are striking. Because of the perfect symmetry, all the towers are only visible at a certain angle.
Built like a mountain consisting of three concentric enclosures with inner enclosures higher than the outer ones, Angkor Wat is filled with repetitive and recursive structures that are pleasing to the eye. These structures include pillars, roofs, galleries, doorways with lintels and pediments, and gopuras (towers). Despite Angkor Wat’s grand scale, it gives an impression of harmonious architecture because of its open spaces, the proportionality of the architectural elements and seamless blending with the surroundings.
Unlike many other famous monuments, it was never really abandoned and was in use continuously since its inception. Although it was built as a Hindu temple with cultural and religious influences from India, the architecture and building techniques were unique to Cambodia. There are no Hindu or Buddhist monuments in the Indian subcontinent that are as massive as Angkor Wat. The temple was built with local ingenuity and talent that existed for many centuries, even before the Khmer rulers came to power.
The people of Cambodia are very proud of their heritage, and it is evident from the fact that the Cambodian flag carries the image of Angkor Wat. During the civil war in the 70s and 80s, monuments did not suffer any damage as the rival sides were very protective of their heritage.
Angkor Wat is a part of the larger Angkor Archaeological Park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. The preservation and restoration of Angkor Wat started in 1908 by the French and is now being undertaken by the Government of Cambodia with the help of many countries, including Japan, France, and India.
The erosion of the bas-reliefs, especially on the pediments of the doors, is significant compared to Banteay Srei, which was built 200 years before Angkor Wat. The main reason for this erosion is the quality and type of sandstone used.
Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century at the height of Khmer civilization. The temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, one of the Trimurti (Trinity) of Hinduism. Even though the predecessors of Suryavarman II were devotees of Shiva, he became a devotee of Vishnu for an unknown reason. The temple became a Buddhist monument later and underwent some changes.
By any stretch of imagination, building a monument of this magnitude is a massive undertaking. It is amazing how the structure as enormous as Angkor Wat was completed in 36 years. It uses more stone blocks than the Giza Pyramid. Almost every part of the building is decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures. According to an inscription, it took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete the job. The sandstone slabs needed to build the temple were quarried from the Phnom Kulen mountains and transported to the site using elephants.
There is a lot of debate among experts as to why this massive monument was built. Some claim that it was built as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II, the Khmer king who commissioned this monument. Some believe his body was buried under the central tower of the temple.
The Khmer people practiced their religion by mixing their ancestral belief system with Hindu traditions and philosophy. The Khmer rulers started their own brand of Hinduism known as the Devaraja cult. According to this belief system, the king is a devaraja (god-king in Sanskrit) who is divine and allowed to rule with divine authority.
Although Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, it broke many traditions of the Hindu temple architecture. The main one is its orientation. Whether it is in India or Southeast Asia, almost all the Hindu temples are built facing east, a direction considered sacred because the sun, a source of energy and light, rises in that direction. In contrast, the Angkor Wat Temple faces west, the sunset direction. This is one of the reasons why the experts believe Angkor Wat is more of a mausoleum than a temple.
Angkor Wat, the heavenly city of Vishnu
The original name of Angkor Wat was Vrah Vishnuloka, which in Sanskrit means the sacred abode of Vishnu. The name Angkor Wat became prevalent once the Khmer rulers started following Buddhism.
The name Angkor Wat means temple city in the Khmer language. The world angkor was derived from nakor, which was borrowed from the Sanskrit word nagara, which means city. Wat in Khmer means the temple. It is again derived from the Sanskrit word vata, which means enclosure.
As the name suggests, Angkor Wat is a city with a temple complex. It covers an area of 200 hectares with many rectangular shaped concentric enclosures.
A large moat surrounds the city. As you can see from the image, the moat is still filled with water and has steps to access it. It is about 650 ft wide and 4 ft deep and encompasses the entire temple perimeter of 3 miles.
The moat served an important purpose from the architectural standpoint. It helped to stabilize the massive Angkor Wat structures by keeping the groundwater at a steady level, i.e., it acts as a reservoir that does not let the groundwater go down too low or high. This is one of the reasons why the Angkor Wat structures are almost intact even after 1000 years.
The next inner enclosure is the actual city that housed many royal buildings, none of which have survived. Experts believe the king and the nobility lived in these buildings.
On the west side of Angkor Wat, there is a causeway that begins at the outer bank of the moat and ends at the temple complex. There is a similar causeway on the eastern side, but a shorter one. Both the causeways are built on top of the moat.
The image shows the statue of multi-headed Sheshanaga (king of serpents) at the beginning of the causeway.
The causeway over the moat leads to the main entrance of the outer enclosure of the temple. The entrance structure has three gopuras, the middle one being the taller than the other two and the entry point.
Entrance to the outer enclosure of the Angkor Wat Temple
The southern gopura of this structure shelters a statue of Vishnu, which according to some experts stood inside the principal sanctuary, i.e., the uppermost terrace of the temple.
The standard iconography of Vishnu shows him with four arms, but this sculpture has four additional arms. Vishnu with 8-arms is known as Ashtabhuja Vishnu (8-armed Vishnu).
Check the following pages for the other Ashtabhuja Vishnu depictions.
- Ashtabhuja (8-armed) Vishnu – Sculptural relief mounted on the outer wall of the Somanathapura Keshava Temple near Mysore in Karnataka, India
- Ashtabhuja (8-armed) Vishnu – Sculptural relief carved into the left side wall of Cave -3 in Badami in Karnataka, India
A spectacular view of the entrance from the top level
The image shows the space between the outer entrance and the temple complex. At the far end, the image shows part of the gallery consisting of three gopuras at the perimeter of the outer enclosure. The middle gopura is taller than the other two and is the entrance.
At the near end, the image shows the pediment of the door located on the lower level gallery. The bas-relief on the pediment depicts a scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra, an episode from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
A causeway connects the outer entrance to the main entrance of the temple. The two similar looking library structures are situated on either side of the causeway.
The image shows one of the library structures seen in the above image.
The outer enclosure has two ponds, one on the south and another on the north. These ponds were not part of the original monument but were built sometime in the 16th century. The north side pond is where the tourists gather in the morning to view Angkor Wat at sunrise. If the weather is right, the sunrise offers a spectacular view of the temple with its reflection on the pond.
Magnificent temple complex built with symmetry and precision
The diagram shows the ground plan of the Angkor Wat Temple. Note: It is not drawn to scale.
The Angkor Wat Temple is oriented along the east-west axis, and as mentioned before, it is facing west, i.e., the main entrance is on the west side. The layout of the structures is symmetrical about the east-west axis. In other words, the structures on the north and south of this axis are the mirror images.
The temple complex consists of three rectangular-shaped concentric enclosures. Within these enclosures, there are three levels of structures. The middle enclosure on the first level supports the second level structures, and the inner enclosure supports the second and third level structures. In other words, the temple complex was built like a three-level pyramid.
Following the Hindu temple tradition of having a prakara at the outer limits, a rectangular structure surrounds the outer enclosure. This structure has galleries along the cardinal directions with small towers called pavilions built at the four corners. In the middle of the west and east galleries are the entrances. Carved into the walls of the galleries are the bas-reliefs depicting stories and scenes mainly from the Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Check the Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs page for a detailed descriptions of these bas-reliefs.
A courtyard separates the outer and middle enclosures. On this courtyard, there are two libraries near the west entrance; one on the north and another on the south. A structure known as the Cruciform Cloister connects the west entrance to the middle enclosure. This structure also connects the first level to the second level.
The second and third level also have galleries at the boundaries. At each corner of the second level, there is a small tower connecting the galleries on both sides.
At each corner of the third level, there is a large tower connecting the galleries on both sides. At the middle of the third level is a tall tower which can be seen from all sides. There are four rectangular basins between the middle tower and the four corner towers.
Entrance to the temple complex
The rectangular gallery structures built on the periphery of the outer enclosure form the prakara of the temple. Note: A prakara in Hindu temple architecture is a protective wall or structure built around the outer perimeter of the temple.
There are four galleries, one in each cardinal direction. At each corner of the gallery-structure is a tower-like structure called pavilion. The image shows a view of the temple from the southwest corner showing the of the west and south galleries and the pavilion where they meet.
The images below show the corridors of the galleries whose inner walls are carved with bas-reliefs depicting various themes from Hindu mythology. The roof is beautifully decorated with rosettes of lotus flowers. Supporting the outer side of the gallery are the square pillars.
Intricately carved bas-reliefs adorning the gallery walls are one of the main attractions of this temple. The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections with each gallery having two sections, each of which was carved continuously in the horizontal direction depicting multiple scenes of a theme. Some panels have two or three tiers in the vertical direction. Some part of the bas-reliefs have polished appearance and some still have traces of original paint, especially red.
Check Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs for a detailed description of bas-reliefs on the lower-level galleries.
Libraries – Mysterious structures
Many Khmer temples, including the stunningly beautiful Banteay Srei, have libraries near the entrance. Built like mini shrines, the libraries are the unique elements of the Khmer temple architecture. Although their exact purpose is still a mystery, the likely intention was to use them as repositories of manuscripts.
It is worth noting that there is no concept of libraries in the Hindu temples in India. The Hindu religious texts, which include two epics and 18 Puranas, are large and numerous. The manuscripts of these texts were likely brought from India and were considered precious and sacred. The libraries were likely built to preserve them in a safe place and were designed like shrines to allow people to worship them. However, there is no evidence that the libraries were ever used as repositories of manuscripts.
The temple complex has two identical libraries, one in the south and the other in the north, located at the same distance from the east-west axis. They are near the west side entrance and south and north of the cruciform cloister.
The image on the right shows the library on the south side. The image on the left shows courtyard of the lower terrace, library, and gallery on the south side of the temple. To the north of the library is a structure called the cruciform cloister, a term used by architects to describe these types of structures.
Cruciform Cloister – An excellent example of symmetrical design
The term cruciform cloister is used in architecture to describe a cross-like covered structure. The underlying design-principle was used in the Angkor Wat architecture in two locations, one in the lower level and another in the top-most level. The cruciform cloister on the lower level is situated near the entrance on the west side, and it was built to connect the outer enclosure to the middle enclosure of the temple.
The cruciform cloister structure has two perpendicular axial galleries that intersect in the middle to form a cross and four boundary galleries that surround the cross to form a square. The shape of the structure thus looks like a cross surrounded by a square.
Each axial gallery connects to a boundary gallery in the middle. Thus, the resulting structure has four equal-sized quadrants, each of which is enclosed by half of the boundary and half of the axial galleries. As you can see from the image, each quadrant looks like a basin.
The cruciform cloister structure described above is an example of a perfectly symmetrical design. It is symmetrical about the east-west axis as well as the north-south axis.
As you can see from the image, the floor of the basin is paved and has steps to reach it. The construction appears water-tight. So, in all likelihood, it was a temple-tank (kunda or phuskarini), a common feature in Hindu temples. Experts believe that all four basins were filled with water when the temple was in use.
The gallery on the right side (i.e., south side ) of the cruciform cloister is also called Preah Poan (thousand Buddhas) because of thousands of Buddha statues left inside this structure by pilgrims, most of whom came from the neighboring regions and Japan. They erected Buddha statues made of metal, stone, and wood as votive offerings. While the majority of them are lost, some can still be found here, and some are in the storage.
The gallery on the left side is called the Hall of Echoes. Here you hear the echoes of the sound you make at the end of the gallery. This is a common feature in many temples and monuments in India.
The image shows the axial gallery along the east-west direction. As you can see, it has steps at the end leading to the middle terrace.
The middle terrace also has galleries at the perimeter of the rectangular enclosure. Galleries are connected to relatively small gopuras at the end. As you can see from the image on the left, a well-paved corridor is between the uppermost terrace enclosure and the middle terrace galleries. The gallery on the left side of the image ends into a small corner gopura (tower). To the right of the corner gopura is a door to the gallery. The top-level structures are on the right.
The doorways of the galleries and gopuras are beautifully decorated, and always have pediments typically carved with scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The image on the right shows a doorway to the middle-level gallery. The lintel (which is just above the door) depicts Indra wielding his weapon Vajrayuda with his right hand while riding his vahana (vehicle) Airavata, a three-headed elephant.
The bas-relief on the pediment (which is above the lintel) depicts a scene based on an episode from Ramayana in which Vali, the Monkey King of Kishkindha, lay dying while his courtiers are mourning and the gods above are watching.
Death of Vali – A poignant episode from Ramayana
According to the story, Sugriva, who is Vali’s younger brother, secretly desires Vali’s throne. When Rama approaches Sugriva seeking his help to find his kidnapped wife Sita, Sugriva sees an opportunity to fulfill his desire. As a condition to look for Rama’s wife, Sugriva asks Rama to help topple Vali. Rama agrees to this condition and forms an alliance with Sugriva. Rama and Sugriva devise a plan to defeat Vali. According to this plan, Sugriva invites Vali for a duel, and during the fight, Rama, who is waiting on the sidelines, kills Vali with an arrow.
The Banteay Srei Temple has a beautifully carved bas-relief that illustrates the Vali-Sugriva fight.
The middle level of the Angkor Wat is less ornate than the lower level. However, the walls and pillars of the galleries are carved with beautiful bas-reliefs of apsaras and devatas. The images show two such reliefs.
The images show apsaras carved in the middle level. As you can see, they are standing gracefully, each with different postures. They are wearing elegant skirts and beautiful jewelry, including necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets. The dangling earrings reach up to their shoulders, and they look like the flowers of the Kror Sang tree. On their head are the intricately carved three-tipped headdresses (except one on the image on the right). The jewelry and costumes in the carvings showcase the richness of the Khmer culture and reflective of how people used to live in the Khmer era.
Note: There is no equivalent English translation for the Sanskrit word apsara. The closest translation is celestial maiden or nymph. In Indian mythology, apsaras are youthful eternal beauties. According to one myth, they are accomplices of gandharvas, who are celestial musicians. Through their singing and dancing, apsaras entertain the gods. Apsaras are one of the by-products of the Samudra Manthana, which was a collaborative effort by devas (demigods) and asuras (demons) to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. The victorious devas took them to the court of their king, Indra (i.e., heaven). For more details on the Samudra Manthana, check: Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs.
Inspired by the beauty and elegance of the apsara carvings in the Khmer temples, especially in the Angkor Wat, apsaras make up a significant part of cultural dances (ballets) in Cambodia. They wear similar types of jewelry and costumes, including the majestic headdress’, that appear in the bas-reliefs.
Known as the Bakan, the uppermost terrace is the principal sanctuary of the temple. The access to the Bakan was restricted to the king and high priests. The Bakan symbolizes Mount Meru, which in Hindu mythology is a mythological mountain with five peaks at the center of the Universe and is home to gods and demigods (devas). Mount Meru also appears in Buddhist and Jain texts.
The uppermost terrace has four equally-sized towers rising from the corners and a taller and bigger tower in the middle. In architectural terms, this forms a quincunx, a geometrical pattern formed by five elements, four of which are placed at the corners and one placed at the center of a square. All the towers have the same conical shape, which symbolizes the bud of a lotus flower sacred in India and Southeast Asia.
From a distance, the towers of Angkor Wat appear similar in shape to the towers of the temples in Prambanan, which were built a few centuries earlier on the island of Java. This goes to show that the Khmer architecture was influenced by the architectures of temples in the neighboring regions rather than India.
The four corner towers are identical in shape and size. Each has two access doorways with steps from the middle terrace corridor. The images below show the views of the corner towers as seen from the middle terrace corridor.
Corner towers of Angkor Wat
The image shows the door of one of the corner towers on the uppermost terrace. The door frame is beautifully decorated. The pediment shows a scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra.
At the boundaries of the Bakan are the four galleries, each connecting to a corner tower at both ends. An axial gallery in each cardinal direction perpendicular to the boundary gallery connects that boundary gallery to the central tower. The four boundary galleries and four axial galleries form a cruciform cloister structure, just like the one in the lower level.
The image shows a boundary gallery connected the axial gallery and one of four basins formed by this arrangement.
Entrances to the Bakan
At the middle of each boundary gallery on the outer side is a porch that was used as an entrance. When the temple was built, the Bakan had all the four entrances open. Once the temple became a Buddhist monument, three of the entrances were closed and statues of Buddha were installed on the vestibule.
The image on the left shows the outer view of one of the porches of the entrance as seen from the uppermost terrace itself. On the left, it shows a section of the outer wall of the north gallery ending into an entrance. Also seen on the right are the middle terrace corridor and the north library on the lower level courtyard.
The image on the right is a view from the middle corridor of the steps to the same entrance shown in the above image. As you can see, the steps to enter the Bakan from the middle terrace are steep.
Surrounding the uppermost terrace are the galleries. The image on the left shows an inside view of the gallery. Although not as ornate as the middle terrace, some of the walls and pillars have carvings of apsaras .
The left image shows a pillar with intricate and detailed carving of two smiling apsaras with perfect anatomy standing elegantly with the flowers in their hands. As you can see, they are wearing exquisite jewelry on their necks, hands, legs, ears, and around the waists. The dangling earrings reach up to their shoulders, and they look like the flowers of the Kror Sang tree. Adorning their heads are intricately carved three-tipped mukutas (headdresses). Both the apsaras are wearing different but elegant dresses decorated with beautiful flowery patterns.
The Bakan has many Buddha statues, which were installed after the Angkor Wat temple was converted to a Buddhist monument.
The rightmost image shows the Buddha statue seated on a seven-headed serpent (naga) placed on the eastern gallery. Buddha is in a mediating state indicated by his hand gesture (mudra). This statue is an interesting combination of Hinduism and Buddhism. The seven-headed serpent on whom Buddha is seated is the king of nagas known as Seshanaga (a.k.a Adishesha) whom Vishnu often uses as a bed. The sculpture confirms the belief that Buddha is one of the avatars (manifestations) of Vishnu.
The image shows a view of the central tower as seen from the uppermost terrace (i.e., Bakan). This imposing structure is exactly in the middle of the uppermost terrace. The height of the tower is 700 feet from the ground.
Experts believe that King Suryavarman II was buried under this tower. However, excavations under this tower and elsewhere have not discovered a body or significant funerary objects, except for a rectangular stone object, possibly a part of the sarcophagus, and some objects that might have helped a body to be placed in a fetal position. If the grave existed, it was most likely plundered or moved to another location when the temple was converted into a Buddhist monument.
– Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei
– Phnom Kulen, Tonlé Sap, Cambodia
– Bali, Prambanan, Prambanan Bas-Reliefs, Borobudur, Indonesia
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