Narrative and exquisitely carved
Known for its immensity, grandeur, and architectural brilliance, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and one of the most visited. Located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, this sprawling complex was originally a Vishnu temple built by the Khmer King Survarman II in the 12th century. It was later converted into a Buddhist monument by the kings who came after him.
Angkor Wat also offers a glimpse of the day-to-day life during the heyday of the Khmer civilization through its intricately-carved numerous bas-reliefs carved on its galleries, pediments of gopuras, and pillars depicting scenes based mostly on the Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and ancient Hindu texts, such as the Puranas. Although there are bas-reliefs on the upper-level galleries and pediments, the bas-reliefs on the lower-level galleries are extensive and detailed.
Elaborate bass-reliefs on the lower-level gallery
The lower-level galleries are in a rectangular structure built at the periphery of the lower enclosure. On each side of this structure, there are two sections of continuously carved bas-reliefs. In total, there are eight sections of bas-reliefs, each with a different theme. The bas-reliefs are carved on the polygonal walls of the structure, and most of them have two or three tiers in the vertical direction. Many of the bas-reliefs have polished appearance, and a few still have traces of original paint, especially red.
Unlike the majority of Hindu temples, which are east-facing and where the visitors follow the pradakshina patha (clockwise circumambulation path), Angkor Wat is west-facing and the visitors follow the counter-clockwise path starting from the main entrance, which is in the middle of the west side gallery.
West Gallery, South Section: Battle of Kurukshetra
The Battle of Kurukshetra is the theme in the southern section of the west gallery. Based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this bas-relief depicts the fighting scene between the Pandavas and Kauravas.
The image below shows the advancing Kaurava army. On the top-left corner, Bhishma, the commander of the Kaurava army, is seen lying on the bed of arrows fired by Arjuna.
Death of Bhishma
The death of Bhishma is a well-known episode in Mahabharata. According to the story, Bhishma, the grand-uncle of both the Kauravas and Pandavas, leads the Kaurava army for the first ten days of the battle. As the Kurukshetra Battle rages, Krishna realizes Bhishma is an obstacle to Pandava’s victory because Arjuna is unable to beat Bhishma in the battle. To ensure Pandava’s victory, Krishna devises a clever plan involving Shikhandi, a eunuch, to kill Bhishma. Krishna knew Bhishma took an oath not to fight the other gender.
As per the plan, Shikhandi accompanies Arjuna in his chariot on the tenth day of the battle. When the battle starts between Arjuna and Bhishma, Arjuna hides behind Shikhandi and fires arrows at Bhishma. Unable to fight back because of his oath, Bhishma lays down his arms. As Arjuna’s arrows pierce through Bhishma’s body, he falls down making it appear as if he is lying on the bed of arrows. See the image on the right side.
The image depicts the fight between the Kaurava and Pandava armies. The Kaurava warriors are moving from left to right, and the Pandava warriors are from right to left. The commanders are on the chariots.
South Gallery, West Section: Procession of King Suryavarman II
The Procession of King Suryavarman II is the theme of the western section of the south gallery. Unlike the other bas-relief themes, this is based on history. It depicts King Suryavarman II in a procession with his commanders, soldiers, courtiers and ordinary people. The commanders are on elephants, and the rank of commander is indicated by the number of parasols surrounding them.
Suryavarman II as the King
As you can see from the image, King Suryavarman II is elegantly seated on his throne with his legs on the seat – a typical Indian way of sitting. He is portrayed with beautiful jewelry on his body as per the custom in India and Indianised kingdoms in Southeast Asia. He is wearing bracelets and arm rings on his hands, anklets on his legs, a beautiful necklace around his neck and an udiyan (waist chain) around his waist. He is holding with his right hand a strange object believed to be a dead snake, the significance of which is a mystery.
Surrounding King Suryavarman II are his attendants waving pankahs (fans) with long handles and chauris (fly-whisks). Notice the parasols around the king. There are fifteen of them in this bas-relief. The number of parasols indicate the rank of a commander in his army. The king has the highest number of parasols among the commanders in the procession implying that he is the commander-in-chief.
Suryavarman II as the Commander-in-Chief
Standing majestically on top of the elephant is King Suryavarman II as the commander-in-chief of his army. His left hand is holding a sword that is pointing downwards, and his right hand is holding an unknown object (probably a weapon). Sitting in front of him is the mahout goading the elephant with an , which is a pointed tool with a hook used in India and Southeast Asia for training and controlling elephants.
Notice the parasols surrounding the king. There are fifteen of them in this bas-relief. The number of parasols surrounding a commander indicates his rank in the army. The king has the highest number of parasols among the commanders in the procession implying that he is the commander-in-chief.
The image shows an army commander standing majestically on an elephant. He is holding a shield with his left hand and an unknown object with his right hand (similar to the one held by the king). Sitting in front of him is the mahout goading the elephant with an ankusha.
The image on the left shows a contingent of Siamese soldiers carrying spears marching at the head of the parade. Behind them is their commander riding an elephant. The image on the right shows women marching along the procession.
South Gallery, East Section: Swargas and Narakas (Heavens and Hells)
As the name suggests, the Heavens and Hells bas-relief is about the depiction of heavens and hells as described in the ancient Hindu texts called Puranas. The image shows a section of 200 feet long bas-relief carved into the eastern section of the southern gallery.
As you can see from the image, this section of the bas-relief has the following three horizontal layers:
1. Upper layer: Depicts swargas (heavens)
2. Middle layer: Depicts the bhoomi (earth)
3. Bottom layer: Depicts narakas (hells)
The entire Heavens and Hells bas-relief depicts 37 swargas and 32 narakas. The narakas are much more descriptive than the swargas. As you can see from the bottom layer, the punishment of sinners is gory and elaborate. Although naraka translates to hell, it is not the hell as understood in the West. A naraka is more akin to purgatory because it is not eternal and the sinners can redeem themselves once they pay for their sins. In Hindu mythology, sinners are reborn, but not always as human beings.
In Hindu mythology, Yama is one of the Ashta Dikpalas (guardians of the eight directions) and is responsible for guarding the South, which makes him the lord of the south. Therefore, the bas-reliefs related to Yama are in the south gallery.
The bas-relief on the left image depicts the Yama, the god of justice and lord of naraka, sitting on a buffalo and conducting the proceedings in his court. He is portrayed with multiple hands, one of which carries his signature weapon gada (mace), and is surrounded by his guards and sinners.
The bas-relief on the top right shows the continuation of Yama’s court where Chitragupta, a god in Hindu mythology and the assessor who keeps the records of good and bad deeds of a human being from birth to death, assisting Yama in determining who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.
The image on the bottom right shows the guards in the upper-tier pushing the sinners to the lower-tier through a trapdoor and the guards in the lower tier, which represents a naraka, punishing the sinners in a variety of ways.
Narakas – Punishing the Sinners
According to Hindu mythology, a naraka is designed to punish a specific type of sin. The images below show some of the 32 narakas depicted in the bas-relief.
East Gallery, South Section: Samudra Manthana
The south section of the east gallery depicts Samudra Manthana, one of the well-known legends of Hindu mythology. In Sanskrit, samudra means ocean and manthana mean churning. It is a story about the churning of the ocean to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. This story appears in many Hindu epics, including Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana.
According to the story, devas (demigods) and asuras (demons) collaborate to produce amrita by churning the Ocean of Milk. To perform churning, they use Vasuki (king of nagas) as the rope and Mount Mandara as the churning rod. Vasuki is coiled around Mount Mandara with asuras are on the head side and devas are on the tail side of Vasuki.
The churning took 1000 years to complete resulting in many by-products, including 14 ratnas (precious things), one of them is amrita. The other ratnas include the Moon, Ramba (an apsara), Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth). Produced along with amrita was halahala (poison) emanating from the mouths of Vasuki. Realizing the danger posed to the world by this poison, Shiva drank it but did not swallow it. So, it stayed in his throat forever. Shiva is therefore called Neelakanta (blue throat) as the result of poison remaining in his throat. Vasuki then became Shiva’s snake and remained coiled around his neck.
The left image shows asuras led by a multi-headed Ravana pulling Vasuki’s body on the head side. To the left of Ravana is the army of asuras on elephants and horses. The middle image shows Vishnu with four arms overseeing the churning at Mount Mandara and Indra flying on top of the mountain to stabilize it. The right image shows devas led by Hanuman pulling the body of Vasuki on the tail side. Although Ravana and Hanuman were not part of Samudra Manthana, their symbolic inclusion was to show that it was a fight between good and evil.
To the left and right of the Mount Mandara are the apsaras acting as cheer-leaders to asuras as well as devas. The bas-relief in this section is beautiful and intricately carved. Unlike the other bas-reliefs, it is easy to understand the story and identify the players.
East Gallery, North Section: Vishnu’s Victory over Asuras
The northern section of the east gallery is about Vishnu’s victory over asuras, a generic theme not taken from any epics. It is believed that this bas-relief was likely completed at a later date, probably in the 15th or 16th century.
North Gallery, East Section: Krishna’s Victory over Banasura
The scenes depicted on the bas-relief carved on the eastern section of the north gallery is based on Krishna’s Victory over Banasura story, which appears in Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana. This story is about Krishna, who is an avatar of Vishnu, fighting Shiva and becoming victorious. It is not a well-known story but chosen deliberately to show the dominance of Vishnu because King Suryavarman II broke the Shaiva tradition of his predecessors and made Vishnu the dominant god of the Hindu Trinity.
Legend of Banasura
According to the story, Banasura, an asura king with thousand arms, is an ardent devotee of Shiva whom he tried to please by doing (austerity and meditation) for many years. Pleased with his devotion, Shiva confers upon him with many varas (boons), one of which was to be his ally in future fights. Once he gets these varas, Banasura becomes arrogant and starts ill-treating his subjects. When his daughter Usha reaches the marriageable age, many suitors approach her with an intention to marry. Banasura gets angry at the suitors and builds a fortress called Agnigraha (house of fire in Sanskrit) and imprisons her there to keep her away from them.
One day, Usha dreams of a young man and falls in love with him. When she mentions this to her maid Chitraleka, who realizes that the young man is Aniruddha, one of the grandsons of Krishna. Chitraleka with her superpowers summons Aniruddha to Usha’s quarters. When he sees Usha, he falls in love with her too. Meanwhile, Banasura comes to know of Aniruddha’s presence in Usha’s quarters. He captures and imprisons him. When Krishna comes to know about his grandson’s imprisonment, he wages war against Banasura. At the request of Banasura, Shiva keeps his promise and starts fighting against Krishna. Realizing this, Krishna tricks Shiva by firing a weapon that puts Shiva to sleep. Krishna then severs all but four arms of Banasura. Shiva then wakes up and begs Krishna not to kill Banasura. Meanwhile, Banasura realizing his mistakes begs forgiveness and allows his daughter to marry Aniruddha.
The image shows Garuda facing Agnigraha (house of fire) built by Bansaura to keep his daughter Usha.
North Gallery, West Section: Battle between Gods and Asuras
The theme of the bas-relief on the western section of the north gallery is not taken from any epics, instead, it depicts a generic theme of the good fighting evil. The bas-relief Battle between Gods and Asuras is about the Hindu pantheon of gods fighting the evil asuras. It is a battle scene with 21 Hindu gods mounted on their vehicles fighting the asuras.
The images below show four of the gods, Vishnu, Varuna, Indra, and Kartikeya (also known as Skanda, Subramanya), and an unidentified asura.
The gods are seen riding their signature vahanas (vehicles) and fighting asuras. Vishnu, one of the Hindu Trinity, is riding Garuda, an eagle-like mythical bird. Indra, the king of heaven and gods, is riding an elephant called Airavata. Varuna, the sea god, is riding a multi-headed mythical creature called Makara. Indra and Varuna are dikpalas (guardians of directions); Indra guards East and Varuna West. Check the Ashta Dikpalas page to read more about all the eight dikpalas. Skanda, the god of war, is riding a peacock called Parvani.
The bas-relief of Brahma, one of the Hindu Trinity, sitting in a cocoon is unusual. Although Brahma is the creator in Hindu mythology, he is not worshiped widely like Vishnu or Shiva. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma in the world. The Brahma Temple in Prambanan is one of the well-known temples in Southeast Asia. The Brahma Temple in Pushkar is one of the few temples dedicated to Brahma In India.
Check the following sculptural reliefs of Brahma on the outer walls of the temples: Brahma in Belur Chennakeshava Temple, Brahma in the Somanathapura Chennakeshava Temple in Karnataka, India
There are several legends why Brahma is not worshiped. According to one legend, his consort Savitri, who was angered by Brahma’s extreme lust, cursed him not to be worshiped anywhere in the world except in Pushkar. In another legend, Shiva cursed Brahma because he lied to him and Vishnu about their creation.
West Gallery, North Section: Battle of Lanka
The Battle of Lanka is the theme of the bas-relief carved on the northern section of the west gallery. This is the final battle in Ramayana in which Rama and the army of monkeys (Vanara Sené) defeat Ravana and rescue Rama’s wife Sita. The Battle of Lanka bas -relief is likely based on the Yudda Kanda chapter of Ramayana authored by Valmiki. Besides Rama and Ravana, it depicts many prominent figures from both sides.
After the abduction of Rama’s wife Sita by Ravana, Rama gathered an army with the help of his ally Sugriva, the king of the vanara (monkey) kingdom of Kishkindha, and attacked Lanka to rescue her. According to Ramayana, Lanka, where this epic battle took place, is an island located south of India. The present-day island nation of Sri Lanka closely fits the description of Lanka in Ramayana.
According to Hindu mythology, Ravana is a rakasha (demon) with supernatural powers. He is capable of assuming any forms, but in his natural form, he has ten heads and twenty arms. His typical iconography shows him with these features. As you can see from the image, he does have ten heads and twenty arms. ,
In this bas-relief, Ravana is in battle mode leading his warriors in this epic battle against Rama. He is holding a variety of weapons with his hands, including bow and arrows, maces, and astras (arrows that posses supernatural destructive power). While Ravana is leading his charge, a monkey warrior is lunging at him on the leff. Ramayana describes this monkey warrior as Nila, the commander-in-chief of the vanara sené (monkey army) and builder of Rama Sethu (the bridge between India and Lanka). Charging with Ravana are his warriors carrying gadaas (maces).
Raging Battle between Rakshashas Vs. Vanara Sené (Army of Monkeys)
In this battle, Rama’s warriors are mostly the vanaras from his ally Sugriva. Ravana being a rakshasa (demon), his warriors mostly the rakshasas.
The entire Battle of Lanka bas-relief is about raging battle that is underway with the rakshasa and monkey warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Straddled on the heads of two beautifully carved lions harnessed to a chariot is a ferocious monkey warrior carrying on his shoulder a rakshasa, who presumably is the charioteer. Notice that the rakshasa is wielding a sword and trying to attack the monkey warrior.
The images below show two more such scenes where a monkey warrior is dueling with a rakshasa.
– Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei
– Phnom Kulen, Tonlé Sap, Cambodia
– Bali, Prambanan, Prambanan Bas-Reliefs, Borobudur, Indonesia
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