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Angkor Wat

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 13.4124 N 103.8669 E
No:453        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Hindu shrines, Buddhist shrines, Man made extremes (world's largest religious structure)
Values:Art, Architecture, History, Archaeology
Rank:1
Address:Asia, Cambodia, Siem Reap province, centre of Angkor
Writing in Khmer:អង្គរវត្ត
Alternate names:Angkor Vat, Preah Pisnulok (medieval name)
Age:first half of the 12th century AD
Religion:Hinduism, Buddhism
UNESCO World Heritage status:part of "Angkor", 1992, No.668
Aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, aerial view / Mark Fischer, / CC BY-SA 2.0

The largest religious monument in the world is Angkor Wat. This gorgeous temple complex was constructed in the first half of the 12th century and is not just the highest achievement of Khmer architects: it is one of the highest achievements in the history of world architecture.

Description

Central towers of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Five central towers of Angkor Wat / Dennis Jarvis, / CC BY-SA 2.0

Planning

Planning of Angkor Wat unites two major principles of Khmer architecture - principle of temple mountain and galleried temple.

When looking from above Angkor Wat represents a giant rectangle. It is surrounded by 190 m wide moat and its area (including the area of the moat) is almost 200 hectares.

This moat is crossed by earth bank in the east and causeway (possible replacement to wooden bridge) in the west. On the "island" at each entrance are ruins of gopuras - ornate entrance gates.

The temple has concentric planning. The rectangular island is surrounded by 1,024 m by 802 m large (3.6 km long) and 4.5 m high wall which encloses 820 thousand m² large area.

Most of area on this island once was covered with secular buildings, including the former royal palace. Nothing remains of these buildings - these structures were made mainly from the wood.

Bridge to Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Bridge to Angkor Wat / Chun Yip So, / CC BY 2.0

In the middle of this large enclosure is considerably smaller (but nevertheless giant) central temple structure which consists of three concentric galleries divided by walls. Outer wall of this central structure is 187 by 215 m large and whole structure is rised above the surrounding city.

Each next level of the temple was progressively more exclusive. Common people could access only the lower level.

Next enclosure is 100 by 115 m large and the inner enclosure (named Bakan) is 60 by 60 m large.

Inner enclosure contains five impressive towers, the tallest is the central one which rises 43 m tall about its fundament and 65 m above the ground level outside the temple.

These main towers symbolize the five summits of Mount Meru, abode of devas.

Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu thus breaking the earlier Shaivism tradition of Khmer religious culture.

Temple is oriented towards the west what is unusual for Khmer architecture. Some scholars of Eastern architecture consider that this is a hint that Suryavarman II built this structure as his funerary temple. Some other scholars though consider that this westward orientation is typical for Vishnaite temples - Vishnu is associated with the west.

Central towers of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Central towers, Angkor Wat / Diego Delso, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Immense art values

Total amount of sandstone (more than 5 million tons) used for construction is similar to the volume of the Khafre's pyramid in Egypt with the exception that in Angkor Wat most stones have been sculpted and covered with timeless artworks.

Especially numerous and diverse are bas-reliefs which cover more than 1,000 m². Imagine - one thousand square meters of artwork!

Most bas-reliefs cover the back wall of the outer enclosure - they were located in the zone which was accessible for general public. Most friezes show episodes from the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata and are made in the highest quality. Especially beautiful work of art is scene "Churning of the Sea of Milk". It shows 92 asuras (a kind of anti-gods) and 88 devas (deities) churning the sea with the serpent Vasuki. Their intent is to get from the Sea of Milk (mythical cosmic sea) the nectar of immortality with the assistance of the helpful Vasuki. Asuras, devas and Vasuki churned the sea for thousand years. Devas managed to get the nectare and now are immortal. Each figurine has its specific features - haircut, garments, jewelry and most likely these bas-reliefs show the actual fashion in Angkor in these times.

Contemporary visitors are stunned by the beautiful architecture of this structure but in earlier times it was much more impressive: towers were adorned with gilded stucco, many figures were covered with gold as well. Unfortunately Angkor Wat, like most of other architectural landmarks in Cambodia, has been heavily looted.

History

South-western tower of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
South-western tower of Angkor Wat / Steve Cornish, / CC BY 2.0

Khmer Empire

It is assumed that with the present day technologies the construction of Angkor Wat would take 300 years. But, nevertheless it was actually built in 40 years. It was possible due to well established cultural traditions of Khmer Empire, including the unique skills acquired by stone carvers over several centuries.

Angkor

Khmer Empire evolved since the early 9th century and its most important city was Angkor (this word in Khmer means - "city") which served as the capital of Khmer Empire in the 9th - 15th century.

Library in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Library in Angkor Wat, a building between the second and third enclosures / Arabsalam, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Angkor is one of the most impressive ancient, abandoned cities in the world. It's area with all the suburbs exceeded 1,000 km².

Most likely this was one of the most beautiful cities in the world history with a large collection of outstanding buildings.

Angkor in its golden times was developing very fast and almost every king built his own main temple of the city, trying to surpass the impressiveness of the previous one. Thus were created such wonders of Khmer architecture as Ta Keo, Phimeanakas, Baphuon.

Central part of the bas-relief named Churning of the Sea of Milk in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Central part of the scene "Churning of the Sea", Vishnu in the centre, asuras to the left and devas to the right / Markalexander100, / CC BY-SA 3.0

Suryavarman II

One of the greatest personalities in the Khmer history is king Suryavarman II who reigned in the first half of the 12th century.

He came to rule a weakening empire and managed to turn it into well-run empire with successful army and a frenzy of construction activities of unseen ambition and quality.

The reign of Suryavarman II marks the golden time of Khmer architecture and its highest achievement - Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was built as the central shrine of the empire but some art historians consider that it was built also as the potential mausoleum for Suryavarman II himself.

Medieval history

Construction of this architectonic miracle most likely ended shortly after the death of the king. Bas-reliefs were not entirely finished by this time and works were continued much later, when the unique skills were lost and quality was considerably worse. Original name of the temple is not known.

In 1177 Angkor was taken by Cham forces but later Khmer empire was restored by king Jayavarman VII who restored the capital some kilometres further north from Angkor Wat.

In the 13th century Angkor Wat became Theravada Buddhist temple and this is Buddhist temple up to this day.

Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned and its buildings were somewhat better preserved thanks to moats around it which prevented spread of forest.

Angkor Wat in the first years of the 20th century, Cambodia
Angkor Wat in the first years of the 20th century / J.G. Mulder, / public domain

Few centuries after its construction Angkor Wat turned into major pilgrimage site, piligrims came here from distant Asian countries. Portuguese António da Madalena visited the temple in 1586 and was stunned by its beauty: "...it is like no other building in the world."

Siamese (Thai) controlled Siem Reap and Angkor since the 14th or 15th century and this land was retaken by French only in the late 19th century and since then has constituted a part of Cambodia.

Angkor Wat gained wider recognition in the Western world in the middle of the 19th century after it was visited and described by the French explorer Henri Mouhot.

The 20th - 21st century

Angkor Wat has become national monument of Cambodia and is a source of great national pride. This is the only existing building which is depicted on the national flag (since the introduction of flag around 1863).

This is the best preserved temple in Angkor but nevertheless here were needed large scale restoration works.

During the 20th century Angkor Wat was largely restored - there was removed forest and ground over it. Now, as the political situation stabilises, more and more tourists come. It is assessed that approximately one half of tourists coming to Cambodia visit Angkor Wat.

Map

See Angkor Wat on the map of Cambodia!

 

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