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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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
6. Victory of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) over the demon
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.
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
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
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
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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