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Angkor Wat: History of Ancient Temple

angkor wat
Aerial view of Angkor Wat, showing the moat and causeway and the central tower surrounded by four smaller towers
Credit: Alexey Stiop | Shutterstock.com

Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 500 acres (200 hectares), Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city.”

Originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork. 

Its 213-foot-tall (65 meters) central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and be the home of the gods. 

The city where the temple was built, Angkor, is located in modern-day Cambodia and was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. This urban center contains hundreds of temples and a population that has been estimated to be as high as 1 million people. It was easily the largest city in the world until the industrial revolution.

The temple is surrounded by a 650-foot-wide (200 meters) moat that encompasses a perimeter of more than 3 miles (5 km). This moat is 13 feet deep (4 meters) and would have helped stabilize the temple’s foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.

Angkor Wat’s main entrance was to the west (a direction associated with Vishnu) across a stone causeway, with guardian lions marking the way. To the east of the temple was a second, more modest, entrance.  

The heart of the temple was the central tower, entered by way of a steep staircase, a statue of Vishnu at top. This tower “was at once the symbolic center of the nation and the actual center where secular and sacred power joined forces,” writes researcher Eleanor Mannikka in the book "Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire" (Abbeville Press, 2002). “From that unparalleled space, Vishnu and the king ruled over the Khmer people.”

Vishnu and the king

The builder of Angkor Wat was a king named Suryavarman II. A usurper, he came to power in his teenage years by killing his great uncle Dharanindravarman I while he was riding an elephant. An inscription says that Suryavarman killed the man “as Garuda [a mythical bird] on a mountain ledge would kill a serpent.”

Suryavarman’s bloodlust would continue into his rule; he launched attacks into Vietnam in an effort to gain control over the territory. He also made peaceful diplomatic advances, re-opening relations which China.

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Bas relief carving showing Hindu devas, or gods, pulling on the snake Vasuki in the Churning of the Sea of Milk creation story.
Credit: BasPhoto | Shutterstock.com

He venerated the god Vishnu, a deity often depicted as a protector, and installed a statue of the god in Angkor Wat’s central tower. This devotion can also be seen in one of the most remarkable reliefs at Angkor Wat, located in the southeast of the temple. The relief shows a chapter in the Hindu story of creation known as the “churning of the sea of milk.”

As archaeologist Michael Coe writes, the relief “describes how the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) churned the ocean under the aegis of Vishnu, to produce the divine elixir of immortality,” ("Angkor and the Khmer Civilization," Thames & Hudson, 2003). Scholars consider this relief to be one of the finest art pieces at Angkor Wat.

Suryavarman’s devotion to Vishnu is also shown in the posthumous name he was given, “Paramavishnuloka” which, according to researcher Hélène Legendre-De Koninck, means “he who is in the supreme abode of Vishnu.” ("Angkor Wat: A Royal Temple," VDG, 2001). 

Construction techniques

Building Angkor Wat was an enormous undertaking that involved quarrying, careful artistic work and lots of digging. To create the moat around the temple 1.5 million cubic meters (53 million cubic feet) of sand and silt were moved, a task that would have required thousands of people working at one time.

The buildings at Angkor Wat posed their own challenges. To support them a tough material called laterite was used, which in turn was encased with softer sandstone that was used for carving the reliefs. These sandstone blocks were quarried at the Kulen Hills, about 18 miles (30 km) to the north, and were likely transported to the site by river.

Beneath the central tower was a shaft that leads to a chamber where, in 1934, archaeologists found “two pieces of crystal and two gold leaves far beneath where the Vishnu statue must have been,” Coe writes, adding that deposits like these “spiritually ‘energized’ a temple, much as a battery will provide power to a portable electronic device.” 

angkor wat
A Ficus strangulosa tree grows over a doorway at Angkor Wat.
Credit: David Davis | Shutterstock.com

Purpose

Although Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu the full purpose of the temple is still debated. One question is whether the ashes of Suryavarman II were interred in the monument, perhaps in the same chamber where the deposits were found. If that were the case it would give the temple a funerary meaning.

Eleanor Mannikka has noted that Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north in latitude and that the north-south axis of the central tower’s chamber is 13.43 cubits long. This, Mannikka believes, is not an accident. “In the central sanctuary, Vishnu is not only placed at the latitude of Angkor Wat, he is also placed along the axis of the earth,” she writes, pointing out that the Khmer knew the earth was round.

In addition, in her writing, Mannikka notes a dozen lunar alignments with Angkor Wat’s towers, suggesting that it served an important astronomical role. “During the long and clear Cambodian nights, when the stars filled every inch of the black sky, the astronomer-priests stood on the long western causeway ...  and recorded the movements of the moon against the towers in the top two galleries of the temple.”  

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor

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