Discovering Indochina–Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. Situated near Siem Reap, Cambodia, it was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city. The Angkor Wat complex is comprised of more than 100 stone temples. The main temple of the complex, also named Angkor Wat, is the best-preserved temple at the site. It is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu– then Buddhist. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors. We visited it near the end of our tour of Cambodia.

Below is an aerial view of this classic temple. (This image was copied from Bestoftourism.com.)

Angkor-Wat-in-Cambodia_Overview-of-Angkor-Wat)Best_Tourism dot com

Unlike most of the other Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west. Scholars are divided as to the significance of this. Some think the reason is that the king built this temple as a funerary site; rituals take place in reverse order during Brahminic funeral services, so having the temple open to the west instead of the east makes sense under this idea. Some think it is due to the temple’s dedication to Vishnu. This and several other temples of Angkor depart from the typical eastern orientation, and  some suggest that Angkor Wat’s alignment was due to the dedication to Vishnu, who was associated with the west. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Devas (gods) in Hindu mythology.

Here is another classic view of Angkor Wat, with the towers reflected in the wide moat. (This was taken from JustthePlanet.com.)

cambodia_angkor-wat_majesty just_the_planet dot com

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the more than 2,000 female figures, Apsaras (divine spirits, nymphs) adorning its walls. Two pictures of Apsaras are shown below. (Both from Nationsonline.com.)

Note that there are two common female forms in Angkor temples, Devatas and Apsaras. Devatas are guardian spirits, usually standing. Apsaras are nymphs, and usually seen dancing. I have mainly seen these figures called Apsaras, so that is what I will call them.

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Our tour began as we crossed the stone bridge over the moat into the western entrance.

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Here is the layout of Angkor Wat. It stands within a wide moat and has an outer wall 3.6 km (2.2 mi) long. The entrance is from the west, the left on the diagram below.

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The western gate tower seems broken at the top. The crowd of people at the entrance is typical of Angkor Wat. This is THE place where almost every person who visits Cambodia will tour during their visit.

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Immediately you can see the quality of the workmanship, with the finely carved capital of this column, with its decoration extending to the wall above that which it supports.

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In the entrance is one of the many Apsaras in Angkor Wat. Note the crown with three peaks. This is typical in these Khmer Apsara carvings.

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More Apsaras, with even fancier hats.

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Carvings on a column.

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An interior view of the west gate building. Note the corbel arch used in order to construct the passageway. A corbel arch is constructed by adding layers of stones to the walls on either side of an opening, with each successive layer projecting further towards the center than the one supporting it from below, until the two sides meet in the middle. This is weaker than a true arch, of which the Khmer architects must not have known.

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Below, a yellow-garbed Buddha in the entrance hall. Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu when built. But in the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually moved from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist use, which continues to the present day. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was somewhat neglected after the 16th century it was never completely abandoned.

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Passing through the gate tower, we seethe interior Angkor Wat temple ahead of us.

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This is a classic view, with three symmetrical towers rising from the building. There are really five, but two are obscured, behind the towers on the left and right.

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Here is one of the two “libraries,” one on each side of the entrance walk. Though today they are called libraries, no one really knows what these buildings were used for.

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Looking towards the main temple. There is a green covering over an area undergoing restoration.

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Angkor Wat required considerable restoration in the 20th century, mainly the removal of accumulated earth and vegetation. Work was interrupted by the civil war and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s and 1980s, but relatively little damage was done during this period other than the theft and destruction of mostly post-Angkorian statues. Restoration work was done between 1986 and 1992 by the Archaeological Survey of India. Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has seen continued conservation efforts and a massive increase in tourism, which now exceeds 1,000,000 visitors per year, and is growing at about 25% annually.

The temple is part of the Angkor World Heritage Site, established in 1992, which has provided some funding and has encouraged the Cambodian government. The German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) is working to protect the Apsaras and other bas-reliefs which decorate the temple from damage; around 20% were in very poor condition, mainly because of natural erosion and deterioration of the stone, but in part also due to earlier restoration efforts. Other work involves the repair of collapsed sections of the structure, and prevention of further collapse: the west facade of the upper level, for example, has been buttressed by scaffolding since 2002, while a Japanese team completed restoration of the north library of the outer enclosure in 2005. World Monuments Fund began work on the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery in 2008.

These lions stand guard on the entrance stairway. It looks like the lower one has had some restoration work done on it.

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Below is a floor plan of the Angkor Wat temple. This shows the three levels, and the galleries that line the outer corridor.

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We go into the main entrance, up wooden stairs that have been added for the tourists. The original stone stairs were steep and narrow, and not useable now.

 

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The Outer Gallery

We turn right and enter into the Outer Gallery.

Following is a list of the sets of bas-reliefs on the walls of the outer gallery. The bas-reliefs are divided into sections, usually two on each wall of the square gallery. Each section depicts a specific theme. These are in sequence, counter-clock wise, after entering through the main entrance.

West Gallery

South Gallery

  • Army of King Suryavaman II, the builder of Angkor Wat
  • Judgment by Yama and the tortures of Hell

East Gallery

North Gallery (said to be the best preserved)

  • The Victory of Krishna over the Asura demon King Bana
  • Battle between the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (Demons)

West Gallery

Battle of Kurukshetra

This battle scene is the main subject of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It recalls the historic wars in Kurukshetra, a province in India, and depicts the last battle between rival enemies who are cousins. The armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas march from opposite ends towards the center of the panel where they meet in combat. Headpieces differentiate the warriors of the two armies. The scene begins with infantry marching into battle and musicians playing a rhythmic cadence. The battlefield is the scene of hand-to-hand combat and many dead soldiers.

Chief officers and generals (represented on a larger scale) oversee the battle in chariots and on elephants and horses.

This first bas relief depicts the Battle of Kuru against armies of Champa led by Angkor Wat founder Suryavarman II. This honors the kind who built this temple, though it has nothing to do with the Mahabharata.

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This is followed by martial scenes of warfare between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

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The Southwest Pavilion

The Southwest Corner Pavilion has a variety of scenes from the epic Ramayana.

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I am not sure what this depicts. The upper panel shows a central figure that is the focus of all others. The bottom seems to show women and a child. They seem from another tribal group as the ones above, due to different clothes and head dressings.

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Rama has shot Vali, the monkey king,  with an arrow. Vali lies in the arms of his wife (three pointed headdress), and monkeys mourn his death.

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Army of King Suryavarman II

This gallery depicts a triumphal procession from a battle between the Khmer and their enemies.

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Here is King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, sitting in his throne, holding audience. Servants around him hold fans and ceremonial umbrellas.

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This looks like a group of monks, attending the king.

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This is someone, I think a queen, being carried in a covered chair.

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The South Gallery, with its corbelled arch.

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More marching troops, wearing helmets and carrying spears.

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Officers riding horses. The important figures are larger sized.

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Here is King Suryavarman II again, sword across his shoulder, riding an elephant.

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The Judgment of Yama and the Tortures of Hell

The Judgment by Yama depicts the Khmer’s ideas of heaven and hell. The spirits of the dead are brought to the god Yama to await their judgment. The good ones are allowed to proceed to one of the 37 heavens of Hindu mythology, where they enjoy idyllic surroundings in the celestial palace and are rewarded by a pleasant life of leisure. The sinners, yoked in groups of four, are dragged by Yama’s assistants into one of the 32 hells and receive terrible punishments.

Departed spirits line up to enter the place of judgment, and heaven and hell.

From the left lead the two paths, one to the heavens (above), and the other to hell (below). We see the souls of the good being carried on thrones and palanquins on their way to heaven, while the damned are dragged to hell, towards their punishment, like cattle, with a rope through their nostrils.

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Here are women being taken into hell. The executioner is keeping order, and keeping them moving.

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On the way to hell, I guess a couple of spirits were getting unruly. The executioner is holding them by their ankles, upside down. Notice the trees in the background.

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On the way to heaven, things are much more peaceful.

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On the path to hell, the executioner keeps all the damned spirits in line.

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On the path to heaven, this looks like an Apsara queen, being approached by some men. More Apsaras are in the background.

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Here, in the line of the good, an Apsara is being greeted and worshiped by a group of kneeling men.

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Damned spirits are chained together in groups of four. This makes it easier for the executioner to keep them moving and in order. I don’t think I want to be in this line.

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A group on the left is being pulled by their chain, while on the right, an elephant grabs several rowdy souls.

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Here is one of the good being carried on a palanquin.

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Yama, the Supreme Judge, with multiple arms holding sticks (or something like that), wielding a staff and riding a buffalo. Departed spirits await judgment. Yama points out to his scribes the upper road representing heaven and the lower one of hell.

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Assistants to Yama shove the wicked through a trap door to the lower regions of hell where torturers deliver punishments such as sawing a body in half for those who overeat, or forcing them to swallow red-hot coals.

The tortures are varied and are but transitory – the Hindu religions knowing nothing of eternal damnation. It is worth noting that the guards and executioners, generally large in stature and aided by ferocious beasts, are themselves also damned.

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A view walking down the corridor beside the South Gallery.

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Here is one person being punished in hell. Lawbreakers have their bones broken. I think this is what is happening here. The glutton is cleaved in two, rice thieves are afflicted with enormous bellies of hot iron. Some of the punished wear iron shackles. Those who picked the flowers in the garden of Shiva have their heads pierced with nails,

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Our guide, Rong, from Gecko Adventure Tours, explains what we are seeing.

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The Churning of the Ocean of Milk

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is an ancient Vedic tale, found in the Bhagavad Purana (Canto 8 Chapter 7), Agni Purana and the Ramayana (Balakanda chapter). Here is the story, known as “The Story of Kurma Avatar,” or “Samudra Manthan.” Kurma, the turtle, is Vishnu’s second avatar. Samudra is Sanskrit for “ocean,” literally, “gathering of waters.” The story below is copied from mahasivaratri.org. Some say that this gallery is the most important of all of them at Angkor Wat.

Legend Behind Samudra Manthan
Once Indra, the King of Gods, while riding on an elephant, came across Durvasa Muni who offered him a special garland. Indra accepted the garland but put it on the trunk of the elephant. The elephant was irritated by the smell and it threw the garland on the floor. This enraged the sage, as the garland was a dwelling of Sri (fortune) and was to be treated as prasada. Durvasa Muni cursed Indra and all devas to be bereft of all strength, energy, and fortune.

In battles that followed this incident, the devas were defeated and asuras (demons), led by Bali, gained control of the universe. Devas sought help from Lord Vishnu who advised them to treat  the asuras in a diplomatic manner. The devas formed an alliance with the asuras to jointly churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality and to share it among them. Lord Vishnu told the devas that he would arrange that they alone obtain the nectar.

The Churning of the Ocean
The churning of the milk-ocean was an elaborate process. Mount Mandara was used as the churning rod and Vasuki, the King of Serpents, became the churning rope. Lord Vishnu himself had to intercede in so many ways to aid the devas. All kinds of herbs were cast into the ocean and many great beings and objects were produced from the ocean and were divided between the asuras and the gods. It is said that the following things emerged from the Samudra Manthan:

  • Sura or Varuni – Goddess and creator of wine
  • Apsaras – various divine nymphs
  • Kaustubha – a rare diamond said to be the most valuable jewel in the world
  • Uchhaishravas – the divine white horse
  • Kalpavriksha – the wish-granting tree
  • Kamadhenu – the wish-fulfilling cow
  • Airavata – the white elephant
  • Lakshmi – the Goddess of Fortune and Wealth. Vishnu and Lakshmi were reunited after having been separated for many ages.

Haalaa-Hala – the Poison
During the Sagar Manthan by the gods and demons, haalaa-hala, a pot of poison, also came out of the ocean. This terrified the gods and demons as the poison was so toxic that its effects would have wiped out the entire creation. On the advice of Lord Vishnu, the gods approached Lord Shiva for help and protection as only he could swallow it without being affected. On the request of the gods and out of compassion for living beings, Lord Shiva drank the poison. However, Parvati, Lord Shiva’s consort, pressed his neck so that the poison did not reach his stomach. Thus, it stayed in his throat neither going up nor going down and Shiva remained unharmed. The poison was so potent that it changed the color of Lord Mahadeva’s neck to blue. For this reason, Lord Shiva is also called Neelakantha (the blue-necked one) where ‘Neela’ means blue and ‘Kantha’ means neck or throat.

As part of the therapy, doctors advised the gods to keep Lord Shiva awake during the night. Thus, the gods kept a vigil in contemplation of Lord Shiva. To amuse Shiva and to keep him awake, the gods took turn performing various dances and playing music. As the day broke out, Lord Shiva, pleased with their devotion, blessed them all. Shivaratri is the celebration of this event by which Shiva saved the world. Since then, on this day and night – devotees fast, keep vigil, sing glories of the Lord, and meditate.

Churning Out Divine Nectar
At last, Dhanvantari, the Divine Physician, appeared with a pot of Amrita (nectar of immortality) in his skillful hands. Fierce fighting ensued between devas and asuras for the nectar. To protect the nectar from asuras, devas hid the pot of nectar at four places on the earth – Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At each of these places, a drop of the nectar spilled from the pot and since then, it is believed that these places acquired mystical power. Grand Kumbh Mela is celebrated at the four places after every 12 years for this reason.

Eventually, Lord Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini. While her beauty bewildered the asuras, Mohini seized the nectar and returned it to the devas, who drank it immediately.

Below, a row of 92 asuras (demons with round bulging eyes and crested helmets) pull the king of the Nagas, Vasuki, to churn the Ocean of Milk.

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In the center is Vishnu, aided by his avatar, the turtle, Kurma. Indra is above Vishnu, watching the action. (This image is from the Wikimedia Commons. I was not able to get a good photo of this. Taking pictures of these bas-reliefs was not easy; you only can have natural light or a flash, and the flash washes out the image entirely.)

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Below are the 88 devas (gods with almond-shaped eyes and conical headdresses).

To begin the motion, the gods and demons twist the serpent’s body; the demons hold the head and the gods hold the tail of the serpent. Then by pulling it rhythmically back and forth they cause the pivot to rotate and churn the water.

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At this point, our guide led us into the temple. We did not see any of the other galleries. I regret this now.

We took these stairs up to the second level. Again, wooden steps have been built over the original stone steps.

 

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At the top of the stairs we were met by this group of Apsaras, I guess decorating the entrance.

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People mill around in a second level courtyard. These stone structures, built without mortar, with just the stones fitted together by the stone masons, have withstood time amazingly well.

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This is one of the four corner towers on the third level.

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The Baken at Angkor Wat – The Main Sanctuary, Third Level

Bakan is the Khmer name of what used to be the principal sanctuary of Angkor Wat. It is the summit of Angkor Wat’s central temple, the highest of the temple’s three levels and the uppermost point of world’s largest religious complex. To get there we climbed up a steep wooden stairway to the third level. It was steep enough that I was grateful for the handrail.

Looking back at the two lower levels.

 

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Here is a reclining Buddha, covered in saffron. This reclining pose, with his head resting on his hand, is a “Sleeping Buddha.”

There are four special Buddhas at this level, one under each of the four corner towers. It is considered auspicious to see each of these Buddhas.

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This is a view of the courtyard at the third level.

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Two Buddhist monks walk into the courtyard.

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More Apsaras.

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Notice how the stone is black in some places? This is where visitors have rubbed their hands, it is human body oil. People seem to like rubbing the breasts and tummy of the Apsara on the left. The other girls don’t get so much attention.

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The base of the central tower.

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This is the central tower of Angkor Wat.

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More Apsaras, on a tower. The stone carving is so fine, with a delicate leafy background for both figures. Does not look 800 years old to me!

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The monks in the courtyard get their cameras out to snap some photos. Many young men in Cambodia become monks for just a year or two. They get education and are considered afterward better candidates as husbands when their families try to find wives for them. So you see many young monks.

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The central tower. This is the main tower in the largest Hindu temple on the planet. When you are there, stop and take a look, and take it all in. At the base of this tower there originally was a shrine to Vishnu. We do not know the name of the image of Vishnu that was once in the central tower, since it was removed, I think, in the late 1300’s when Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist temple. There are now four Buddhas under this tower.

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Looking from the third level towards the main entrance.

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People below. They have just climbed the stairs up to the second level.

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One of the walkways that surround the inner courtyard.

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A headless statue. I think, because of the position of the hands, Dhyana Mudra – the gesture of meditation with both hands resting on the lap, palms upwards – that this was Buddha in meditation.

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Here is another such Buddha. It is interesting to me that Lord Buddha is protected by Nagas, cobras, above him. This is a usual Hindu image, not so common as a Buddhist one. I think it shows the fusion of images from Hindu to Buddhist.

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Another of the four Buddhas at each corner of the third level. Here he stands with his palms together. This is Namaskara Mudra – the gesture of prayer. This is the hand gesture that evokes greeting another being with the utmost respect and adoration for the Divine in all.

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Looking down at the second level again.

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Here are the stairs down. Now we are especially happy there is a hand rail. Carol, in the black blouse, is about half way down.

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More exquisite carving at the top of a door.

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We then entered what is called “The Hall of One Thousand Buddhas,” on the second level. It is called this because many people, over hundreds of years, have left Buddha images and statues here. Most have been removed, but many still remain.

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Another larger-than-life Buddha, this one with two hands facing outward. This is Fearlessness (Abhāya Mudrā), displaying fearlessness in the face of adversity and enjoining others to do so. When done with two hands it is also called “forbidding the relatives.” When it is just the right hand it is also called “calming animals.” I am not sure what Buddha was forbidding the relatives from doing. It is kind of amusing that fearlessness and dealing with relatives are the same gesture.

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This is the main Buddha in the Hall of One Thousand Buddhas.

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Looking back towards the main temple.

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We are now on the first level, in a cross-shaped hall near the entrance.

Our guide, Rong, explains to us that the major ancient Angkor temples were built in locations according to the location of stars in the constellation Draco, the dragon. In Cambodia this is seen as a Naga, a divine cobra. The Cambodians trace their origins back to the Naga, so it seems fitting that they think these temples were built according to the stars of Draco. In Cambodian mythology, the Princess of the Nagas married an Indian Brahmana and from that union was born the Cambodian people. Therefore still Cambodians say that they are “Born from the Naga.”

To support this idea, here is something that I found from sacredsites.com:

Using computer simulations it has been shown that the ground plan of the Angkor complex – the terrestrial placement of its principal temples – mirrors the stars in the constellation of Draco at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BC. While the date of this astronomical alignment is far earlier than any known construction at Angkor, it appears that its purpose was to architecturally mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonization of the earth and the stars.

If this is correct then the origins of Angkor Wat is indeed ancient. 10,500 BC would have been in the early days of agriculture in Southeast Asia. It makes sense to me that people performing this kind of careful astronomical observation would be settled in one place from which to observe, not roaming hunter gathers. Being settled in one place requires agriculture.

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As we walked out, there was a crew in two boats, tied together.  I think they were pulling trash out of the moat.

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Here is another classic photo of Angkor Wat, illuminated at night. (Picture from Ta Som Guest House.)

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This was the third Angkor Wat temple we visited this day. By the time we got here, we were pretty tired and saturated.

If you are going to Angkor Wat, I strongly recommend that you read this WikiTravel page on the Angkor Archaeological Park, and that you give yourself more than one day to see these ancient temples. I would also suggest that you find the best guide you can. A good guide will be expert on the temples and the meanings behind them and the sculptures and bas-reliefs that you will see. He or she will also have a good command of English. If you are like us, it took a big trip to get here, and we will probably never be here again. So take the time that you need to really see it. This is a major destination, and you need to treat it accordingly.

Related Posts

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To Siem Reap, Sunset at Angkor Temple
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Ta Prohm The Temple of Doom
Touring around Siem Reap

The Vietnam part of this trip:

Hanoi, Day 1
Hanoi, Day 2
Hue
Hội An
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Nha Trang
Mekong Delta
Cu Chi Tunnels and Saigon

Other Travel posts:

Touring and Travel in India
Touring and Travel outside India

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4 Responses to “Discovering Indochina–Angkor Wat”

  1. Venkata Ramana Sarma Podury Says:

    what a passion for detail!

    • richardclarke Says:

      I am just trying to tell the story, and take all of you with me on the journey. I feel like the detail helps to do this. I am glad that it is appreciated.

  2. Discovering Indochina–Angkor Wat « Living in the Embrace of … | Tour Cambodia Says:

    […] post: Discovering Indochina–Angkor Wat « Living in the Embrace of … Useful […]

  3. tskraghu Says:

    Excellent coverage. Thanks.

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