The approach to Angkor Wat, the magnificent shrine tribute to a god-king in northeast Cambodia, prepares one for an experience of awe. The visitor advances along 200 yards of causeway across a moat with a high balustrade of nagas (stone seven-headed cobra-protectors) on either side. The causeway ends at a five-story gate with colonnades along four sides of an outer court. A second raised causeway leads on for 400 more yards to the entrance of the inner shrine. Looming ahead is a five-towered temple, fantastically shaped and intricately carved, giving the impression of a living, moving body. It rises above a double wall that completely surrounds it. A maze of galleries and stairs leads up the central tower (180 feet). The sandstone walls and staircases were originally painted and had gold highlights, but they are extensively worn today. The large central tower is flanked by four smaller towers. Each anchors one of four courtyards with shaded galleries around each. The highest point contains the main sanctuary, a small empty room.
The scale of the complex is enormous. The walls enclose an area of 200 acres, which originally held the city, and the area is more than 150 square miles. The temple circuit is about eleven miles around, and the longer one is sixteen miles, usually done on a motorbike. There are more than a hundred temples all told.
The shrine building is the size of a medieval European cathedral and was built at the same time as the first Gothic cathedrals. A rectangular stone platform with sides a thousand yards long serves as a base for the sanctuary. But the most striking aspect of Angkor Wat is the detail work covering every exposed surface, generating the sense of movement in the stone. There are 300 carved apsaras (heavenly nymphs, somewhat like angels), and each one is distinctive.
The bas reliefs are the most important art works, smooth polished surfaces with intricate detail. The Hindu themes include Vishnu conquering the demons and scenes from the Hindu epics, Ramayana, and the Mahabharata. The most striking of all, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, shows Vishnu directing heavenly creatures in churning the ocean. The Elephant Terrace consists of 375 yards of carved elephants that form the base of a viewing stand that was used for ceremonies. Along the path are numerous protective lions.
The shrine was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but built as a tomb for the ashes of Suryavarman II (1113–1150), one of the greatest of the Khmer rulers. Known as the Sun King, Suryavarman was regarded as a god by his people. Angkor's five towers represent the five peaks of fabled Mount Meru, a mountain that in Hindu myth was the legendary home of the gods. Angkor was thus a mountain home for the deified spirit of Suryavarman, so that his soul might communicate as an equal with the gods of Meru. During Suryavarman's life, Angkor Wat also enshrined the lingam, a carved stone pillar representing his penis, a symbol of his potency and dominance over the nation. Since it was believed that the security of the country and the continuation of the dynasty depended upon protecting the lingam, the courtyard sanctuary was a way to guard this sacred emblem. The lingam has long since disappeared. The main temple is a source of Cambodian pride and appears on the national flag.
Angkor Wat is an unusual shrine in that there is nothing to enter. It is pure architecture. Doubtless throngs of Khmer people came here to pay homage both during the king's life and after, but there are no places where sacrifice was offered. The galleries are covered with 700 yards of carved reliefs of scenes from Hindu religious epics involving some 18,000 characters. The thousands of carvings of female dancers suggest the kinds of ceremonies that must have been conducted, all of them centered about the praise and adulation of the king and father of the nation.
Angkor evidently provided for a large population. Its water reservoir is sufficient for a fair-sized city, and doubtless large herds of ceremonial elephants were kept. But Angkor began to decline within a century of its completion. Angkor was pillaged by the Cham in 1177, and when the kingdom was restored in the following century, the capital was moved. When the canals were no longer used for irrigation, malaria spread, crops failed, and people left for other areas. In 1432 the site was abandoned and jungle vines closed around it.
In the 1850s French archaeologists rediscovered Angkor Wat and restoration began. The latest work was completed with United Nations support, and Angkor Wat was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992. During the Cambodian terror in the 1970s, Angkor Wat was used as a communications center by the Khmer Rouge. It was not damaged by the war, however, and since the establishment of a new government it has been reopened and has become a major tourist destination. Even though Angkor itself is well secured, some of the area surrounding it is dangerous, subject to bandits and unexploded land mines. There are a number of other temples and ruins in the rainforest surrounding Angkor Wat, though none rivals it in importance or magnificence.
The restoration of Angkor faces several challenges. For years, its unprotected access encouraged looters to remove statues and bas-reliefs, which are highly prized on the international art market. Secondly, the years of neglect and abandonment allowed vegetation to root in the cracks and fissures of the stone work, in time cracking them. In some places, huge tree roots are so integrated into the stonework that removal would be destructive. Finally, there is the effect of mass tourism itself, with its vehicle exhaust and climbing visitors.
See also: Mount Meru
1994., Angkor. Lincolnwood, IL, Passport Books,
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