Towering over 699 feet above ground and spanning over 400 acres of Northern Cambodian land lies the largest religious monument in the world. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor Wat is the legacy of the Great Khmer Empire.
The Khmer Dynasty, was founded by King Jayavarman the 2nd, who presented himself as the king of all kings, the universal monarch and thus was revered as a descendant of god, by his subjects. It is this reverence instilled in the population that fueled the construction of unimaginably massive monuments such as Angkor Wat, which, as per inscriptions, is said to have been built over 35 years with the labour of 300 000 men and 6000 elephants.
Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was commissioned by King Suryavarman the 2nd, in the 12th century to honour the Hindu God Vishnu. The five peaks of Angkor, surrounded by moats representative of the cosmic ocean, are rumoured to symbolize Mount Meru, the resting place of the Gods – the eastern equivalent to Mount Olympus. Mount Meru is also considered a cosmic axis connecting Earth with the heavens. Thus, the architect’s intention was for Angkor to serve as Vishnu’s supreme abode and by extension symbolize the importance and the central place the Kingdom of Angkor had in the universe. Bas-reliefs richly decorate the inner walls of Angkor, and tell stories from both Hindu and Buddhist culture. Most notably, the story of the creation of the universe where the devas (gods) fought the asuras (demons) to reclaim order and power for the gods who had lost it, thus reinstating peace upon the world. The bas-reliefs oddly enough however, are positioned counterclockwise against the natural order of things. Adding to the puzzle, Angkor Wat, has been built in the direction of the west, which, as per Hindu culture is typically associated with death. The late King Suryavarman II is said to have died in battle, his remains never truly uncovered, but legend has it, they remain within the safety of Angkor which acts as his mausoleum.
Angkor Wat, to many people who’ve heard about it, is almost always solely associated with Buddhist culture. History however, says otherwise. How then, did the temple of Angkor, so deeply rooted with the prevailing Hindu culture at the time, transform into a Buddhist temple? The transition occurred during the reign of King Jayavarman the 7th. The King came into power at the ripe old age of 61, after fighting a fearsome battle with the Vietnamese Chams. He’d lost faith in the Hindu religion and turned to Buddhism resulting in the conversion of an entire population, which ultimately led to the recreation of many statues and paintings of Angkor to depict the Buddha. One thing to note at this point is that Angkor was a vast civilization, and Angkor Wat the core which held it all together. Consequent to the defeat of the Vietnamese Chams however, King Jayavarman VII, decided to move to a fortressed city state, now known as Angkor Thom. Thus, although Angkor Wat was renewed to suit the newly emerging Mahayana Buddhist culture, it was no longer the center of the Angkorian civilization despite being in the vicinity of Angkor Thom. This is often a point of confusion. While many refer to the entire complex of temples subsequently built by Jayavarman VII as Angkor Wat, the reality is that Angkor Wat is simply the original temple built by Suryavarman II.
The thriving Angkorian civilization eventually came to its end however; the reasons never truly uncovered. The city was abandoned in the 15th century in a cloud of mystery. Why would a self- sufficient population choose to leave a flourishing city? Recent research however, has indicated that success of Angkor itself, may’ve led to its downfall. The civilization was heavily dependent on an intricate canal-based irrigation system. It required constant maintenance in order to prevent siltation and allow the flow of water. Failure to do so, would’ve resulted in severe lack of water and droughts, which the civilization did in fact fall prey to. This, coupled with foreign invasion, led to the abandonment of the city. Thus, the Angkor Complex, along with Angkor Wat, was left to nature, its only caretakers, the Theravada Buddhist monks who attempted to preserve it.
Fast-forward to 1860, when the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot claimed to have “discovered” Angkor, which at the time consisted of numerous sites including Angkor Wat. (The reality however is that there was nothing to be “discovered” as Angkor had seen many visitors including Antonio da Mardalena, a Portuguese Capuchin friar). Mahout believed that the authors of such grandeur were of a disappeared race and dated the creation of Angkor back to over 2 millennia. The truth we now know, was pieced together later on, from a book called “The Customs of Cambodia” written by a Chinese envoy, Zhou Daguan who’d stayed in Angkor from 1295-1296.
The significance of the ancient Angkorian Civilization and most importantly Angkor Wat which served as its center for a long time, is undeniable. Cambodian society has identified this and as such have even incorporated the silhouette of Angkor Wat into their national flag. Thus, Angkor remains a place of deep reverence. It’s impact on the world’s history indisputable.
The grandeur and complexity of ancient Eastern civilizations are often overshadowed by the relatively modern civilizations of the West. Their histories equally intriguing, but significantly lesser known. Thus, it is important that we fully acknowledge and appreciate the contributions made by all populations to the collective cultural heritage of the world.
– Rtr Tharini Ratwatte