Angkor Wat
12th-Century Khmer Temple, Cambodia.

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Angkor Wat Khmer Temple

Angkor Wat (c.1115-1145)
Architecture & Sculpture of Khmer Temple


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Angkor Wat relief sculptures of
devatas (Hindu gods or spirits).


Along with the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho, Central India, and the Taj Mahal in northern India, the Cambodian Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat ranks among the greatest examples of religious architecture in the whole of Asia, comparable to the finest specimens of Gothic architecture or Baroque architecture in Europe. Situated some 4 miles (6 km) north of the modern town of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia (Kampuchea), the temple was built about 1115-1145 in Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, by King Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-1150), to serve as his mausoleum. Angkor Wat operated first as a Hindu shrine dedicated to Vishnu, then a Theravada Buddhist temple in the late 13th century. Today Angkor Wat is Cambodia's most famous site of religious art and its silhouette appears on the Cambodian national flag. The temple is renowned for its high classical style of Khmer architecture, as well as the staggering quantity of its relief sculpture and architectural carvings. Artifacts taken from the site and large sections cast from the temple buildings were exhibited in Paris in 1867, announcing a great and unknown civilization rivalling in sophistication the work of the greatest architects in the West. In 1992, along with a sister temple Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat was proclaimed a UN World Heritage Site.

For other examples of Asian art, see: Traditional Chinese Art. Also, please see: India: Painting & Sculpture.


The city of Angkor (ancient name: Yasodharapura) was the royal capital from which Khmer kings ruled one of the largest and most sophisticated kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia. From 890, when King Yasovarman I moved his capital to Angkor, until about 1210, the kings of Angkor controlled an area that extended from the southern tip of the Indochina peninsula northward to Yunnan and from Vietnam westwards as far as the Bay of Bengal. During this era, these kings implemented a series of massive construction projects designed to glorify both themselves and their dynastic capital. After the death of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1215), the Angkor Empire went into decline, although as late as 1280 Angkor was still a thriving metropolis and one of the most magnificent cities in Asia. However, the great construction boom was over, Angkor Wat had been turned into a Buddhist shrine, and Thai armies were watching. In 1431 they sacked the city which was then abandoned.

From the early 15th century to the late 19th century, interest in Angkor was limited almost entirely to the Angkor Wat temple complex which, having been maintained by Buddhist monks, became one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Southeast Asia. In time, the complex fell into disrepair and all that remained were jungle-covered ruins of the ancient temples and the remnants of the once-magnificent series of waterways, although it was never completely abandoned and its moat helped to preserve it against total engulfment. After the French took over Cambodia in 1863, they instigated a thorough program of reconstruction, under which Angkor Wat's buildings, reservoirs, and canals were restored to something approaching their original grandeur. The political and military upheavals which took place in Cambodia during the period 1935-1990 put an end to this program, but otherwise caused no great headaches. The site's only serious problem remained the encroachment of the jungle.

Architecture and Construction

The Angkor Wat temple is made from 6-10 million blocks of sandstone, each of which has an average weight of 1.5 tons. The city of Angkor required more stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and originally occupied an area considerably greater than modern-day Paris. Given the additional complexity of the overall building scheme, it is clear that Angkor was designed and managed by some of the finest architects in southeast Asia.

The temple was designed and built on the basis of religious and political ideas imported from India, albeit adapted to local conditions. From the time of King Yasovarman I, for whom the city (originally called Yasodharapura) was named, Angkor was designed as a symbolic universe modelled on traditional Indian cosmology, and its temples were built in order to provide a means whereby Khmer kings could be assured of immortality by becoming closely identified with Shaiva or one of the other important deities of the realm. Angkor Wat, for instance, was built by King Suryavarman II as a huge funerary temple and tomb to serve as a home for his earthly remains and to confirm his immortal and eternal identitification with Vishnu.

Angkor Wat defines what has come to be understood as the classical style of Angkorian architecture: other temples designed in this idiom include Banteay Samre and Thommanon in the area of Angkor, and Phimai in modern Thailand. It combines two basic features of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the galleried temple, founded on early Dravidian architecture, with key features including the "Jagati" - a raised platform or terrace upon which many buddhist and hindu temples were built. In addition to Angkor Wat, another famous shrine with a jagati is the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, at Khajuraho.

Built on rising ground and surrounded by an artificial moat, the temple of Angkor Wat is laid out symmetrically on tiered platforms that ascend to the central tower (one of a quincunx), which rises to a height of 213 feet (65 metres). Long colonnades connect the towers at each stepped level in concentric rings of rectangular galleries, whose walls are lined with sculpture and relief carvings. The temple is approached across the moat, via a stone causeway lined with stone figures. The ascending towers represent the spiritual world and mountain homes of the gods and were probably built in homage to ancestral deities. The temple's structures are chiefly built in stone with detailed bas-reliefs carved into the walls; the corbelled blockwork and pseudo-vaulted towers are covered with highly animated figures chiseled into the sandstone and volcanic rock.


The Angkor Wat temple is world famous for its stone sculpture which can be seen on almost all of its surfaces, columns, lintels and roofs. There are literally miles of reliefs, typically in the form of bas-relief friezes illustrating scenes from Indian mythology, and featuring a bewildering array of animal and human figures, as well as abstract motifs like lotus rosettes and garlands. They include: devatas (Hindu gods or spirits), griffins, unicorns, lions, garudas, snakes, winged dragons, dancing girls and warriors. Khmer sculptors - surely some of the greatest sculptors in southeast Asia - paid meticulous attention to the headdresses, hair, garments, posture and jewellery of the deities and human figures. In addition to reliefs, Angkor Wat contains numerous statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Carved pediments and lintels decorate the entrances to the galleries and to the shrines. While the inner walls of the outer gallery, for example, are decorated with a series of large-scale scenes depicting episodes from Hindu sagas like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. On the southern gallery walls there is a representation of the 37 heavens and 32 hells of Hindu mythology, while the eastern gallery houses one of the most celebrated friezes, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, featuring Vishnu showing 88 devas and 92 asuras.

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