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Angkor Wat History


Angkor Wat is the largest monument of the Angkor group and one of the most intact, is an architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, reliefs and sculpture make it one of the finest and biggest monuments in the world. This temple is expression of Khmer art at its highest point of development.

Wat is the Thai name for temple (the French spelling is Vat), which was probably added to Angkor when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the 16th century. After the capital gradually shifted to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks.

Some believe Angkor Wat was designed by Divakarapandita, the chief adviser and minister of the king, who was a Brahmin with divine honours. The Khmers attribute the building of Angkor Wat to the divine architect Visvakarman. Construction began early in the reign of king Suryavarman II and because his name appears posthumously in the bas-reliefs and inscriptions. The estimated time for construction of the temple is about 30 years.

There has been considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether Angkor Wat was built as a temple or a tomb. It is generally accepted that the architecture and decoration identify it as a temple where a god was worshipped and that it was a mausoleum for the king after his death. Its orientation is different from other temples at Angkor as the main entrance is the west, rather than the east. The bas-reliefs are arranged for viewing from left to right, a practice used in Hindu religious ceremonies from tombs. This emphasis on the west conforms with the symbolism between the setting sun and death.


Architectural Plan

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp when walking through the monument because of its enormity. Its complexity and beauty both attract and distract one's attention. From a distance, Angkor at appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the centre, but close up it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different level linked by stairways.

It is recommended that you read this section and study the ground plan before visiting the temple, then keep this guide close at hand while looking at the different elements, particularly the bas reliefs.

At 65 metres (213), the height of Angkor Wat from the ground the top of the central tower is greater than it might appear, achieved by using three rectangular or square platforms (1-3). Each one is progressively smaller and higher than the one below, starting from the outer limits of the temple. Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and the second platforms.


At the third level, the platform supports five tours- four of the corners and one the middle- and these are the most prominent architectural features of Angkor Wat. Graduated layers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point. The overall profile imitates a lotus bud.

Several architectural lines stand out in the profile of the monument. The eye is drawn left and right to the horizontal aspect of the levels and upward to the soaring height of the towers. The ingenious plan of Angkor Wat allows a view of all five towers only from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the main entrance. Many of the structures and courtyards are cruciform shaped. The stone vaulted roof on galleries, chambers and aisles is another characteristic of Angkor Wat. From afar, this roof looks as though, but close up the vault format identifies itself. Steps provide access to the various levels. Helen Churchill Candee, who visited Angkor in the 1920s, thought their usefulness surpassed their architectural purpose. The steps to Angkor Wat are made to force a halt at beauteous obstructions that the mind may be prepared for the atmosphere of sanctity, she wrote.

To become familiar with the composition of Angkor Wat it is advisable to learn to recognize the repetitive elements in the architecture. Galleries with columns, towers, vaulted roofs, frontons, steps and the cruciform plan occur again and again. It was by combining two or more of these aspects that a sense of height was achieved. This system was used to link one part of the monument to another. A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the limits of two prominent areas- the galleries and the gopuras. The long causeway at the west entrance is repeated on the eastern side of the first gallery. 


Angkor Wat, according to Coedes, is a replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the centre of the monument symbolising the mythical Mount Meru, situated at the centre of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru; the outer wall to mountains at the edge of the world; and the surrounding moat to the oceans beyond.

A study has shown that when Angkor Wat was laid out by the Khmers originally, the distance between certain architectural elements of the temple reflected numbers which were related to Hindu mythology and cosmology. The positions of the bas-reliefs were regulated, for example, by solar movements. Scenes on the east-west sides reflect those relating to the rising and setting of the sun.



Even though Angkor Wat is the most photographed Khmer monument, nothing approaches the actual experience of seeing this temple. Frank Vincent grasped this sensation over 100: The general appearance of the wonder of the temple is beautiful and romantic as well as impressive and grand…it must be seen to be understood and appreciated. Helen Churchill Candee experienced a similar reaction some 50 years later. One can never look upon the ensemble of the Vat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up into the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world edifices.


Angkor Wat at the top level

Angkor Wat is an immense monument occupying a rectangular area of about 210 hectares (500 acres), defined by a laterite enclosure wall which is surrounded by a moat that is 200 metres (660 feet) wide. The perimeter of the enclosure wall measures 5.5 kilometers (31/2miles). The moat is crossed by a huge causeway built of sandstone blocks 250 metres long (820 feet) and 12 metres (39 feet) wide. With such impressive statistics it is easy to understand why some local inhabitants believe that Angkor Wat was built by the gods.


Gallery of Bas-Reliefs

By their beauty they first attract, by their strangeness they hold attention, Helen Churchill Candee wrote of the bas-reliefs in the 1920s. The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square metres (12,900 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The reliefs cover most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two metres (7 feet) from top to bottom.


A scene of Churning of Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat temple

The detail, quality, composition and execution give them an unequalled status in the world art. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the reliefs. The effect is like the work of painters rather than sculptors. The bas-reliefs are of dazzling rich decoration- always kept in check, never allowed to run unbridled over wall and ceiling, possess strength and repose, imagination and power of fantasy; wherever one looks the main effect is one of 'supreme dignity', wrote a visitor 50 years ago.