My Journey to the mystic land of Angkor didn’t start the day I boarded my plane to Siem Reap on 23rd Oct 2016, it started many years back when I was in school and saw Angkor Was in my history book. There was something special and mesmerising in those pictures, and the fact that its one of the largest religious monuments ever built, added to my interest. during my growing up years, Angkor Wat never left my mind and the wish that may be one day I’ll get to visit this place.
Angkor Wat was built between 800 A.D and 1300 A.D, encompassing an area of about 500 acres, making it the biggest religious monument in the world. It was originally built as a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Eventually when Buddhism came, it got converted into buddhist place of worship with an addition of buddha statues to its rich architecture. Angkor translates to “City of Temples” or the “Holy City” and the city was once the capital of Great Khmer Empire. The ruins of Angkor Temples represent the pinnacle of the ancient Khmer architecture, art and civilisation. These temples are not only impressive because of their beauty art and architecture, but also for the vast waterworks and military defenses that were put in place, which were quite advanced for their time.
If you go by legend, then its believed that the construction of Angkor Wat was started by Indra as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea. In fact the chronicles of Chinese traveller from 13th Century, Daguan Zhou, some temples were built overnight by some divine architect. Angkor period is defined by the 6 centuries of Khmer rule, but its historical importance and evidences date rule of king Jayavarman II onwards. Most of Angkor history is buried in sand, with no proper written evidence, and its mostly in legends of folk lore. Designing and construction of Angkor Wat started during the rule of Suryavarman II, he dedicated this temple to Lord Vishnu, the Supreme God in Vaishnavaite Hinduism. Suryavarman’s dedication to Lord Vishnu is also evident from the fact that he was posthumously given the name “Paramvishnuloka” which means “He who is in the supreme abode of Lord Vishnu”. During this period, Angkor was also the capital city of Khmer empire. Construction of Angkor Wat was one Herculean undertaking which involved quarrying enormous amount of rocks and careful artistic work carving out delicate and fine pieces. The moat that encircles the temple was made by moving almost 1.5 million cubic meters of sand and silt. The temple was built using a tough material called laterite to provide enough support, encased with soft sandstone which was used for the carvings.
A very interesting feature which we as tourists might not realise is the exact location of Angkor Temple. Eleanor Mannika, a scholar of Southeast Asian Studies University of Pennsylvania, has written in her book “Angkor Wat-Time, Space and Kinship”, Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north in latitude and the north-south axis of its central tower’s chamber is approximately 13.43 cubits long. The statue of Vishnu in the central sanctuary is placed at the latitude of Angkor Wat and along the axis of the Earth. She further writes that the Khmer people in that period were aware of the fact that earth is round. In her book, Eleanor Mannikka has mentioned more than a dozen lunar alignments with Angkor Wat’s towers. She strongly believes that the temple had an important astronomical role in that period.
While other temples in that region face East, Angkor Wat faces west, the sunset.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains ruins of different capitals during the Khmer rule, dating from 9th to the 15th Century. It extends over approximately 400 square kilometres and consists of temples ruins, basins, reservoirs, canals and huge walls which were built to save the city from flooding. Angkor is a great example of impressive layout of ancient urban planning. The main tourist attractions of this archeological park are Angkor Thom, Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and of course the Angkor Wat temple. The main temple of Angkor Wat is almost four times the size of Vatican and the stones used are more than whats used in all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and the entire area covered is bigger than todays Paris. It took 35 years, 300,000 workers and more than 6000 elephants in the construction of Angkor.
These old pictures were published in a travel blog some time back, and I have added them to give a perspective as to what was found and the massive scale of restoration that’s still going on to preserve these valuable pieces of ancient history.
French traveller Henri Mouhot is often credited with the discovery of Angkor Wat in 1860, though the fact remains that Angkor was never lost. The main temple of Angkor continued to be a place of worship for buddhists and remains so till today, but stayed hidden from a large portion of outside world. Henri Mouhot did however popularise Angkor to the west and managed to get their attention to this crumbling temple city. Before Mouhot, many travellers did mention Angkor and the magnificent temples of Khmer but none were as descriptive as Mouhot’s.
Here are few links from YouTube, that I found quite interesting regarding Angkor Wat history.
In the later parts of this series I shall write about my travel experiences into this mystical world of ancient history, art and architecture and shall provide tips which might be helpful to those planning to take this trip.