Angkor Wat

Dedicated originally to Vishnu, the magnificent temple complex of Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument built anywhere in the world. Considered an architectural marvel, the temple is an imposing sight with a majestic facade and five tall towers that can be seen from a distance. The symmetry and precision with which the temple complex was built are striking. Because of the symmetry, all the five towers on the top can only be seen at a certain angle.

Built like a mountain having three concentric enclosures with inner enclosures higher than the outer ones, Angkor Wat is filled with repetitive and recursive structures that are pleasing to the eye. These structures include pillars, roofs, galleries, doorways with lintels and pediments, and gopuras (towers). In-spite of Angkor Wat’s grand scale, it gives an impression of a harmonious architecture because of its open spaces, the proportionality of the architectural elements and seamless blending with the surroundings.

Unlike many other famous monuments, it was never really abandoned and was in use continuously since it was built.  While it was built as a Hindu temple with cultural and religious influences from India, the architecture and building techniques are unique to Cambodia. There are no Hindu or Buddhist monuments in the Indian subcontinent that are as massive as Angkor Wat. The temple was built with local ingenuity and talent that was around for many centuries, even before the Khmer rulers came to power.

The people of Cambodia are very proud of their heritage, and it is evident from the fact that the Cambodian flag carries the image of Angkor Wat. During the civil war in the 70s and 80s, monuments did not suffer any damage as the rival sides were very protective of their heritage.

Archaeological Site

Angkor Wat is a part of the larger Angkor Archaeological Park,  which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. The preservation and restoration of Angkor Wat started in 1908 by the French and is now being undertaken by the Government of Cambodia with the help of many countries, including Japan, France, and India.

The erosion of the bas-reliefs, especially on the pediments of the doors, is significant compared to Banteay Srei, which was built 200 years before Angkor Wat. The main reason for this erosion is the quality and type of sandstone used.

Location

The archaeological site lies about 3.4 miles north of Siem Reap.

The site covers an area of 500 acres with a massive moat at the outer level.

History

Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century at the height of Khmer civilization. The temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu, one of the Trimurti (Trinity) of Hinduism. Even though the predecessors of Suryavarman II were devotees of Shiva, he became a devotee of Vishnu for an unknown reason. The temple became a Buddhist monument later and underwent some changes.

By any stretch of imagination, building a monument of this magnitude is a massive undertaking. It is amazing how the structure as enormous as Angkor Wat was completed in 36 years. It uses more stone blocks than the Giza Pyramid. Almost every part of the building is decorated with intricate carvings and sculptures. According to an inscription, it took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to complete the job. The sandstone slabs needed to build the temple were quarried from the Phnom Kulen mountains and transported to the site using elephants.

Purpose

There is a lot of debate among experts as to why this massive monument was built. Some claim that it was built as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II,  the Khmer king who commissioned this monument. Some believe his body was buried under the central tower of the temple.

The Khmer people practiced their religion by mixing their ancestral belief system with Hindu traditions and philosophy. The Khmer rulers started their own brand of Hinduism known as the Devaraja cult. According to this belief system, the king is a devaraja (god-king in Sanskrit) who is divine and allowed to rule with divine authority.

Although Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple, it broke many traditions of the Hindu temple architecture. The main one is its orientation. Whether it is in India or Southeast Asia, almost all the Hindu temples are built facing east, a direction considered sacred because the Sun, a source of energy and light, rises in that direction. In contrast, the Angkor Wat Temple faces west, the sunset direction. This is one of the reasons why the experts believe Angkor Wat is more of a mausoleum than a temple.

City

The original name of Angkor Wat was Vrah Vishnuloka, which in Sanskrit means the sacred abode of Vishnu. The name Angkor Wat became prevalent once the Khmer rulers started following Buddhism.

The name Angkor Wat means temple city in the Khmer language. The world angkor was derived from nakor, which was borrowed from the Sanskrit word nagara, which means city. Wat in Khmer means the temple. It is again derived from the Sanskrit word vata, which means enclosure.

As the name suggests, Angkor Wat is a city with a temple complex.  It covers an area of 200 hectares with many rectangular shaped concentric enclosures.

Moat

A large moat surrounds the city. As can be seen from the image below, it is well-preserved and is filled with water.

A section of the moat surrounding the Angkor Wat temple complex
A section of the moat surrounding the Angkor Wat temple complex

The next inner enclosure is the actual city that housed many royal buildings, none of which have survived. Experts believe the king and the nobility lived in these buildings.

Causeway

On the west side of Angkor Wat, there is a causeway that begins at the outer bank of the moat and ends at the temple complex. There is a similar causeway on the eastern side, but a shorter one. Both the causeways are built on top of the moat.

The image below shows the statue of multi-headed Sheshanaga (king of serpents) at the beginning of the causeway.

Restored statue of muti-headed naga at the beginning of the causeway
Restored statue of many-headed naga at the beginning of the causeway

Outer Enclosure

The causeway over the moat leads to the main entrance of the outer enclosure of the temple. The entrance structure has three gopuras, the middle one being the taller than the other two and the entry point.

Entrance

Entrance to the outer enclosure of the Angkor Wat Temple

The southern gopura of this structure shelters a statue of Vishnu, which according to some experts stood inside the principal sanctuary, i.e., the uppermost terrace of the temple.

Statue of Vishnu inside a gopura of the outer enclosure entrance
Statue of Vishnu inside a gopura of the outer enclosure entrance

The image below shows the space between the outer entrance and the temple complex.  At the far end, the image shows part of the gallery consisting of three gopuras at the perimeter of the outer enclosure. The middle gopura is taller than the other two and is the entrance.

A causeway connects the outer entrance to the main entrance of the temple. The two similar looking library structures are situated on either side of the causeway.

At the near end, the image shows the pediment of the door located on the lower level gallery. The bas-relief on the pediment depicts a scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra, an episode from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

A view of the outer entrance from the top-most level of Angkor Wat Temple
A view of the outer entrance from the top-most level of Angkor Wat Temple

The image below shows one of the library structure seen in the above image.

A library inside the outer enclosure
A library inside the outer enclosure

Ponds

The outer enclosure has two ponds, one on the and one on the north. These ponds were not part of the original monument but were built sometime in the 16th century. The north side pond is where the tourists gather in the morning to view Angkor Wat at sunrise. If the weather is right, the sunrise offers a spectacular view of the temple with its reflection on the pond.

North side pond on the outer enclosure of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Northside pond on the outer enclosure

Temple Complex

The Angkor Wat Temple is oriented along the east-west axis, and as mentioned before, it is facing west, i.e., the main entrance is on the west side. The layout of the structures is symmetrical about the east-west axis. In other words, the structures on the north and south of this axis are the mirror images.

The temple complex consists of three rectangular-shaped concentric enclosures. Within these enclosures, there are three levels of structures. The middle enclosure on the first level supports the second level structures, and the inner enclosure supports the second and third level structures. In other words, the temple complex was built like a three-level pyramid.

A view of the Angkor Wat temple at sunrise
Angkor Wat at sunrise

Following the Hindu temple tradition of having a prakara at the outer limits, a rectangular structure surrounds the outer enclosure. This structure has galleries along the cardinal directions and small towers called pavilions at the four corners. In the middle of the west and east galleries are the entrances. Carved on the walls of the galleries are the bas-reliefs depicting stories and scenes mainly from the Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.

A courtyard separates the outer and middle enclosures. On this courtyard, there are two libraries near the west entrance; one on the north and another on the south. A structure known as the Cruciform Cloister connects the west entrance to the middle enclosure. This structure also connects the first level to the second level.

The second and third level also have galleries at the boundaries. At each corner of the second level, there is a small tower connecting the galleries on both sides.

At each corner of the third level, there is a large tower connecting the galleries on both sides. At the middle of the third level is a tall tower which can be seen from all sides. There are four rectangular basins between the middle tower and the four corner towers.

Entrance to the Temple Complex

Entrance to the Angkor Wat temple
Entrance to the Angkor Wat temple

Galleries

The rectangular gallery structures built on the perimeter of the outer enclosure form the prakara of the temple. Note: A prakara in Hindu temple architecture is a protective wall or structure built around the outer perimeter of the temple.

There are four galleries, one in each cardinal direction.  At each corner of the gallery-structure is a tower-like structure called pavilion. The image below is a view of the temple from the southwest corner  showing  the of the west and south galleries and pavilion at their meeting point

A view of the Angkor Wat temple from southwest corner showing the west and south galleries
A view of the Angkor Wat temple from southwest corner showing the west and south galleries

The image below shows the corridor of the gallery whose inner walls are carved with bas-reliefs depicting various themes from Hindu mythology. The roof is beautifully decorated with rosettes of lotus flowers. Supporting on the outer side of the gallery are the square pillars.

Bas-reliefs

Intricately carved bas-reliefs that adorn the gallery walls are one of the main attractions of this temple. The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections with each gallery having two sections, each of which was carved continuously in the horizontal direction depicting multiple scenes of a theme. Some panels have two or three tiers in the vertical direction. Some part of the bas-reliefs have polished appearance and some still have traces of original paint, especially red.

The main theme of the bas-reliefs is the battle between good and evil,  and most of the themes are selected from the Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.

People view galleries in the counter-clockwise direction starting from the entrance on the west side. The south section of the west gallery is the first bas-relief people normally visit.

Battle of Kurukshetra (West Gallery, South Section)

The Battle of Kurukshetra is the theme in the south section of the west gallery. Based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this bas-relief depicts the fighting scene between the Pandavas and Kauravas.

The image below shows the advancing Kaurava army. On the top-left corner, Bhishma, the commander of the Kaurava army, is seen lying on the bed of arrows fired by Arjuna.

Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting advancing Kaurava army and the death of Bhishma
Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting advancing Kaurava army and the death of Bhishma

Death of Bhishma

The death of Bhishma is a well-known episode in Mahabharata. According to the story, Bhishma, the grand-uncle of both the Kauravas and Pandavas, leads the Kaurava army for the first ten days of the battle. As the Kurukshetra Battle rages, Krishna realizes Bhishma is an obstacle to Pandava’s victory because Arjuna is unable to beat Bhishma in the battle. To ensure Pandava’s victory, Krishna devises a clever plan involving Shikhandi, a eunuch, to kill Bhishma. Krishna knew Bhishma took an oath not to fight the other gender.

As per the plan, Shikhandi accompanies Arjuna in his chariot on the tenth day of the battle. When the battle starts between Arjuna and Bhishma, Arjuna hides behind Shikhandi and fires arrows at Bhishma. Unable to fight back because of his oath, Bhishma lays down his arms. As Arjuna’s arrows pierce through Bhishma’s body, he falls down making it appear as if he is lying on the bed of arrows. See the top of the image below.

Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting the death of Bhishma
Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting the death of Bhishma

Raging Battle

The image below depicts the fight between the Kaurava and Pandava armies. The Kaurava warriors are moving from left to right, and the Pandava warriors are from right to left. The commanders are on the chariots.

Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting melee of Kaurava and Pandava warriors
Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting melee of Kaurava and Pandava warriors

Procession of King Suryavarman II (South Gallery,  West Wing)

The Procession of King Suryavarman II is the theme of the western section of the south gallery. Unlike the other bas-relief themes, this is based on history. It depicts King Suryavarman II in a procession with his commanders, soldiers, courtiers and ordinary people. The commanders are on elephants, and the rank of commander is indicated by the number of parasols surrounding them.

The image below shows the portrait of  King Suryavarman II carved in this bas-relief.

Bas-relief of King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat
Bas-relief of King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat
Suryavarman II as the Commander-in-Chief

The bas-relief below shows King Suryavarman II standing majestically on top of the elephant as the commander-in-chief of his army. His left hand is holding a sword that is pointing downwards, and his right hand is holding an unknown object (probably a weapon).

Notice the parasols surrounding the king. There are fifteen of them in this bas-relief. The number of parasols surrounding a commander indicates his rank in the army. The king has the highest number of parasols among the commanders in the procession implying that he is the commander-in-chief.

Bas-relief of depicting King Suryavarman II as a commander of the army

Bas-relief of depicting King Suryavarman II as a commander of the armyThe image below shows an army commander on an elephant. He is holding a shield on his left hand and an unknown object on his right hand (similar to the one held by the king). Sitting in front of him is the mahout goading the elephant with an ankusha, which is a pointed tool with a hook used in India and Southeast Asia for controlling and training elephants.  Notice that he has only seven parasols around him.

A commander riding an elephant in the procession of King Suryavarman II
A commander riding an elephant in the procession of King Suryavarman II
Other Participants

The image below shows women marching along the procession.

A section of bas-relief depicting women marching along the parade of King Suryavarman II
A section of bas-relief depicting women marching along the parade of King Suryavarman II

The image below shows a contingent of Siamese soldiers carrying spears marching at the head of the parade. Behind them is their commander riding an elephant.

A section of bas-relief depicting the contingent of Siamese soldiers marching at the head of King Suryavarman II parade
A section of bas-relief depicting the contingent of Siamese soldiers marching at the head of King Suryavarman II parade

Swargas and Narakas (Heavens and Hells)

As the name suggests, the Heavens and Hells bas-relief is about the depiction of heavens and hells as described in the ancient Hindu texts called Puranas. This 200 feet long bas-relief is carved on the eastern section of the south gallery located on the perimeter of the lower level of Angkor Wat.

It depicts 37 heavens in the upper tier and 32 hells in the lower tier. The hells are much more descriptive than the heavens.

Description Heavens and Hells bas-relief
Description Heavens and Hells bas-relief

A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief carved on the eastern section of the south gallery

A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief carved on the eastern section of the south gallery. Although naraka translates to hell, it is not the hell as understood in the West. A naraka is more akin to purgatory because it is not eternal and the sinners can redeem themselves once they pay for their sins. In Hindu mythology, sinners are reborn, but not always as human beings.

Yama’s Court

The bas-relief depicts the court of Yama, the God of Justice and Lord of Naraka, and Chitragupta, the assessor who keeps the records of good and bad deeds of a human being from birth to death. He assists Yama in determining who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

The image below depicts Yama’s court where he is seated on his vehicle, a buffalo, and directing the proceedings with multiple hands.

In Hindu mythology, Yama is one of the dikpalas (guardians of the directions). He is the Lord of the South. For this reason, the bas-reliefs related to Yama are in the south gallery.

A section of the Heaven and Hell bas-relief depicting Yama the god of death and justice riding his vehicle buffalo
A section of the Heaven and Hell bas-relief depicting Yama the god of death and justice riding his vehicle buffalo

The bas-relief below shows the continuation of Yama’s court where Chitragupta is checking the records of souls and sending them to either a naraka or swarga (heaven in Sanskrit).

A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief depicting Chitragupta, the assessor, checking the records of souls
A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief depicting Chitragupta, the assessor, checking the records of souls

The image below shows the sinners are being dropped to a naraka through a trapdoor after being assessed by Chitragupta.

A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief depicting Yama's guards pushing sinners to hell through a trapdoor
A section of the Heavens and Hells bas-relief depicting Yama’s guards pushing sinners to hell through a trapdoor
Narakas

According to Hindu mythology, a naraka is designed to punish a specific type of sin. The images below show some of the 32 narakas depicted in the bas-relief.

Depiction of narakas (hells)

One of the reasons why the Heavens and Hell bas-relief is in the south gallery is that Yama and narakas are associated with the south direction in Hindu mythology.

Samudra Manthana

The south section of the east gallery depicts Samudra Manthana, one of the well-known legends of Hindu mythology. In Sanskrit, samudra means ocean and manthana mean churning.  It is a story about the churning of the ocean to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. This story appears in many Hindu epics, including Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana.

According to the story, devas (demigods) and asuras (demons) collaborate to produce amrita by churning the Ocean of Milk. To perform churning, they use Vasuki (king of nagas) as the rope and Mount Mandara as the churning rod. Vasuki is coiled around Mount Mandara with asuras are on the head side and devas are on the tail side of Vasuki.

The churning was completed after 1000 years and resulted in many by-products, including 14 ratnas (precious things). Amrita is one of them and the other ratnas include the Moon, Ramba (an apsara), Laxmi (Goddess of Wealth).  As the story goes, devas stole and drank amrita and became immortal. Also produced was the visha (poison) emanating from the mouths of Vasuki.  Seeing the danger posed to the world by this poison, Shiva drank it but did not swallow it. So, it stayed in his throat forever.  Shiva is therefore called Neelakanta (blue throat) as the result of poison remaining in his throat. Vasuki eventually became Shiva’s snake and he is seen with Vasuki around his neck since then.

The bas-relief below shows asuras led by multi-headed Ravana pulling Vasuki’s body on the head side. To the left of Ravana is the army of asuras on elephants and horses.  Also seen are the flying apsaras cheer-leading Ravana and asuras.

A section of Samudra Manthana bas-relief depicting Ravana and asuras churning the ocean by pulling the body of the seven-headed king of serpents Vasuki
A section of Samudra Manthana depicting Ravana and asuras churning the ocean by pulling the body of the seven-headed king of serpents Vasuki

The bas-relief below shows devas led by the monkey-god Hanuman pulling Vasuki’s body on the tail side. To the right of Hanuman is the army of devas on elephants and horses. The flying apsaras above are cheer-leading Hanuman and devas.

Both Ravana and Hanuman were not part of the original Samudra Manthana story but added to demonstrate the story more effectively.

A section of the Samudra Manthana bas-relief depicting Hanuman and devatas churning the ocean by pulling the body of king of serpents Vasuki
A section of the Samudra Manthana bas-relief depicting Hanuman and devatas churning the ocean by pulling the body of the king of serpents Vasuki

The image below shows Vishnu with four hands overseeing the churning at Mount Mandara and Indra is flying on top of the mountain trying to stabilize it. To the left and right of the Mount Mandara are the apsaras acting as cheer-leaders to asuras as well as devas.

A section of the Samudra Manthana bas-relief depicting Vishnu and Indra in the middle of churning of the sea of milk
A section of the Samudra Manthana bas-relief depicting Vishnu and Indra in the middle of the churning of the sea of milk

The bas-relief in this section is beautiful and intricately carved. Unlike the other bas-reliefs, it is easy to understand the story and identify the players.

Vishnu’s Victory over Asuras

The northern section of the east gallery has this theme. This is a generic theme, not taken from any epics. It is believed that this bas-relief was most likely completed at a later date, probably in the 15th or 16th century.

The image below shows a beautiful carving of an asura commander on a chariot fighting Vishnu.

A section of the Gods Vs. Asuras bas-relief depicting an asura commander on a chariot fighting the gods
A section of the Gods Vs. Asuras bas-relief depicting an asura commander on a chariot fighting the gods

Krishna’s Victory over Banasura

Krishna’s Victory over Banasura is the theme of the bas-relief on the eastern section of the north gallery.  This story appears in Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana.  Although not very well-known, it is an interesting story in which Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, fights Shiva and becomes victorious. This bas-relief is of some significance because King Suryavarman II broke the Shaiva tradition of his predecessors and made Vishnu the dominant god of the Trinity.

Legend of Banasura

According to the story, Banasura, an asura king with thousand arms, is an ardent devotee of Shiva whom he tried to please by doing tapasu (austerity and meditation) for many years. Pleased with his devotion, Shiva confers upon him with many varas (boons), one of which was to be his ally in future fights. Once he gets these varas,  Banasura becomes arrogant and starts ill-treating his subjects. When his daughter Usha reaches the marriageable age, many suitors approach her with an intention to marry.  Banasura gets angry at the suitors and builds a fortress called Agnigraha (house of fire in Sanskrit) and imprisons her there to keep her away from them.

One day, Usha dreams of a young man and falls in love with him. When she mentions this to her maid Chitraleka, who realizes that the young man is Aniruddha, one of the grandsons of Krishna. Chitraleka with her superpowers summons Aniruddha to Usha’s quarters. When he sees Usha, he falls in love with her too.  Meanwhile, Banasura comes to know of Aniruddha’s presence in Usha’s quarters. He captures and imprisons him. When Krishna comes to know about his grandson’s imprisonment, he wages war against Banasura. At the request of Banasura,  Shiva keeps his promise and starts fighting against Krishna. Realizing this, Krishna tricks Shiva by firing a weapon that puts Shiva to sleep. Krishna then severs all but four arms of Banasura. Shiva then wakes up and begs Krishna not to kill Banasura. Meanwhile, Banasura realizing his mistakes begs forgiveness and allows his daughter to marry Aniruddha.

The image below shows Krishna riding Garuda fighting the Banasura’s army.

Krishna's Victory over Banasura Krishna riding Garuda fighting Banasura
Krishna’s Victory over Banasura depicting Krishna riding Garuda fighting Banasura

The image below shows Garuda facing Agnigraha (house of fire) built by Bansaura to keep his daughter Usha.

Vishnu's vehicle Garuda entering Agnigraha (house of fire) built by Bansaura in the Krishna's Victory over Banasura bas-relief
Garuda entering Agnigraha

Battle between Gods and Asuras

The theme of the bas-relief on the western section of the north gallery is not taken from any epics, instead, it depicts a generic theme of the good fighting evil. The bas-relief Battle between Gods and Asuras is about the Hindu pantheon fighting the evil asuras. It is a battle scene with 21 Hindu gods mounted on their vehicles fighting the asuras.

The images below show four of the gods: Brahma, Indra, Varuna and Kartikeya (a.k.a Skanda).

Gods on their vehicles fighting asuras

There is also an unusual bas-relief of Brahma, one of the Hindu Trinity, sitting in a cocoon. See the image below.

A section of the Battle between Gods and Asuras bas-relief depicting Brahma sitting in a cocoon
A section of the Battle between Gods and Asuras bas-relief depicting Brahma sitting in a cocoon

Although Brahma is the creator in Hindu mythology, he is not worshiped widely like Vishnu or Shiva. There are very few temples dedicated to Brahma in the world. The Brahma Temple in Prambanan is one of the well-known temples in Southeast Asia. The Brahma Temple in Pushkar is one of the few temples dedicated to Brahma In India.

There are several legends why Brahma is not worshiped. According to one legend, his consort Savitri, who was angered by Brahma’s extreme lust, cursed him not to be worshiped anywhere in the world except in Pushkar. In another legend, Shiva cursed Brahma because he lied to him and Vishnu about their creation.

Battle of Lanka

The Battle of Lanka is the theme of the bas-relief carved on the northern section of the west gallery. This is the final battle in Ramayana in which Rama and the army of monkeys (Vanara Sene) defeat Ravana and rescue Rama’s wife Sita.

Battle of Lanka bas-relief depicting Ravana fighting Rama's army
Battle of Lanka bas-relief depicting Ravana fighting Rama’s army
Battle of Lanka bas-relief depicting Rama riding Garuda
Battle of Lanka bas-relief depicting Rama riding Garuda

Libraries

The temple complex has two identical libraries, one on the south and the other on the north located at the same distance from the east-west axis. They are near the west side entrance and south and north of the cruciform cloister.

Many Khmer temples have libraries near the entrance. For instance, Banteay Srei. The exact purpose of libraries is not known. There is no clear-cut evidence to show that they were repositories of manuscripts. Experts believe that they might have been used as small shrines. The image below shows the library on the south side.

The library building on the south side of the Angkor Wat temple
The library building on the south side of the Angkor Wat temple

Lower Terrace

The image below shows a view of the lower terrace, library,  and gallery on the south side of the temple. To the north of the library is a structure called the cruciform cloister, a term used by architects to describe these types of structures.

The southern library building on the courtyard of the Angkor Wat temple

The southern library building on the courtyard of the Angkor Wat Temple

Cruciform Cloister

Cruciform cloister is a term used in architecture to describe a cross-like covered structure. This principle was used in the Angkor Wat architecture in two places, one in the lower level and another in the top-most level. The cruciform cloister on the lower level is situated near the entrance on the west side of the temple, and it was built to connect the outer enclosure to the middle enclosure of the temple.

The cruciform cloister structure has two perpendicular axial galleries that intersect in the middle forming a cross and four boundary galleries that surround the cross forming a square. The shape of the structure looks like a cross surrounded by a square.

Each boundary gallery is connected in the middle to one end of the axial gallery. Thus, the resulting structure has four equal-sized quadrants, each of which is enclosed by half of the boundary and half of the axial galleries. Each quadrant looks like a basin as shown in the image.

The cruciform cloister structure is an example of a perfectly symmetrical design. It is symmetrical about the east-west axis as well as the north-south axis.

The image below shows one of the four basins formed by the enclosing galleries.  As you can see from the image, the basin has a paved floor and appears water-tight. It has steps to reach to the floor, so in all likelihood, it was a temple-tank (kunda or phuskarini), a common feature in Hindu temples. It is believed that all four basins were filled with water when the temple was in use.

A Cruciform Cloister basin
A Cruciform Cloister basin

The gallery on the right (i.e., south side ) of the cruciform cloister is also called Preah Poan (thousand Buddhas) because of thousands of Buddha statues left inside this structure by pilgrims, most of whom came from the neighboring regions and Japan. They erected Buddha statues made of metal, stone, and wood as votive offerings. While the majority of them are lost, some can still be found here, and some are in the storage.

The gallery on the left is called the Hall of Echoes. Here you hear the echoes of the sound you make at the end of the gallery. This is a common feature in many temples and monuments in India.

The image below shows the central gallery with the steps at the end leading to the middle terrace.

A part of the central gallery on the lower level Crucifrom Cloister
A part of the central gallery on the lower level cruciform cloister

Middle Terrace

The middle terrace also has galleries at the perimeter of the rectangular enclosure. Galleries are connected to relatively small gopuras at the end.  A well-paved corridor is between the uppermost terrace enclosure and the middle terrace galleries as shown in the image below. The gallery on the left side ends into a small corner gopura (tower). To the right of the corner gopura is a door to the gallery. The doors always have pediments typically carved with scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The top-level structures are on the right.

A corridor on the middle level of the Angkor Wat temple
A corridor on the middle level of the Angkor Wat temple

Although the middle terrace is less ornate than the lower terrace, it has beautiful bas-reliefs of apsaras and devatas carved on the walls and pillars of the galleries and corner gopuras. The image below shows two such bas-reliefs.

The doorways of the galleries and gopuras are beautifully decorated. The pediments on top of the doorways depict some episodes from the Hindu epics Ramayana or Mahabharata.

The image below shows the pediment above the door carved with a bas-relief depicting the death of Vali, an episode from Ramayana. The bas-relief on the lintel depicts Indra riding his vehicle Airavata, a three-headed elephant.

A doorway on the middle terrace gallery of the Angkor Wat temple
A doorway on the middle terrace gallery of the Angkor Wat temple

Uppermost Terrace

Known as the Bakan, the uppermost terrace is the principal sanctuary of the temple. The access to the Bakan was restricted to the king and high priests. The Bakan symbolizes Mount Meru, which in Hindu mythology is a mythological mountain with five peaks at the center of the Universe and is home to gods and demigods (devas). Mount Meru also appears in Buddhist and Jain texts.

Bakan Structure

The uppermost terrace has four equally-sized towers rising from the corners and a taller and bigger tower in the middle. In architectural terms, this forms a quincunx, a geometrical pattern formed by five elements, four of which are placed at the corners and one placed at the center of a square. All the towers have the same conical shape, which symbolizes the bud of a lotus flower sacred in India and Southeast Asia.

From a distance, the towers of Angkor Wat appear similar in shape to the towers of the Prambanan Temples, which were built a few centuries earlier on the island of Java. This goes to show that the Khmer architecture was influenced by the architectures of temples in the neighboring regions rather than India.

Corner Towers

The four corner towers are identical in shape and size. Each has two access doorways with steps from the middle terrace corridor.  The images below show the views of the corner towers as seen from the middle terrace corridor.

Corner towers of Angkor Wat

The image shows the door of one of the corner towers on the uppermost terrace. The door frame is beautifully decorated. The pediment shows a scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra.

The door of a corner tower of the Angkor Wat temple
The door of a corner tower of the Angkor Wat temple

Cruciform Cloister

At the boundaries of the Bakan are the four galleries, each connecting to a corner tower at both ends. An axial gallery on each cardinal direction perpendicular to the boundary gallery connects that boundary gallery to the central tower. The four boundary galleries and four axial galleries form a cruciform cloister structure, just like the one in the lower level.

The image below shows a boundary gallery connected the axial gallery and one of four basins formed by this arrangement.

A basin on the uppermost terrace on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
A basin on the uppermost terrace on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Entrances to the Bakan

At the middle of each boundary gallery on the outer side is a porch that was used as an entrance. When the temple was built, the Bakan had all the four entrances open. Once the temple became a Buddhist monument, three of the entrances were closed and statues of Buddha were installed on the vestibule.

The image below shows an outer view of one of the porches of the entrance as seen from the uppermost terrace itself. On the left, it shows a section of the outer wall of the north gallery ending into an entrance. Also seen on the right are the middle terrace corridor and the north library on the lower level courtyard.

An outer view of an entrance to the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple
An outer view of an entrance to the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple

The image below is a view from the middle corridor of the steps to the same entrance shown in the above image.  As you can see, the steps to enter the Bakan from the middle terrace are steep.

Steps to one of the entrances to the uppermost terrace
Steps to one of the entrances to the uppermost terrace

Galleries

Surrounding the uppermost terrace are the galleries.  The image below shows an inside view of the gallery.

Gallery on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Gallery on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Although not as ornate as the middle terrace, some of the walls and pillars have carvings of apsaras and devatas as shown in the images below.

Buddha Statues

The Bakan has many Buddha statues, which were installed after the Angkor Wat temple was converted to a Buddhist monument. The images below show two of them.

On the eastern gallery of the uppermost terrace, there is a statue of Buddha seated on a seven-headed serpent (naga). Buddha is in a mediating state indicated by his hand gesture (mudra). This statue is an interesting combination of Hinduism and Buddhism. The seven-headed serpent on whom Buddha is seated is the king of nagas known as Seshanaga (a.k.a Adishesha) whom Vishnu often uses as a bed. The sculpture confirms the belief that Buddha is one of the avatars (manifestations) of Vishnu.

Statue of Dhyani Buddha sitting on Sheshanaga with the Dhyanamudra gesture
Statue of Dhyani Buddha sitting on Sheshanaga with the Dhyanamudra gesture

Central tower

This imposing structure is exactly in the middle of the Angkor Wat. The height of the tower is 700 feet from the ground.

Experts believe that King Suryavarman II was buried under this tower. However, excavations under this tower and elsewhere have not discovered a body or significant funerary objects except for a rectangular stone object, possibly a part of the sarcophagus, and some objects that might have helped a body to be placed in a fetal position. If the grave existed, it was most likely plundered or moved to another location when the temple was converted into a Buddhist monument.

The image shows a view of the central tower as seen from the uppermost terrace (i.e., Bakan).

Center tower on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple
Center tower on the uppermost terrace of the Angkor Wat temple

Copyright © 2018 – 2019 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.

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