Angkor Wat Bas-Reliefs

Punishing sinners in the Heavens and Hells bas-relief

Angkor Wat is known for its intricate bas-reliefs carved on its galleries, pediments of gopuras, and pillars depicting scenes based mostly on the Hindu epics, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, and ancient Hindu texts, such as Puranas.

Although there are bas-reliefs on the upper level galleries and pediments, the bas-reliefs on the lower-level galleries are extensive and detailed.

Bass-reliefs on the lower-level gallery

The lower-level galleries are in a rectangular structure built at the perimeter of the lower enclosure. On each side of this structure, there are two sections of continuously carved bas-reliefs. In total, there are eight sections of bas-reliefs, each with a different theme. The bas-reliefs are carved on the polygonal walls of the structure, and most of them have two or three tiers in the vertical direction. Many of the bas-reliefs have polished appearance, and a few still have traces of original paint, especially red.

Unlike the majority of Hindu temples, which are east-facing and where the visitors follow the pradakshina patha (clockwise path), Angkor Wat is west-facing and the visitors follow the counter-clockwise path starting from the main entrance, which is in middle of the west side gallery.

Angkor Wat Temple Layout
Angkor Wat Temple Layout

West Gallery, South Section: Battle of Kurukshetra

The Battle of Kurukshetra is the theme in the southern 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.

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.

Raging Battle

Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting melee of Kaurava and Pandava warriors carved in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Battle of Kurukshetra bas-relief depicting melee of Kaurava and Pandava warriors

The image 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.

South Gallery,  West Section: Procession of King Suryavarman II

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.

Suryavarman II as the King

Bas-relief of Khmer King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Bas-relief of Khmer King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat

As you can see from the image, King Suryavarman II is elegantly seated on his throne with his legs on the seat – a typical Indian way of sitting. He is portrayed with beautiful jewelry on his body as per the custom in India and Indianised kingdoms in Southeast Asia. He is wearing bracelets and arm rings on his hands, anklets on his legs, a beautiful necklace around his neck and an udiyan (waist chain) around his waist. He is holding with his right hand a strange object believed to be a dead snake, the significance of which is a mystery.

Surrounding King Suryavarman II are his attendants waving pankahs (fans) with long handles and chauris (fly-whisks). Notice the parasols around the king. There are fifteen of them in this bas-relief. The number of parasols indicate the rank of a commander in his army. The king has the highest number of parasols among the commanders in the procession implying that he is the commander-in-chief.

Suryavarman II as the Commander-in-Chief

Bas-relief of depicting King Suryavarman II as the commander-in-chief in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Bas-relief of depicting King Suryavarman II as the commander-in-chief

Standing majestically on top of the elephant is King Suryavarman II 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). 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 training and controlling elephants.

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.

A Commander

A commander riding an elephant in the procession of King Suryavarman II
Bas-relief depicting a commander riding an elephant in the procession of King Suryavarman II

The image shows an army commander standing on an elephant. He is holding a shield with his left hand and an unknown object with 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.

Other Participants

The image on the left shows a contingent of Siamese soldiers carrying spears marching at the head of the parade. Behind them is their commander riding an elephant. The image on the right shows women marching along the procession.

South Gallery, East Section: Swargas and Narakas (Heavens and Hells)

Three tiers 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

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.

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

In Hindu mythology, Yama is one of the dikpalas (guardians of the directions) and is responsible for guarding South, which makes him the lord of the south. Therefore, the bas-reliefs related to Yama are in the south gallery.

The bas-relief on the left image depicts the Yama, the god of justice and lord of naraka, sitting on a buffalo and conducting the proceedings in his court. He is portrayed with multiple hands, one of which carries his signature weapon gada (mace), and is surrounded by his guards and sinners.

The bas-relief on the top right shows the continuation of Yama’s court where Chitragupta, a god in Hindu mythology and the assessor who keeps the records of good and bad deeds of a human being from birth to death, assisting Yama in determining who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

The image on the bottom right shows the guards in the upper-tier pushing the sinners to the lower-tier through a trapdoor and the guards in the lower tier, which represents a naraka, punishing the sinners in a variety of ways.

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.

East Gallery, South Section: 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 on the left image 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.

The middle image 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. 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.

East Gallery, North Section: Vishnu’s Victory over Asuras

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

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.

North Gallery, East Section: Krishna’s Victory over Banasura

The scenes depicted on the bas-relief carved on the eastern section of the north gallery is based on Krishna’s Victory over Banasura story, which appears in Mahabharata and Vishnu Purana. This story is about Krishna, who is an avatar of Vishnu, fighting Shiva and becoming victorious. It is not a well-known story but chosen deliberately to show the dominance of Vishnu because King Suryavarman II broke the Shaiva tradition of his predecessors and made Vishnu the dominant god of the Hindu 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.

Angkor Wat - Krishna's Victory over Banasura bas-relief depicting Krishna riding Vishnu's vehicle Garuda and fighting Banasura
Krishna riding Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda and fighting Banasura

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.

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

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

North Gallery, West Section: 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: Indra, Varuna, Kartikeya (also known as Skanda), and Brahma.

The gods are seen riding their signature vahanas (vehicles) and fighting asuras. Indra, the king of gods, is riding an elephant called Airavata, Skanda, the god of war, is riding a peacock called Parvani, and Varuna, the sea god, is riding a multi-headed sea dragon called Makara.

The bas-relief of Brahma, one of the Hindu Trinity, sitting in a cocoon is unusual. 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.

West Gallery, North Section: 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.

Related Pages
Angkor Wat, Angkor WatBas-Reliefs, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Phnom Kulen, Tonle’ Sap, Cambodia
Bali, Prambanan, Borobudur, Indonesia

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