Rising from the jungles of northwest Cambodia, just a few kilometers from the bustling heart of Siem Reap, the immense stone temples of Angkor Wat are considered the pinnacle of Khmer architecture. Built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and an awe-inspiring testament to the ambition and might of the ancient Khmer civilization.
Angkor Wat combines two classic Khmer temple layouts – the temple mountain and the later galleried temple style. The main temple sits atop a tiered base representing Mount Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods. A 650 foot-long series of bas-reliefs depicting ancient myths and historic battles encloses the lower walls of the temple. The inner shrines once held sacred Hindu images that have since been lost to history.
The Scale and Layout of the Temple
The scale of Angkor Wat is simply astonishing. The temple compound covers 402 acres, making it the size of a small city. It is 1500 feet long and 1300 feet wide – so massive that it can be seen from several miles away. The walls alone extend for nearly 2 miles.
A moat 190 feet wide forms a giant rectangle around the temple complex. To enter, one must first cross a stone causeway extending from the east over the moat and through a gargantuan gate shaped like a stone mountain. This creates the effect of passing through hills into a mountain valley – the Realm of the Gods.
The main Angkor Wat temple sits on a raised terrace above the rest of the complex. Hewn from thousands of sandstone blocks and decorated with over 3000 carved Apsaras (celestial dancing girls), the temple rises in three rectangular tiers to a height of 213 feet, with the central tower looming 65 meters above the second level. This central spire is surrounded by four smaller towers marking the corners of the upper platform.
Though Angkor Wat appears as a mass of repetitive structures, close examination reveals that each element is slightly different in its details. As one ascends through the tiers, the columns become progressively smaller to make the temple feel taller than it really is. The corbelled vaults employ overlapping stones creating a curved ceiling effect. Angkor Wat combines solidity with balance, harmony with variety in a unique manner.
The upper third level of the temple was reserved for the divine king and the high priests. Common people gathered in the galleries below. The whole structure perfectly represents the Hindu cosmos – the inner galleries are the earthly plane, the five towers are the peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods, and the moat symbolizes the cosmic ocean.
Bas-Reliefs Depicting Hindu Myths and Battles
No ancient temple is complete without elaborate decorative carvings illustrating religious myths and chronicling historic events. Angkor Wat contains what is arguably the finest example of Khmer bas-relief stone carvings, with over 6000 square feet of sandstone panels depicting Hindu epics, celestial dancers, historic battles, and ordinary people. The most important panels appear on the inner walls of the first elevated gallery.
The most stunning scene is the Churning of the Sea of Milk – a 49 foot-long panel showing 92 demons on one side and 88 gods on the other, pulling on the body of a serpent wrapped around Mount Mandara to churn the cosmic ocean. Vishnu presides over the churning, while Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, rises from the sea. Another panel depicts the famous Hindu story of the Battle of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and Kauravas.
The Historical Gallery is 200 feet long with an inscription identifying Suryavarman II as the presiding monarch. It chronicles the imperial Khmer army marching off to battle surrounded by oarsmen, cavalry, elephants and infantry. A naval fleet accompanies them along the river. Military tactics and the splendor of the Khmer empire are vividly shown.
The most action-packed panel is the Battle of Lanka depicting monkeys, gods and the demon Ravana in a chaotic war scene. It shows the construction of a causeway from India to Lanka, enabling Rama’s invasion of the island to rescue Sita. The West Gallery narrates more stories from the Ramayana. The quality of carvings at Angkor Wat is unbelievable, with 1,500 mythical Apsaras lining the walls.
From Hindu to Buddhist Worship
Angkor Wat was designed as a temple to Vishnu with the walls oriented to the west, where Vishnu was said to reside. Statues of Vishnu once occupied the inner shrines. In the 13th century, Buddhism replaced Hinduism as the main religion of the Khmer empire. Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist temple, with Buddha images taking the place of the old Hindu idols.
From the 14th century onwards, Angkor Wat was in decline. As the capital shifted to Phnom Penh, the great temples of Angkor were abandoned and overtaken by the jungle. Local Buddhist monks maintained Angkor Wat until it became a ruin. The temple was rediscovered by French explorers in the 1860s. Extensive restoration efforts in the 20th century helped reconstruct parts of the temple.
Angkor Wat: Final Reflections
Today Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s premier tourist destination, remaining an active place of worship while also serving as an important cultural and historic site. Rising majestically from the forests near Siem Reap, the sprawling temple of Angkor Wat stands as the zenith of Khmer architecture and one of humanity’s greatest architectural achievements.