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Angkor Wat is a magnificent shrine built in tribute to an ancient king in northeast Cambodia
. The main temple is a source of Cambodian pride and appears on the national flag.
The approach to Angkor Wat prepares one for an experience of awe. The visitor advances along 200 yards of causeway across a moat with a high balustrade of nagas (stone seven-headed cobra-protectors) on either side. The causeway ends at a five-story gate with colonnades along four sides of an outer court. A second raised causeway leads on for 400 more yards to the entrance of the inner shrine. Looming ahead is a five-towered temple, fantastically shaped and intricately carved, giving the impression of a living, moving body. It rises above a double wall that completely surrounds it. A maze of galleries and stairs leads up the central tower (some 180 feet tall). The sandstone walls and staircases were originally painted and had gold highlights, but they are extensively worn today. The large central tower is flanked by four smaller towers. Each anchors one of four courtyards with shaded galleries running around them. The highest point contains the main sanctuary, a small, empty room.
The scale of the complex is enormous. The walls enclose an area of 200 acres, which originally encompassed the city, and the whole Angkor site is over 150 square miles. The temple circuit is about 11 miles around, and the longer one is 16 miles, usually done on a motorbike. There are more than 100 temples all told. The shrine building is the size of a medieval European
cathedral and was built at the same time as the first Gothic cathedrals. A rectangular stone platform with sides 1,000 yards long serves as a base for the sanctuary.
The most striking aspect of Angkor Wat is the detail work covering every exposed surface, generating a sense of movement in the stone. The galleries are covered with 700 yards of carved reliefs of scenes from Hindu
religious epics involving some 18,000 characters. There are 300 carved apsaras
(heavenly nymphs, somewhat like angels), and each one is distinctive. The bas reliefs, smooth, polished surfaces with intricate detail, are the most important art works. The Hindu themes depicted include Vishnu conquering the demons and scenes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana
and the Mahabharata
. The most striking of all, a depiction of the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk" story from the Mahabharata
, shows Vishnu directing heavenly creatures in churning the ocean. The Elephant Terrace consists of 375 yards of carved elephants that form the base of a viewing stand that was used for ceremonies. Along the path are numerous protective lions.
The shrine was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but built as a tomb for the ashes of Suryavarman II (1113–1150 CE), one of the greatest of the Khmer rulers. Known as the Sun King, Suryavarman was regarded as a god by his people. Angkor's five towers represent the five peaks of fabled Mount Meru, a mountain that in Hindu myth was the legendary home of the gods. Angkor was thus a mountain home for the deified spirit of Suryavarman, constructed so that his soul might communicate as an equal with the gods of Meru. During Suryavarman's life, Angkor Wat also enshrined the lingam, a carved stone pillar representing his penis, a symbol of his potency and dominance over the nation. Since it was believed that the security of the country and the continuation of the dynasty depended upon protecting the lingam, the courtyard sanctuary was a way to guard this sacred emblem. The lingam has long since disappeared.
Angkor Wat is an unusual shrine in that there is nothing to enter. Doubtless throngs of Khmer people came here to pay homage, both during Suryavarman's life and after, but there are no places where sacrifice was offered. The thousands of carvings of female dancers suggest the kinds of ceremonies that must have been conducted, all of them centered about the praise and adulation of the king and father of the nation.
Angkor evidently provided for a large population. Its water reservoir is sufficient for a fair-sized city, and large herds of ceremonial elephants were likely kept. Angkor began to decline within a century of its completion, however, and was pillaged by the Cham in 1177. When the Khmer kingdom was restored in the following century, the capital was moved. When the canals were no longer used for irrigation, malaria spread, crops failed, and people left for other areas. In 1432 the site was abandoned, and the jungle closed around it.
Brockman, Norbert. "Angkor Wat." World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC-CLIO, 2020,
worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/1156291. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.