Angkor Wat is a fascinating temple complex in northwestern Cambodia, located in what was once the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire which presided over a vast kingdom in Southeast Asia.
While Buddhists believe that it was built in a night under orders of the god Indra, it actually took decades to create what was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu in the 12th century.
Covering an area of about 162.6 hectares (about 400 acres), it is said to be the largest religious monument in the world.
Angkor Wat was built over several decades starting in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II of the Khmer Empire who ruled from 1113 to 1150.
Created to function as a temple complex, mausoleum and political center of his vast empire, its name means city of the temples, with Angkor meaning capital city and Wat meaning temple.
Angkor Wat is one of the largest and most complex religious monuments ever constructed in the history of mankind. The Khmer Empire existed between the 9th and 15th century, but during the 12th century it was at its height and the Angkor civilization was booming.
It was during this period that Angkor Wat temple was built, over a period of approximately 30 years. Inscriptions claim that building Angkor Wat used the manpower of 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants.
According to archaeologist Charles Higham, Suryavarman wasn’t just a man, but a demigod. In all depictions he appears large and muscular with everyone seated around him.
The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale, and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building, stresses Lonely Planet.
There are five sandstone towers that rise above the temple enclosures, the central tower representing the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the Hindu universe and home of the god Brahma and the Devas, and the surrounding four its smaller peaks.
Architecturally speaking, Angkor Wat is spectacular. The temple is an enormous three level pyramid built on a floating rectangular piece of land surrounded by water.
The Khmer used literate blocks encased in carved sandstone for the construction of the temple and the city wall, while the rest of the structures were made from less durable materials such as wood which explains why they are not visible today.
Angkor War is oriented in a westerly direction, associated with Vishnu and with death, which has led experts to believe that it was built as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II (although he was never actually buried there).
It is said that the temple was constructed mathematically to be in harmony with the universe, and the distances and sizes in Angkor Wat are related to Indian mythology.
In Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire, Eleanor Mannikka suggests that Angkor Wat was also used for astronomical purposes.
The Angkor Wat temple was built surrounded by an enormous moat, measuring about 200-meter-wide (650 ft), which symbolized the ocean surrounding Mount Mera. The scale of this is hard to imagine until you get there.
In fact, the whole complex is a huge rectangle which measures 1.5 km by 1.3 km (0.93 x 0.8 mi), and the temple complex itself can only be reached by crossing a sandstone causeway.
The temple facade awash with intricate bas-relief carvings which line the walls and surfaces.
Designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, these depict deities and other figures from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, telling the stories of the history and mythology of Cambodia.
They even include scenes from the Hindu Mahabharata and a carving of Emperor Suryavarman II entering the city for the first time.
There are also almost 3,000 nymphs carved throughout the temple, each of which are unique, while at the central tower is a 3.25 m (10.7 ft) statue of Vishnu made out of a single block of sandstone.
Around this statue, visitors will see offerings from pilgrims and young people about to get married.
The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, at the central temple, was once home to hundreds of images of the Buddha, but many of these were stolen during the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s.
While historians love to tell the story of a lost temple, according to Alison Kyra Carter Angkor Wat was never abandoned, unlike the other monuments within the larger Angkor city.
In fact, History.com stresses that Angkor Wat was important to the Buddhist religion well into the 1800’s, although it did fall into disuse and disrepair.
The Angkor Wat temple is the most famous of the hundreds of temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is estimated that the city of Angkor was once home to one million people, with a complex irrigation system, paved roads and beautiful buildings; however, within 200 years the Khmer civilization collapsed for no apparent reason.
Without any written records to provide clues, scholars have suggested that an environmental collapse may have played a major role in the Khmer civilization’s disappearance.
After a UNESCO campaign to protect and restore the famed Cambodian ruins, it was taken off the World Heritage in Danger list again in 2004.
Now one of the greatest threats to Angkor is tourism, keeping in mind that before the Covid-19 pandemic, the huge influx of tourists had reached 2.6 million (7,300 per day) in 2018.
Impressive and massive, Angkor Wat and the ancient city that surrounds it, is an intriguing place to visit that questions the prevailing belief that our civilization is more advanced than civilizations that existed in the past.
Located about 6 km (4 mi) from Siem Reap airport, the Angkor Archaeological Park opens from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. The best way to visit is by renting a tuk tuk to take you there and spend the day with you. This will make moving between the different sites more enjoyable.
The best months to visit are December and January, when it is dryer. You can buy 1, 3 and 7 day passes. Visiting the Angkor Wat temple site will take at least three hours, but to really get a feel for the entire city of Angkor can take days.
Although Angkor Wat is no longer an active temple, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a sacred site and visitors should dress modestly, avoiding uncovered knees and upper arms.
Ancient Origins / ABC Flash Point News 2023.