Angkor Wat – Worlds largest religious monument

Located in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat was once the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remains one of the world's ancient wonders and is a must-see for any visitor to Cambodia.

The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings – palaces, public buildings, and houses – were built of wood and have long since decayed and disappeared.

Built between roughly A.D. 1113 and 1150, and encompassing an area of about 500 acres (200 hectares), Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed.

Along with the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho, Central India, and the Taj Mahal in northern India, the Cambodian Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat ranks among the greatest examples of religious architecture in the whole of Asia, comparable to the finest specimens of Gothic architecture or Baroque architecture in Europe.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Angkor Wat in Cambodia (Mike Fuchslocher / Alamy )

A temple with a lost name

Angkor Wat, translated from Khmer (the official language of Cambodia), literally means “City Temple.” As far as names go this is as generic as it gets. Angkor Wat was not the original name given to the temple when it was built in the twelfth century. We have little knowledge of how this temple was referred to during the time of its use, as there are no extant texts or inscriptions that mention the temple by name.

A possible reason why the temple’s original name may have never been documented is that it was such an important and famous monument that there was no need to refer to it by its name. We have several references to the king who built the temple, King Suryavarman II (1113-1145/50 C.E.), and events that took place at the temple, but no mention of its name.

History of Angkor Wat

The construction of Angkor Wat likely began in the year 1116 C.E.—three years after King Suryavarman II came to the throne—with construction ending in 1150, shortly after the king’s death. Evidence for these dates comes in part from inscriptions, which are vague, but also from the architectural design and artistic style of the temple and its associated sculptures.

Angkor wat was Originally built as a Hindu temple, as that was the religion of the region’s ruler at the time, Suryavarman II. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu who is one of the three principal gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva and Brahma are the others). Among them he is known as the “Protector.”

Digital Reconstruction of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Digital Reconstruction of Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Photo: Virtual Angkor)

In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. Thereafter the empire was restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII, who established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon respectively) a few kilometres to the north.

Towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu centre of worship to Buddhism and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork.

Sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned in 1432, Angkor was forgotten for a few centuries. Wandering Buddhist monks, passing through the dense jungles, occasionally came upon the awesome ruins. Recognizing the sacred nature of the temples but ignorant of their origins, they invented fables about the mysterious sanctuaries, saying they had been built by the gods in a far ancient time. Centuries passed, these fables became legends, and pilgrims from the distant reaches of Asia sought out the mystic city of the gods. 

Digital Reconstruction of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Digital Reconstruction of Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Photo: Virtual Angkor)

Within the largest city in the world

The city where the temple was built, Angkor, is located in modern-day Cambodia and was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. This city contains hundreds of temples. The population may have been over 1 million people. It was easily the largest city in the world until the Industrial Revolution. 

Angkor had an urban core that could easily have held 500,000 people and a vast hinterland that had many more inhabitants airborne laser scanning (lidar) research has shown. Researchers have also identified a “lost” city called Mahendraparvata, which is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Angkor Wat.  

How was Angkor Wat built?

The Angkor Wat temple is made from 6-10 million blocks of sandstone, each of which has an average weight of 1.5 tons. The city of Angkor required more stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined.

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. Given the additional complexity of the overall building scheme, it is clear that Angkor was designed and managed by some of the finest architects in southeast Asia.

Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia
(Photo: Caff55 CC)

According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants. Construction of the site took over 30 years and was never completely finished.

To create the moat around the temple, 1.5 million cubic meters (53 million cubic feet) of sand and silt were moved, a task that would have required thousands of people working at one time.

A 15-foot high wall, surrounded by a wide moat, protected the city, the temple and residents from invasion, and much of that fortification is still standing. A sandstone causeway served as the main access point for the temple.

Inside these walls, Angkor Wat stretches across more than 200 acres. It’s believed that this area included the city, the temple structure and the emperor’s palace, which was just north of the temple.

However, in keeping with tradition at the time, only the city’s outer walls and the temple were made of sandstone, with the rest of the structures built from wood and other, less durable materials. Hence, only portions of the temple and city wall remain.

Even so, the temple is still a majestic structure: At its highest point—the tower above the main shrine—it reaches nearly 70 feet into the air.

Purpose of Angkor Wat Temple

Although Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the full purpose of the temple is still debated.

The building of temples by Khmer kings was a means of legitimizing their claim to political office and also to lay claim to the protection and powers of the gods. Hindu temples are not a place for religious congregation; instead; they are homes of the god. In order for a king to lay claim to his political office he had to prove that the gods did not support his predecessors or his enemies. To this end, the king had to build the grandest temple/palace for the gods, one that proved to be more lavish than any previous temples. In doing so, the king could make visible his ability to harness the energy and resources to construct the temple, and assert that his temple was the only place that a god would consider residing in on earth.

Northwest corner tower of the first gallery of Angkor Wat, viewed from the second enclosure.
Northwest corner tower of the first gallery of Angkor Wat, viewed from the second enclosure. (Photo: Wikipedia CC)

Many scholars believe that Angkor Wat was not only a temple dedicated to Vishnu but that it was also intended to serve as the king’s mausoleum in death. If that were the case it would give the temple a funerary meaning.

Symbolically, west is the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. Vishnu, however, is also frequently associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II.

Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book “Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire” (Abbeville Press, 2002) that Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north in latitude and that the north-south axis of the central tower’s chamber is 13.43 cubits long. This, Mannikka believes, is not an accident. “In the central sanctuary, Vishnu is not only placed at the latitude of Angkor Wat, he is also placed along the axis of the earth,” she writes, pointing out that the Khmer knew the Earth was round.

In addition, in her writing, Eleanor Mannikka also explains that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Angkor Wat as Temple Mountain

Aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Aerial view of Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Photo: Shutterstock)

Its 213-foot-tall (65 meters) central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, a layout that recreates the image of Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and be the home of the gods. 

Angkor Wat itself is surrounded by a 650-foot-wide (200 m) moat that encompasses a perimeter of more than 3 miles (5 km). This moat is 13 feet deep (4 m) and would have helped stabilize the temple’s foundation, preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low. The galleries and the empty spaces that they created between one another and the moat are envisioned as the mountain ranges and oceans that surround Mt. Meru.

Mt. Meru is not only home to the gods, it is also considered an axis-mundi. An axis-mundi is a cosmic or world axis that connects heaven and earth. In designing Angkor Wat in this way, King Suryavarman II and his architects intended for the temple to serve as the supreme abode for Vishnu. Similarly, the symbolism of Angkor Wat serving as an axis mundi was intended to demonstrate the Angkor Kingdom’s and the king’s central place in the universe.

In addition to envisioning Angkor Wat as Mt. Meru on earth, the temple’s architects, of whom we know nothing, also ingeniously designed the temple so that embedded in the temple’s construction is a map of the cosmos (mandala) as well as a historical record of the temple’s patron.

Angkor Wat as a Mandala

According to ancient Sanskrit and Khmer texts, religious monuments and specifically temples must be organized in such a way that they are in harmony with the universe, meaning that the temple should be planned according to the rising sun and moon, in addition to symbolizing the recurrent time sequences of the days, months and years. The central axis of these temples should also be aligned with the planets, thus connecting the structure to the cosmos so that temples become spiritual, political, cosmological, astronomical and geo-physical centers. They are, in other words, intended to represent microcosms of the universe and are organized as mandalas—diagrams of the universe.

An orthophotograph of Angkor Wat taken during the LiDAR survey in 2012
An orthophotograph of Angkor Wat taken during the LiDAR survey in 2012 (image courtesy of KALC).

Carved Bas Reliefs of Hindu Narratives

Visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its fascinating decorative flourishes. There are 1,200 square meters of carved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, representing eight different Hindu stories. 

Perhaps the most important narrative represented at Angkor Wat is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which depicts a story about the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. It is also a story about the victory of good over evil. In the story, Devas (gods) are fighting the Asuras (demons) in order reclaim order and power for the gods who have lost it. In order to reclaim peace and order, the elixir of life (amrita) needs to be released from the earth; however, the only way for the elixir to be released is for the gods and demons to first work together. To this end, both sides are aware that once the amrita is released there will be a battle to attain it.

Churning of the Ocean of Milk (detail), Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150
Churning of the Ocean of Milk (detail), Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: Jason Eppink)

The relief depicts the moment when the two sides are churning the ocean of milk. In the detail above you can see that the gods and demons are playing a sort of tug-of-war with the Naga or serpent king as their divine rope. The Naga is being spun on Mt. Mandara represented by Vishnu (in the center). Several things happen while the churning of milk takes place. One event is that the foam from the churning produces apsarasor celestial maidens who are carved in relief throughout Angkor Wat (we see them here on either side of Vishnu, above the gods and demons). Once the elixir is released, Indra (the Vedic god who is considered the king of all the gods) is seen descending from heaven to catch it and save the world from the destruction of the demons.

Angkor Wat Today

The Angkor Wat is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of fierce national pride. It continues to play an important role in Cambodia even though most of the population is now Buddhist. Since the fifteenth century, Buddhists have used the temple and visitors today will see, among the thousands of visitors, Buddhist monks and nuns who worship at the site.

Angkor Wat has also become an important symbol for the Cambodian nation. The Cambodian flag has emblazoned on it the silhouette of Angkor Wat.

In 1992, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although visitors to Angkor Wat numbered in just the few thousands at the time, the landmark now welcomes some 500,000 visitors each year—many of whom arrive early in the morning to capture images of the sunrise over what still is a very magical, spiritual place.

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