Angkor Wat was built in the early 12th century at the command of Suryavarman II, King of the Khmer Empire, who made it his capital temple and eventual mausoleum. It was originally a Hindu temple and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. This was unusual as the Khmer kings of that time were known Shiva worshippers. About 30 years after Suyyavarman II’s death, the temple was sacked by the Chams, Khmer’s enemies, but it was restored under the reign of Jayavarman VII, who also built new temples nearby. Over the next hundred years, the temple gradually transitioned to a Buddhist center of worship as the Khmer people accepted that faith. The temple was never really abandoned, and the jungle never overtook it, which is unique among the other temples in this area. The moat probably kept the jungle at bay, but it is a huge benefit as this remarkable place was reasonably well-preserved.
Bas-reliefs and other carvings of Hindu devas (deities) and apsara (nymphs) abound throughout the temple complex, often right next to statues of the Buddha in peaceful repose. The three-peaked “mountain” at the center of the complex represents Mount Meru, the mountain where Hindu devas are believed to dwell. Some of the carvings seem purely decorative with their intricate detail and repeating patterns, but when you look closely you see the patterns contain Hindu deities. The sheer size of the temple makes it amazing that so many of its surfaces are covered with these complex carvings. Everywhere you look there’s a little detail carved into the stone. I was fascinated by the carvings on the piled stones that did not survive the centuries intact and fell off the main structures sometime in the last millennium. It’s like a pile of craftsmanship and makes me wonder if the artisans who carved the pieces could imagine our world and what the temple looks like today.
As ST and I made our way through the temple grounds, we watched the sun rise through the ruins. Eventually we reached the eastern border of the compound and found a smaller temple along the edge of the outermost square. It overlooks the moat on that side and looked so forlorn but still glorious in the dawn light.
Check back tomorrow for our encounters with monks and monkeys at Angkor Wat.
Title quote: Charles Highman, archeologist