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Angkor Wat – Temple


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Angkor Wat central temple from causeway

Angkor Wat from causeway

Intro

The modern name, Angkor Wat, actually means “City Temple” which is derived from both Sanskit and Khmer. Situated approximately 5.5km north of modern day Siem Reap and slightly south east of Angkor Thom it is the most southerly of the main sites and probably one of the most renovated of them all.

When people hear the name Angkor, most assume this to mean Angkor Wat, the most famous, visually stunning and breath taking of all the temples. By far Angkor Was is in the best overall condition even when compared to later temples such as the Bayon. The temple complex is considered so unique and special that the Cambodian flag even contains the iconic central enclosure – side on, showing 3 towers.

Built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his new capital city and state temple, it varied from its predecessors in that it was then dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu rather than Shiva. Like previous temples, it was designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology.

Design and Layout

The second level of the temple complex at Angkor Wat - with person

The Second level of temple at Angkor Wat with person

Like almost all temples at Angkor, the temple is oriented on an east-west axis, however unlike most others, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west (rather than the more common east). Scholars are generally divided as to the significance of this, however one reason may be due to the temple being dedicated to Vishnu, who was commonly associated with the west.

Built on a huge scale, Angkor Wat follows the typical square and rectangular layout, with a large moat measuring 190 meters wide surrounding a 30 meter apron of open ground. On the inside of this open ground, are walls measuring 4.5 meters high which run for 1024 meters west to east and 802 meters north to south and like other temple complexes, gates can be found at each of the 4 points of the compass. An earthen causeway spans the moat to the Eastern entrance and a sandstone causeway spans the moat to the main entrance on the western side. The main western sandstone causeway is thought to be a later addition, possibly replacing an original wooden bridge. At each of these 4 main gates can be found impressive “gopuras” – grand entrance buildings that mimic the temple proper.

Angkor Wat layout map

Angkor Wat layout map

Within the outer city walls is an area that is around 203 acres in size. When this was first re-discovered in the 19th century, it was almost completely overgrown with forest and jungle. Over recent years, around the inner temple complex and a large part of the western half of this area has now been cleared, however the rest is still heavily forested. Originally the area within the city walls also contained the capital city and royal palace, but like all other sites at Angkor, the secular buildings of the period were all built from perishable materials and thus nothing remains.

From the main Western “gopura” (gateway) extends a 350-meter long causeway that connects to the main temple complex. The temple complex itself is divided over 3 tiers sitting on a raised rectangular terrace that sits higher than the surrounding city. The first 2 levels are rectangular in shape with the central tallest enclosure being square in shape with all separate levels being set back towards the east, affectively facing west towards the causeway.

The first outer level and associated gallery measures 215 meters west to east by 187 meters north to south, with half open sided galleries (open to the outside of the temple) around the whole perimeter.

Central tower of Angkor Wat from top level

Central tower of Angkor Wat from top level

The outer level gallery connects to the second level gallery on the west side in 3 parts, with the second level/enclosure rising around 6.5 meters, measuring 100 meters west to east by 115 meters north to south. The second level features a fully enclosed gallery around its perimeter and the area within this gallery may have originally been flooded to represent the ocean around the mythological Mount Meru (the central inner level).

The third, inner level is square in shape and 60 meters on both axis rising around 13 meters in height from the second level. The central tower rises to around 43 meters above the second level and over 65 meters above ground level. There are 3 sets of steps on each side that rise very steeply to the top sanctuary with over 40 large narrow steps each. The 3rd level has 5 sections respective to each of the 5 towers, each connected by galleries with an open part in between. The towers were designed to look like sprouting lotus buds, a traditional, revered symbol within Hinduism.

The central tower is the tallest and largest of the surrounding 4 towers and is raised up on its base by a few meters. Originally this contained a statue of Vishnu and was open on all sides, however when the state religion later converted to Theravada Buddhism, this was later walled in and converted to hold standing Buddha statues and carvings.

Building

Built almost completely out of sandstone, it is estimated that around 5 million tons was used in the making (as much as the second largest of the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids of Giza in Egypt), having being sourced from Mount Kulen, a quarry situated approximately 25 miles to the northeast. The level and quality of finish means that the stones are smooth and polished and use traditional methods to hold the individual pieces together, such as mortise and tendon or dovetail joints. Experts estimate that up to 5,000 artisans and 50,000 labourers were required to build it within the 40 years it was completed in, being finished shortly after its patron; Suryavarman II’s death.