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.
Creating the Unforgettable Angkor Wat Temple
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 .
Created for the god Vishnu, the Angkor Wat mountain-temple was built to represent the Hindu universe, although by the end of the 12th century it had been converted into a Buddhist temple. 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.
Aerial view of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. ( R.M. Nunes / Adobe Stock)
The Architecture of Angkor Wat
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 laterite 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 1970s.
Illustration of the façade of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot from circa 1860. ( Public domain )
Discovery of Angkor Wat and the City of Angkor
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 1800s, although it did fall into “disuse and disrepair.”
According to the BBC, the first European to visit the “extraordinary construction” of Angkor Wat was a Portuguese friar called Antonio da Madelena, as he reported to the historian Diogo do Couto in 1589. The temples became known to the Europeans around 1860 through French missionaries, and it was the writing of Henri Mahout, a French botanist who did extensive research at this time, who really captured the imagination of a subsequent generation of explorers. Mahout himself initially thought that the temples of Angkor Wat were built by another race and not by the Cambodians. He claimed that Ankor Wat was “grander than anything left to use by Greece or Rome.”
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.
These ancient ruins have attracted archaeologists for decades. Since 2007, aerial archaeologists Damian Evans and Jean-Baptiste Chevance have been mapping the ruins from the air to get a clearer understanding of the landscape, the scale of this immense ancient city, and to uncover hidden topographical details. Their work even enabled them to map the city’s huge irrigation system which had allowed the Khmer to feed such a huge population. National Geographic stated that Angkor was once the “size of modern-day Los Angeles,” making it the “largest settlement ever built in human history before the industrial revolution.”
Efforts to restore the spectacular architecture of Angkor didn’t really begin until the 1960s, and these were hindered by the Cambodian Civil War of the 1970s and the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge. There are even bullet holes in the outer walls that remain as a memory of this era. When Angkor was added to the World Heritage list in 1992, it was also placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger, due to a history of earthquakes, war, overgrowth, frequent pillaging, illegal excavations and the existence of land mines.
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.
Tourist visiting Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor. ( R.M. Nunes / Adobe Stock)
Visiting Angkor Wat
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.
Top image: The temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Source: mikefuchslocher / Adobe Stock
By April Holloway