Angkor: Home of the God Kings

The City of Angkor

City of Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer empire and it was the largest city in the pre-industrialized world. The city featured the magnificent Angkorian temples at its center and it sprawled for almost 400 square miles at the height of power.

The Khmer empire was founded by King Jayavarman II in AD 802. This civilization was centered around the belief that the Hindu king was all powerful. Therefore, the Angkorian monarchs also assumed the title of “God King” because they were natural rulers of the universe. The temples of Angkor were built by these god kings and the great city was centered around the temple complexes.

The Khmer Civilization

Unfortunately, the Khmer have been greatly reduced since the collapse of the empire in the 15th century. In addition, the devastation that the wars of the 20th century brought to Cambodia has left ts mark. Although the Khmer make up 95% of the present day population of Cambodia and Khmer is the official language.

Initially, Hindu was their religion starting in the 8th Century AD. However, there would be several transitions between Hindu, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism throughout the early history of Cambodia. In modern times, 95% of the population practice Theravada Buddhism. Even the extremism of the Khmer Rouge could not overpower the Buddhist roots of the Khmer people.

buddhist monk at wat banan

Angkorian Temples

Located near Siem Reap are the remains of the Khmer temple complexes. Throughout the life of the Khmer Empire there were over 1000 temples constructed within the city of Angkor. Unfortunately, not all of them are still standing. The condition of the temples ranges from piles of rubble in farm fields to the largely intact grandiose Angkor Wat.

Bayon

Dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism, Bayon was constructed in the late 12th or 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII. Predictably, Bayon was altered in later years to reflect the fluctuations of the state religion between Hindu and Buddhism. The mixing of religious themes is typical of the Angkorian temples. Fortunately, the smiling faces of Bayon were never altered or removed by succeeding kings. 

The serene faces are dedicated to a Bodhisattva known as Lokesvara. Lokesvara is considered to be an embodiment of the Buddha’s compassion.

Bodhisattva – an individual who has attained enlightenment and elects to forego Nirvana in order to save others.

bayon siem reap cambodia

There are approximately 200 images of the Lokesvara at Bayon remaining in various states. Unfortunately, many of the towers have decomposed over time and it is difficult to know exactly how many there actually were. However, many of the faces can still be viewed today. 

lokesvara at Bayon

Lokesvara

Ta Prohm

King Jayavarman VII began another ambitious temple during approximately the same time period as Bayon. In addition, Ta Prohm was also dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism. However, the present day condition of this temple is in a much different state.

The Khmer empire collapsed in the 15th century. Subsequently, the temples of Angkor were largely consumed by the jungle. However, Ta Prohm merged with the jungle in a much more coherent and aesthetically pleasing manner. Therefore, when the restoration of the temples complexes began it was decided that Ta Prohm would be left as it was found. According to the École française d’Extrême-Orient  this was done as a: 

“concession to the general taste for the picturesque.”

Humans were not the only creatures that mother nature imbued with artistic talent. Instead, the greatest artwork the world has ever seen has been completed by trees.

ta prohm

ta prohm

Similar to other Angkorian temples the orientation of the temple complex is towards the east. However, Ta Prohm is flat as compared to the pyramid mountain style architecture of other Angkor temples. The long enclosures surrounding the inner sanctum of Ta Prohm feature amazing galleries.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and it remains the largest religious monument in the world. The construction of Angkor Wat began in the 12th century as a project of King Suryavarman II. The common Hindu architectural theme is centered around Mt Meru. Mt Meru is the home of the divine beings in Hindu mythology and it is depicted at the center of Angkor Wat.

Surprisingly, the temple complex is oriented towards the west instead of the east. This deviation still perplexes modern archeologists.

angkor watSunrise over Angkor Wat.

Churning the Sea of Milk

Located in the SE corner of the Angkor Wat complex is a gallery featuring the Hindu fable entitled “Churning the Sea of Milk”. In Hindu mythology a great battle was waged between the gods and the demons. Essentially, it was a tug of war using the king of serpents as a rope and Mt Mandara was the churning rod between them.

The churning of the sea created a poison so strong that it was deadly to both gods and demons. Fortunately, in the end Vishnu swallowed the poison which saved the universe.  Metaphorically speaking, this result could be the conclusion of many of modern civilization’s conflicts. However, I am not sure if we can rely on Vishnu to save us a second time.

churning the sea of milk bas relief Bas relief depicting the Churning of the Sea of Milk at Angkor Wat.

The galleries of Angkor Wat feature several other epic bas-reliefs. The temple is the biggest and is therefore the most widely recognized. Angkor Wat is featured on Cambodia’s national flag and over 2 million tourists visit the complex annually.

However, the fact of the matter is that large sections of Angkor Wat remain unfinished. Additionally, the more observant visitor would notice that it clearly lacks the elegance and natural phenomenon found at other temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm.

Conclusion

Siem reap was certainly built with tourism in mind. Unfortunately, a large section of town takes on the atmosphere of Mardi Gras. However, there are some nice spots to stay outside the city center. Also, don’t forget to visit some of the lesser known but amazing Khmer Temple ruins.

 

Additional resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta_Prohm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalokite%C5%9Bvara
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangler_fig
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat#Tourism