Ancient Angkor Temples – Day One

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

I was very excited to be visiting Angkor temples (or wats) for 4 days. The first morning we went to see Angkor Wat as it is the largest temple in Ancient Angkor. But before I describe that amazing complex, let me take you back through the history of Angkor, the ancient city area and seat of the Khmer Empire. The Khmer People are believed to have migrated from China. Historical records show that the Chinese established trade in this region, around 200 BC.

Between 500BC to 500 AD, Indians brought their cultural and religious beliefs to the Khmer people -first Hinduism and then Buddhism – a period now called the Indianization of Cambodia. During this period, the Khmers absorbed India’s culture, art, architecture, their Sanskrit writing as well as adopting the Hindus Gods. The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit word nagara, meaning city.

Between 900 and 1200, the Khmer Empire built some of the world’s most magnificent architectural structures in Angkor. The temples of Angkor date back to the early 9th century when the young Hindu king, Jayavarman II, declared himself as the ‘god king’. He was responsible for the independence of Cambodia (Kambujadesa) from Java and established his first capital at Hariharalaya (now present day Roluos), which he later moved to the Kulen Mountains. Later Khmer kings moved their capitals to other locations in the Angkor area, building state temples during their reigns. Thus many temples can be found in Angkor. The Khmer temples were built for the immortal Gods and varied in structure and size. Each temple housed a main god/shrine or shrines at the temple center with multiple shrines/ deities around it.

Because of Indian influence, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesha and Buddha can be found in many of he temples of Angkor. (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma are the Holy Trinity of Hinduism. Shiva is the destroyer, Vishnu the protector who restores harmony and order and Brahma the creator. Vishnu also came to earth in many forms or incarnations called avatars including fish, boar, turtle, Buddha, Rama and Krishna). Many of the temples contain numerous sculptured bas-reliefs of Gods (such as Brahma and Vishnu), celestial figures (such as the dancing asparas), and epic tales from Hindu scriptures (including the Mahabarata). In bas-reliefs, the  figures and/or other design elements appear more prominently than the flat background.  Bas relief is created either by carving away material (such as stone) or adding material to the top of an otherwise smooth surface (strips of clay to stone).

During the Hindu period, Shiva was dominant God among Khmer kings as they believed he was the supreme protector of their empires. Shiva’s figure and symbols (lingas, yoni and Nandini, the cow who is Shiva’s messenger) were enshrined in most temples.Khmers worshipped Shiva primarily in the form of the linga (phallus symbol) or in a slab called yoni (womb, a symbol of fertility or prosperity) so you see these in many Shiva enshrined temples. Vishnu also prevailed as the supreme God in some temples.  Khmers also worshipped their indigenous deities, and built them around temples but with less rituals than the Hindu gods. Hinduism dominated the Khmer empire until the end of the 12th century, when Buddhism (which also came from India) became more prominent with the Khmers.

The last king of Angkor was Jayavarman VII, a fervent Buddhist who ruled for 30 years. His state capital was Angkor Thom in the Bayon. The Angkor kingdom survived till end of 16th century.

Angkor Wat

Lotus like central shrine, Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat (literally meaning Temple City) is a Temple that was built during the reign of Suryavarman II, in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire. It was the capital and state temple dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu (unlike the other temples which were generally dedicated to Shiva). It is the largest temple in Angkor and is located about 3.4 miles north of Siem Riep. It is the largest religious monument in the world.  Its layout is based on the mandala, the sacred design of the Hindu cosmos. Its central shrine is shaped like a lotus bud in the center, representing Mount Meru (mythical home of the gods), with five towers (representing the mountain peaks), concentric galleries (representing the mountain ranges surrounding Mt. Meru), the moat (ocean surrounding the earth) and the entrance enclosures called gopuras. The ascent to the central shrine represents climbing Mt. Meru. In the late 13th century, Angkor Wat gradually moved from the Hindu worship of Vishnu to Theravada Buddhist use, which continues to the present day.

Angkor Wat from across the moat

Angkor Wat from across the moat

As I walked across the wide causeway over the moat toward the temple’s main entrance on the west side, I could not believe I was here at last! Its majestic presence transported me back to the enchanting times of the bygone grandiose era! Angkor Wat had always been mysterious to me as a little girl…its history, its ancient carvings, the godly deities and the beautiful apsaras (celestial dancers). Now I was here… and it was spectacular! I just stood there taking in all the splendor of this amazing wonder!

Celestial dancer

Celestial dancer

As we entered the narrow entrance we saw beautiful carvings of apsaras with decorative headgear and jewelry. They adorned the walls along the temple. As we walked south of the western gallery, its walls had intricate stone carvings from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, depicting the battle scene of Kurukshetra.The central sanctuary or shrine, originally occupied by a statue of Vishnu, has a steep climb to 4 entrances that feature standing Buddhas after the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhism (Buddhism eventually replacing Hinduism in Cambodia).

At this time the steps leading to the central shrine were closed because of construction and which was also going in some other areas.

Scenes from the Mahabarata (Hindu epic) at Angkor Wat

The northern gallery shows the Ramayana depicting Krishna’s victory during the battle between the Hindu gods and the asuras. The life of Krishna (avatar of Vishnu) is also portrayed on some galleries. The eastern gallery has the scene of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, showing asuras (power seeking bad deities) and devas (good godly deities) using the serpent Vasuki to churn the sea under Vishnu’s direction to produce amrita, the elixir of immortality. The next wall had the battle between the gods and the asuras.

Khmer lady with coconuts

Khmer lady with coconuts

We went for lunch at a nearby restaurant. We came across a Khmer woman squatting down and cutting numerous green coconuts next to her. She was selling fresh coconut water and I could not resist having one to quench my thirst in the hot and humid weather.

At the restaurant we ordered the local delicacy, amok dish, papaya salad and fried rice. It was satisfying and delicious especially the amok that was served in a young scooped out coconut.

Coconut water

The salad was so refreshing and crunchy, while the fried rice came with a piece of seasoned fried chicken. I could have taken a nap in a hammock after this sumptuous meal ….but I was eager to continue our Angkor Wat tour. Before that we just could not resist going to the little shops that sold tee shirts, wooden carvings, paintings, beautiful scarves and other souvenirs. Before you can even enter the shops many young children run up to you selling scarves and other knick-knacks. This is a typical scenario at all temples even before you go into the temples. I could not resist buying some scarves as we could not say no to these enterprising and eager children.

Inner Angkor Wat

The west section of the south gallery is dedicated to Suryavarman’s military procession. The east section has the Heavens and the Hells where Yama, the God of Judgment and the Underworld, who is depicted riding on a buffalo, sends the souls after judging them. The north-west pavilion has scenes from the Ramayana, showing Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Sita, and Rama’s victory over Ravana at the battle of Lanka and bringing his wife Sita, back home.

I was just amazed to see scenes from the Mahabarata and Ramayana so beautifully laid out on the Angkor Wat gallery walls, and the figures so intricately carved with their stories. I had just begun reading the Bhagavad Gita and all this was so interesting. The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and which contains a conversation between Pandava (a epic hero in Mahabarata), prince Arjuna and his guide Krishna (avatar of Vishnu) on a variety of philosophical issues. The Bhagavad Gita upholds the essence and the philosophical tradition of the Upanishads, which are a collection of philosophical texts that form the theoretical basis for the Hindu religion, also known as Vedanta.

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Categories: Cambodia, Featured, Journeys, Traditions


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6 Comments on “Ancient Angkor Temples – Day One”

  1. vispy
    October 9, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    Wonderful read cheers

  2. October 16, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Nice to hear from you Vispy! hope all is well. Yeah waiting to take a trip back to India sometime to see friends and places again.

  3. November 28, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Beautiful! Can’t wait to go 😉

  4. Yukiko
    January 30, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    Me gusta tus articulos mucho!Las fotos son muy bonita!Muchas gracias por compartir tu viaje!

    • January 30, 2014 at 9:20 am #

      Gracias Yukiko! Yo soy contento tu disfruto de mi articulos. Goze leeando!

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