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Angkor Wat: God is in the Details, Indeed! – PART 1

Angkor Wat: God is in the Details, Indeed! – PART 1

As covid -19 pandemic pummels international tourism into an indefinite pause, the world-renowned UNESCO heritage site in Cambodia: The magnificent Angkor Wat, gets a vantage through a series of memorable accounts of a traveller’s note

By Sudeepa Roy


“It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen,  particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive.”

António da Madelena

Amidst a vast green meadow, a lotus filled lake, and a row of tall palm trees stands a widely stretched colossal mass of greyish stony structure that veritably leaves any of its viewers wonderstruck. With indigeneity & history as immense as its structural grandeur, this monument has captivated human hearts immensely. It is none other than the worlds largest religious site, Angkor Wat—recorded as ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ since 1992.

Ever since its discovery, protecting the complex in its best original form has become an international priority. Surveys and renovations on a grand scale followed thenceforth. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has played a pivotal role in restoring and conserving the temple. Situated roughly six kilometres north of the modern Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the monument forms the heart and soul of the Khmer empire. It extends over approximately 400 square kilometres and consists of scores of temples, hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) and communication routes. Compared to other broadly studied civilisations such as the ancient Egyptians or the Mayans, relatively little is known about the Khmer Empire. Knowledge about the royal lineage of the empire, budding from the 9th century A.D. to their gradual recession in the 14th century, is gained mainly from the inscriptions on the temple structures. Archaeologists in recent times are deeply involved in unravelling the many whereabouts of this mighty kingdom, which remain unveiled to date.

Initially built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple —Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument. The word “Angkor” means “capital city” in the Khmer language, while the word “Wat” means temple. Its original name was Vrah Vishnuloka or Parama Vishnuloka, meaning the sacred dwelling of Vishnu in Sanskrit.

King Suryavarman II depicted in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat
King Suryavarman II depicted in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat

The monument is constructed from sandstone to the hilt. The inscriptions on the wall in Sanskrit depict the construction of Angkor Wat that took about 35 years, with 300,000 labourers and 6,000 elephants to build it ultimately. Emperor Suryavarman-II, who ruled the region from 1113 to 1150 B.C, built the temple. He was a descendent of Cholas, the ruler of Tamil Nadu. This account for the many Tamil-Brahmin inscriptions and sacred prayers in Sanskrit on the walls of Angkor Wat— Mahabalipuram sculptures overall inspired the intriguing structure. Angkor Wat served as the state temple and political centre of his empire. Essentially it was meant to be a vast funerary temple within which his remains would rest. This assumption is supportive of the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that obeys ancient Hindu funerary rites. Unfortunately, king Suryavarman died on a battlefield in an expedition with the Chams. Whether his body got a burial in Angkor Wat remains unknown to date. After the death of Suryavarman, the rival Chams from Vietnam created havoc in his territory and tried to invade it. Ensuing this, Jayavarman VII -the new successor, reinstated the empire, formed a new capital and built state temples of his own to the north of Angkor Wat. Soon, the domain transformed from a Hindu centre to a Buddhist worshipping ground by the end of the 12th century.

However, our visit to the Angkor Wat sprouted from our prodigious travel spree to explore southeast Asia whenever our in-laws visit us in Kuala Lumpur from India. Our first visit to this grand monument was at dusky hours of the day. The fading glory of the receding sun bedazzled us while we stood on the facade of the Wat for moments. Little did we know, at that time, that our son would revisit the same place as a part of a school expedition later, in a year, to experience the sunrise – almost from the same site. According to him, the rising suns view against the backdrop of the monument is more enthralling than the sunset. Nevertheless, the view satiated us completely with contentment and delight.

What appeared to us as a miniature replica of the universe in stones was, indeed, an artificial earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower stood as the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the centre of the universe. Corresponding to the peaks of Mount Meru were the five peaks of the monument. The courtyards stood symbolic of the continents —the fosse representing the ocean around. The mythical seven-headed serpent (naga) at different corners of the memorial stands as a rainbow bridge connecting worldly souls; to the divine gods in heaven.

The Seven-hooded snake - Naga
The Seven-hooded snake – Naga

As we progressed further, my mind reverentially slipped into an imaginative swing of transition between the past and the present. The artisans’ chisel crafting the stones to sculpt figurines on the monument; king marching around with a band of guards behind, the apsaras dancing in front of the memorial — all occupied my imagination with colours of light. The present appeared as a reflection of the past while the animate glories from the past remained unfathomable.

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Angkor Wat Central Temple Terraces
Angkor Wat Central Temple Terraces

The central temple complex comprises three storeys made of laterite. Steep stairways connect the storeys. It also encloses a  square surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. The ceilings, walls, and alleys of the monument are full of artwork, sculptures and bas-relief.  Human civilisation, gods and the goddess, king and the queen, and epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata all form the rich content of the monuments’ artworks. Everywhere the sculpted  Apsara’s outnumber in occurrence and appeal; a beguiling 3000 of them with 37 different hairstyles occupying the many walls of the monument. The powerful depictions prompt the viewers to connect the dots between spirituality and Hinduism in their all or little known perception. However, our visit to the National Museum of Cambodia in the early part of the same day served as a guide to relate, weave and craft our own opinions matching the pieces of evidence around.

Different alluring forms of the Hindu Goddess Durga highlights a section of work created during the pre-Angkor time. The sensual vigour and strength of the goddess remain unaffected despite the absence of her head and arms.  It reminded me of a few stone carvings and sculptures of the famous Kamakhya temple in my native state Assam. The exhibited antiquities of the Kamakhya temple —mahisasuramardini, narasimha, ganesha, fragments depicting vidyadharas and kirtimukha all engrossed my mind. Most of the sculptures of the Kamakhya temple, unlike Angkor, were sculpted in bricks.  My mind drifted, busy distinguishing the two stone temples standing at different geographical entities only to realise the same concept of gods & goddesses bind them together.

To be continued

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