Angkor Wat is arguably the most important religious and cultural building in the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia. The temple is imprinted in the country’s national flag and serves as the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia. The temple is acclaimed for being one of the largest religious monuments in the entire world with an area of 402 acres or approximately 163 hectares. Angkor Wat was initially built to serve as a Hindu temple in honor of Vishnu but was remodelled into a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century.
History and Significance of the Temple
Angkor Wat’s original name in Sanskrit was Vrah Viṣṇuloka or Parama Viṣṇuloka which translates as “the sacred dwelling of Vishnu.” Its current name of Angkor Wat was derived from the Khmer language, which means “City of Temples” or “Temple City.” The temple is located 3.4 miles north of Siem Reap, a modern Cambodian town.
Legends surround the origin of the temple. A Chinese traveler from the 13th century, Zhou Daguan, held the belief that the temple rose up in a single night due to the work of a deity. Other stories tell that the temple was ordered to be constructed to serve as a palace for Precha Ket Mealea, the son of Indra.
In light of these legends, historic annals record that the design and construction of the temple could be tracked back to the twelfth century under the reign of Khmer ruler, Survayaman II from 1113 to 1150. The temple initially served as a temple to the Hindu god, Vishnu and the as the capital city and state temple of King Survayaman II. During the late 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually converted into being a Buddhist temple and exists as a center for Buddhism up to the present time.
The Architecture of Angkor Wat
As a temple, Angkor Wat is a combination of architectural temple plans prevalent in Khmer culture. This includes the newer galleried temple and the temple-mountain structure. Locations of certain towers indicate important points during solstices, which suggests that the planning of the temple’s layout was based on some significant celestial considerations.
The mountain temple of Angkor Wat is also considered to be a representation of Mount Meru. It is a five-peaked mountain that is of religious significance to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jain cosmology. It is the center of the universe and considered to be the dwelling place of the gods. The parallelism with Mount Meru could be seen in the quincunx towers central to the temple which mirrors the five peaks of the mountain while the surrounding walls and Moat of the temple were made to represent the ocean and mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru.
The decorative style of the temple also reflects Khmer architecture. Elements of this historic architectural style include towers shaped similar to lotus buds or the ogival towers; cross-shaped terraces along the main temple, and axial and half-galleries that connect to other areas of the temple. Decorative elements include narrative scenes and elaborate garlands in the temple pediments. Apsaras or devatas, the depiction of nymphs or heavenly female figures dancing, and bas-reliefs can also be found in the structures of the Angkor Wat.