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Angkor Wat

    Angkor Wat is a temple at Angkor, Cambodia, built for king Suryavarman II. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors drawn by its architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs and the numerous devatas adorning its walls.


    The initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled 1113-c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king's state temple and capital city, with the royal palace located between the temple and the north gate, and the city filling the remainder of the outer enclosure. In the 14th or 15th century the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhist use, which continues to the present day. Unusually among Angkor's temples, although Angkor Wat was neglected after the 16th century and required considerable restoration in the 20th century, it was never completely abandoned. The temple's modern name means "City Temple": Angkor is a vernacular form of the word nokor which comes from the Sanskrit word nagara, while wat is the Khmer word for temple.

    The site

    Angkor Wat is a unique combination of the temple mountain, the standard plan for the empire's state temples, and the later plan of concentric galleries. Unlike most Khmer temples, Angkor Wat is orientated to the west rather than the east. This has led some to conclude that Suryavarman intended it to serve as his funerary temple. Freeman and Jacques, however, note that several other temples of Angkor depart from the typical eastern orientation, and suggest that Angkor Wat's facing west was due to its dedication to Vishnu, who was associated with the west. Sandstone of various colours was the chief material employed, with laterite used for the outer wall and for hidden structural areas. The stone was cut into huge blocks which are fitted together with great accuracy without the use of cement.

    Outer enclosure

    The outer enclosure, 1025 by 802m, is surrounded by a moat 190m wide. Access to the temple is by two causeways to the west and east (these are later additions, possibly replacing wooden bridges). There are gopuras at each of the cardinal points; the western is much the largest and has three ruined towers. Galleries run between the towers with square pillars on the outer side and a closed wall on the inner side. The ceiling between the pillars is decorated with lotus rosettes; the closed wall is decorated with dancing figures. Under the southern tower is a statue of Vishnu which may have originally occupied the temple's central shrine. The outer walls of the gopura are decorated with balustered windows, dancing male figures on prancing animals, and devatas, including the only one in the temple to be showing her teeth. Two further entrances to the temple are located at either side of the gopura.
    The outer wall encloses a space of 82 hectares, which was originally occupied by the city and, to the north of the temple proper, the royal palace. Like all secular buildings of Angkor, these were built of perishable materials rather than of stone, so nothing remains of these except the outlines of some of the streets. Most of the area is now covered by forest. A 350m causeway connects the western gopura to the temple proper, with naga balustrades and six sets of steps leading down to the city on either side. Each side also features a library with entrances at each cardinal point, in front of the third set of stairs from the entrance, and a pond between the library and the temple itself. The ponds are later additions to the design, as is the cruciform terrace guarded by lions connecting the causeway to the central structure.

    Central structure

    The temple proper stands on a terrace raised above the level of the city. It consists essentially of three concentric rectangular galleries, rising to a central tower; each level is higher than the last, but by a decreasing margin to give an impression of greater height. Each gallery has a gopura at each of the cardinal points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Because of the temple's westward orientation, the features are all set back towards the east, leaving more space to be filled in each enclosure and gallery on the west side; for the same reason the west-facing steps are shallower than those on the other sides.
    The outer gallery measures about 150 by 200 metres. The inner walls of the outer gallery bear a series of bas-reliefs, depicting large-scale scenes mainly from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. From the north-west corner clockwise, the scenes are: on the western gallery the Battle of Lanka (from the Ramayana, in which Rama defeats Ravana) and the Battle of Kurukshetra (from the Mahabharata, showing the mutual annihilation of the Kaurava and Pandava clans); on the southern gallery the only historical scene, a procession of Suryavarman II, followed by the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology; on the eastern gallery the Churning of the Sea of Milk and Vishnu defeating asuras (the latter a 16th century addition); and on the northern gallery Krishna's victory over Bana and a battle between the Hindu gods and asuras.The northwest and southwest corner pavilions both feature much smaller-scale scenes, some unidentified but most from the Ramayana or the life of Krishna.
    , BangkokConnecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister, known by the modern name of the "Hall of a Thousand Buddhas". Buddha images were left in the cloister by pilgrims over the centuries, although most have now been removed. North and south of the cloister are libraries.
    Beyond, the second and inner galleries are connected to each other and to two flanking libraries by another cruciform terrace, again a later addition. The enclosure would originally have been flooded, to represent the ocean around Mount Meru. Three sets of steps on each side lead up to the corner towers and gopuras of the inner gallery, the very steep stairways representing the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods. This inner gallery is a 60m square, with axial galleries connecting each gopura with the central shrine. The tower above the shrine rises to a height of 42m above the ground. The shrine itself, originally occupied by a statue of Vishnu and open on each side, was walled in when the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhism, the new walls featuring standing Buddhas. Subsidiary shrines are located below the corner towers. The roofings of the galleries are decorated with the motif of the body of a snake ending in the heads of lions or garudas. Sculptured lintels and frontons decorate the entrances to the galleries and the entrances to the shrines.


    • Freeman, Michael and Jacques, Claude. Ancient Angkor. River Books, 1999. ISBN 0834804263.

    • Ray, Nick. Lonely Planet: Cambodia, 4th edition 2002.

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