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Angkor Wat - The Wonder of the World

Here is all you need to know to understand the temple and visit it off the crowds.  

Angkor Wat from the balloon in the west
Angkor Wat from the balloon in the west

    Constructed in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is the climax of Khmer architecture: A gigantic three-step pyramid is adorned by nine slender towers of enormous height.

    Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver of the world.

    Angkor Wat is orientated to the west, facing the centre of the city: the Shiva temple Phnom Bakheng.

    Visiting Angkor Wat is like dating the unexpected.

    The Layout of Angkor Wat

    Angkor Wat. Aerial view from southeast. Photo courtesy of Dave Taylor
    Angkor Wat. Aerial view from southeast. Photo courtesy of Dave Taylor

    Map by Stierlin: Layout of Angkor Wat
    Map by Stierlin: Layout of Angkor Wat

    The temple covers 2.5 square kilometres. 

    The elements

    • A Moat, 5.5 km long, 190 m wide, framed by sandstone steps.
    • A Wall made of laterite.
    • The West Gate, 25 m long. 
    • The South, East, and North Gates.
    • The inner Causeway, 350 m long.
    • Two Halls and two square Water Basins.
    • The "Terrace of Honour" in front of the Pyramid.
    • The Pyramid.

    The Avenue of Angkor Wat

    Inner avenue
    Inner avenue

    Angkor Wat made the stage for the King’s visit to Vishnu

    The Avenue is structured by:

    • An outer causeway, crossing the moat.
    • The west entrance gate with three towers and five doors. The gate is larger than the west face of the pyramid.
    • An inner causeway with naga balustrades flanked by two big pavilions and two square ponds.
    • A raised cruciform terrace in front of the pyramid.
    • The lower cruciform gallery at the first step of the pyramid.

    A Symphony

    The access from the West is composed like a symphony.

    Overture

    Coming from the West we stand in front of a wide moat. It covers nearly the same space as the temple complex within it.

    A sandstone causeway spans the moat, leading to a large building. Three towers are marking entrance gates. Two more entrances are at the far away ends of the lateral galleries. Looming above the roof are the spires of Angkor Wat.

    We get familiar with the huge horizontal dimensions of this temple plant. Horizontally the structure is similar to the west face of the pyramid, where we will find again three towers, and the large outer gallery with corner pavilions.

    First movement

    After crossing the moat by the sandstone causeway we pass by the central gate and have a view to the pyramid, from a distance almost twice as far as the its breadth. We are prepared for its width by the view we had before to the entrance building. (It is a few meters wider than the west face of the temple). We will step by step get acquainted with its height. At the first, everything is on one level, from which the slender towers loom up.

    Second movement

    Leisurely proceeding along the splendid causeway, we see the pyramid getting higher and higher. Two halls are flanking, and two basins are preceding the west face, which is crowned by five towers. At last, in front of the outer walls, we must crane our neck to have a view of the top. A moment later the spires are hidden.

    Third movement

    We cross the gallery of the large bas-reliefs and enter a wide cruciform gallery, opened by basins in four courts, adorned by reliefs, and the play of light and shadow between the pillars. Here the transition happens – from the secular to the sacred space.

    Fourth movement

    Almost imperceptible, stairways, ingenious constructions, bring us to the courtyard of the second gallery. Here suddenly the towers are high up in front of us. Again we have to crane our necks.

    Topped by the towers and a high gallery, a bulky but well sectionalized structure rises in front of us. Though as high as a five-storey-building it does not look overwhelming. Twelve steep stairways run up like leading to the Heaven.

    Finale

    At the uppermost platform we are again in a cruciform gallery, now you have an open view to the four directions. Pillars open to four courts with water basins again, giving views to the towers at their intersections. Above these galleries, the towers look like gigantic buds, floating and opening to the sky.

    (We can see an early example of an avenue at the Bakong.)

    Visitors are recommended to follow this route as close as possible. In the north-east of the second level a wooden stairway runs up to the top level. (Glaize, p. 61 f., Stierlin, p. 147 f.) 

    The Pyramid

    The pyramid, Aerial view from southwest Photo courtesy of Dave Taylor
    The pyramid, Aerial view from southwest Photo courtesy of Dave Taylor
    In the lower cruciform gallery
    In the lower cruciform gallery
    Summit of the pyramid
    Summit of the pyramid

    Map by Glaize: The pyramid (modified)
    Map by Glaize: The pyramid (modified)

    • The pyramid is raised on a vast terrace, 2 m high and surrounded by naga balustrades. The pyramid opens to the cardinal points by entrance pavilions and stairways. The three steps are each roughly half as large and double as high as the step under it. Each step is crowned by surrounding galleries.
    • The first step, containing the gallery of the bas-reliefs, is 203 m large and 3 m high.
    • The second tier is 7 m high. At the corners are four towers, their superstructure is partly missing.
    • The third step, 13 m high, like a five-storey building, is linked by twelve stairways, and crowned by five towers.

    The lower Cruciform Gallery

    A cruciform gallery links the lower and the second storeys of the pyramid.

    High galleries, flanked by half-galleries, are crossing, making four courtyards. Those were covered by water basins.

    Three stairways, 7 m high, climb up to the gallery of the second tier. The graduated staircases are topped with graduated roofs and pediments.

    In front of the southern entrance of the lower cruciform gallery is a huge statue of the standing Buddha who obstructs the view to the southern hall in the courtyard of the outer enclosure. But we can have a beautiful view to the northern hall.

    To the West of it are some Buddha statues, mostly mutilated, the remains of what is ironically called “The Thousand Buddhas”.

    Three stairways lead to the next level of the pyramid. They are covered by stepped vaults.

    The summit of Angkor Wat

    Twelve stairways rise to the third level of the pyramid.

    Here again is a cruciform gallery, linking the five crowning towers, and enclosed by a surrounding gallery. Water basins covered the four courtyards. 
    All five towers open to the cardinal directions, giving open views along the galleries.

    The overall picture was a wide and airy hall, full of light. It was “the most enchanting and most focussed work of Khmer architecture”.

    The third level, where are the finest reliefs of Devata, was the throne room of God Vishnu. Only the king, assisted by the highest priest, was to ascend to the god.

    Later Buddhist monks walled up three faces of the cella, thus destroying a unique arrangement. 
    (Glaize, p. 65; Stierlin, p. 149-150.)

    After two years of restoration work, the top level is open to the public again, except on Buddhist holidays. There are new wooden stairways at the north-east corner. Only 100 people may enter, and only for half an hour. One has to wait. Wear decent dress, shoulders and knees should be covered. Visitors can enjoy the open views to the four directions, they can see the central tower in full extend, and the can discover some of the most beautiful goddesses.

    The towers

    The features:

    • Porches, on pillars.
    • High cella and four pseudo storeys, all crowned by cornices.
    • The ground floor has two cornices.
    • On the cornices antefixes are tapering to a point; they are slightly bent inside, thus forming a closed surface and making the roofs of the tower look like filigree.
    • Three round elements, ‘lotus petals'.
    • A conical top.
    • As a whole the tower looks like a lotus bud.

    Vishnu in His Temple

    Vishnu at the West Gate
    Vishnu at the West Gate

    Reclining Vishnu, at the cruciform gallery
    Reclining Vishnu, at the cruciform gallery

    Together with Shiva and Brahma, Vishnu makes the Trimurti of the highest ranking Hindu Gods. He is the Preserver of the World.

    Reclining Vishnu – Birth of Brahma

    At the lintel in the main entrance into the compound we see the four-armed Vishnu (on the right), reclining on an endless naga.

    Between the eras of time he is floating on the endless cosmic ocean. The moat of Angkor Wat, opposite of this relief, symbolizes the cosmic ocean.

    Standing Vishnu

    Vishnu with eight arms is standing in the southern lateral door of the West Gate. The statue is in a later style (about 1200). 
    This statue is inhabited by Lok Ta Reach, a high ranking local spirit who is passionately adored by local people. He is the true Lanlord of the Temple.

    Originally, this statue was standing in the central tower.

    Devata
    Devata

    Devatas at Angkor Wat

    An imposing troupe

    In Angkor Wat are some two-thousand Devata reliefs: at the outer walls of the four gates and of the three tiers of the pyramid. They are also at the inner walls of the lower cruciform gallery and inside of the galleries at the summit of the pyramid.

    In the beauty of eternal youth, Devata are guarding and embellishing the temple. Their outfit is stunning: fantastic hairdos, heavy jewellery, effectively designed and draped sarongs, their hands in charming gestures. According to the customs of the period they are bare breasted.

    Their charm and sensuality are an obvious representation of the divine. They help to transform the man-made building into a sanctified area.

    Not knowing the rules of the perspective the sculptors had problems to depict the feet in these flat reliefs; they turned them unnaturally.

    Who they are?

    Goddesses are invisible. Their images are in the likeness of worldly females: queens, princesses, other ladies from the court, ore just of pretty girls and women.

    Devata are not Apsara! Calling them Apsara is an inexcusable insult.

    Angkor Wat - the temple of the Devatas

    Entering Angkor Wat from the East – what is recommended in the morning – we pass by the east gate, an elegant pavilion. The walls are decorated with numerous reliefs of devata.

    The east face as well as the small north and south faces are covered with some of the finest devata reliefs.

    The temple was dedicated to Vishnu. Later monks undertook the change to a Buddhist sanctuary; they expelled Vishnu and disfigured the centre of the sanctuary (Glaize, p. 65.), without a convincing result: The interior of Angkor Wat looks somehow 'godforsaken'. The Devata were originally secondary. But if you open your eyes you see them dominating the temple. They have become the owners.

    Angkor Wat is now the temple of the Devatas.

         

    West Gate
    West Gate
    Pyramid
    Pyramid
    Pyramid
    Pyramid
    Pyramid
    Pyramid
    Summit
    Summit
    Summit
    Summit
    Summit
    Summit
    East Gate
    East Gate

      

    A perfect image of Mount Meru

    Most visitos focus only on the top of the Pyramid with ist five towers.

    But:

    • Include the four towers of the second level, though they are now more or less beheaded.
    • Include the entire pyramid with the galleries and reliefs.
    • Include the magnificent avenue.
    • Include the gates, the enclosure wall, and the majestic moat.

    Angkor Wat is an unsurpassed image of the Mount Meru.

    • Corresponding to the five peaks of this mountain, at Angkor Wat five (!) towers were visible from every cardinal point.
    • Around the Mount Meru are mountains - the galleries and the enclosure wall.
    • The moat symbolizes the Cosmic Ocean.
    • The temple complex is microcosm, an image of a perfect world, stable and in geometrical harmony.

     

    The construction of Angkor Wat—a hypothesis

    King Suryavarman II who built Angkor Wat reigned from 1113 to 1145/50. Angkor Wat was probably started by his predecessor and finished by his successor.

    Theses kings must have had tremendous manpower at their disposal.

    It took at least five years to plan and carefully prepare the construction. Later modifications were impossible.

    First they made a wooden model in the scale about 1:10.

    The sandstone blocks were cut at the foot of the Phnom Kulen, some 30 km northeast, and transported by ox carts. The monolithic pillars, weighing 11 tons each, were dragged over rollers of palm tree trunks. These trunks may have been brought back by returning oxcarts

    (There are and there were no waterways big enough to transport 11-ton-weights!  Elephants would have raised a special logistic problem: They need too much food.)

    In the centre a pit was walled up step by step. A teakwood beam fixed inside the pit served as a crane to pull the 11 ton sandstone slabs into position. The construction started from inside outwards; at last they built the enclosure wall and the moat.

    Who were the workers?

    Many jobs could be done by unskilled men, rice farmers or slaves.

    The masonry and carving was done by free handicrafts, professional workers, trained and experienced.

    How many men have worked there?

    There were men doing the masonry, others were heaving the sandstone blocks and pillars to their place, others were preparing the blocks and pillars, others did the logistics, and there were artists who did the carvings.

    The estimates about the total numbers are differing.

    The avenue and balustrades were only finished in the Bayon era (about 1200 AD).

    (This hypothesis is based on remarks of civil engineers visiting Angkor Wat.)

    Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha
    Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha

    Angkor Wat: The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs 

    Shiva appearing to the wives of the hermits
    Shiva appearing to the wives of the hermits
    Krishna receiving offerings
    Krishna receiving offerings
    King Suryavarman II holding court
    King Suryavarman II holding court
    The vanguard
    The vanguard
    Churning of the Sea of Milk
    Churning of the Sea of Milk
    Hanuman in the Battle of Lanka
    Hanuman in the Battle of Lanka

    The bas-reliefs

    The outer gallery of the pyramid, including the western corner pavilions, shelters the most precious treasures of Angkor Wat, reliefs in a total length of more than 600 m.

    They depict narrative scenes from mythology and history.

    West gallery, south wing

    The battle of Kurukshetra

    This mythical battle brings the final decision in a lethal conflict between two royal families, the Pandava and Kaurava, who are related to each other.

    In the lower register their armies are marching and fighting: The Pandava, from the right, the Kaurava from the left. Dress and equipment of the soldiers is equal to the army of King Suryavarman II.

    At the top left we see Bishma, the dying head of the Kaurava dynasty.

    In the turmoil of the battle we can see Krishna with four arms as Arjuna's charioteer.

    Southwest corner pavilion

    Shiva appearing to the wives of the hermits. Ravana shaking Mount Kailasha. Shiva killing Kama. Rama killing Valin. Krishna receiving offerings destined for Indra.

    Pyramid of Angkor Wat
    Pyramid of Angkor Wat

    South gallery, west wing

    The army of King Suryavarman II

    This relief is 93.6 m long. It shows King Suryavarman II, who has built Angkor Wat, and his army marching east, where the Chams are, with who he was in war.

    At the left King Suryavarman is holding court at the top of a hill. In a small inscription we can read:

    "Paramavishnuloka orders his army to descend from the hill Shivapada."

    (Paramavishnuloka, 'He who is [now] staying in the heaven of Vishnu', is the posthumous name of King Suryavarman II. Shivapada means 'Shiva's footprint'. - Suryavarman is regarded as something like a saint, not as a god.)

    Commanders on elephants are leading the troops. Their rank is shown by the number of umbrellas and other decorating signs. With every dignitary is a small inscription, calling his name and his titles.

    The king is depicted once more in the centre of the relief. He is carrying a phkaek, a typical Khmer tool and weapon.

    The shrine containing the Holy Fire is car­ried in the centre of the army. It is preceded by musi­cians and followed by Brahmins.

    Ethnical mercenaries of unknown origin, commanded by their tribal chief make the vanguard. (There is no evidence to call them "Siamese" or Thai.)

    South gallery, east wing

    Heavens and Hells

    Human beings have to die and to go to the hereafter – along three different routes.

    On top people are going straight to the heavens. (Amongst them are 19 nobles, like in the army of King Suryavarman.) At the bottom the poor are trudging to the hells.

    Those on the middle way are presented to Yama, the god of death and judgement. He is first enthroned on a buffalo and second judging, assisted by Citragupta, who is aware of the deeds of mortals. The mortals either go to the 37 heavens or to one of the 32 hells where you can study a large variety of punishments.

    The heavens are monotonous 'flying palaces', raised by hamsa (wild geese); apsara are dancing above the palaces.

    The relief is well executed and full of interesting details, but its message is crude: The nobles go to the heavens, the poor go to the hell. Who are those who serve in the heaven?

    Anybody ready to write an essay about this crude stuff?

    East gallery, south wing

    The Churning of the Sea of Milk

    East gallery, north wing

    Combat of Krishna and demons

    In the centre Krishna – with four arms – standing on Garuda. Both are fighting against demons.

    North gallery, east wing

    Krishna fighting Bana

    Krishna and Garuda struggle against the demon Bana in several stages. At last, Shiva (looking like a Chinese) asks Krishna to spare Bana's life. With Shiva are his sons Skanda and Ganesha.

    (The two reliefs in the Northeast were executed in the 16th century.)

    North gallery, west wing

    Combat of gods and demons

    Eighteen gods and eighteen demons can be seen, some of whom can be recognised by their mounts.

    Northwest corner pavilion (selection)

    Gods ask Vishnu to descent to earth

    Vishnu is reclining on the Naga Ananta. Eight guardians of the directions appear on their typical mounts or chariots (Relief on top of the window).

    Besides the window are Chandra, the Moon (top), and Surya, the Sun.

    Krishna getting back Mount Maniparvata

    A demon has stolen the Mount Maniparvata, the summit of Mount Mandara. After vanquishing him, Krishna returns, standing on Garuda. The goddess at Garuda's right hand is Indra's consort who had been kidnapped by this demon. Soldiers carry baskets, containing regained treasures.

    The vision of Akrura

    While Krishna and his brother Balarama are sitting together (on top), Akrura is bathing in the holy river Yamuna. In a vision. Akrura sees the two under water and recognizes their divine nature.

    Archery contest

    To gain Sita, Rama has to go about with a special bow and to aim at a bird which is fixed on a turning wheel.

    West gallery, north wing

    The battle of Lanka

    Rama and the monkeys (from left) are fighting against Ravana and his demons. The monkeys have human bodies – all shown frontal, and monkeys' faces. Unarmed, they fight with stones, sticks, fists or their teeth.

    Ravana has a great appearance: monstrous draughts, flashy chariot, multiple arms and clubs, multiple faces; but he is beaten by Hanuman, and he will lose his life in this battle. 

       

    Preah Vihear
    Preah Vihear

    The Churning of the Sea of Milk

    Angkor Wat: Kurma
    Angkor Wat: Kurma
    Bayon: Vishnu, Amrita, Naga
    Bayon: Vishnu, Amrita, Naga
    Angkor Wat: Tail of the Naga, Monkey king
    Angkor Wat: Tail of the Naga, Monkey king

    Angkor Wat: Heads of the Naga, Demon king
    Angkor Wat: Heads of the Naga, Demon king

    The myth

    The myth of the Churning was very popular in the Angkor era. It is depicted at temples in Angkor and all over Cambodia.

    At the beginning of the world, the gods (devas) and demons (asuras) were engaged in a thousand year battle to secure amrita, an elixir that would render them immortal and incorruptible. After some time, when they became tired and still had not achieved their goal, they asked the help of Vishnu. He appeared and ordered to work together, not against each other. Working together, they then commenced the churning of the Ocean of Milk by using Mount Mandara as the pivot and the five-headed naga Vasuki as the rope.

    However, the mountain suddenly began to sink. Vishnu incarnated as the tortoise Kurma to support the pivoting mountain on his back. Many gods also assisted, including Indra, by keeping the pivot in position. The spinning of Mount Mandara created such a violent whirlpool that the that the creatures and fish around it were torn to pieces,

    The Ocean of Milk was churned another thousand years before producing the much-desired elixir and other treasures, amongst which are the goddess Lakshmi (Sri Devi) [the spouse of Vishnu] , the elephant Airavata, the horse Ucchaihsravas, a whishing tree (Parijata), and the apsara.

    The naga Vasuki vomited floods of black venom due to his mishandling by teh devas and asuras during the churning. This would have been enough to poison everybody had it not been for Shiva, who drank it all; as a result, his mouth remaining stained forever with a black line.
    (Bhagavata Purana, by Roveda 2003, p. 49.)

    The relief in Angkor Wat

    Taking the south wing of the east lower gallery, it is 48.45 m long.

    In the centre is Vishnu with four arms in front of the – unfinished – Mount Mandara. On top of him is a small figure, probably Indra. Below the Mount Mandara is Kurma, wearing a small crown.

    In the main register demons, to the south, and gods, to the north, are pulling the giant naga Vasuki. Each crew is sectioned by three bigger figures.

    In the lower register are fishes and other creatures of the water, to the centre they are more and more cut into pieces by the power of the rotation.

    In the upper register a cloud of Apsara is soaring to the sky.

    At the south end is the most impressive figure: a demon king is heroically holding out next to the menacing heads of the excited naga. Below this are another naga's heads, quite relaxed. By a version of the myth this is an incarnation of the naga Vasuki, supporting Kurma.

    The monkey god at the tail (probably Sugriva, not Hanuman) is more comfortable, he can be merry.

    The calendar

    [At the birth of Brahma and at the Churning] we are dealing with the quintessence of the myth of Creation.
    (Roveda 2003, p. 53.)

    In the tropics the sun is shuttling between south, at the winter solstice (21 December), and north, at the summer solstice (21 June). The centre with Mount Mandara corresponds with the equinox (21 March and 21 September). The number of gods and demons in the picture tallies with the number of days of a half-year. Gods and demons are divided into six groups, corresponding with the six months between the solstices.

    The rhythmic of the churning symbolizes the course of the sun.

    Sources

    • Mannikka.
    • Roveda 2003, p. 49-53.

      Visiting Angkor Wat

      The pyramid from east
      The pyramid from east

      Angkor Wat is complex, so you should plan several visits. Anyhow your first visit should be in the afternoon, following the avenue from the west. You can leave the temple at the east and be picked up there.

      If the main door of the west gate is crowded you better enter by the northern tower, than you go south and follow the southern lateral way to south of the pyramid. Enter the lower cruciform gallery from the south, pass by the statue of the Buddha respectfully, and find a quiet place in the cruciform gallery. In the summer season you enter the pyramid from the north.

      Then you take one of the stairways. The north-east corner of the second level may be crowded, look around for a quiet spot elsewhere. In order to visit the top level of the pyramid you have to queue and to wear decent dress.

      The next visits can happen at any time of the day. In the morning you better go from the east to the west.

      The large temple site offers fine walks, as along the wall and the moat.

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