Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Monuments of Southeast Asia: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat (Drawing by Henri Mouhot)
Lying in the center of marsh and jungle, the Angkor Wat stood as one of biggest temple in the world. Cambodia took pride of this temple and depicted it in its national flag, lying in its center. It became a monument of Hindu influence to Southeast Asia and to the belief that Kings become Gods once they died. But most importantly, Angkor Wat stood as legacy of the once mighty Khmer Empire.

The Angkor Wat became the most famous and well-known monument of the one of the greatest civilization in Southeast Asia – the Khmer Empire. The Empire flourished between the year 802 to 1295, but some scholar suggested that it might have been older. It commanded a large army fed mostly by rice coming from the fertile lands near the Mekong River and the largest seasonal lake in the world, the Tonle Sap Lake. With a strong military and a bountiful agricultural economy, the Khmer Empire controlled a huge territory encompassing Cambodia, Southern Vietnam, and some parts of Thailand. Another result of power came in form of a flourishing culture, mostly influence by Hinduism. The Kings of the Khmer Empire used the Hindu idea of Devaraja or God-King where when a King died, he became a God. Hence, the Kings of the Khmers ruled absolute under divine authority. 

In 1113, a new King ascended to the throne. Suryavarman II came to the throne after he had vanquish two of his contenders to the throne. Hs reign became widely known for his conquest and expansion of the Khmer Empire. He expanded the territory to the north by defeating the Kingdom of Champa. Besides this, he also sent envoys to China in order to conduct a lucrative trade with them. From plunders in wars and wealth from trade, Suryavarman II decided to build a temple dedicated to his patron deity, Vishnu. He wanted the temple to mirror his greatest and display in every way his reverence to the Hindu Gods.

His builder did not disappointed him. As soon as he consolidated power, work began immediately for what became the Angkor Wat. The layout of the temple mirrored Hindu cosmology. A 200 meter wide moat surrounded the square land of the temple that symbolized as the ocean surrounding Mount Meru. Two causeways crossed the moat, one in the west and one in the east. But the western causeway served as the main because the west was usually associated to Suryavarman’s God Vishnu. The western causeway greeted visitors with statues of lions and seven headed nagas. And on the island of Angkor Wat, three layers of temple, one elevated above the other stood. At the center, five magnificent ornately sculpted towers stood symbolizing the five peaks of Mount Meru – Meru being the center and the other peaks being Ketumala, Bhadrasava, Jambu-dvipa, and Uttara-Kuru. The two layers of encirclement of the main temple symbolized the mountains that surrounded Mount Meru. The builders intended that the central tower that symbolizes Mount Meru will serve as Suryavarman II’s last resting place, symbolically meant that Suryavarman joined with his fellow Gods. It took numerous amounts of sandstone and laterites in order to complete such temple of a huge proportion. In addition to laborers, Suryavarman II recruited talented carvers in order to carved long beautiful bas-reliefs that depicted Hindu mythology, Hindu mythology, and Khmer History. The most famous this reliefs depicted the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk that centered on Vishnu, who advised the Devas or Gods to churn a huge ocean of milk in order to regain their immortality. The construction of Angkor Wat took numerous years and workers in order to complete.

It took 30 years for the Khmers to complete Angkor Wat. However, the construction finished, King Suryavarman II passed away just years away from its completion. They laid the ashes of the King in the shaft at the center tower of Angkor Wat. Above the shaft, they placed a statue of Vishnu, which meant to be the depiction of Suryavarman, given the posthumous name of Paramavishnuloka or He who had entered the heavenly word of Vishnu. His burial in Angkor Wat accomplished his goal of becoming God-King.

However, more than two decades after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor fell to the hands of invading Champa from the north. But the Angkor soon fell back to the hands of the Khmer Empire under King Jayavarman VII during 1180’s. Jayavarman VII’s reign, however, marked a shift in Khmer culture, from Hinduism, they turned to Theravada Buddhism. The days of Angkor Wat as a temple for God Kings and Vishnu ended. Angkor Wat then became a Buddhist shrine. In 1431, the neighboring Ayudhya attacked the disintegrating Khmer Empire and sacked the Angkor. After the fall of Angkor to Ayudya, the Khmers abandoned the once active and rich capital, leaving the jungle to cover and claim Angkor Wat.

For centuries, Angkor Wat stood silently within the dense thick jungles of its surroundings. Some Buddhist monks continued the site, but the knowledge about the monument remained to only few. In 1860, with France’s increasing involvement in Cambodia, French adventurer, Henri Mouhot, trekked tropical rainforest, risked malaria or other deadly disease, and uncovered one of the greatest heritage of humanity. He reintroduced the world to the greatest of Angkor Wat.

Today, Angkor Wat amazed millions of its visitors. For Cambodians, it reminded them of their glorious past as well as the innovative and the creativity of their ancestors. For mankind, it meant the hardwork, perseverance, determination, and ingenuity that people from the past had in order to build such a monument for a King. A monument larger than any temple in world and competed with other churches, shrines, temples when it came to aesthetics and design. Angkor Wat is a monument dedicated to a God-King but a testament to human brilliance.

See also:

Charles Higham. Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc, 2004.

Donald Langmead & Christine Garnaut. Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2001.

The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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