Angkor Wat Temple

Background

Angkor Wat, the largest monument of the Angkor group and the best preserved, is an architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, relief's and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world.

Wat is the Khmer name for temple (the French spelling is "vat "), which was probably added to "Angkor "when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. After 1432 when the capital moved to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks.

It is generally accepted that Angkor Wat was a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II and oriented to the west to conform to the symbolism between the setting sun and death. The bas-reliefs, designed for viewing from left to right in the order of Hindu funereal ritual, support this function.

Architectural Plan

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp when walking through the monument because of the vastness. Its complexity and beauty both attract and distract one's attention. From a distance Angkor Wat appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the center but close up it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways.

The height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is greater than it might appear: 213 meters (699 feet), achieved with three rectangular or square levels (1-3) Each one is progressively smaller and higher than the one below starting from the outer limits of the temple.

Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and second levels. The third level supports five towers –four in the corners and one in the middle and these is the most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat. This arrangement is sometimes called a quincunx. Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point.

The overall profile imitates a lotus bud, Several architectural lines stand out in the profile of the monument. The eye is drawn left and right to the horizontal aspect of the levels and upward to the soaring height of the towers. The ingenious plan of Angkor Wat only allows a view of all five towers from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the entrance. Many of the structures and courtyards are in the shape of a cross. The. Visitor should study the plan on page 86 and become familiar with this dominant layout. A curved sloping roof on galleries, chambers and aisles is a hallmark of Angkor Wat. From a distance it looks like a series of long narrow ridges but close up from identifies itself. It is a roof made of gracefully arched stone rectangles placed end to end. Each row of tiles is capped with an end tile at right angles the ridge of the roof.

The scheme culminates in decorated tympanums with elaborate frames. Steps provide access to the various levels. Helen Churchill Candee, who visited Angkor in the 1920s, thought their usefulness surpassed their architectural purpose.

The steps to Angkor Wat are made to force a halt at beauteous obstruction that the mind may be prepared for the atmosphere of sanctity, she wrote In order to become familiar with the composition of Angkor Wat the visitor should learn to recognize the repetitive elements in the architecture. Galleries with columns, towers, curved roofs, tympanums, steps and the cross-shaped plan occur again and again.

It was by combining two or more of these aspects that a sense of height was achieved. This arrangement was used to link one part of the monument to another. Roofs were frequently layered to add height, length or dimension. A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the limits of two prominent areas-the galleries and the entry pavilions. The long causeway at the entrance reappears on the other side of the entry pavilion.

Symbolism

Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.

Layout

Even though Angkor Wat is the most photographed Khmer monument, nothing approaches the actual experience of seeing this temple. Frank Vincent grasped this sensation over 100 years ago.

The general appearance of the wonder of the temple is beautiful and romantic as well as impressive and grand it must be seen to be understood and appreciated. One can never look upon the ensemble of the vat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up onto the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.

Angkor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 208 hectares (500 acres) defined by a laetrile wall. The first evidence of the site is a moat with a long sandstone causeway (length 250 meters, 820 feet; width 12 meters, 39 feet) crossing it and serving as the main access to the monument. The moat is 200 meters (656 feel) wide with a perimeter of 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles).

The west entrance begins with steps leading to a raised sandstone terrace in the shape of a cross at the foot of the long causeway. Giant stone lions on each side of the terrace guard the monument. Looking straight ahead, one can see at the end of the causeway the entry gate with three towers of varying heights and with collapsed upper portion. This entry tower hides the full view of the five towers of the central group. A long covered failure with square columns and a curved roof extends along the moat to the left and right of the entry tower. This is the majestic facade of Angkor Wat and a fine example of classical Khmer architecture.

Helen Churchill candee must have been standing on this terrace almost 70 years ago when she wrote Any architect would thrill at the harmony of the fasade, an unbroken stretch of repeated pillars leading from the far angles of the structure to the central opening, which is dominated, by three imposing towers with broken summits. This facade originally had another row of pillars with a roof. Evidence of this remains in a series of round holes set in square based in front of the standing pillars.

Tip Before proceeding along the causeway turns right, go down the steps of the terrace and walk along the path a few meters for a view of all five towers of Angkor Wat. Return to the center of the terrace and walk down the causeway towards the main part of the temple. The left-hand side of the causeway has more original sand stone than the right-hand side, which was restored by the French.

In the 1920 when RJ Casey walked on this causeway he noted it was an oddity of engineering The slabs were cut in irregular shapes, which meant that each had to be chiseled to fit the one adjoining. The effect as seen under the noonday sun...is like that of a long strip of watered silk'10 On the left side just before the midway point in the causeway two large feet are carved in a block of sandstone. They belong to one of the figures at the entrances to Angkor Thom and were brought to Angkor Wat in this century the causeway was repaired with reused stones.

The upper portions of the three sections on this tower-one each at the center and the two ends – have collapsed. The porches on each end of the gallery may have served as passages for elephants, horses and carts as they are on ground level.

When Helen Churchill Candee saw these entrances in the 1920 she remarked that architecture made to fit the passage of elephants is an idea most inspiriting. A figure of a standing Visnu (eight arms) is in the right inside the entry tower. Traces of original color can be seen on the ceiling of the entry tower at the left. Continue westward along a second raised walkway (length 350 meters, 1,148 feet; width 9 meters, 30 feet).

A low balustrade resembling the body of a serpent borders each side. Short columns support the balustrade. Looking west one sees the celebrate view of Angkor Wat that appears on the Cambodian flag. Standing at this point one teels compelled to get to the wondrous group of the five domes, companions of the sky, sisters of the clouds, and determine whether or not one lives in a world of reality or in a fantastic dream. Six pairs of ceremonial stairs with platforms on each side of the walkway lead to the courtyard.

A continuation of the serpent balustrade along the walkway frames the stairs. This arrangement is sometimes called a landing platform. The balustrade terminates with the body of the serpent making a turn at right angles towards the sky and gracefully spreading its nine heads to from the shape of a fan. Two buildings, so-called libraries stand in the courtyard on the left and right, just past the middle of the causeway. These 'jewel-boxes Khmer art 'are perfectly formed.

A large central area, four porches, columns and steps present a symmetrical plan in the shape of a cross. Some of the columns have been replaced with cement copies for support. An original pillar lies on the ground before the library on the left. In front of the libraries are two basins (length 65 meters, 213 feet, width 50 meters, 164 feet) the one on the left is filled with water whereas the other lone is usually dry.

Tip Turn left at the first steps after the library and before the basin and follow the path for about 40 meters (131 feet) to a large tree for a superb view of the five towers of Angkor Wat, particularly at sunrise. The walkway leads to a terrace kin the shape of a cross, known as the Terrace of Honor, Just in front of the principal entry tower of Angkor Wat.

Supporting columns and horizontal carved molding around the base accentuate the form of the terrace. Steps flanked by lions on pedestals are on three sides of the terrace. Ritual dances were performed here and it may have been where the king viewed processions and received foreign dignitaries. R Casey sensed such activity in the 1920s One cannot but feel that only a few hours ago it was palpitating with life. The torches were burning about the altars.

Companies of priests were in the galleries chanting the rituals. Dancing girls were flitting up and down the steps... that was only an hour or two ago, monsieur....it cannot have been more.. From the top of the terrace there is a fine view of the gallery on the first level, known as the Gallery of Bas-reliefs (215 by 187 meters, 705 by 614 feet). The outer side, closest to the visitor, comprises a row of 60 columns whereas the inner side is a solid wall decorated with bas-reliefs.

Gallery of Bas-Relief

By their beauty they first attract, by their strangeness they hold attention, Helen Churchill Candee wrote of the bas-reliefs in the 1920 .The Gallery of Bas-reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square meters (12,917 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The relief covers most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two meters (seven feet) from top to bottom.

The detail, quality composition and execution give them an unequalled status in world art. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the relief. The effect is one of textured wallpaper that looks like the work of painters rather than sculptors' The bas-reliefs are of dazzling rich decoration-always kept in check, never allowed to run unbridled over wall and ceiling possess strength and repose, imagination and power of fantasy, wherever one looks [the] main effect is one of "supreme dignity "wrote a visitor 50 years ago.

The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections, two on each wall of the square gallery each section depicts a specific theme. In addition the two pavilions at the corners of the west Gallery have a variety of scenes. The book does not include description of badly damaged relief.

Some others are unidentifiable .The composition of the relief can be divided into two types scenes without any attempt to contain or separate the contents and scenes contain or separate the contents; and scenes contained in panels which are some-times superimposed on one another-this type is probably later. The panels run horizontally along the wall and generally consist of two or three parts. Sometimes the borders at the top bottom are also decorated. Themes for the bas-reliefs derive from two main sources-Indian epics and sacred books and warfare of the Angkor Period. Some scholars suggest that the placement of a relief has a relevance to its theme. The relief on the east and west walls, for example, depict themes related to the rising and setting sun. The word bas means low or shallow and refers to the degree of projection of the relief. The method of creating relief at Angkor Wat was generally to carve away the background leaving the design in relief. Sometime, though the method was reversed giving a sunken appearance. of some of the relief have a polished appearance on the surface.

There are two theories as to why this occurred. The position of the sheen and its occurrence in important parts of the relief suggest it may have resulted from visitors rubbing their hands over them. Some art historians, though think it was the result of lacquer applied over the relief. Traces of gilt and paint, particularly black and red, can also be found on some of the relief's. They are probably the remains of an undercoat or a fixative. Several primitive artistic conventions are seen in the bas-reliefs. A river is represented by two parallel vertical lines with fish swimming between them. As in Egyptian art, a person's rank is indicated by size. The higher the rank the larger the size. In battle scenes, broken shafts on the ceremonial umbrellas of a chief signify defeat. Perspective is shown by planes placed one above the other. The higher up the wall, the further away is the scene. Figures with legs far apart and knees flexed are in a flying posture.

Inviting The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs

Those who like to linger in this wonderful gallery of bas-reliefs will always be made happy by new discoveries will return as other joys of Angkor will allow.

Tip: As the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat were designed for viewing from to lefts the visitor should, follow this convention for maximum appreciation. Enter at the west entrance, turn right into the gallery and continue walking counterclockwise. If you start from another point always keep the monument on your left. If one's time at Angkor is limited, the following bas-recommended.

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