Petit Futé's opinion on ANGKOR WAT
After his visit to the Khmer capital at the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese monk António da Madalena could not help but describe the emotion aroused by the view of the Angkor Wat temple, "such an extraordinary construction that it is impossible to describe it on paper, especially since it is not like other buildings in the world. It has towers, decorations and all the refinements that human genius can conceive. It is indeed difficult to summarize in a few lines the magnificence of one of the largest places of worship ever built. Here you will find a description of the temple in the order of the visit, that is, from the west gate to the east gate.
Many legends surround Cambodia's most famous monument: for some, it is the king of the Indra Hindu gods who ordered the construction of the building; according to Zhou Daguan, the temple appeared one night, thanks to the will of a divine architect. Even today, many mysteries remain: the secret rooms that would house chests filled with gold and precious stones have never been found, even its original name remains unknown.
It all began at the beginning of the 11th century. The young King Suryavarman II has just defeated his great uncle on the battlefield and thus seized the imperial throne. Here he was at the head of the most powerful empire in the region and he soon asserted his supremacy. He led many conquests in the territory of the Chams, the hereditary enemy of his crown. From his victories, he brought back to his capital the fruits of his looting. Thanks to this war treasure, he was finally able to build a monument to the glory of his tutelary god, who would become the symbol of his new capital. Because, unlike the vast majority of Khmer kings who worship Shiva, Suryavarman II is a worshipper of Vishnu. The construction of Angkor Wat can finally begin.
The outdoor enclosure and gardens
The complex extends over an immense area: 1.5 km long and 1.3 km wide. The whole is thought of as a Mandala, these Hindu geometric symbols. But Angkor Wat is above all a temple-mountain, a terrestrial representation of Mount Meru, the kingdom of the Gods in Hindu mythology. Moats and ramparts, still visible today, form the first enclosure. To enter, a bridge overlooks a main gate decorated with a splendid gopura marks the entrance to the site. At the time of writing, the original bridge was under renovation and a floating bridge has been installed. Unlike the other Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva and oriented to the east, Angkor Wat (in French, the Capital Temple) is open to the west, the cardinal point of Vishnu. The alignment is so perfect that at the first light of dawn, the sun rises just between the five towers of the central sanctuary. During the equinoxes, the alignment is perfect and when the sun is at its zenith, a room located under the top of the sanctuary lights up (archaeologists believe that this room should have housed the king's tomb).
This sun that rises perfectly above the temple is undoubtedly incredibly photogenic. The tour operators have understood this well and therefore propose to start the visit of Angkor at 5:30 in the morning to be able to take the perfect picture. If the idea is tempting, tourists have unfortunately understood it well. In the high season, Angkor Wat is stormed at dawn by thousands of amateur photographers. To the point of spoiling the magic of the place a little. We therefore advise you to go there after the morning rush, so as not to have to queue (sometimes for several hours) at the central sanctuary.
Once the moat is crossed, it is necessary to stop to admire not only the first sculptures of Asparas and Devatas (the temple has nearly 1,800) but also the three gopuras of the western gate. Under the south-eastern gopura sits a statue of Vishnu, which was probably in the central sanctuary before the Buddhist reaction: as early as the late 12th century, after the Chams looted Angkor in 1177, the new King Jayavarman VII established a new capital (Angkor Thom) and gradually transformed the Vishnu temple into a Buddha sanctuary. Even today, many monks still go there on pilgrimage, but unlike their distant ancestors, who seem less tolerant, they do not hesitate to offer offerings to the statue of Vishnu. A little further south, a huge gate called the "elephant gate" was probably intended to serve as a logistical entry point for wagons, carriages, and perhaps also for royal and sacred pachyderms.
In the alignment of the western gate, the temple of Angkor Wat appears in all its splendour. A 350-metre long footbridge decorated with nagas provides access with great pomp and circumstance. All around is a huge park, where the city itself was located. Like all secular buildings in Angkor, the houses and the royal palace had to be built of wood. There is nothing left of it today, except a few traces on the ground of streets. The vast majority of them are now covered in jungle. Walking there, before going to the second gallery, gives a good idea of what the French archaeologist Henri Mouhot felt in the middle of the 19th century, when the first one rediscovered Angkor Wat, completely covered with jungles and threatened with destruction by the great banians and cheese makers who burst the stone.
Since Henri Mouhot's discovery, many French archaeologists went there to restore the temple. The signing of the Cambodian protectorate in 1863 is partly linked to these ruins (the first flag of Cambodia chosen at the time of the creation of this French colony already features the towers of Angkor Wat (just like today). As the French authorities in Indochina wanted to study the ruins at all costs, the need for a political agreement with the Kingdom of Cambodia became necessary. Once the protectorate was ratified, French colonial troops tore off all the territory in northwest Cambodia from Siam (present-day Thailand) in order to attach the ruins of Angkor to Khmer territory. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, restoration work made it possible to clear the temple and restore it to its former splendour. Only the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime interrupted the construction site. The collaboration between Cambodia, France and later other nations such as Japan or the United States was the first example of international collaboration in heritage preservation.
The external galleries
On both sides of the road leading to the temple, two stone buildings, the use of which is unknown to us, are still in good condition. Called "libraries", it is unlikely that they are libraries. Between these two buildings and the central part of the temple, two later building basins allow to see the reflection of the sanctuary in the water; perfect for an anthology photo.
Once arrived on the terrace of honour (which dates back to a later period than the temple), in the shape of a cross and decorated with lion sculptures, all the splendour of the temple can be seen. On the walls of the first enclosure, the bas-reliefs carved there are among the most beautiful in all of Angkor. From the west gallery and in an anti-clockwise direction, here is a selection of the most remarkable: the
west gallery: these are war scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. The first, to the northwest, describes the battle of Lanka, where Ram, with the help of the god Hanuman and his army of monkeys, defeated the demon Ravana, who held Sita, Ram's wife, captive. To the southwest, it is the battle of Kurukshetra, which saw the mutual destruction of the two clans of the Mahabaratha, the Pandava and the Kaurava.
South Gallery: Angkor Wat's only historical scene is a procession of King Suryavarman II. The main character is Suryavarman II (in front of the 4th pillar) which is easily found thanks to its large size and the gilding it has been covered by the faithful. He dictated orders to his servants regarding the gathering of troops. On the king's left, Brahmins can be identified by their bun. Around the king are servants holding parasols. Further on, on the right (6th pillar), the warriors start marching and descend from the mountain. The second part of the panel describes the parade of the Royal Army. We find Suryavarman II (20th pillar) armed with a pkhea, a long curved blade at the end of a large handle, still used today by Khmer farmers. At the 27th pillar, the parade stops to make way for a procession of Brahmins whose leader is carried in a hammock; on the right, the Holy Ark carrying the Sacred Fire which must sanctify the battle and attract the protection of the gods (musicians and two buffoons at the front of the procession). A little before the door, we recognize Thai mercenaries, this time allies of the Khmers; they wear skirts and headgear, and some of them are bearded or moustached.
To the southeast, the bas-reliefs describe the 32 hells and 37 paradises of Hindu mythology. In the centre of the panel is Yama, the supreme judge (whose name is written on a felt pen; perhaps a cheat sheet for tourist guides...). Mounted on a buffalo, Yama with multiple arms refers to those who must be thrown into the underworld by a trapdoor.
Gallery is: a large scene of the churning of the sea of milk. On the right, the gods (Deva), on the left, the demons (Assura) who have resolved to obtain the Amrita, the elixir of immortality. To achieve their goals, they had to churn the ocean for more than a thousand years before they could bring out the Apsara, then Laksmi, goddess of beauty, and finally Amrita. To do this, they grab Vasouki, the huge snake, and use it as a rope. In the centre of the panel and in front of the pivot, Vishnu is seen in his human form, who directs the operation, as well as in the form of one of his avatars, the Kuma turtle. At the top, contemplating the scene is Indra. The monkey holding the tail of the snake is Hanouman, Rama's ally. At the ends of the panels, servants guard their masters' tanks.
In the northwest, it is Vishnu's victory over the Assuras. Two armies of demons attack Vishnu mounted on Garouda.
North gallery: this part is dedicated to Krishna's victory over Bana, mounted on Garouda. Facing the 4th pillar, Garouda extinguished the fire that protected the city under the eyes of Agni, god of Fire, perched on a rhinoceros. From the 20th to the 23rd pillar, Krishna arrived in front of the city where his enemy Bana lived, who was seen on a tank pulled by grimaceous lions. At the 26th pillar, Krishna, the winner, knelt before Shiva, who sits on Mount Kailash with Parvati and Ganeshe. Shiva asks Krishna to spare Bana. Krishna replied: "Let him live, for you and I are not separate from each other; what you are, I am too. "It is the summary of a Hindu conception that associates the identity of all men with that of all gods.
To the northwest, a new battle scene featuring the 21 gods of the Brahmanic pantheon each fighting against an Assura. This scene sheds new light on the interest of Cambodians in karate films. It feels like it.
The interior galleries and the sanctuary
Once you have completed your tour of the galleries, it is time to enter the Holy of Holies through the west gate. First stop, the cloister of the Thousand Buddhas. These four small basins forming a cross, which at the time had to be filled with water, was the place chosen by generations of Buddhist pilgrims to leave a small statue or inscription of a Buddha. Unfortunately, most of them have disappeared. To the north and south of this room, two libraries are still present. Once these vestibules have been visited, the sanctuary and the inner gallery are the last stop. As the sanctuary is elevated, archaeologists assume that this part had to be flooded, in order to represent Mount Meru, surrounded by water.
The last terrace of Angkor Wat has the usual layout of Khmer temples: a sanctuary tower surrounded by four towers, connected to the four façades by small passages with three naves. To get up there, a very steep staircase but equipped with a handrail. To preserve the serenity of the site, the Angkor authorities decided that only 100 tourists could be admitted. The wait can therefore be long, sometimes several hours. Once at the top, a superb view can be admired. This central sanctuary was open on its four sides. Later, Buddhist monks walled the doors and sculpted standing Buddhas. In 1908, Mr. Commaille opened the southern one in the hope of discovering some treasure; all he found were Buddhist statues and Brahmanic images as well as a large base on which a deity once rested. After conducting many such surveys, Mr. Marchal assures us that all Angkor temples are built on solid masses and that treasures resting in underground passages only exist in the imagination of the indigenous people.
The end of the visit
Once the sanctuary is visited, it will be necessary to leave Angkor Wat through the east gate, where rickshaw drivers usually wait. After a last glance at the ruined stupa, all that remains is to remember the splendour of Angkor Wat. And maybe promise to go back.
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