Petit Futé's opinion on ANGKOR WAT
After his visit to the Khmer capital at the end of the 16th century, the Portuguese monk Antonio da Madalena could not help but relate the emotion of seeing the temple of Angkor Wat, "such an extraordinary construction that it is not possible 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 the human genius can conceive. It is indeed difficult to summarize in a few lines the magnificence of one of the greatest places of worship ever built. You will find here a description of the temple following the order of the visit, that is to say, from the west gate to the east gate.
There are many legends surrounding Cambodia's most famous monument: for some, it is the Hindu king of gods Indra who ordered the construction of the building.
The legend says that in the 2nd century, Cambodia was faced with a problem of transmission of the crown. King Devunagshar ("protector of the divine lineage"), seems unable to give an heir to the kingdom. Indra decides to intervene. He descended to earth among the mortals and gave a son to the Vong queen. Named Preah Kêt Meala ("flowery light"), the young heir is raised among men, at the court of his father's king. As a teenager, the young prince is invited to the court of the god Indra, in the kingdom of the gods. He is then subjugated by the wealth he witnesses, and shares his admiration with the king of the gods. This one, magnanimous, authorizes him to call upon the services of his divine architect to build on earth a copy of the building of his choice. To spare the susceptibility of the king of the gods, the prince showed humility and was content to ask for a copy of his stables. Angkor Wat would thus be, quite simply, an earthly version of the stables of Indra, king of the gods! The Chinese traveler and diplomat Zhou Daguan, who reported many real facts but also peddled some legends, claims that the temple would have appeared in one night on the orders of the architect of Indra. Even today, many mysteries remain: the secret chambers that would house chests filled with gold and precious stones have never been found, even its original name remains unknown. The name Angkor Wat has apparently been used since the 16th century. Cambodians also call the site "Angkor Toc" (Little Angkor), as opposed to Angkor Thom (Big Angkor). Before that, the temple would have been called Preah Pisnulok: "sacred place of (the man who went to the) supreme world of Vishnu", in reference to the posthumous title of Suryavarman II its founder.
The story of Angkor Wat - the real one - begins in the early 11th century. The young king Suryavarman II had just defeated his great-uncle on the battlefield and thus seized the imperial throne. He is now at the head of the most powerful empire in the region and he is quick to assert his supremacy. He led numerous conquests on the territory of the Chams, the hereditary enemy of his crown. From his victories, he brought back to his capital the fruits of his plunder. Thanks to this war treasure, he could finally start building a monument to the glory of his tutelary god, which would be the symbol of his new capital. For, unlike the great majority of Khmer kings who worship Shiva, Suryavarman II was a worshipper of Vishnu. The construction of Angkor Wat can finally begin.
The outer enclosure and the gardens
The complex covers an immense area: 1.5 km long and 1.3 km wide. The whole is thought as a Mandala, these Hindu geometric symbols. But Angkor Wat is above all a temple-mountain, terrestrial representation of Mount Meru, kingdom of the Gods in Hindu mythology. Moats and ramparts, still visible today, form the first enclosure. To enter, a bridge leads to a gate of honor decorated with a splendid gopura marking the entrance to the site. At the time of writing, the original bridge was being renovated and a floating walkway was installed. Unlike other Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva and facing east, Angkor Wat (in French, le temple de la Capitale) 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 right between the five towers of the central sanctuary. At the time of the equinoxes, the alignment is then perfect and when the sun is at its zenith, a chamber located under the top of the sanctuary lights up (archaeologists think that this room must have housed the tomb of the king).
This sun which rises perfectly above the temple is undoubtedly incredibly photogenic. Tour operators have understood this and propose to start visiting Angkor at 5:30 am in order to take the perfect picture. If the idea is tempting, tourists have unfortunately understood it well. In high season, Angkor Wat is stormed at dawn by thousands of amateur photographers. To the point of spoiling the magic of the place. We therefore advise you to go there after the morning rush, so as not to have to wait in line (sometimes for several hours) at the central sanctuary.
Once you have crossed the moat, you should stop to admire not only the first sculptures of Asparas and Devatas (the temple has nearly 1,800 of them) but especially the three gopuras of the western gate. Under the southern gopura sits a statue of Vishnu, which probably had to be in the central sanctuary before the Buddhist reaction: from the end of the 12th century, after the Chams had plundered Angkor in 1177, the new king Jayavarman VII established a new capital (Angkor Thom) and progressively transformed the temple of Vishnu into a sanctuary of Buddha. Even today, many monks go there on pilgrimage, but unlike their distant ancestors, apparently 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" probably served as a logistical entry point for chariots, carriages, and perhaps also for the royal and sacred pachyderms.
In line with the western gate, the temple of Angkor Wat appears in all its splendor. A 350 meters long footbridge decorated with nagas allows to reach it in great pomp. All around is a huge park, where the city itself was located. Like all the secular buildings of Angkor, the houses and the royal palace had to be built in wood. Nothing remains today, except for a few traces on the ground of the streets. Most of it is now covered by jungle. To walk there, before going to the second gallery gives a good idea of what the French archaeologist Henri Mouhot felt in the middle of the XIXth century, when he was the first one to rediscover Angkor Wat, completely covered by jungles and threatened of destruction by the big banyan trees and cheesemakers who were splitting the stone.
Since the discovery of Henri Mouhot, many French archaeologists went there in order to restore the temple. The signature of the protectorate of Cambodia 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 shows the towers of Angkor Wat (just like today). The French authorities in Indochina wanted to study the ruins at all costs, so a political agreement with the Kingdom of Cambodia became necessary. Once the protectorate was established, the French colonial troops wrested from Siam (present-day Thailand) all the territory northwest of Cambodia in order to attach the ruins of Angkor to Khmer territory. Throughout the late 19th century and the 20th century, restoration work was carried out to clear the temple and restore it to its former splendor. Only the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime interrupted the work. The collaboration between Cambodia, France and later other nations such as Japan and the United States was the first example of international collaboration in heritage preservation.
The exterior galleries
On both sides of the roadway leading to the temple, two stone buildings, whose use is unknown to us, are still in good condition. Called "libraries", it is however unlikely that they were actually bookstores. Between these two buildings and the central part of the temple, two basins of later construction allow us to see the reflection of the sanctuary in the water; perfect for an anthology photo.
Once arrived on the terrace of honor (which dates from a later time than the temple), in the shape of a cross and decorated with sculptures of lions, all the splendor 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. Starting from the west gallery and going counter-clockwise, here is a selection of the most remarkable:
West gallery: these are war scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha. The first, in the northwest, depicts the battle of Lanka, where Ram, with the help of the god Hanuman and his army of monkeys, defeats the demon Ravana, who holds Ram's wife Sita captive. In the southwest, it is the battle of Kurukshetra, which saw the mutual destruction of the two clans of Mahabaratha, the Pandava and the Kaurava.
South gallery: the only historical scene of Angkor Wat represents a procession of King Suryavarman II. The main character is Suryavarman II (in front of the4th pillar) who is easy to find thanks to his great size and the gilding with which he has been covered by the faithful. He is dictating orders to his servants concerning the gathering of troops. On the left of the king, one can recognize brahmins by their bun. Around the king, servants hold parasols. Further on, on the right (6th pillar), the warriors are marching down the mountain. The second part of the panel describes the march of the royal army. We find Suryavarman II (20th pillar) armed with a pkhéa, a long curved blade at the end of a large handle, still used today by Khmer peasants. At the 27th pillar, the procession 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 should sanctify the battle and attract the protection of the gods (musicians and two jesters at the front of the procession). A little before the gate, one recognizes Thai mercenaries, for this time, allies of the Khmers; they wear skirts and headdresses, and some of them are bearded or mustached.
In the southeast, bas-reliefs describe the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology. In the center of the panel is Yama, the supreme judge (whose name is written in felt-tip pen; perhaps a cheat sheet for tourist guides...). Mounted on a buffalo, Yama with his many arms indicates those who are to be thrown into the Underworld through a trap door.
East gallery: 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 goal, they must churn the ocean for more than a thousand years before they can bring out the Apsara, then Laksmi, goddess of beauty, and finally the Amrita. To do this, they grab Vasouki, the huge snake, and use it as a rope. In the center of the panel and in front of the pivot, we notice Vishnu in his human form directing the operation, as well as in the form of one of his avatars, the turtle Kuma. At the top, contemplating the scene, is Indra. The monkey holding the tail of the snake is Hanuman, Rama's ally. At the ends of the panels are servants guarding their masters' chariots.
In the northwest, this is Vishnu's victory over the Assura. Two armies of demons attack Vishnu mounted on Garuda.
North gallery: this part is dedicated to the victory of Krishna over Bana, mounted on Garouda. In front of the4th pillar, Garouda extinguishes the fire that protects the city under the eyes of Agni, god of Fire, perched on a rhinoceros. From the 20th to the 23rd pillar, Krishna arrives in front of the city where his enemy Bana resides, on a chariot pulled by grinning lions. At the 26th pillar, Krishna, victorious, is kneeling before Shiva who is enthroned on Mount Kailash with Parvati and Ganeshe. Shiva asks Krishna to spare Bana. Krishna replies, "Let him live, for you and I are not distinct from each other; what you are, I am also." This 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 depicts the 21 gods of the Brahmanic pantheon, each fighting against an Assura. This scene sheds new light on the interest that Cambodians have in karate films. It's like being there.
The inner galleries and the sanctuary
Once you have completed your tour of the galleries, it is time to enter the holy of holies through the western gate. First step, the cloister of the Thousand Buddhas. These four small basins forming a cross, and 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. Most of them have unfortunately 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 constitute the last stage. As the sanctuary is elevated, archaeologists assume that this part must have been flooded, in order to represent Mount Meru, surrounded by water.
The last terrace of Angkor Wat presents the usual plan of Khmer temples: a sanctuary tower surrounded by four towers, connected to the four facades by small passages with three naves. To go up there, a very steep staircase but provided with a ramp. To preserve the serenity of the place, the Angkor authorities decided that only one hundred 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 all four sides. Later, Buddhist monks walled up the doors and sculpted standing Buddhas. In 1908, M. Commaille opened the southern door in the hope of discovering some treasure; he found only Buddhist statues and Brahmanic images as well as a large pedestal on which a deity once rested. After having carried out numerous soundings of this kind, Mr. Marchal assures for his part that all the temples of Angkor are built on solid masses and that the treasures resting in underground tunnels exist only in the imagination of the natives.
The end of the visit
Once you have visited the sanctuary, you will have to leave Angkor Wat by the eastern gate, where rickshaw drivers usually wait. After a last look at the ruined stupa, all that remains is to keep in mind the splendor of Angkor Wat. And perhaps promise to return.
The temples of Angkor have been an important tourist destination since the 1990s, bringing Cambodia a financial windfall contributing to the development of the country. Mass tourism is an important challenge that the Cambodian authorities seem to have managed intelligently so far. The security measures and the management of tourists have allowed a relatively good conservation of the sites and a large part of the ticket revenues is reinvested in the temples.
Quite a symbol
The rediscovery of Angkor has generated a strong sense of national unity in the country, and Cambodians' pride in the architectural wonders created by their ancestors sometimes borders on fanaticism. Since the end of the French protectorate - which had itself justified its intervention in Cambodia by the safeguarding of Angkor - political parties of all stripes, democrats or dictators, independentists or communists, have appropriated this symbol of Khmer grandeur. Even the current flag, on which the silhouette of the imposing Angkor Wat appears in its center, is a symbol of Khmer grandeur.