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The Architecture of Angkor Wat

Never if one looks at it for an hour or for a day or repeatedly for weeks on end,

does Angkor Wat seem real.

Angkor Wat, the largest monument of the Angkor group, is located six kilometers north

of the town of Siem Reap and slightly south of the city of Angkor Thom. It is an

architectural masterpiece. The composition, proportions, and reliefs make it one

of the finest monuments in the world. Built by King Suryavarman II in the first half

of the twelfth century (1113-50), Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple dedicated to the

god Visnu. It is generally accepted that it was built during the lifetime of the

king to serve as his tomb after death. Because of its funerary function, the main

entrance of Angkor Wat is at the west to conform with the symbolism between the setting

sun and death. Another theory on the western orientation of Angkor Wat is that it

was intended to be situated on an important road in a north to south direction and

because of problems of space or existing nearby temples, it was built facing west.

Estimates on how long it took to build Angkor Wat vary widely but the methods of

construction, quantity of the materials, and the evolution of the decoration suggest

that it took thirty to fifty years to build the temple.

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp when walking through the monument because

of its vastness and the way it is laid out. From a distance Angkor Wat appears to

be a massive stone structure 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 with stairways giving access to the various parts.

The height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is surprisingly

high-213 meters (699 feet). The height was achieved with three rectangular or square

levels. Each one becomes progressively smaller and higher starting from the outer

limits of the temple. Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the

first and second levels.

The third and uppermost level supports five towers-one in each of the corners and

one in the middle-which are the most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat.

Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and,

near the top, rows of lotus flowers taper to a point. The overall profile of each

tower is reminiscent of a lotus bud.

Several lines stand out in the architectural plan of Angkor Wat. 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 main entrance. Many

of the structures and courtyards are in the shape of a cross. A curved sloping roof

on galleries, chambers, and aisles is a hallmark of Angkor Wat. From a distance the

roof looks like a series of long narrow ridges but close-up one sees gracefully arched

rectangular stones placed end to end. Each row of tiles is capped with an end tile

at right angles along the ridge of the roof. The scheme culminates in decorated tympanums

with elaborate frames.

Several elements repeated throughout the monument give an architectural rhythm to

the whole. Galleries with columns, towers, curved roofs, tympanums in sects of graduated

sizes, structures such as libraries and entry towers in a cross-shaped plan, and

steps and steps and steps occur again and again. By combining two or more of these

features and superimposing them, height was achieved and one part of the monument

was linked to another. Roofs were frequently layered to add height, length, or dimension.

A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the outer limits of two prominent

areas-the galleries and the entry towers.

Angkor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 500 acres defined by a laterite wall.

The first evidence of the site from the west is a moat with a long sandstone causeway

stretching for 200 meters across it and serving as the main access to the monument.

At the end of the causeway there is a massive entry tower consisting of three sections.

The upper portions have collapsed and thus do not reveal the full impact of the original

form. A long covered gallery with square columns and a curved roofs extends along

the moat to the left and right of the entry tower. This majestic facade of Angkor

Wat is a model of balance and proportion and is a fine example of classical Khmer


Visitors can easily miss the beauty of Angkor Wat at this point as they rush on to

see the more renowned sight of the five towers-visible only beyond the first entry

tower. As one passes through this tower, there is an even longer causeway of 350

meters bordered on each side by a low balustrade resembling the body of a serpent.

Straight ahead is the celebrated view of Angkor Wat-the symbol of unity that appears

on the new Cambodian flag. Standing at this point one feels 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'.

Walk slowly down the causeway and take in the architecture along the way which gradually

introduces the visitor to the style that culminates on the third level.

Two buildings, so-called libraries, stand in the courtyard on the left and right

of the causeway. These rectangular buildings usually occur in pairs outside the sacred

enclosure. Their function is unknown but they may have served as a store rooms for

offerings and sacred objects. The designation 'library' originated with French archaeologists

who discovered scenes from a Hindu legend of the 'Nine Planets of the Earth' carved

on the libraries. Because of the association with astronomy they interpreted this

to mean that the building served a scholarly function and named it a library.

Turn left at the path between the library and the basin, then walk for about 40 meters

(131 feet) to a large tree for a superb view of the five towers of Angkor Wat. In

certain light situations a mirror image of the towers is reflected in the basin.

Just in front of the principal entry tower is an imposing platform known as the 'Terrace

of Honor.' It is supported by weighty columns and guarded by proud-looking lions

on pedestals. This terrace was the venue for evening performances of classical dancing

by the Cambodian National Ballet. It is a suitable prelude to the 'Gallery of Bas-Reliefs'

which follows. This gallery will be the subject of a future article in this series.

Leave seeing the bas-reliefs for later and continue towards the summit passing through

the 'Cross-Shaped Galleries' which provide a link between the first and second levels.

This unique architectural design consists of two covered galleries in the shape of

a cross supported by square columns and a courtyard-like area divided into four equal

parts with paved basins and steps.

The 'gallery of 1,000 Buddhas,' on the right, is a misleading name. Since the temple

is Hindu one might wonder why it has a Buddhist gallery. The name derived from the

many Buddhist images the gallery once contained that were acquired after the temple

became a place of Buddhist worship, perhaps in the late fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The gallery on the left is the 'Hall of Echoes,' so-named because of its unusual

acoustics. To hear the resonance in this hall, walk to the end of the gallery, stand

in the left-hand corner, thump your chest, and listen carefully.

A steep set of stairs alerts one to the increasing height of the temple. The third

level consists of the Central Sanctuaries on a high base and surrounded by an airy,

spacious courtyard with two small libraries. The walls of the gallery around the

courtyard of the third level are decorated with over 1,500 celestial dancers, known

as Apsaras. The presence of these female divinities who entertained gods and seduced

ascetics makes the space an endless source of visual and spiritual enchantment.

Twelve sets of stairs with forty steps each ascend at a seventy degree angle to give

access to this level. All the repetitive elements of the architectural composition

of Angkor Wat are manifested on the upper level. The space is divided into a cross-shaped

area defined with covered galleries and four paved courts. An entry tower with a

porch and columns occupies a stately position at the top of each stairway. Passages

supported on both sides by double rows of columns which link the entry tower tower

to the central structure. The corners of the upper level are dominated by the four

towers. Steps both separate and link the different parts. A narrow covered gallery

with a double row of pillars, windows and balustrades surrounds the third level.

The Central Sanctuary rises on a tiered base forty-two meters above the upper level.

The highest of the five towers is equal to the height of the cathedral of Notre Dame

in Paris. Only the king and the high priest were allowed on the upper or third level

of Angkor Wat. Probably for this reason, it lacks the stately covered galleries of

the other two levels. It does, though, support the five central towers and contain

the most sacred image of the temple.

At the summit the layout of Angkor Wat reveals itself at last. The view is a spectacle

of beauty befitting the Khmer's architectural genius for creating harmonious proportions.

Angkor Wat is the 'most remarkable body of ruins in the world, whether one regarded

the prodigious magnitude of the ground plan, the grandiose dimensions of the principal

palaces, and temples, or the artistic beauty and delicacy of the bas-reliefs and




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