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