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Bas-Reliefs: Angkor Wat's Wondrous Wallpaper

Bas-Reliefs: Angkor Wat's Wondrous Wallpaper

- This is the fourth in a series of articles excerpted from "A Visitor's Guide to Angkor." The author holds a doctorate in art history and has written numerous boods on the subject.


The first storey of the wat is a place one never wants to leave. On visiting the

Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, Helen Churchill Candee wrote: "Those who like to linger

in this wonderful gallery of bas-reliefs will always be made happy by new discoveries

and will return as often as other joys of Angkor will allow."

The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200

square meters of carvings in sandstone, dominating most of the inner wall of all

four sides of the square gallery. The effect created is one of textured wallpaper

that looks like the work of painters rather than sculptors. The detail, composition,

and execution give them an unequalled status in world art. In contrast to the solid

inner wall of the gallery, columns line the outer wall. The space between the columns

allows an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the carvings.

The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections (two on each of the inside walls),

each one depicting a specific theme. Additionally, two pavilions at each corner of

the West Gallery are decorated with a variety of scenes. Themes derive from two main

sources-Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; and warfare of the

Angkor period.

The composition of the reliefs comprises either scenes without any attempt to contain

or separate the contents, or scenes contained in panels which are sometimes superimposed

on one another. The panels run horizontally along the wall and generally consist

of two or three parts. Some scholars suggest that the placement of reliefs has a

relevance to its theme. The reliefs on the east and west walls, for example, depict

themes associated with the rising and setting of the sun.

'Bas-relief', the name of the method of creating carvings at Angkor Wat, derives

from an Italian word meaning sculpture in low or shallow relief.

Parts of some of the reliefs have a polished surface. The position of the sheen and

its occurrence on important parts of the reliefs suggest it may have resulted from

visitors rubbing their hands over them. Some art historians, though, think it was

caused by lacquer applied over the reliefs after the Angkor period when the monument

served as a Buddhist temple. It may have been used as a foundation for gilding. Traces

of gilt and paint (particularly black and red) can also be found on some of the reliefs.

The reliefs were designed for viewing from left to right, and the visitor should

follow this convention for maximum appreciation. Enter the gallery from the west,

turn right, and continue walking counterclockwise. This orientation of the reliefs

follows the convention used for death in Hindu temples and strengthens the theory

that Angkor Wat was designed as a funerary temple.

The 'Battle of Kurukshetra' is the main subject of the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

It recalls the historic wars in a province in India between the five Pandava princes

and their cousins the Kauravas. Krsna revenges himself on his uncle by killing Kamsa

and declaring himself king. He soon decides to join Balarama and the Pandavas in

a series of battles against the Kauravas.

The scene of this final battle depicted on the West Gallery begins with infantry

marching into battle and musicians playing a rhythmic cadence. The armies of the

Kauravas and the Pandavas march from opposite ends towards the center of the panel

where they meet in combat. Chief officers and generals oversee the battle in chariots

and on elephants and horses. The battlefield is the violent scene of hand to hand

combat and many dead soldiers. A dramatically portrayed figure is Bisma, the commander

of the Kauravas, is pierced with arrows and lies dying with his men around him. Arjuna

shoots an arrow at Krsna, his half-brother, and kills him. After death, Krsna becomes

the charioteer of Arjuna.

The 'Army of King Suryavarma II' is another epic scene and is depicted in the South

Gallery. It relates warfare of the Angkor period, rather than a mythical story, and

is thus called the 'historical' gallery. The action centers on a 'splendid triumphal

procession' following a battle between the Khmers and rival enemies. The reliefs

show methods used in warfare, mainly hand to hand combat as they had no machinery

and no knowledge of firearms. The central figure of this gallery is King Suryavarman

II, the builder of Angkor Wat, who appears twice. A small inscription visible on

the panel identifies him by his posthumous name suggesting it may have been carved

after his death. Attendants holding fifteen umbrellas identify the king who stands

on an elephant wearing a conical headdress with a sword across his shoulder. Near

the end of the panel the military procession resumes with a troop of Siamese (Thais)

who stand out in their attire-pleated skirts with a floral pattern, belts with long

pendants, plaited hair, headdresses with plumes, and short moustaches. The Siamese

troops are led by their commander mounted on an elephant. They were probably either

mercenaries or a contingent from the province of Louvo (Lopburi) conscripted to the

Khmer army.

The 'Churning of the Ocean of Milk' in the East Gallery is the most famous panel

of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and derives from an Indian epic. The Ocean of Milk is

churned by gods and demons to generate the elixir of life. The purpose of the churning

is to recover lost treasures such as the source of immortality, the goddess of good

fortune, and the nymph of loveliness. The retrieval of these objects symbolizes prosperity.

The scene is divided into three tiers. The lower one consists of various aquatic

animals, real and mythical. The middle one is a row of 92 demons who wear crested

helmets and, on the other side, a row of 88 gods with almond-shaped eyes and conical

headdresses. They work together by holding and churning the serpent. Hanuman, the

monkey god, assists. Visnu, in his reincarnation as a tortoise, offers the back of

his shell as a base for the mountain, Mandara, and as a pivot for the churning. He

sits on the bottom of the Ocean. A serpent-shaped cord acts as a instrument to churn

the sea. To begin the motion, the gods and demons twist the serpent's body around

the cord; the demons hold the head and the gods hold the tail of the serpent. Then

by pulling it back and forth they churn the water.

Visnu appears in this scene again in yet another reincarnation-as a human being-to

preside over the 'churning' which, according to legend, lasted more than one thousand

years. Numerous other beings are depicted such as the three-head elephant mount of

Indra, apasaras, and Laksmi, the goddess of beauty.

The final tour de force in the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs is the 'Battle of Lanka' in

the West Gallery. This scene, from the Ramayana, is a long and fierce struggle between

Rama and the demon king Ravana who has ten heads and twenty arms. The battle takes

place in Lanka (Sri Lanka) and ends with the defeat of Ravana, captor of Sita, the

beautiful wife of Rama. The central figures are the monkey warriors who fight against

the demons on Rama's side. The brutality of war juxtaposes with a graceful rendition

of lithe monkeys. Near the center, Rama stands on the shoulders of Sugriva surrounded

by arrows; Laksmana, his brother, and old demons, stand behind Rama. Nearby, the

demon king Ravana rides in a chariot drawn by superb lions. Nala, the monkey who

built Rama's bridge to Lanka, is between them leaning on the heads of two lions.

He throws the body of one he has just beaten over his shoulder. A monkey prince tears

out the tusk of an elephant which is capped with a three-pointed headdress and throws

him and the demon to the ground. This panel depicting the Battle of Lanka is among

the finest of the bas-reliefs at Angkor.

This is no ruin-the carvings on the galleries are complete-the roofs still turn the

rains. The walls are as solid as when the Khmer masons put them there without binder

or cement. And one cannot but feel that only a few hours ago it was palpitating with



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