- 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
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
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