Enclosed within the lush jungles of Cambodia, an otherworldly sanctuary graces the earth with its enigmatic presence. Its sacred ruins carry the story of a fallen kingdom whose forgotten glory can still be heard in the whispers of its crumbling corridors. The illustrious Angkor Wat, translated as “The City of Temples”, has become known as the largest religious monument in the world.
This mysterious marvel of eastern architecture is the grand temple and apparent mausoleum of the Sun-King Suryavarman II, monarch of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century. The Sun King dedicated Angkor Wat to the Hindu God known as Vishnu the Preserver, a Supreme Being who “dreams the universe into reality”. Due to the shifting religious views of the Cambodian people, it gradually transitioned into a Buddhist temple by the late 12th century.
The colossal complex of lotus bud-shaped structures form a quincunx at the heart of the temple, creating a visual arrangement that resembles the home of the Hindu Gods- Mount Meru. This sacred abode is known to Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of Jainism as the true center of the spiritual and physical universe, around which the sun and planets are said to orbit.
Aspects of Angkor Wat seem to have a directional and proportional significance, hinting at a very sophisticated architectural scheme. The anterior face of the temple had a western orientation, diverging from the traditional Khmer building method which favored orientation to the east. The Western orientation of architecture symbolizes the underworld in Greek and Etruscan cultures, giving substance to the possibility of a similar association taking place at Angkor Wat.
Furthermore, bas-relief sculptures were arranged along the chambers and passageways of the temple, depicting stories that proceed in a counter-clockwise fashion- a reverse order which hinted at the rituals of a Brahminic(Hindu) funeral. This motivated many academics to infer that Angkor Wat was used as a funerary temple for Suryavarman II.
The precise alignments between the optical axes of multiple towers reveal a connection to sunrise on the solstice. As a result of these collective revelations, many experts were further convinced of the deep celestial and religious consideration in Angkor Wat’s design.
In addition, the fractal spires adorning each shrine seem to blossom in a transcendent mathematical pattern, radiating an esoteric beauty that garners the curiosity of the world’s archaeologists.
In 1994, this curiosity lead NASA to take a survey of Angkor Wat from space. What NASA discovered was that Angkor Wat was never a solitary temple, but a central structure in a capital city now known as Angkor, covering a land mass of 100 kilometers by 10 kilometers.
An account of the city’s prosperity was given by a diplomat named Zhou Daguan, who was visiting Angkor as a delegate of China in 1296. Zhou’s account, titled The Customs of Cambodia, described life in the once-thriving metropolis. It is the only surviving first person account of life in the Khmer Empire, giving this text deep historical significance.
Zhou Daguan described the royal palace of Angkor in his written account:
“All official buildings and homes of the aristocracy, including the Royal Palace, face the east. The Royal Palace stands north of the Golden Tower and the Bridge of Gold: it is one and a half mile in circumference. The tiles of the main dwelling are of lead. Other dwellings are covered with yellow-coloured pottery tiles. Carved or painted Buddhas decorate all the immense columns and lintels. The roofs are impressive too. Open corridors and long colonnades, arranged in harmonious patterns, stretch away on all sides”Tabish Khair, ed. (2006). Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing. Indiana University Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0253218216.
In 1431, the Kingdom of Ayyuthaya (Thailand) sacked the Cambodian capital city, looting everything and enslaving most of the population. Those who escaped decided to abandon Angkor and establish a new settlement to the east in Basan, eventually setting their roots in Krong Chaktomuk, the current capital of Cambodia.
When Angkor Wat was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1840s by Henri Mouhot, the monks and villagers that lived amidst the ancient ruins had no idea where it had come from or who made it. Local legends claimed that the temple built itself; some believed that it had always been there. The true purpose of the temple eludes scholars to this day, but the halls of this holy citadel still haunt the hearts of all who behold its majesty.
Tabish Khair, ed. (2006). Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing. Indiana University Press. p. 115. ISBN978-0253218216.