It is a complex of more than one hundred sanctuaries, along with a vast network of dams and canals that capture water from nearby hills and Lake Tonle Sap, and stretches about 75 square miles. . “Angkor Wat” literally means “city that is a temple” (Preston 90). Its monumental planning and phases of development took around four centuries, beginning with a prince who called himself Jayavarman II (reigned A. D. 800–850), but was hailed as the Hindu god, Siva. In his honor and of the religion he stood for, the first construction of Angkor started in 802 (Honey, “Cambodia” 192). The second phase was carried out in 1080 by King Suryavarman II.
He was a vigorous imperialist and apparently an able administrator as he established diplomatic relations with China (Preston 89). After him, Jayavarman IV took Angkor to its third and last building phase in 1181, highlighting the brightest moment of the Khmer civilization. Jayavarman IV was the consummate imperialist: he waged war, pushed farther the kingdom’s territorial boundaries, and exacted tribute. Angkor Wat received grander retouches during this period at the expense of about a thousand slaves. Yet not even the most piercing brilliance of glory could keep a civilization from decline.
After Jayavarman II, the world of the Khmers began to disappear. The last stone temple of Angkor was constructed in 1290 (Preston 93). According to some historians, the Khmers simply lost any more energy to devote to their cult that they receded into the serene and withdrawn world of Hinayana Buddhism (Honey, “Cambodia” 192). In 1430, when the Siamese invaded from the west, Angkor had already been virtually abandoned by the Khmers. In the absence of resistance, plunder and destruction ripped throughout the entire kingdom. The once majestic Angkor Wat lay wasted and raped with only the creeping humid jungle to sympathize for its tears of dust.
Whatever left standing of Angkor Wat is found in the north central part of Cambodia, north of the Tonle Sap. In its present state, the power to subdue a watcher with awe is one thing Angkor has not been emptied of. It is a testimony to the meticulous and centrophilic wisdom of its Khmer architects and engineers. The temple’s main design, from its external elements to the holiest components within, follows a series of concentric squares with the shrine of Vishnu standing at the focal point, the biggest of four other similarly shaped, minor-sized, temples.
In entering the temple complex a surrounding twelve-square-mile moat is traversed by a stone causeway at the west. It is greeted by a gopura that opens to a cruciform pavilion where ceremonial dancers were known to have paraded. Farther into the background stands the temple of Vishnu, 200 feet tall, beginning with a storey-high base and a steep, pyramidal flight of stairs, designed according to ritual to signify purity’s removal from earthly influence. After hundreds of years of Sino-Indic influence, the religion of Angkor took shape in the form of a union between Hinduism and Buddhism.
Around three centuries before Jayavarman II was hailed as Siva, a king named Rudyavarman (A. D. 514–c. 539) had already cultivated the worship of Vishnu throughout the entire kingdom (Angkor Wat: History). Before him, during the time of Cambodia’s first kingdom, the nation had already been cradling both Hinduism and Buddhism side by side. To the Angkorean experience, the compatibility of the two religions was almost perfect. Between Siva and Vishnu, Angkor eventually upheld the latter: the second head of the Hindu triad, the Preserver, and the deity among whose avatars included Gautama Buddha (“Vishnu” Wikipedia).
Theravada Buddhism—the type which existed in Angkor—had no qualms about Angkor adhering to the cult of Vishnu. Theravadins believed that gods do exist, but as humans who had transcended above the carnal cycles of sufferings and cravings. Called the “law of dependent origination,” they believed that birth begins a chain of cravings that the pursuit to satisfy each, in turn, creates endless tributaries of other sets of cravings screaming to find contentment. In an individual’s search for contentment, he suffers.
Even death cannot end the sufferings because the only final direction that the soul must proceed to is nibbana—nirvana. The soul must then seek its purification by gradual detachment from carnal affairs through a series of rebirths until perfection is attained. By then, there is no more need to be reborn. Vishnu’s numerous avatars, or enfleshments, somehow depict the most basic doctrine of reincarnation. The objective of the rebirths is to cleanse an individual of his selfish nature.
In his quest to cross one lifetime, an aspect of his carnal nature must be conquered or be reborn in the next life as a lower form. The lower the life form, the more primitive the soul, and is thus much farther from nirvana. A boar, for instance, may signify the value of the sacrifice of one’s self in order for others to live. In one of Vishnu’s avatars, he appeared as a boar to slay the demon Hiranyaksha and liberate the earth from malevolent captivity. Vishnu’s ninth avatar was Gautama Buddha himself, one step from the ultimate perfection, Kalki.
According to legend, Buddha sat himself beneath a large bo tree in the outskirts of the eastern Indian town of Gaya, and vowed not to move in meditation until he unravels the mystery of sufferings. For days, he withstood temptations to withdraw from his vow, including the temptation of Kamadeva, the love god, who sent his daughters Desire, Pleasure, and Passion to seduce Buddha with a dance (Hamilton 660). In an intriguing note, Angkor Wat is filled with bas-relief portrayals of dancing devatas, or fairies, specifically called apsaras.
The apsaras are a permanent in the Hindu heaven since the reign of Hindu mythology’s first king of the gods, Indra. They are described as voluptuous and beautiful, capable of inspiring love to both gods and men. Angkor Wat depicts them to the last scriptural detail: of fair round hips, slim waists, and deep bosoms; inventive in performing various evolutions along with well-timed glances that target the exhilarated hearts and minds of spectators (Mackenzie 63). This is probably where Hinduism and Buddhism draw the line. But Angkor Wat is not only a place of worship.
It is also an earthly representation of a heavenly ideal. According to the Hindu scriptures, apsaras do dance in their heavenly abode, they do seduce the male pantheon, and they do have eyes like lotus blooms employed in enticing hearts. Angkor was in no violation in precisely portraying this in its attempt to bless the Khmer civilization with an image of what heaven was like. Though the meticulous craft at such a grand scale amazes its beholders, it is inspiring to understand that the detail of Angkor lies beyond its sculptures and the architecture.
Angkor Wat’s attention to detail is a testimony to the Khmer’s fervent desire to obey the statutes of Vishnu, the Supreme Being. The Angkorean engineers added moats, waterways, and even artificial lakes, called barays, in both the east and west sides of the complex. In this, the Khmers were trying to visualize the creation of the world. Creation mythology holds that it all began with a single lotus flower shot above the Primordial Waters—the Universe.
The Creator, deep in meditation on how to develop this vast pool, caught the sight of the flower and pondered upon the matter from which it stemmed. He gazed upon the stem that proceeded down the waters and decided to plunge after it to investigate. Here, he finds the earth—the bed that held up the lotus. In the same way, the center lotus of Angkor Wat, its biggest and tallest, shoots up from the glistening waters of its canals and barays, unbending and proud to be a pleasing sight that can touch the heart of a Master and Creator.