Angkor Wat: The Apogee of Khmer Architecture

One of the earliest settlers in Cambodia were Indians, who brought Hinduism to the country. Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument and Cambodia’s most famous attraction, was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, but currently functions as a Buddhist temple to the now-largely Buddhist Cambodian population.

They say Angkor Wat is the apogee of Khmer architecture. Although I cannot judge it on its architectural merits, my heart is convinced it must be true, after having seen it. The more-than-800-years-old massive structure, whose name translates to “City Pagoda,” was built for 30 years, and yet some parts are still unfinished.

We left for the Angkor Complex at 5 in the morning to witness the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It did not disappoint (quite obvious as I’m still gushing about it. Teehee). So please indulge me as I start with a photo of the sunrise, yet again.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is essentially a representation, a microcosm of the Hindu universe, where the moat represents the oceans surrounding the Earth, the walls the mountain ranges, and the five towers the five peaks of Mount Meru, the home of the gods. (Better shown in the photographs I took when we were in the tethered balloon).

Angkor Wat

West Gopura

A library at the outer enclosure

Another library at the outer enclosure

Upper gallery and towers

Outer enclosure

Ascent to one of the towers

Ascent to one of the towers

Upper gallery and tower

More than the grandiose structure, I appreciated the meters and meters of bas relief surrounding its walls even more. The walls talk, shout, grab your attention. And what stories they tell! From the epics Mahabbharata and Ramayana to the procession of Suryavarman II and the Heavens and Hells of Hindu mythology, one can spend days and still not see Angkor Wat.

Battle of Lanka

The Battle of Lanka is the climax of Ramayana, where Rama and his troop (which includes monkeys) defeat the asuras (evil gods) and Ravana, and rescue Sita.

Battle of Lanka

Battle of Lanka

Battle of Lanka: Monkey warriors defeating asuras

Battle of Lanka: Monkey warriors defeating the asuras

Battle of Lanka: Rama with bow and arrows

Battle of Lanka: Ravana and his 20 arms

Heavens and Hells

Hindus believe that there are 37 heavens and 32 hells which can be our ultimate destination.

I don’t remember much about the heavens, but the hells – the horrible, unforgiving hells – pretty much stole the show.

Heavens and Hells: The top two levels are the good on their way to the heavens, while the lowest level are the damned, en route to the hells

 Heavens and Hells: Yama, the god of judgment and the underworld, with his 18 arms

Heavens and Hells: The damned, beaten and dragged

Heavens and Hells: The damned en route to the hells.

Heavens and Hells: The damned en route to the hells, with some being pulled with a cord through their nostrils

Heavens and Hells: The door to hell

Heavens and Hells: One of the 32 Hells, the Hell of Maharaurava, where victims are tied and hammered with nails

Heavens and Hells: I think this is the 6th Hell, where the sinners are put on fire

The Churning of the Sea of Milk

One of my favorites is the Churning of the Sea of Milk. Why? I haven’t figured out exactly, but I reckon it may be any one or all of the following:

(1) The story is about the quest for the elixir of life, where both the gods and the demons agree to cooperate to alternately pull on the serpent, whose body is coiled around Mount Mandara. They do this for 1,000 years in order to produce amrita, or the elixir. Of course, once the amrita is produced, the gods decide to renege on the agreement, and the demons plot on stealing it instead. Okay so I said a lot but what I’m really going for is that the quest for elixir reminds me of Harry Potter. Hahaha.

(2) Can you imagine if there really were a sea of milk? The many things you can do with and in it. ^.^

(3) I like the word ‘churn.’ Not swirl, not rotate, not shake, not even agitate, but CHURN. Do you appreciate it now too? Hehe

Churning of the Sea of Milk: Ravana holding the head of the naga (serpent) with the asuras pulling on it 

Churning of the Sea of Milk: Four-armed Vishnu directs the churning. Below is his avatar, a turtle, as he supports Mount Mandara to prevent it from sinking.

The Forgotten Ones

I cannot possibly remember which myth or story an image belongs to  with only 2 hours worth of touring the temple. Also, some are really not part of an elaborate story, like the apsaras which appear every now and then. It’s also worth noting that even with the extensive studies done by historians and archaeologists, some of the images remain unidentified.

Some of it I think are from the Procession of King Suryavarman II, notable for having an historic basis (as opposed to the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana). It was during his reign that the Angkor Wat was built.

However, I’d rather not venture into a guessing game with the captions of these photos, so I’ll clearly state where I have misgivings. Otherwise, the captions can be safely relied on.

Unfinished carving

Hmmm… which story….

Looks like the procession of King Suryavarman II

Cockfight at the Dvaravati festival

King Suryavarman II before the procession

Thieves thought this contained hidden treasures so they stole it… 

Khmer soldiers with Siamese mercenaries, procession of King Suryavarman II

One of the many apsaras (similar to a nymph) at Angkor Wat

Another apsara

Given the chance (and if money weren’t an issue), I’d love to visit it again for the other stories and nooks that I missed and/or was too lazy/tired/ignorant/uninformed to photograph.