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Angkor Wat, Combodia - Glory of God

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The discovery of 500 acres of exquisite temples, statues and fine stone carving that is today called Angkor Wat in the 1861 was a spectacular find. As seen by its popularity since its discovery over 150 years ago. Angkor Wat, in the ancient Sanskrit language means “Capital Temple”. Which indeed it is, because it was built for exclusive use of the Khmer Hindu dynasty.

As you enter the surroundings near the complex of Angkor Wat, you are stunned by the sheer size of the area over which these temples are spread out.

WHERE IS IT?

Angkor Wat and the magnificent collection of stone temples surrounding it, is in Combodia (or, as it is known by its revived ancient name, Kampuchea), adjacent to Thailand and Laos in SE Asia. Major airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Etihad and China Eastern fly to Siem Reap, the arriving airport for Angkor Wat. It is about 250 miles SE of Bangkok, about 914 miles NE of Hong Kong.

HISTORY OF KHMER (pronounced “Kuh Mei”) HINDU DYNASTY

Khmer dynasty, migrated from modern day Malaysia. Some believe the Khmer dynasty actually emerged from Funan (“mountain” in Chinese language), an ancient 1st century AD province in Combodia and one of the oldest outside of India to adopt Hinduism as the state religion.  In 802 AD, Jayaraman II, a devout Hindu (he worshipped Lord Shiv, although later kings became followers of Lord Vishnu—both Shiv and Vishnu, along with Lord Brahma, form the important mythological symbol of the Trinity of Gods who maintain our world) declared himself the ruler of Khmer (now Combodia) and established his kingdom in the town of Phnom Kulen (Kulen mountain), just north of Siem Reap.  He is known as a warrior who spent time in Java, and returned to Combodia and is credited to have united the warring tribes and unified them under the Khmer Dynasty, which went on to rule for 500 years and had successively 13 kings,  . The dynasty lasted from 802 till 1431 when reigning Khmer king, Jayavarman VIII was defeated and Angkor fell to the Siamese Krung Tai kingdom from the neighboring Ayutthaya.

During the more than 500 years of rule, the Khmer rulers, many of whom took the name of the founder, Jayaraman, built magnificent cities and temples, clustering them within a few kilometers of each other, and making them exclusive royal temples. The main deity is Vishnu, from the Hindu trinity.

The rule was not without controversy. Other than the usual palace intrigue, the royal religion switched from Hinduism to Buddhism, and you will see the result of this in some part of Angkor Wat—where both the Hindu and the Buddhist statues have been defaced by the Khmer kings.

ANGKOR WAT TEMPLE COMPLEX AND ITS HERITAGE

Even before Angkor Wat construction, the Khmer kings who had begun building temples for their main deity, Vishnu, in the neighborhood cities and towns and settlements. Some of these are : Roulous by Jayaraman II (originally called Hariharlaya, to honor both Shiv and Vishnu), Preah Ko by his successor Indravarman and had built temples about 100 miles from the site of Angkor Wat, called Sambhor Prie Kuk around 700 AD.  

 

Bayon Temple

Angkor wat is a unique architectural creation. Built with massive sandstones, with its intricate bas-reliefs, strange acoustics and soaring towers and  originally named Vrah Vishnulok - the sacred abode of Lord Vishnu, is the largest temple complex in the world and celebrates both Hindu and Buddhist religions.

Angkor Wat was built (at least the main temples) by Suryavarman II, between 1113 and 1150 AD, and stands as a testament to the glory and elegance of the middle-era Khmer dominance.

The primary building material used to construct the temples is sandstone, which came from the nearby Mount Kulen, about 30 miles NE from the temple sites. The Angkor Wat used an estimated 10,000,000,000 pounds of sandstone—about 5 million tonnes. 

One of the complexities of the temple complex is that it has served, at various times, as a mausoleum , a royal temple, a complex dedicated to Lord Shiv, then to Lord Vishnu, and finally as a Buddhist temple. It was originally built as a Hindu capital for the Khmer Empire, when the tenets of Buddhism gently permeated the region at the end of the 12th century, Angkor became a center of Buddhist worship. Later structures like the temple of Bayon, was built by Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) who embraced Buddhism. You will therefore see in this vast complex, curious assemblage of Hindu Gods, Apasaras (celestial nymphs), Buddha and his disciples.

THINGS TO DO AND SEE

While you will get lot more details from the tourist guide, here are some highlights as you plan your visit.

  • A beautiful sight to see, provided you are up early, is the sun slowly rising over the temple towers and reflected in the ponds at the entrance to the temple
  • Most of the statues are of Vishnu and Buddha—showing the religious transformation over the mid to latter era of the Khmer empire
  • It was originally constructed as a funerary temple, later used for royal festivals and religious rituals
  • There are striking bas-reliefs depicting battles, stories and images from the Hindu scriptures—e.g. the churning of the ocean battle between demons and deities in which Lord Shiv drinks the poison to save the deities from defeat.
  • Towering pagodas (Hindu or Buddhist temples) and the giant faces of Vishnu and Buddha in the Bayon temple
  • Famous Ta Phrom temple – known for the vast tree roots that have, over hundreds of years, engulfed the temple itself; an already famous sight made more famous by its appearance in the Tomb Raider film
  • Ta Keo, built around 1000 AD, is a massive sandstone structure that served as the royal temple
  • Ta Nei, a surprisingly well preserved Buddhist temple
  • Banteay Srei, about 25 miles outside the Angkor Wat complex, is unique in many respects. It is built of red sandstone, hence it is also referred to as the “pink” temple. It is dedicated to women and means “the Citadel of Women”. It is the only temple in the area not built by a monarch and is a (relatively) tiny temple, but a very elegant, intricately sculpted and designed temple for Lord Shiv. It was built by one of the royal stewards, Vishnukumara, in 967 AD, much before Angkor wat.

It will take you a couple of days at least to fully absorb the beauty and the history of this vast, at times spell-binding historical complex.

Angkor Wat and its nearby temples definitely belong in your bucket list.

 

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