Angkor Wat, Cambodia: Temple Mountain Of The Khmer

Once upon a time, an Indian prince named Khambu set sail Eastward to become the object of affection of a Naga princess, Mera. They married, and from their union was born the Khmer (Khambu + Mera) and the kingdom of Kampuchea (Khambujas = sons of Khambu).

This legend of creation is flawed however, since the history of the indigenous people far predates the alleged arrival of Khambu in the first century AD.

Whether it was Khambu or later merchant princes that introduced Brahminic customs, religion and the written languages of Sanskrit and Pali to Cambodia, they prompted a fusion of local and borrowed cultural traditions that gave birth to a unique landscape of art and architecture.

Stretching over 400 square kilometers, the Angkor archaeological park is a magnificent chronicle of that evolution. And of the journey of the Khmer princes from petty rulers to God Kings (Devaraja’s).

Angkor Wat (temple city) dedicated to Vishnu – a deviation from the earlier Shaivite temples – marked the zenith of that period of architectural perfection. It remains the largest religious monument in the world.

Built in the early twelfth century by King Suryavarman ll, and possibly known then as Preah Pisnulok (world of Vishnu), Angkor Wat was conceived as a harmonious synthesis of divinity, astronomy and architecture. Its every measurement embodying the Hindu cosmos.

The lotus bud towers, once clad in gleaming gold, represent the mythical Mount Meru, (abode of Bramha) and the centre of the universe. Its gigantic 200m wide moat, the cosmic ocean.

On the spring equinox, the sun appears to rise from the central tower that once held a colossal idol of Vishnu, cast in the likeness of the King. Thus deifying him and symbolising his divine right to rule.

The axis of the outer wall equals the exact length of the solar year in days. The circumference of the wall is equivalent to the exact length of the lunar year. The rays of the solstice sun are precisely directed onto specific panels of bas reliefs in the outer gallery, and the reliefs themselves are redolent with cosmic meaning.

Its very unusual orientation to the West, and the anti-clockwise order of the bas reliefs, suggests that this might have been built as a funerary temple. But it is now believed that Suryavarman, whose name means ‘Protected by the Sun’, was just paying homage to hie divine benefactor.

While later years saw more temple building, particularly under Jayavarman Vll, none would ever match the scale and hidden architectural coding of Angkor. The advent of Buddhism from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) eroded the cult of the God King and the power of the Brahmin priesthood, whose knowledge of temple architecture and cosmology was soon lost.

In the end no cosmic alignment could save Angkor. Nearly 300 years after the construction of this abode of Vishnu, a series of natural calamities, the failure of the elaborate reservoir system and repeated Siamese invasions subdued this great empire. The capital shifted to Phnom Penh. Angkor (the city) was forsaken.

The Wat itself was spared the fate of the other temples by the protection afforded by its moat that held the encroaching jungle at bay.

Its crumbling, emptied ruins continue to help keep a beleaguered nation afloat.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

83 thoughts on “Angkor Wat, Cambodia: Temple Mountain Of The Khmer

    1. Thanks, and I hope you do visit, Kym, there are many enchanting temples in the complex! My favourites are some of the smaller ones.

  1. The Angkor temples, and Cambodia in general, were some of my favorite travel experiences, right up there with Turkey, Jordan & Greece. I love your history and pictures, Madhu!

      1. They certainly did, Madhu. And Cambodia in general was one of my favorite countries. It was so chill… πŸ™‚ I’ve done posts on the Angkor temples on http://www.catbirdinthemekong.wordpress.com. I’m afraid my pictures aren’t as fabulous as yours, and I had some camera problems while there, but it was one of the top travel experiences I’ve had. πŸ™‚

        1. Haha, Madhu! I have 14. I know it’s crazy, but I don’t think you can really say I juggle them. Usually they are for travel within a certain country or region, and when the travel is over, it’s just a record left online for anyone to look at. They are really just my travel journals. Right now, I’m working on South Asia because I’m posting about Nepal, but when I’ve done all the posts, it will be finished unless I go back to South Asia. I’m a type A personality and like to have everything organized by date, place, etc. Crazy? Maybe, but it works for me. πŸ™‚

        2. Whatever works for you is good Cathy. With my OCD, I should understand, but I am afraid I don’t πŸ˜€

  2. What a beautiful post, Madhu Aunty! Awww I SO love the Angkor temples!!! Thanks for bringing those precious memories back … I need to go back for sure πŸ™‚ lots of luv!

    1. Thanks Divya. I remember Vikas’s awesome photos of the place πŸ™‚ Shall mail you once I find time to see that movie you sent me…seems interesting.

  3. Very beautifully-written Madhu! This reminds me of my trip back in summer 2011. Did you go to the Angkor National Museum as well? It appears that Suryavarman was inspired by the Javanese temples when he decided to build this majestic temple compound – might be your hint for your next travel destination. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Bama. It is logical that Borobudur is the inspiration, because Suryavarman’s ancestor, Jayavarman ll lived in Java for a while before declaring independence from Javanese rule in the 9th century. What is surprising is why Buddhism took three more centuries to arrive and then from Sri Lanka! Fascinating isn’t it?
      No, I have had a surfeit of temples, shrines and Wats in the past year. Need a nature or wildlife break, before I plan a trip to Indonesia πŸ˜€

      1. The other day someone told me about a theory by a Japanese professor that Borobudur was modeled after the lotus patterns found in Sri Lanka. If that is true, that would be one fascinating fact that links the Sri Lankan civilization, Borobudur, and Angkor Wat! I’ll make sure to look up the patterns on my next visit to the country one day.

        Speaking of a nature break, then you should head to Africa! I’d love to read your stories as I myself have been dreaming to go there. πŸ™‚

  4. Ah Madhu, this narration of Angkor’s history and the photos you took – The Urge To Wander at its best! I still have trouble fathoming the sheer scale of Angkor Wat, partially because the moat always maintains its place in so many iconic photos. That one of the monks capturing the Apsara on their iPad – priceless! πŸ™‚

    1. Appreciate that James πŸ™‚
      Yes, the panoramic images are rather misleading and close up, it is near impossible to get a wide shot, without the right lenses. And those young monks were so amusing to watch…..I am willing to wager, their tenure in the monastery was nearing its end πŸ˜€

  5. Beautiful and enlightening post, Madhu. I was in awe when I saw the bas relief of the churning of the ocean of milk. Our guide told the story with such authority and passion. Love the photo of the monks. Ancient ruins and technology.

    1. Thanks Lynne, it was indeed awesome! And it felt good to know all the stories on those walls for a change, even if our guide felt rather cheated πŸ™‚ Those monks were delightful.

  6. Wonderful, Madhu. It amazes me that the pyramids of Egypt recieve such acclaim when a place like this, with its mathematics of the universe, is less well known in my country. Once again, you have taught me something Thank you.

    1. Thanks Kate. You have to remember though that the pyramids of Giza are 4200 years older than Angkor Wat. It is the time frame that makes the ancient Egyptians indisputable master builders πŸ™‚

  7. I am trying to ‘like’ this but for some reason my ‘like’ is not accepted. 😦 But I would’ve written anyway – beautiful series of photos & I lvoe your writing as well πŸ™‚

    1. Kind of you Keira πŸ™‚ I have similar problems sometimes, I think it is pronounced on photo challenge days when the WP servers are under strain πŸ™‚

  8. Another fascinating post Madhu, and very timely for me, because if all goes well with parents, we plan to make Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam our destination for next winter. Can you tell me what month you were in Cambodia?

    1. Thank you Luann. With the amount of time you have allotted for the trip, you are bound to have a great time. We went in December. Best to travel between November to March. The South West Monsoons are active in the region from June to mid October and summers will be scorching. December wasn’t exactly cold either πŸ™‚

      1. We have been reading about time of year to go. We will probably not be able to get away until Jan and will likely stay through March or mid-April.

        1. If you don’t mind I most likely will run a few things by you as we do a little more research but I promise not to make a nuisance out of myself. πŸ™‚

        2. I will be happy to help, just email me if you need anything. (You can find my id by clicking the edit button on any of my comments on your blog)

    1. Thank you Jessica πŸ™‚ They think the moat is one of the main reasons Angkor Wat wasn’t completely taken over by the strangler figs that you see in the temples around, whose moats ran dry sooner!

    1. Oh yes it does! It felt good to be familiar with all the stories and myths beforehand πŸ™‚ Thank you Soumya.

  9. What an amazing place … looking at your photos I can feel the calmness and the greatness of the place.
    Thanks for the story – a fairytale – in my book. My favorite shot is the last one in the sunset – with the reflections in the water – just like a mirror. Stunning post and gallery – AGAIN! Have a lovely weekend with R.

    1. Thank you Viveka. Shall make the most of the weekend, for next week promises to be awful. R’s uncle is battling the last stages of the big C and I am going to be running around trying to wrest back land that we thought belonged to us, from some total strangers who now claim it is theirs!!! Apparently quite common in Bangalore with real estate prices rising!

      1. Good on you – to look after what is your’s. So sorry to hear about R’s uncle, but if he are so sick … will it be relief when he can let go. Cancer is something so evil.
        I wish you good luck – and just go for it, girl.

    1. It really is Gilly. You get a feel of the might of the Khmer empire. But my favorites were the smaller, less grandiose temples.

  10. I always enjoy your posts, Madhu. I learn about the area and the photos are always great. Thanks for sharing it. -Max-

  11. So wonderfully educational and visual..you must reap another award. Thank you!

  12. You are such a wonderful guide – as ususal. intriguing photos.This is one of my most wanted trips to make…Let’s see if I live to get retired…then, maybe…

  13. Excellent photos, Madhu. It’s wonderful that some of our culture and history outlives us. Sad when it’s destroyed by war, abandonment, decay, neglect. The structures and history need to live on as it shows what came before us and may be part of us still.

  14. Thanks for the very interesting history lesson, Madhu (though I got distracted for a moment there by the photo of the monk with the iPad, hahaha).

  15. Fascination to the bone! And the images, very interesting esp. that ocean of milk … oooh, is that ocean sacred? I hope not, because I wanna swim in it. πŸ˜€
    Oh, BTW, why is the ‘legend of creation’ bizarre again? Sorry my dense mind didn’t get it.

  16. What an interesting and cool place to visit. Thanks for all the photos. I know a lot of legends aren’t “real” but they are fun and reveal so much about a culture and society. Thanks for sharing this lovely post.

  17. Glorious sunset. I recognised the silhouette when I saw the post on Google plus. I missed it the first time around. The long gallery and the bas relief photo are superb too πŸ™‚

  18. Stunning photo, especially of the sunset. Angkor wat is on my bucket list. This post gives great story and history of the place. Thanks !

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