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.
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.