The layout of Angkor Wat is an astonishing testament to the Khmer’s genius for creating harmonious proportions. It replicates the spatial universe in miniature: a temple mountain bounded by continents and oceans.
The first Westerner to visit Angkor Wat was the Portuguese monk Antonio de Madalena in 1586 CE. It was effectively “rediscovered” by the French archaeologist Henri Mouhot in 1860 CE.
What is Angkor Wat Cambodia famous for?
Angkor Wat is the world’s most famous temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its imposing grandeur and fascinating decorative flourishes attract millions of visitors every year.
The temple’s design is unique among all Angkor complexes. Its overall profile imitates a lotus bud, and several architectural lines stand out: left and right horizontal levels of galleries and chambers, and upward to the soaring height of the towers.
Another distinctive feature of Angkor Wat is its apsara sculptures. The carvings of celestial dancers, which inspired a revival of the Apsara dance in Cambodian culture, are dazzling. They are arranged in threes and twos and show elaborate coifures, headdresses, and jewelry, highlighting these ethereal inhabitants of the heavens.
The temple’s walls are covered with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from history and mythology. One of the most famous panels shows the Hindu story of the churning of the ocean milk in which demons and gods competed to generate Amrta, the elixir of life.
Angkor Wat’s architecture
When visiting Angkor Wat, one of the most prominent architectural features is a curved sloping roof on galleries, chambers, and aisles. This roofline is a dominant feature and, when viewed from above, resembles the shape of a lotus bud.
The temple is also awash with thousands of storytelling bas-reliefs. Designed to be viewed in a clockwise direction, these depict deities and figures from Hindu and Buddhist mythology as well as historical events and stories.
Angkor Wat was built for Vishnu but, by the end of the 12th century, had been converted into a Buddhist temple. Its central tower is a representation of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu belief and home to gods and goddesses.
The temple is a masterpiece of symmetry, proportion, and harmony. Its massive size, monumental scale, and intricate ornamentation evoke feelings of awe. It is said that, when standing before Angkor Wat, one feels “as though one were entering the abode of heaven itself”. This sense of sublime grandeur makes the temple one of the most famous in the world.
Angkor Wat’s history
Angkor Wat was built as an elaborate ritual, iconographic, and cosmological construct. This is evident in several ways, from the stunning visual effects produced by the sun’s rays shining through carved pillars to the complex geometry that lies behind the design.
It took Suryavarman II three and a half decades to make his vision of a Vishnu temple a reality. To accomplish this he employed thousands of laborers and elephants, as well as skilled craftsmen.
The awe-inspiring bas-reliefs that cover the interior walls of Angkor Wat reveal many of the Hindu mythological stories associated with Vishnu, including the Churning of the Ocean Milk, which tells of the deity’s compassion and cleverness to preserve divine order.
Angkor Wat served as the spiritual center from which a dynasty of Khmer kings ruled one of the most prosperous and sophisticated kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Today, this remarkable site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that continues to delight visitors and scholars alike.
Angkor Wat’s significance
The temple’s significance is rooted in its physical and symbolic dimensions. The monument resembles an earthly model of the universe. The central tower corresponds to the mythical Mount Meru at the center of the cosmos, while the five surrounding towers represent the peaks of this mountain. The outer walls symbolize the world and the moat the oceans beyond.
As a place of worship, the temple is filled with carved images of Apsaras, voluptuous nymphs that inhabit the heavens. The Khmers believed these heavenly beauties were the harbingers of good fortune and prosperity. The multitude of these apsaras may at first appear repetitive but closer inspection reveals each figure has an individual expression, headdress, and jewelry befitting its celestial position.
Angkor Wat is also significant because it is the only major state temple to face west, in keeping with the symbolism of death and end in Hindu mythology. This contrasts with all other major temples in the region which were constructed to face east, a reference to life and rebirth.