If you’ve heard of Cambodia you’ve probably heard about 2 things: Angkor Wat, and the Khmer Rouge.
I’ll leave the latter for another post because it’s a bit of a grim topic. But Angkor Wat deserves a mention today. So, what is it?
Well, in short, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. But what makes it so popular?
Anyone who’s seen the sun rise over Angkor Wat would never say it isn’t anything if not spectacular. It’s famous spires designed to replicate lotus buds have become synonymous with the exoticism of Cambodia and Khmer culture. They’re so important to Cambodia that they’ve been adopted as part of Cambodia’s national flag.
Angkor Wat was originally constructed by King Suryavarmin II in the 12th century as a Hindu temple. This might seem a bit surprising given Cambodia is a thoroughly Buddhist country. But religious beliefs frequently changed between Hinduism and Buddhism over the centuries depending upon the King of the time.
Angkor Wat served as a State Temple, King’s Palace, and epicenter of the hugely powerful Angkor Empire of the time. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage listed structure and, covering an area of around 208 hectares, it’s also the largest religious monument in the world.
It’s a highly symbolic structure and is a large scale representation of the universe according to Hindi beliefs at the time. The surrounding moat represents the oceans around the Earth whilst the concentric galleries symbolize the mountain ranges surrounding the sacred Mount Meru, home of the Gods. The towers depict the mountain’s peaks whilst the central shrine at the very tip of the temple can only be reached after a somewhat strenuous climb up the steep stairs, reminiscent of a mountain climb.
During the peak of Angkorian power in the 12th and 13th centuries it’s estimated that Angkor Wat and it’s surrounds were home to approximately 1 million inhabitants making it one of the largest cities on the planet at the time. By way of comparison the city of London is estimated to have been home to between 30,000 and 60,000 people during the same period.
Although built as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat came to be a pilgrimage destination for Theravada Buddhists. Over centuries the visiting pilgrims would leave statues of Buddha as a sign of respect. This area was known as the “Hall of a Thousand Buddhas”.
These days the number of Buddha statues has been greatly reduced. After falling victim to the ravages of time and becoming reclaimed by nature for a few centuries it suffered further from ‘tomb raiders’ who rediscovered the ancient temple in the 1800’s. Many stolen statues, figurines, and even intricately carved stone lintels were distributed and sold to wealthy European collectors before this trade was stopped in the early 1900’s.
Thankfully, there is more than enough antiquity left in this magnificent temple to justify it’s position as one of the most sought after destinations in the world.
It’s interesting to note the number of apsara (mythological female deities) and devata that are carved throughout Angkor Wat. Depending on which text you read there are between 1,796 and 1,860 individually sculpted images classified as apsara or devata. Each one is unique with individual differences ranging from facial expression to hairstyles and clothing to stance. Of all these individual deities only a single one has been carved showing teeth!
Inside the temple proper are galleries showcasing some of the most amazing bas-relief carvings in the world.
These carvings adorn the walls of 4 massive galleries and total almost 600m in length by 2m high. They recount stories from Hindu mythology as well as Khmer history.
There’s so much history and artwork throughout Angkor Wat that a single visit isn’t enough. Scholars, historians, and archeologists have spent months at a time studying the detail of this awe inspiring ancient ruin. For most of us, seeing the sun come up over this beautiful ancient temple as it has done for almost 1,000 years is enough to make us believe in something magical!