Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Preview: Angkor Wat

Enter the first of the heavyweights.

Make no mistake, Angkor Wat is big. It's one of my primary contenders for World Wonder, is the daddy among over 600 temple ruins in a ruined city area twice the size of Paris, and is so important to Cambodia that they put it on their flag. It's the largest religious structure in the world, taking up the space of 22 acres/9 hectares - that's the same area as three Edinburgh Castles or, if you like, eleven big Tesco superstores. The volume of stone equals that of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and it's all carved exquisitely to boot. This is not a building you're going to forget easily.


Except, of course, that's exactly what happened, for hundreds of years, as the Angkorian Empire fell, their god-kings became obsolete, and the jungle took over. A few monks persisted, and hung around these neglected monuments, offering prayers to the backdrop of birdsong and monkey hollers, and a few brave European visitors beheld them in awe before being thoroughly disbelieved by their peers at home, but otherwise Angkor Wat and all its surroundings were left in peace. The Cambodians themselves allowed it to entirely drop out of their collective consciousnesses, to the extent that when questioned by its "official" re-discoverer, the French explorer Henri Mouhot, in 1861, one of the main answers they gave as to its construction was "it made itself". Even by the start of the 20th Century, a general belief among Cambodians was that it had been built upon the order of the gods by a celestial architect called Preah Pisnukar - in one night.

Convenient though celestial explanations may be (much less work is needed when "god made it"), Angkor Wat was made by earthly hands, albeit for heavenly-inspired reasons. More specifically, it was built by a mixture of skilled artisans and lots of slaves and prisoners-of-war under the order of Suryavarman II, a regional warlord turned Khmer god-king who reigned between 1113 to 1145, as a temple dedicated to the Hindu destroyer god, Shiva. Upon his death it became his mausoleum. The city of Angkor Thom - a sprawling series of temples almost as impressive as Angkor Wat - was built up by reportedly the greatest Khmer emperor ever, Jayavarman VII, who reigned from 1181 to some time around 1220. He too was liberal in his use of slaves, who died by the thousands, but otherwise had a bit of a kindly streak, building over a hundred hospitals and resting places for travellers. Many subsequent kings continued to build in and around Angkor Thom.

Keeping the focus on Angkor Wat, let's get into the details. It is a 65 metre high temple-mausoleum, built in a vaguely step pyramid style. The central temple itself is 219 by 189 metres, which is almost the same area as the Great Pyramid, or to continue these comparisons, about three-and-a-bit Buckingham Palaces. But we don't stop here. Because Angkor Wat is on a man-made rectangular island, with the outer walls (which are 4.5 metres tall) measuring 1024 by 802 metres making the grounds a quite staggering 203 acres/81 hectares. In case these numbers are beginning to lose their meaning, that's like three-and-a-bit Buckingham Palaces surrounded by five Buckingham Palace gardens. Or a lot of big Tescos and their carparks. And it goes on. A square moat surrounds this square island, 190 metres wide at all sides, with a total circumference in the region of four miles or six plus kilometres. It's over half the size of the Principality of Monaco. It's big. And it was done to an accuracy of an inch, 900 years ago.


The entire building was done to the design of Mount Meru. Mount Meru is the mythical home of the gods in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, a five-peaked mountain with a height 85 times the diameter of the earth (!), with Angkor Wat's moat representing the ocean around it. By building Angkor Wat, Suryavarman II was making the point pretty clear that he, as a god-king, was divinely linked to this sacred world of mythology. (Meru should not ever be confused with Maru, which is a cat that likes to jump into boxes.)

This we do know, but there is much we don't. No surviving inscriptions (i.e. text carved into stone) have been found on-site that directly refer to Angkor Wat, so all we know about has to be inferred from archaeology and surrounding historical context. Even Angkor Wat's true name is unknown, what we have is merely an assumed name - "Angkor" is derived from the Sanskrit word for "city" or "capital", and "wat" simply means "temple", i.e. "Temple of the Capital". For all Suryavarman's dedication to glorifying himself, he didn't do much in the way of keeping good records - or at least, they didn't survive the years lost in the jungle.

The Angkor civilisation went the way of many: creaking under its own hefty weight, it started to succumb to the pressures of over-population, bad management (in this case, irrigation of the farmland), changes in religious beliefs, and defeats in war. Bankruptcy through the extravagance of repeatedly building vast but functionally near-pointless monuments didn't help either. By the mid-14th Century, the Siamese were attacking, ravaging the landscape and taking away tens of thousands of Khmer prisoners. Their spoils of war and prisoners helped build a new civilisation - Ayutthaya, which reigned and ruled south-east Asia for the next 400 years, architecturally and no doubt culturally heavily inspired by Angkor's legacy.

Unlike Indonesia's Borobudur, which truly vanished for over a thousand years, Angkor Wat simply went into a quiet retirement. After the fall of the empire, it was converted into a Buddhist temple, and for the next few hundred years attracted its own kind of low-level tourism: Buddhist pilgrimages. These came from as far as Japan, as evidenced by various 17th Century inscriptions. Upon the West's official rediscovery in the 19th Century and France's colonial protection/acquisition of Cambodia, Angkor Wat opened up to tourism. After hundreds of years in the jungle, quite some restoration has been needed, with UNESCO stepping in to help in 1992 by making it a World Heritage Site, and work is ongoing. UNESCO's assistance means that attempts by occasional Cambodian officials to capitalise on its growing popularity by introducing the likes of zigzag escalators for speedy temple ascents have, fortunately, been refuted.

I'll be visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding Angkor site in October or November, and anticipate being quite impressed, and will give my impressions and a fuller report of it then.

Reviewed 11th November 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Actually! If you add all of the stones that make up just Angkor Wat it is more than 5 million tons of sandstone alone!

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