The Temples of Angkor

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According to one Buddhist tradition the architecture of the universe is based on the elemental disks of air, fire, water and earth. Upon this rests Mount Meru with its concentric circles of water and land. There are also four continents and eight subcontinents. The southern continent is the physical world called Jambudvipa ...

The case study presents background information on the Brahma-Visnu-Siva trinity, gods, and goddesses, relates the story of Siddharta who became the Buddha, and introduces the mythical Mount Meru - all of which are central to the celestial architecture and cosmology of the angkorian stone monument. It next traces the history of Kambuja, including the emergence of the cult of Devaraja and the establishment (and repeated rise and fall) of Angkor over the centuries, before converging in some detail on the sites of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the Bayon.
It was an objective to link generic structural descriptions of Khmer architecture - its towers, pyramidal substructures, successive enclosures, and elaborate gateways - with symbolic and mythological references from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.


1 Trimurti

In Hindu mythology, Brahman is the Supreme Being and immutable reality behind the sensory facade of the world. From Brahman all things on the earth are formed. The trinity of Brahma-Visnu-Siva represents creation, preservation, and dissolution. Brahman also relates to perfected essence, ie. liberation from ignorance and rebirth, ultimately reflected by the yogic state of samadhi.

The first god of the Trimurti is Brahma the Creator who made the universe. He is often depicted with four arms and four faces. Brahma's sakti (feminine energy) is Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom.
In the middle is Visnu the Preserver who maintains the balance of the world. He is usually depicted in blue with one head and four arms. His objects are the disk, the sphere, the conch shell, and the lotus. Visnu's consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune. His vehicle is the mythological bird Garuda.
Siva has many names and correlates with the ancient Vedic god Rudra. Siva is "a deity who has wisely integrated the extremes of human nature and thus transcended attachment to any particular, and limited, way of being." (1) Siva is at once the Destroyer and the regenerator of life. He is often depicted with a third eye and bears the trident as his weapon. His mount is the sacred bull Nandi. In one of his forms he is the great dancer Nataraja. Siva also appears as the meditating yogi, his body darkened with ash and a snake coiled about his neck. His sakti is the goddess Parvati.

The Avatars (Sanskrit,=descent) are secondary manifestations of a Brahmanic god that "come into being from age to age" to accomplish certain tasks. Visnu has ten principal avatars, including Matsya the fish and Narasimha the man-lion. Visnu incarnated as Rama, his seventh avatar, to have the demon-king Ravana slain; Rama also pierced the bird behind a moving wheel with his arrow. The life of Visnu's eighth avatar, Krisna, and his love for the gopi Radha, is treated in Sanskrit poetry as well as the Mahabharata.

2 Mount Meru

The sacred mountain of Kailash is a massive dome covered with glaciers and snow that rises from the Tibetan Plateau. There are two magical lakes at the base of the mountain: Manasarovar (manas,=mind) is round and Rakastal (rakshas,=demon) has the shape of a crescent. Mount Kailash, or Mount Meru, has been revered by many cultures for thousands of years and is considered to be the centre of the earth. Some Tibetan Buddhists call the mountain Kang Rinpoche. Hindus believe that Mount Meru is the throne of Siva.

3.1 The Cities of Angkor

The kingdom of Kambuja emerged by the seven hundreds. It was divided into upper- and lower Tchen-La during the eighth century, about the same time Buddhism began to establish its first monasteries in Tibet. The coastal areas of Tchen-La and Champa (Vietnam) were subject to frequent invasions from Javanese pirates supported by the Sumatran kingdom of Sri Vijaya. One of Tchen-La's captured princes returned from exile in Java under the name of Jayavarman II. He unified Cambodia in 802, founded his capital on Mount Kulen north of the Angkor plains, and introduced the cult of Devaraja or god-king.

Indravarman I established the linga Shri Indresvara and the temple of Bakong in Roluos. He also built some of the first reservoirs to maintain moats and irrigate rice fields. King Yasovarman I moved the Khmer capital to the site of Angkor. By 900 AD his temple-pyramid of Bakheng had become the centre of the new city.

The zenith of Khmer civilization occurred during the Angkor period, although Kambuja was frequently at war with her neighbouring countries.
The Buddha was worshipped by many, while most Khmer rulers considered Brahmanism as the official religion. The 12th cent. temple-city of Angkor Wat, built by king Suryavarman II, is generally associtated with the classical Angkor period.

When Jayavarman VII came to the throne he drove out the Chams who had sacked the city in 1177. He then reconstructed part of the old royal city, naming it Angkor Thom, and made Buddhism the official religion. Jayavarman would assemble an empire encompassing Champa, Laos, and Thailand. His principal architectural projects were the temple of Bayon, the monastic complexes of Prah Khan and Tah Prohm, as well as hospitals and rest houses for pilgrims. Angkor was captured by the Thai in 1431 and the court moved to its present location in Phnom Penh.

3.2 Khmer Architecture

The Khmer shrines of the 6th cent. were single towers of brick with an opening directed toward the east. A small inner chamber sheltered the statue of a Hindu god. Carved sandstone elements were used around the entrance. The sanctuary tower or Prasat of Bakong (881) was raised by a 14m high stepped pyramid.

The site of Angkor was frequently abandoned and presents a series of superimposed cities spread over 104 square kilometres. Foundations, sections of buildings, and available materials were incorporated in new constructs. The 10th cent. royal city of Rajendravarman II, for example became a component in Jayavarman's scheme of Angkor Thom and blocks of sandstone were re-shaped to create the 6m high Buddha statue of Tem Pranam.

Angkor's spiritual momentum is based upon the temple-mountain which represents the celestial Meru. Leading from "the realm of mortals to the realm of the gods," it forms a pedestal for the prasat of the deified king. The angkorian stone monument is motivated by spiritual ideals - the Lotus ascending through water to the surface and Sun - while the palaces and houses were constructed with long-gone perishable materials. Khmer architecture is characterized by: i. axis and symmetry; ii. a central core with radiating secondary structures; iii. generic objects such as the prasat and successive enclosures; iv. illusory storeys, false doors, and walled windows. (2)

4 Phnom Bakheng

Dedicated to Siva, the temple of Bakheng emulates the Roluos group and occupies the plateau of a 60m hillock. Phnom Bok (phnom,=hill) lies north-east from here and Phnom Krom is to the south. Bakheng (circa 900) consists primarily of a square five-tiered pyramid that was hewn from bedrock and covered with a sandstone cladding. The central Prasat at the top, with doorways facing the cardinal directions, is mirrored by four corner towers. The lower tiers each support twelve secondary towers. Four axial stairways, inclined at 70° and flanked by lion sculptures, connect the base of the pyramid to the fifth level.
Excavations also indicate the presence of four Nandi statues. The hill of Bakheng and its city, the first Angkor or Yasodharapura, were protected by a 4 X 4km enclosure.

5 Angkor Wat

"Angkor Wat, comparable to the most impressive of history's architectural compositions, in responding to all the requirements of a 'component' within an already established plan, attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions." (3)

The complex of Angkor Wat presents "an earthly model of the cosmic world." In Hindu mythology Mt Meru, or the central tower of the temple, is surrounded by seven seas and seven rings of mountains. The last enclosure of the temple represents the edge of the world. Angkor Wat was dedicated to Visnu who is sometimes depicted reclining on a serpent. (4)

Angkor Wat is the only monument that faces the setting sun. A square upper platform and two lower tiers elongated toward the west creates the downward thrust from a tall central tower to the outer limits of the temple. The moat surrounding the external 800 X 1'025m laterite enclosure is about 200 metres wide. It is crossed from the west by a 230m long sandstone causeway, bordered with naga-balustrades, to gain the first gatehouse comprising three entry towers.

A similar causeway, 8 metres wide and 350 metres long, is flanked by two narrow buildings and terminates with a higher cruciform terrace. It leads to the first level of the temple proper which has a 187 X 215m sandstone enclosure called the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, breached here by a three-part entrance pavilion. Beyond this gate lies a courtyard divided into quadrants by axial galleries, serving as the crossing passageway between enclosures. Two narrow buildings are to the left and right. The inner walls of the gallery enclosure on the second level (100 X 115m) are lined with sculpted apsaras. On the second level rises a massive pyramidal substructure with twelve connecting stairways to the upper platform, all inclined at 70° except for one in the west. The 60 X 60m platform supports a courtyard and the quincunx of towers. The central Prasat, shaped like a lotus bud, is 42 metres high.

The Gallery of Bas-Reliefs (third enclosure) consists of a 2.45m wide corbelled passageway with pillars to the outside. The wall of the gallery is covered with over 1000 square metres of historical and mythological events, cut straight into structural stone and animated by "an intriguing interplay of light and shadow." (4)

6 Neak Pean

The lake of 'Jayatataka' at one time extended from the Temple of Prah Khan. In the middle of the lake, aligned with the temple to the west, is a small island called Neak Pean or The Entwined Serpents. Neak Pean has a central stone basin of 70 X 70m and four axial adjoining basins each measuring 25 X 25m. In the centre of the large pool is a round stone island, 14 metres in diameter, which supports a sanctuary tower.
The central pool of Neak Pean represents the mythical lake Anavatapta, located somewhere in the Himalayas and believed to be the sacred source of four great rivers. According to one tradition the shores of this lake are adorned with crystal, lapis-lazuli, gold, and silver. The river Ganges flows from the Ox Mouth of Anavatapta and the Indus from the Elephant Mouth.

Inscriptions in Prah Khan render the temple of Neak Pean how it appeared during Jayavarman VII's reign, the pool "illuminated by the light of the golden prasat and coloured red with lotus blossom." The base of the inner island is surrounded by two coiled nagas (serpents), their fan of multiple heads separating toward the east to admit a stairway. A flowering lotus* of stone supports the sanctuary itself. The shrine only has a small entrance and one chamber. Three walled doors were decorated with images of Lokesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

* Lotuses or padmas also refer to the chakras of the body. In Kundalini Yoga, coiled energy is raised upon the spine from Muladhara to the Crown.

7 Angkor Thom and the Bayon

According to one Buddhist tradition the architecture of the universe is based on the elemental disks of air, fire, water and earth. Upon this rests Mount Meru with its concentric circles of water and land. There are also four continents and eight subcontinents. The southern continent is the physical world called Jambudvipa.

* Trailokyavijaya refers to the three worlds of sky, earth, and akasha, and the three realms of kama (desire), rupa (form), and arupa (formlessness).

The main structures of Angkor Thom from Jayavarman VII's reign are: i. the Bayon; ii. the Prasats Suor Prat; iii. the external enclosure with five gates; iv. the Terrace of the Elephants; v. the Terrace of the Leper King; vi. the Hospital Chapel. The surviving monuments of the old city are: i. the temple of Phimeanakas (late 10th cent.); ii. the two buildings of Kleang (early 11th cent.); iii. the temple of Baphuon (mid 11th cent.); iv. the five small temples of Prah Pithu (early 12th cent.).

The 3 X 3km square of Angkor Thom is enclosed by laterite walls and divided into quadrants by four avenues leading to the central Bayon. A small temple with a stele stands in each corner of the enclosure. The entrance towers of Angkor Thom are 23m in height and decorated with sculpted heads. The causeways crossing the 100m wide moat are bordered by gods on one side and demons on the other. They carry a huge nine-headed sandstone serpent. A second gate to the east is called the Gate of Victory.

The Buddhist temple of Bayon was built around 1200 AD. It consists of three basic levels, or two enclosures and an upper platform, within an area of only 140 X 160m.
The external gallery enclosure of the Bayon, anchored by corner and axial towers, contains a series of bas-reliefs inspired by contemporary Khmer life. The north-south axis of the 'inner component' of the temple is offset to the west, while its surrounding courtyard remains almost equidistant on all sides, leaving the second enclosure of 70 X 80m wider to the east. Each corner tower of the second enclosure has a small courtyard, contributing to the redented cross outline of the upper terrace which is gained from the east by means of a stairway near the southernmost of its three middle towers.

The central mass of stones on the upper terrace is 25m in diameter and 43m tall. It contains the Buddha statue, several small loggias, as well as the higher chambers accessed by ladder or rope, and probably supported a storied timber structure. From this 'Golden Tower' emanates a circle of eight stone towers with sculpted masks. An arrangement of 46 similar towers at various heights, serving as sanctuaries dedicated to both Buddhist and Brahmanic deities, represent the ubiquity of Lokesvara. They are crowned with a lotus and their faces align with the cardinal directions.

8 The Buddha

Siddharta Gautama was born in northern India around 560 BC. His mother died soon after giving birth. His father was a king of the Sakya clan. A sage predicted the boy would become either a great king or a spiritual leader. Siddharta grew up in a magnificent palace. At the age of sixteen he was married to the princess Yasodhara and they had a son. One day Siddharta wandered further from the palace than was his custom and suddenly appeared to be in a different world: he saw an old man, a sick man, and a corpse for the first time. [prasavya] He also met a monk with a serene smile. At the age of 29 he left the palace and his family. [sannyasa] He cut his hair, exchanged his fine garments for the robe of a monk, and embarked upon the spiritual path. Siddharta studied under two yogic masters, then became a wandering ascetic. After six years of austerities he was close to death without the answers he had sought. Siddharta realized that neither luxury nor self-denial led to his spiritual goals and conceived a middle way. He meditated under the Bodhi tree and eventually attained "the eye, the knowledge, the wisdom, the insight, and the light."
Siddharta became the Buddha or "awakened one" at the age of 35. His first discourse known as "the setting in motion of the wheel of dharma" presented the "four noble truths" and the "eightfold path." Accordingly, all existence is suffering, desire causes suffering, the end of desire eliminates suffering, and the means to eliminate suffering is the eightfold path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

During the following centuries the Buddha's teachings became more widely known by word of mouth and numerous sects developed. One of the early Buddhist schools is Theravada (later referred to as Hinayana or small vehicle Buddhism) with written records dating back to the 1st cent. AD. Theravada Buddhism concentrates on individual spiritual accomplishment, for instance in a monastic setting, and the ideal figure of the arhat who is liberated from both desire and rebirth. [samsara]-[mukti] The second major school is Mahayana Buddhism (large vehicle) with sacred texts going back to the 1st cent. BC. According to Mahayana doctrine the Buddha is eternal, taking on the forms of the historical Buddha or future Buddhas, while the religious ideal is the bodhisattva who has attained enlightenment yet forgoes nirvana in order to teach others. Tibetan Buddhism, also called Vajrayana (vehicle of the thunderbolt), is based on Mahayana, Tantra, and Shamanism.

Concept, Text, Coding (c) Marcel Ritschel, Sydney 01.05.2002 (revised: 2008)

9 Acknowledgements

(1) Mt. Kailash, Tibet,
(3) Maurice Glaize, Angkor,
Mount Kailas,
Un Regard sur l'Histoire,
De la prehistoire a Angkor,
Chronologie des rois d'Angkor,
Thomas Beringer, Kambodscha - Angkor - Zeittafel und Baumeister der Tempel Angkors
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.,
Design and Architecture,
Investigations of Angkor Architecture,
Hsien-tsang, 'Si-Yu-Ki, or Buddhist Records of the Western Countries', translations by Thomas Watters (1904) and Samuel Beal (1884),
Rossi and Rossi, London,
Christin Mueller, Ralf Abramowitsch, 'Siddharta Gautama',
Mahayana - The Greater Vehicle,