Angkor was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire from 802-1432. Angkor Wat, “City which is a Temple,” was built by Suryavarman II (1113-50) as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu (Protector of Creation). It is the largest religious structure in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters. The layout is based on a mandala (sacred design of the Hindu cosmos). Unusually among Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces west and toward the setting sun, a symbol of death, which makes scholars surmise that it was not only a temple, but initially designed as a mausoleum for the king as well. While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there, as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet.
A five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud represents Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods and the center of the universe, and stands in the middle of the complex. The outer walls represent the edge of the world, and the moat is the cosmic ocean. There are 1970 ft. panel of bas-reliefs and around 2,000 engravings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls). Work seems to have ended shortly after the king's death, leaving some bas-relief decoration unfinished. In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmer. In the late 12th century, it was converted to a Buddhist temple, which shows that like Hinduism, Buddhism was integral to the traders who came seeking spices and deposited not only goods, but their religion in the Khmer Empire. By 17th century, Angkor Wat was not completely abandoned and functioned as a Buddhist temple. Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in Angkor area, testify that Japanese Buddhist pilgrims that might have established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was thought by the Japanese visitors to be the famed Jetavana garden of Buddha in India.
The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. The Angkor Wat temple consumed about 6 million to 10 million blocks of sandstone with an average weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined, and occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, which were built of limestone quarried barely a mile away, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried 25 miles or more away.
Angkor Thom, “Great City,” was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. The largest city in the Khmer Empire at one time, it is protected by a 26 ft. high wall, about 8 miles long, and surrounded by a wide moat. On the five gates, there are four giant stone faces. Within the city, the most celebrated ruin is the Bayon. The temple’s central towers are decorated with four huge, mysteriously smiling faces gazing out in the cardinal directions. These are believed to represent the all-seeing and all-knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as personified by Jayavarman VII himself. The Bayon features 54 towers bearing more than 200 huge and enigmatic stone faces. The Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary. The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures, battles, and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon. After Jayavarman’s death, both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom lay forgotten as Thai invaders ravaged the land.
The artistic legacy of Angkor led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. The restoration of Angkor Wat in the modern era began with the establishment of Conservation d'Angkor by Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient (EFEO) in 1908 with its major restoration of Angkor undertaken in the 1960s. However, work on Angkor was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge era and Conservation d'Angkor was disbanded in 1975. Between 1986 and 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple, as France did not recognize the Cambodian government at the time. In 1992, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site and many countries such as France, Japan and China has been involved in numerous conservation projects. Angkor Wat appears on the national flag as a symbol of Cambodia and remains its prime attraction for visitors.
Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically traveling back to the first age of the creation of the universe. Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods. These are some important facts one should keep in mind as one travels through the complex.