Angkor Wat is a vast stone temple at the heart of an ancient stone city. But at the ends of its corridors and the centres of its hidden rooms lie surprising Buddhist shrines still active in a place abandoned for hundreds of years.
These Buddhist statues are imposters, hasty late additions to a religious building constructed to accommodate the myths and rituals of Hinduism.
They are splendid still, some draped incongruously in new and garish orange robes, the polyester glowing harsh against the cool, old stone. They are alive, thriving on the centuries of mystical memory that make Angkor Wat one of the most fascinating and mysterious places on Earth.
Among these ancient religious ruins there still exists a living, beating heart of spirituality that has survived almost 1,000 years. Imagine the incredible spiritual power that exists in such a place.
These days the revered King of Cambodia, for whose ancestors the ancient temples at Angkor were built, lives in his official residence right in the centre of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I often wonder if he thinks about what it would be like to live at that other place.
Angkor Wat would be uninhabitable, of course, for any modern head of state. But its presence must play in the king’s heart and mind, reminding him that his was one of the greatest of the lost civilisations, and now still the largest standing stone religious structure in the world.
Angkor Wat was built over a 30 year period beginning in 1113. It was a royal palace, temple and eventually tomb for a god-king and the hundreds of women who attended him. The five famous lotus-bud towers still rise above the flattened landscape so characteristic of Cambodia, the central one containing the holiest of shrines once attended only by the King himself.
Though it was lost to the world for centuries, rumours of this great complex would pop up occasionally in Europe, principally in the accounts of Spanish and particularly Portuguese Catholic missionaries who would periodically stumble upon the place. Of course, when you go to Angkor Wat now you are more likely to see hundreds of Chinese and Korean tourists on package holidays. It is more than compensating for its centuries of obscurity.
It has tantalised the popular imagination, periodically slipping from the collective memory, only to be discovered and celebrated over again. Angkor Wat was once again “rediscovered” by the West in 1860 by French Protestant naturalist Henri Mouhot, who became its great publicist and created a vogue for Cambodia and for Angkor in particular.
This rediscovery very nearly destroyed it by creating a market for the exquisite sculpture that was littered all through the jungle which covered the complex.
Writers and aristocratic travellers like Somerset Maugham and the eccentric Sitwells travelled to Angkor in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Maugham thought that everyone should see Angkor once before they die. They were charmed by Angkor Wat and its surrounding reservoirs and canals. It reminded them of an oriental version of the Palace at Versailles, though it far surpassed Versailles in scale.
The temple has been plundered over the centuries, and much of its best statuary is now in collections all over the world, as well as in places like the National Museum of Cambodia – an astounding institution – probably one of the best in the world – in an exquisitely designed building.
The grounds of the museum also house a University of Fine Arts and a College of Traditional Performing Arts. It is in this museum that you will see the best sculpture of the Angkor period.
Cambodian religious art is simply the best in the world, the refined and beautiful Buddha heads becoming such iconic items that they are reproduced now in cement and resin and found in gardens and on coffee tables across the world. To come face to face with them in their original stone glory is really quite exceptional.
Angkor Wat was not constructed as a Buddhist temple. It represents an extraordinary moment in religious history where an ancient civilisation shifted from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism and later to the more deliberately primitive form of Theravada Buddhism, which it continues to practise today.
The King & His Wives
The stone temples at Angkor are covered with intricate carvings of women. The dancing, flying and singing angels called apsaras and the more substantial and sensuous goddesses or devadattas.
They look out at you from every wall and from every column. Kent Davis, writing in the recent book To Cambodia With Love (Andy Brouwer ed.), claims that there are 1,850 women carved into the stone at Angkor Wat alone, making them the real subject of the temple, crowding out the image and idea of Vishnu, to whom the place is meant to be dedicated.
For Angkor was a city of women. The temples were allowed to house only women, apart from the god-king himself.
He had hundreds of wives, plus attendants and staff and the sacred court musicians and dancers. He was also attended by an all-female bodyguard, a picturesque police force that made quite an impression when he paraded amongst his people outside the temple walls, standing on the back of an elephant. It is said that these carvings are in fact portraits of the very women who lived here, and certainly each is different and quite unique. They are imbued with clothing and jewellery and attitudes that are quite individual.
And the faces are still quite recognisably those of the women you meet outside on the streets of 21st century Siem Reap. It’s the most extraordinary communication across the centuries. The King and his women walked through these galleries and cloisters, attending to a particular religious cult that was said to be the very purpose of the Khmer people.
During the Angkorian empire – when this place was the centre of a vast city of over a million people – the Kingdom extended its rule over huge areas of south-east Asia, over the whole of the Mekong Delta, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Malaysia. What’s so eerie about Angkor Wat now is that it stands alone, with none of the immense wooden city which once surrounded it.
All we have left are the stone cloisters, galleries and temples that served the empire’s religious purpose. There is no record anymore of the places where people actually lived and pursued their everyday lives. Just constant, monolithic stone structures dedicated to a purely religious purpose. And into these structures are carved religious iconography, and out of it are carved the most sensuous and alive statues – Garudas, Bodhisattvas, the Naga.
This Naga, the snake king, was the special protector of the Angkorian empire, and his hooded, cobra-like image, bearing seven, nine or eleven heads, is still there in the antique stone, emerging at the end of stairways on balustrades, looming up at the visitor in an attitude both threatening and majestic.
Each evening the King of Angkor had to ascend to the temple at the summit of the complex and spend the night with his only true wife, the Queen of Serpents.
This is the central tower of Angkor Wat, with a well 120 feet deep, its bottom scattered with sacred golden objects. He was locked into the holiest of shrines each night of his life to consummate this supernatural relationship. If the Queen of Serpents were not to appear, the King was doomed to die the next day. And if the King didn’t appear then the Khmer kingdom would be destroyed and the world would end.
This was the mythology of the Khmer people, and the reason behind their great stone city. They saw themselves as the creators of humanity, and the keepers of humanity’s secrets. The continued existence of the whole world, they believed, relied on the religious duties of the Khmer King.
This mythology continues even into the present day, with a real conviction amongst the Khmer people that whoever could build Angkor Wat must still be possessed of extraordinary talents. This conviction has fed into some of the more unfortunate moments of recent Cambodian history, with the genocidal butcher Pol Pot employing this imagery to justify his savagery and his lunatic ambitions.
The holy ground surrounding the ancient and mysterious (and fundamentally Hindu) Angkor Wat has been colonised by the more modern Buddhists, recognising the special significance of this amazing place. Indeed, almost from the day it was deserted as the centre of royal power, the city of Angkor became a place of pilgrimage for the Buddhists of Cambodia, though century by century it fell into further disrepair.
These days in the surrounding areas you can have your palm read, make offerings to Buddhist monks and have the special blessed red thread tied around your wrists, and all of these activities have an especial significance on the hallowed ground of Angkor.
Wizened old women performed the thread-tying ceremony on me and my partner, and these threads stayed around our wrists for almost a year, something we took as an auspicious and remarkable sign – they normally only last for a month or two. Attesting as well to Angkor Wat’s Hindu heritage is the presence of shrines to the sacred cow at various points around the city.
These shrines are still recognised as holy by the local people, though they have no real understanding of why this is so, and Cambodian Buddhist culture has no taboos surrounding the eating of cows.
The Amazing Construction of the Temple
So who built the place? The king Suryavarman the 2nd built Angkor Wat as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, in a recreation of the mythical Holy Mountain of Meru. He was said to be the descendant of an intrepid Hindu family that had managed to conquer vast swathes of Asia.
This included the island of Java, where a relative built the extraordinary temple of Borobudur, another evocation of Mount Meru, though on far less grand a scale than Angkor.
The glory of the Angkor Wat period was short lived. Having been completed in 1150, it was sacked by the sister Hindu Kingdom of Cham – in modern-day Central Vietnam – in 1177. In the nineteenth century, when Henri Mouhot asked the locals how it was built they were as mystified about its origins as he was.
They suggested that it was self-created, somehow emerging entirely perfect from the jungle floor. At this point in history the Cambodian people had forgotten the greatness of their empire. Some others thought that it had been created through magical intervention – that such a feat of construction was impossible given the technology of the time.
Maverick historian Graham Hancock believes the temples mirror the constellation Draco as it would have been seen some 12,000 years ago, so that they in fact map out an even more ancient – and perhaps even extraterrestrial – set of astronomical records. Many have hinted that Angkor contains wisdom that is Atlantean in its origins.
The lost civilisation archetype is at its most powerful in this place because it provides such solid and inexplicable evidence of technology, sophistication and architectural complexity seemingly out of its time. It is no accident that it calls to so many people from across the world. Angkor is a point of power, and to be amongst it is to feel a connection that cannot be described or defined.
Others still wondered if it was constructed by a prehistoric race of giants who embodied the perfection of the Khmer nation. This last theory still has some currency today, with one of my smart young university-educated friends in Phnom Penh confessing to me that he was sure the Khmer had once been giants.
Giants and demons make up the balustrades of the stone bridges in Angkor, representing the act of the churning of the ocean of milk, the fundamental creation myth of Hinduism, and a central idea behind the architecture of Angkor Wat.
The temples are surrounded by still-functioning reservoirs, artificial lakes and ornamental pools. These served, not a practical purpose as the earliest French archaeologists supposed, but a religious and symbolic purpose. Australian Cambodia expert Milton Osborne explains it best in his book The Mekong:
“Symbolically, the water that surrounded the temples represented the ‘seas’ of the Hindu universe, just as the towers of the temples were evocations of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe.”
Such incredible complexity exists in this antique cityscape. The average tourist is almost entirely unaware of the sacred intent of the ground on which they wander.
As might be expected in such an ancient, mysterious and palpably spiritual place, there is much talk of prophecies found etched in the stones of Angkor. Monks and magicians are all privy to these tales, all of which hinge on the destruction of Cambodia and the eventual return to power of the Khmer on the global stage.
The prophecies are quite spooky in their prescience, though perhaps they speak more to the agony of a powerless and impoverished nation destroyed by war and internal conflict. Certainly they are shared at drunken gatherings of men all over Cambodia. It is written in Angkor, they say – one day we shall be great again.
The man who restored the Angkorian empire to greatness was Jayavarman the 7th, descendent of the man who constructed Angkor Wat. He led Cambodia during its very brief period in the sun and remains a great hero to the Cambodian people, the epitome of the God-King.
He is so much still revered that they are making a new movie about him featuring Khmer martial arts and a muscular movie star playing the king. The real truth is probably Jayavarman the 7th was a recluse who rarely left his Temple at Bayon and was said to have leprosy. Nonetheless he seems to have been a strong and capable leader and he got rid of the invading Chams in 1181.
That’s when he built the enigmatic Bayon Temple, which has his own face carved into dozens of towers scattered at random around the temple. The King rendered himself, not just as the supreme ruler and representative of the Godhead, but also as the Bodhisattva Lokesvara, thereby combining in his person the multiple religious currents of the Khmer.
There is something, as well, supremely human in these heads, so perfectly recreated throughout the complex. The full lips and plump cheeks are beautiful, and speak of gentleness rather than fear, of contemplation rather than exertion. I am always delighted to be in the presence of this enormous cosmic friend, no matter how many hundred elderly Korean ladies might be pushing past me in the hot sun.
That is the connection between the ruler and his people – perhaps all people. We respond to majesty, and recognise its presence and its guiding hand, even across the division of ages.
After he died in 1218 the Khmer Empire began its slow and sad decline, from which it is only now beginning to rescue itself.
From the 17th century the Khmer empire began to spiral downward, ceding vast amounts of territory to Thailand and Vietnam – including the whole of what we now know as Southern Vietnam, including the city of Saigon, which the Khmer called Prey Nakor (and still do, if you ask them). In 1865 Cambodia became a French protectorate.
The Legacy of the Khmer Empire
The Khmer empire is responsible for so much of what we recognise as south-east Asian culture – including many of the things we normally attribute to Thailand, such as Thai boxing, Thai dancing, even the Thai script is derived from Khmer, which was itself derived from Sanskrit.
The traditional story of the Ramayana – though considerably changed in its Cambodian version – is carved on kilometres of stone panels in Angkor Wat, said to contain eighteen to twenty thousand carved figures.
The women of the temple spent much of their time re-creating the stories in sacred dance. This dance has survived, quite miraculously, through its continuous royal patronage, and these days is performed once again on the terraces of the temples of Angkor.
Cambodia is still a very poor place. It has suffered the effects of war and the disastrous Khmer Rouge years. Angkor Wat is its jewel, glorious and majestic still, and the Khmer people are justly proud of it. In our enthusiasm for this ancient site it’s important that we not glamorise the poverty that still blights the nation or, more subtle still, spiritualise it.
The Cambodian people struggle to exist, and it’s a country of immense poverty and injustice. But there exists as well a great continued interest in the traditional arts, the arts that you can see being practiced on the 900 year-old carved stones of Angkor.
And Angkor Wat is no longer the centre of political power in modern Cambodia. The capital city is Phnom Penh, 315 kilometres to the south-east. Interestingly enough, Phnom Penh has its own spiritual and mystical roots in Angkor.
The city was said to have been founded by an elderly woman who, scavenging for firewood in the debris washed up by a recent flood, split a log and found in its hollow five religious statues – four stone Buddhas and one bronze Vishnu.
They had come from Angkor, magically transported in the floodwaters. The woman, called Penh, decided to have them enshrined on a hill (Phnom in Khmer) on her property around 1372. Around this grew the city of Phnom Penh, eventually the new heart of the Khmer kingdom. But at its very centre remains the spiritual energy of Angkor.
The temples of the Angkor area are still alive as points of worship and pilgrimage. They have seen such a strange shift over the centuries – as Hindu temples, then Mahayana Buddhist temples, then Theravada Buddhist temples, and finally as shrines to the tourist dollar.
They will survive this, too, and their stones will continue to speak to people a thousand years after we have gone.
By Walter Mason, New Dawn Magazine;
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About author: Walter Mason is an academic and writer with a long-standing interest in meditation, prayer and other contemplative practices. Walter has traveled extensively throughout Asia, and has spent long periods studying Buddhism and meditation in Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Cambodia. His first book Destination Saigon was named one of the ten best travel books of 2010 by the Sydney Morning Herald. His latest book is Destination Cambodia. His website is waltermason.com.