Located about six kilometers north of Siem Reap in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is a massive temple complex, like the Luxor temple complex in Egypt. In fact, the name Angkor Wat means ‘Temple City’ or ‘City of Temples’ in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. It is said that, originally the temple was constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and was called ‘Varah Vishnuloka’ or ‘Paroma Vishnuloka’, which means the sacred dwelling place of Lord Vishnu. The temple, regarded an architectural masterpiece, was built in the early 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman in Yasodharapura (present day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum.
Angkor Wat is an amazing temple. It is stunning for both its massive scale and its incredible romantic detail. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, which symbolizes the setting Sun and death. From a distance it appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the center, but a close up view uncovers its actual beauty, which consists of a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways.
Angkor Wat occupies a rectangular area of about 208 hectares, surrounded by a fifteen feet high outer wall, which in turn is protected by a 98 feet (30 m) wide open ground and a 620 feet (190 m) wide moat and over 5 kilometres in perimeter. The access to the temple is from the west by a sandstone causeway across the moat, with guardian lions marking the way.
Angkor Wat, like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, suggests a celestial significance, which is evident from the temple's east-west orientation and the lines of sight from terraces within the temple, that show specific towers to be at the precise location of the sunrise on a solstice. The temple represents Mount Meru, the abode of the Hindu gods, while the five surrounding smaller peaks and the moat represent the five continents and the ocean. The seven-headed mythical serpent (Naga) is the symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods. Access to the upper areas of the temple was very much restricted, as the ordinary people were allowed only to the lowest level.
The Angkor Wat temple was made of sandstone blocks, which were quarried at the Kulen Hills, about 30 km to the north. A series of canals were used to transport the blocks to Angkor Wat. Probably, natural resins or slaked lime was used as the binding agent to join the stone blocks. Laterite was used in the outer wall for carving the reliefs. The height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is 699 feet (213 m).The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It consists of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, with each level higher than the previous one. Each gallery is equipped with a tall ‘Gopuram’, an ornamented monumental gatehouse tower, while each of the two inner galleries has towers at their corners and thus, forming a ‘quincunx’ with the central tower, equivalent to the five zodiac signs. The towers are topped with symbolic lotus-buds. There is a 10.66 feet (3.25 m) tall statue of Vishnu, hewn from a single block of sandstone, located under the south tower. The statue with eight hands, holding a mace, a spear, a sharp disc, a conch and other items, is known as 'Ta Reach', which may originally have occupied the temple's central shrine.
About two hundred hidden paintings have been discovered in a chamber in the central tower since 2010. One of the paintings features a traditional Khmer musical instrument known as the Pinpeat, which is a combination of different percussion instruments. There is also a scene featuring people riding horses between two structures.
The outer gallery is open to the outside of the temple. A covered walk in the shape of a cross connects the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side. The said cloister is known as ‘Preah Poan’, means the ‘Hall of a Thousand Gods’, which houses the countless images of Buddha, offered by the pilgrims over the centuries, although most have now been removed. It is to be noted here that, though Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
Angkor Wat is richly decorated with wonderful bas reliefs. A series of large-scale scenes, mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are carved on the inner walls of the outer gallery. While the western gallery shows the Battle of Lanka from Ramayana and the Battle of Kurukshetra from Mahabharata, the eastern gallery contains the scene of the Churning of the sea (Samudra Manthana) by 92 Asura and 88 Devas using the serpent Vasuki as the churning rope. The temple is also exquisitely decorated with thousands of charming and captivating ‘Apsaras’ (heavenly nymphs) with 37 different hairstyles, carved into its walls. Unfortunately, many of them were damaged during the amateurish efforts to clean the temples with chemicals during the 1980s. However, they were mostly restored subsequently by the teams with the German Apsara Conservation Project.
Situated within a moat more than 5 kilometres long and about 3.6 kilometres long outer wall, the three rectangular galleries of Angkor War is widely admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture. Today, it has become a national symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and attracts thousands of foreign tourists each year.
The majestic Angkor Wat temple is a part of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Stretching over some 400 square kilometers and including forested area, it also includes the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, located approximately one kilometre east of Angkor Thom. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that scientists are struggling hard to preserve.