THE ARCHITECTURE OF ANGKOR WAT
AND KHMER CIVILIZATION
The civilization in the Indian Subcontinent had been highly developed since ancient time. When trades became flourished between the East and the West, the Indian traders sailed to this region to establish Indian trading posts in order to collect goods and products during the off monsoon season. These traders brought with them their civilization, cultures, philosophy and religions. During those days, the indigenous people were far less civilized than the Indian travelers and it was not surprising to find that they accepted many aspects from their foreign folks by which they deemed to be better and beneficial.
Among these aspects were the religious and cultural elements of the Indian civilization. The natives adopted Hinduism as their religion and its gods Shiva and Vishnu were revered as their supreme gods. During the Funan period (I – IX centuries), which was a predecessor of the Khmer civilization, the Brahmins, a learned caste of India, were invited into the royal courts to help in administration.
In addition to the religious belief, the natives also learned the engineering skills such as the irrigation system as well as stone carving from the Indian Brahmins.
When the Khmer civilization evolved in early 9th century, the Khmers inherited several elements from its precursor as well as those from the Indian civilization. Along with many other aspects of their culture, the Cambodians inherited Indian methods of architecture and then absorbed them into their own architectural style. Once the Indian influence on the kingdom was no longer significant, by the seventh to eighth centuries AD, Khmer architecture began to develop independently. It flourished under ambitious kings who ruled an empire rich in manpower and wealth. Both these factors were essential in bringing about the larger building projects undertaken at Angkor in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Khmers’ first king Jayavarman II (800 – 850) introduced the cult of devaraja into Cambodia, establishing the king as a representative of the Hindu god Siva. His regime was more or less a model of the successful Indian monarchy. Numerous impressive temples and monuments were built throughout the empire during those successive centuries in order to praise the Hindu gods. From this time temples were being built to honor both the god and the king. During the next two reigns, the practice of each new king building his own temple, which became his tomb on his death, was firmly established (Angkor Wat). We collectively know these monuments as the Angkor Temples, and the most famous ones are the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom, both of which resided on the vast plain of Siemreap in Cambodia. The word “Angkor” is derived Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, of “Nagara” which means “City”. Angkor Wat literally means “City of Temple” and Angkor Thom “The Magnificent City” (Britannica).
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building and the finest of all the Khmer architectural wonders. It is but the most impressive and most perfectly constructed of numerous temples whose extensive ruins survive to form one of the world’s largest historical sites. Taking 37 years to complete and involving the labor of an estimated 50,000 artisans, workers and slaves, the temple forms a rectangular enclosure measuring 1,500 meters by 1,300 meters and surrounded by a moat 200 meters wide. Inside the outer walls, the structure is built up over three levels rising to a central core topped by five distinctive towers, the tallest reaching 65 meters. The proportions alone are spectacular, while the long galleries feature walls decorated with low-relief scenes of epic legends, war and courtly life. All the temple mountains of Angkor were filled with three-dimensional images and every inch of the walls are covered by sculptures. Virtually every surface in a labyrinth of chambers and courtyards is richly decorated and carvings of nearly 2,000 apsaras, or celestial dancers, appear like a visual refrain of a beautiful melody (Angkor Wat).
Angkor Wat complex spreads an area of some 400 square kilometers and there are more than 100 major archaeological monuments and numerous lesser remains. The lands where the city of Angkor stands were not chosen as a settlement site because of any pre-existing sacred importance, but rather for their strategic military position and agricultural potential. In time however, over the half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a great pilgrimage destination. Angkor Thom Temple was also significant in the evolution of Khmer architecture as the first temple complex. It is quadrangle of defensive walls totaling 12 kilometers that once protected the Khmer capital. It built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII. The walls are divided by two axes running north-south and east-west. A gateway lies at the end of each axis, four in total, facing the four cardinal directions. It was a well-planned and well laid out series of buildings surrounding several central shrines. These buildings were set around courtyards, and avenues linked each courtyard. The less important buildings were located at the outer edges of the complex, with the most important ones and the shrines in the center. The whole complex was surrounded by a moat.
Cambodians in ancient were superstition; thus, they built their buildings base on the legends they believed. According to Hinduism, the gods reside in the five sacred mountains with central Mount Meru and these mountains are surrounded by the cosmic ocean. The structure of the Khmer temples mostly symbolizes the heavenly residence of the gods with five towers, called prasats. The central dominant tower or prasat represents the Mount Meru with four smaller ones, each at its corners, to represent the other four sacred mountains of the heaven. In some temples, there are galleries connecting the towers. The moat surrounding the temple symbolizes the cosmic ocean. As the residence of gods, the temples were made up of more endurable materials such as the bricks, laterites and sandstones. Numerous stones were carved with artistic craftsmanship to portray the gods and the deities, the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, and in many instances, the important events of Khmer history as well as that of the king who was its founder. For the temples dedicated to Buddhism in the later centuries, the architecture is much less prominent with some stone carving related to the stories of Lord Buddha and his teaching.
The houses of the local people in ancient Khmer were more or less similar to those found today in villages of modern Cambodia. It was elevated about two and a half meters above the ground with the wooden ladder and was built by wooden piles, which supported the floor, the walls and the roof. The wall was made up of either the straws or the bamboo with the roof covered with the thatched leaves of dry coconut palms (Architecture). The architecture of the dignitaries’ houses and the palaces was somewhat different from those of the laymen, and differed in sizes, layouts and dimensions. The materials used to build the house consisted of stronger wooden planks, generally made up of teakwood, and the roof was covered with tiles for the inner rooms and with thatched leaves for the outer corners. These differences clearly identified the classes of the people by which the laymen were not even dare to put up a single tile on their roof.
The architectural vividness of Angkor was not separated from its engineering genius. In addition to the remarkable temples, the ancient Khmer also had showed its architectural genius by building large reservoirs and dikes, which were essential in agriculture as well as for the survival of the people. The two largest reservoirs were the East Baray and the West Baray. The former one, built during the reign of Yasovarman I, was 7 1/2 kilometer long and 1 km 830 meters wide with the depth of 4-5 meter. The latter was almost twice larger. These reservoirs collected the water from the nearby rivers through dikes and help significantly to prevent floods by collecting water from heavy rainfall during the Monsoon season. There were also smaller reservoirs; many ponds and moats, which were constructed in the vicinity of the various temples, and thus further helped in water storage. This water was used in everyday life of the Khmer people, and irrigated to the farmland during the dry season.
In so mastering the annual cycle of floods and drought brought about by the alternating monsoon seasons, the ancient Khmer were able to harvest two and even three rice crops a year. From this rich agricultural base Angkor built up its power. As Coedes has commented in Angkor: An Introduction, there is a vital connection between the regal power symbolized in the temple-mountain and the practical mastery of water. “The fact is well known,” the historian wrote, “that a rice-growing country is dependent upon a regulated system of irrigation which in turn is dependent on a strong and stable central authority. If the control breaks down, the water ceases to work its benefits, and abundance gives way to misery.” (Coedes). Bountiful crop production not only sustained a huge population perhaps as high as one million – it also freed large numbers of peasants from agricultural work. Manpower was thus available for extending and securing the boundaries of the empire and for building the massive stone temples of the god-kings (Angkor Wat). There was also extensive road system in ancient Angkor Empire during its peak. These roads were built by raising the earth as the pavement, however, most parts of these roads were lost but some vestiges remain. The Angkor being at the center of the civilization had its roads branching out in all directions.
As the Khmer civilization reached its full flowering the temple form evolved from a single tower to a multi-towered structure of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Moreover, while early shrines stood at ground level, later temples were grandiosely raised on terraced pyramids. Vaulted galleries were introduced to link individual sanctuaries into a single, intricate temple complex. Materials also evolved, from wood for the earliest prototypes to brick, laterite and finally sandstone, the last lending itself to the relief carving which defines Angkor’s finest temples almost as distinctively as the architecture itself. These and other changes reached a climax at Angkor Wat.
There were, however, significant problems, which the architects had to overcome and some of their building methods contributed to the early collapse of their temples. Sandstone blocks were prepared carefully to fit together, but vertical joints were allowed to run on top of one another making walls very unstable. So, often a whole wall fell if one stone near the base became dislodged. No mortar was used; just a good fit, weight and gravity was thought sufficient. The Khmers never learnt how to build an arch. European architects who built the vaulted Gothic cathedrals used complex arches to cover a space, a technique that had been handed down to them from the Romans over centuries of development. The Khmers had no such example to copy. In order to overcome this difficulty, they used the false arch, or corbelling. Large stones were piled on top of one another, reaching inwards as far as possible and touching at the top. An arched roof over a space was thus formed, but it was not as stable as the real arch, and these vaults often collapsed (Architecture).
In the beginning of 1200, the Angkor and the Khmer empire started to decline. As neighboring states of the Angkor grew, they became a major threat to the empire. When Jayavarman VII died, the Thai Empire in the West emerged as a major power in the region. In order to protect the empire, the Angkor had to direct portion of its manpower to secure strong armed forces, which in turn, deprived itself from giving good maintenance to its irrigation system. The road network built by Jayavarman VII had aided the transports of products and trades throughout the empire and also facilitated the Khmer troops to quell its neighbors. It had became a double-edged sword when the Angkor became weak as the invaders could easily marched in through this road network, instead of previously sailing up from the Mekong River. This turned out to be true when the newly emerged Ayuthaya, a Thai kingdom in the West became stronger. They use this road to march to attack right at the heart of Angkor and finally sacked the empire in 1431. The glory of the Angkor Civilization was terminated since that time. The city was deserted and the capital was moved to Eastward to the region of the present capital Phnom Penh (Britannica).
In conclusion, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and several other Khmer temples are undoubtedly the relics of the past Khmer Civilization. Angkor is prominent because of its temples, and these massive stone monuments that constitute the Khmer civilization’s greatest legacy. Angkor represents one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. Lawrence Briggs makes the point in his book The Ancient Khmer Empire. “The Khmers,” he wrote, “left the world no systems of administration, education or ethics like those of the Chinese; no literatures, religions or systems of philosophy like those of India; but here oriental architecture and decoration reached its culminating point.” (Briggs).
“Angkor Wat.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article?eu=294605>
Coedes, George. Angkor: An Introduction. Oxford University Press; Reprint edition 1986.
“Angkor Wat. Design and Architecture.” Angkor Wat Information Pages. Homepage. 2003 <http://www.angkorwat.org/design_contents.html#design>
“Architecture. Khmer Civilization.” History of Cambodia. Cambodia Travel Homepage. 2004 <http://www.cambodia-travel.com/khmer/architecture.htm>
Briggs, Lawrence Palmer. The Ancient Khmer Empire. White Lotus Co., Ltd. 1999.
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