Five Centuries, Two Religions and One Park: Angkor

Amidst the blues of having to stay home because of the second wave of the pandemic, in extremely cold weather, reading becomes an escape for me. Huddled up in my quilt, with the aroma of coffee overpowering my nostrils, I sit and read on about anything and everything which will fascinate me.

Aimlessly scrolling my laptop, I came across Angkor. Angkor’s story is one worthy of sharing with all of you.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is home to the remains of different eras of the Khmer Kingdom, covering a timespan from the 9th to the 15th century. Lying in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, it is one of the most valuable sites in Eastern Asia.

The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost concept is that of the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru. Thus, most temples in Angkor are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.

While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, later rulers converted to Mahayana Buddhism. Angkor Thom was built after that. Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures were also erected. However, successors of the Khmer kingdom returned to Hinduism and embarked on a massive spree of destruction, thus today, many original statues are defaced.

One element from the site that continues to mystify archaeologists is the “baray”, the water reservoir around Angkor. While it has long been assumed that the water was used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Eyes and NASA imaging have both failed to find a single outlet. The moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.

The two most famous temples in the park are the Angkor Wat and the Bayan Temple.

Angkor Wat

The largest religious monument in the world by land area, and around four times the size of the Vatican City, the architectural masterpiece is around 900 years old. The name, Angkor Wat, means “Temple City” in Khmer. It was originally built in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple, an ode to God Vishnu, by Emperor Suryavarman II, who ruled the region from 1113 to 1150, to serve as the state temple and political centre of his empire. However, by the end of the 12th century, it was considered a Buddhist site. Unfortunately, by then, Angkor Wat had been sacked by a rival tribe to the Khmer, who in turn, at the direction of the new emperor, Jayavarman VII, moved their capital to Angkor Thom and their state temple to Bayon, both of which are a few miles to the north of the historic site.

Although never exactly abandoned, disuse and lack of repair caused considerable damage to the site. Nonetheless, it remained an architectural marvel unlike anything else. It was “rediscovered” in the 1840s by the French explorer Henri Mouhot, who wrote that the site was “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

Bayan Temple

Bayon Temple

Several centuries before the world knew DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, hundreds of serene faces displaying equally enigmatic smiles were carved into the famous temple now known as Bayon. The temple lies at the heart of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which used to be the symbolic centre of the Khmer empire. King Jayavarman VII dedicated the temple to Buddha. Originally, the temple was known as “Jayagiri”- which means “Victory Mountain”. It was renamed as the “Banyan Temple” sometime later, after French Colonial rule. The Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment after a long period of meditation beneath a banyan tree. The religious significance of the banyan tree and the many banyan trees growing around the site made it an appropriate name. However, the local Khmer who worked to restore the temple often mispronounced the name as “Bayon” instead of “Banyan” and the name stuck.

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