|We spent two days visiting various temples in the Angkor Archeological Park which has about 70 temples, tombs and other ruins., most of which are unexcavated. The Park contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to 15th C. AD. We saw 5 major temples, the first being Angkor Wat, built by King Suriyavarman II in the 12th C. AD as his state temple and capital. It is one of the best preserved temples because it has been used continuously as a Buddhist temple, though when it was built it was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.. It is the largest religious monument in the world and extremely popular tourist site, over 2 million visitors a year and 3,000 daily.
All of the temples are similar. There is an outer wall, a moat, an inner wall with a gallery (like a cloister - a covered walkway with one open wall held up by columns) and inside from one to 5 towers and several rectangle “libraries.” The inner walls of the gallery often have elaborate bas reliefs friezes. Almost all the surfaces of the temple, including the towers and lintels over the doors, have beautiful bas relief carvings, often telling Hindu stories and carvings of apsaras or dancing goddesses. I was fascinated by the apsaras. Our guide explained there are 36 different versions but one has to look closely to see the differences.
Angkor Wat is suppose to be a replica of the universe in stone. The 5 towers (shaped like lotus buds) represent the 5 peaks of Mt. Meru, the sacred mountain of the Hindu gods. The outer gallery represents the edge of the world and the moat, the cosmic ocean beyond.
We examined one of the gallery bas reliefs which told a famous Hindu story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The gods and demons fought for a 1000 years in an effort to produce Amitra, the immortality elixir. Vishnu got them to work together to churn the ocean., using Mt. Madara as the pivot and Vasuki, a naga (snake with 5 heads) as the rope. While churning the ocean for another 1000 years, they produced many gods and goddesses including the apsaras and the goddess Lakshmi. Eventually they produced the amitra but Vishnu tricked the demons and gave the elixir to the gods.
We spent a couple of hours there climbing up to the lower level of the towers and walking around. The inner sanctum used to have a statute of Vishnu but it has been replaced by statutes of Buddha.
Next we visited Angkor Thom, built 30 years later in 1181 by King Jayavarman VII. The outer wall 7.5 miles long encompasses a huge town area, 4 square miles, now a park. In the center is Bayon, a temple dedicated to Buddha. There are 54 towers, each bearing the face of Buddha on all 4 sides. The gallery bas reliefs are unusual as they depict everyday life in the town as well King Jayavarman’s victory over the Cham (Vietnam) empire. He was a great king, building 100's of km of roads with a rest houses every 18 km and 112 hospitals. His temple was dedicated to Buddha but after his death, the empire converted back to Hinduism.
After lunch, we visited our third temple, Ta Prohm, concentrated in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. It was originally used as a monastery. It has not been restored and but left in its natural state with large sprung tree roots covering the walls. It is very atmospheric, would look great in the moonlight.