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THE MYSTERIES OF ANGKOR WAT-
Located in Northwestern Cambodia, Angkor, the Capital of the Ancient
Khmer Empire was possibly founded around the Ninth Century AD by King Jayavarman II.
However, the city reached its peak glory in the 12th Century under Kings uryavarman II and
Jayavarman VII. The most beautiful and most famous monument in the city, Angkor Wat, lies
about one kilometer south of the Royal town of Angkor Thom which was founded by Jayavarman
The Temple of Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu by King Suryavarman II, who
reigned between 1131 and 1150 AD. The Temple was constructed over a period of 30 years,
and illustrates some of the most beautiful examples of Khmer and Hindu art. Covering an
area of about 81 hectares, the complex consists of five towers, which are presently shown
on the Cambodian national flag. These towers are believed to represent the five peaks of
Mount Meru, the Home of Gods and Center of the Hindu Universe. Angkor Wat features the
longest continuous bas-relief in the world, which runs along the outer gallery walls,
narrating stories from Hindu Mythology.
With the decline of the Ancient Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat was turned into a preservation.
In 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee declared the monument, and the whole city of
Angkor, a World Heritage Site.
Angkor Wat, one of the most beautiful and mysterious historical sites in the world.
Located over 192 miles to the North-West of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Angkor has been
"protected" from tourism, and the customs and the
cultures of the people living there have not changed much. However, intense internal
warfare for over fifty years has impacted on the people and to an extent on the physical
structure of the temples at Angkor.
For many years, Angkor Wat was totally isolated from the Western World. Large, thick
jungles covers the area, and it is located in the center of Cambodia. The French
colonialists were the first westerners to get exposed to Angkor. They heard rumors from
the local population about "temples built by gods or by giants." Most of the
colonialists referred these rumors to folk tales, but some believed that there really was
a "lost city of a Cambodian empire", which had once been powerful and wealthy.
The history of Angkor Wat dates back to the kingdom of Funan. This kingdom was established
by an Indian Brahmin, and in AD200, the country was peacefully settled by Indian traders.
Four hundred years later, the kingdom had become a prosperous trading region. As the area
was located on the Pilgrim rout between China and India, Hinduism and Chinese Buddhism was
adopted by the new settlers. The Indian and Chinese influence can still be felt in
Cambodia, and the temples of Angkor Wat closely resembles Hindu and Buddhist temples that
can be found in Northern India and in Nepal. In the end of AD600, the Funan Empire lost
much of its power to the kingdom of Chenla. The capital of this new empire, Sambor, was
located about 40 miles to the Southeast of Angkor. During this time, beautiful sculptures
and carvings in sand-stone was popular. In AD750, a king with a reputation of being a
war-like person, who was able to expand the Chenla kingdom. However, trade with India
stopped, and the Indonesian Empire raised to power.
In AD800, the kingdom of Kambuja was established, and king Jayavarman I took control over
the kingdom. He built several capitals near Angkor Wat, were responsible for many social
changes, and was able to size land to the North and to the East. In AD889, a nephew of
Jayavaram became the new emperor, andhe was able to bring peace and unity to the Khmer
Kingdom. In AD944, Jayavarman V established many Mahayana Buddhist temples near Angkor, and
moved the court to Yasodharapura, at Angkor. Cultures prospered, and so didthe Khmer
empire. In AD1000, Suryavarman, a young man who may have come fromthe Malayan provinces of
the empire, ascends the throne of Kambuja. He wouldbecome the king of Kambuja for over 50
years. He is responsible for theplanning and foundations of the city of Angkor. In AD1051,
UdayadityavarmanII succeed Suryavarman, and continued to build the city of Angkor,
andrestored many of the temples. Angkor was now both a sacred temple city andthe center of
a vast irrigation system.
Massive expansion of the city continued throughout the next 200 years, and
ambitious building programs expanded the city. Many temples were built. The temples are
spread out over about 40 miles around the village of Siem Reap. Temples and similar
structures to the temples that can be found in the city
of Angkor are common sights in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and in China. Perhaps the most
famous temple, Angkor Wat, is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu was built during
Angkor Wat is the highest achievement of Khmer temple architecture, and is today the
"flagship" of the temples at Angkor. The temple is a huge pyramid structure. The
compound at Angkor Wat covers an area of 1,500 by 1,300 m
(4,920 by 4,265 ft) and is surrounded by a vast moat 180 m (590 ft) wide. Along the
causeway leading to the enormous entrance gate are balustrades shaped as giant serpents,
which are believed to represent emblems of cosmic fertility. The temple consists of a
towering complex of terraces and small buildings that are arranged in a series of three
diminishing stories and surmounted by five towers. The roofed and unroofed structures are
covered with bands of finely carved stone sculptures. The walls are covered with carved
reliefs that illustrate Hindu mythology, principally scenes relating to the god Vishnu, to
whom the temple was dedicated. The "mass of bas-relief carving is of the highest
quality and the most beautifully executed in Angkor." All the temple mountains of
Angkor were filled with three-dimensional images and every inch of the walls are covered
In the beginning of AD1200, the Angkor and the Khmer empire started to decline.
When jayavarman VII died, the Thai Empire in the West emerged as a major power in the
region. The Thai capital was moved to Ayudhya, near Angkor, and obviously threatened the
Cambodian kingdom. In AD1389 the Thais attacked Angkor, and the city fell into the hands
of the Thais. The 15th-century conquest of the Khmer kingdom by the Thais resulted (1431)
in the final abandonment of Angkor. The city was deserted and the capital was moved to
Eastward to the region of the present capital Phnom Penh.
The splendour that was Angkor
Date: 19-07-1998 :: Pg: 26 :: Col: a
Angkor art, that ranged from grandiose works in sandstone to intricate bronzes, would have
been lost in the depths of Cambodia's jungles had it not been for the publication of a
Frenchman's illustrated diaries ... And then, the world discovered the splendor of an
empire. S. RANGARAJAN on an exhibition in Washington that highlighted the rise and fall of
THE culture of India has been one of the world's most powerful civilising forces.
Countries of the Far East, including China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia one much of
what is best in their own cultures to the inspiration of ideas imported from India... But
the members of that circle of civilisations beyond Burma scattered around the Gulf of Siam
and the Java Sea, virtually owe their very existence to the creative influence of Indian
ideas. No conquest or invasion, no forced conversion imposed them. They were adopted
because the people saw they were good and that they could use them.'' (Philip Rawson - The
Art of South-east Asia, published in 1967).
The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in an exhibition entitled ``Sculpture of
Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory'' captured the splendour that was Angkor
and the wonder of India that made this
historical legacy possible. In a period much before the sixth Century and one that
continued for more than a 1, 000 years, Cambodian artists produced works of art glorifying
many aspects of their culture belonging to both the Buddhist and Hindu religious
The sculpture ranged from grandiose and monumental works in sandstone
representing goods, mythical guardians and legendary creatures to bronzes used for
religious rituals and royal and aristocratic ceremonies.
Most of the exhibits were from the fabulous collections of the National Museum of
Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and the Musse National des Arts Asiatiques -Guimet in Paris, which
together possesses most of the world's richest Khmer art and are largely responsible for
the discovery of Cambodia's cultural heritage.
How did this synthesis of civilizations come about? The clue is given by Philip Rawson
when he says: ``The small colonies of Indian traders, who settled at points of vantage
along the sea routes into the islands and around the coast of Indochina, merely imported
with them their code of living, their conceptions of law and kingship, their rich
literature and highly evolved philosophy of life. They intermarried with prominent local
families: and dynasties evolved capable of organising extensive kingdoms within which their
populations could live ordered and fruitful lives.''
A brief chronology of Indian and Cambodian historical features will highlight the
unfolding of this great Asian cultural drama.
INDIA: First century A.D.: Indian culture spreads throughout Southeast Asia;decoration of
the portals of the great stupa at Sanchi; 78 Saka era begins;2nd century: Amaravati stupa
Buddhist reliefs, classical phase; 4th century:
320: Gupta period begins; 5th century: Image of Teaching Buddha at Sarnath;6th century: c.
550: Chalukya dynasty (until 750); Elephanta cave; 7thcentury: Height of Pallava dynasty
(600-850); Height of Ellora art; 8thcentury: Pala dynasty in Bihar and Bengal; 10th
century: Chola Empire; 11thcentury: c. 1000: Khandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho;
1025: Chola raid on Srivijaya; 12th century: 1193: Sultanate of Delhi; 14th
CAMBODIAN: Pre-Angkor period from early in the Christian era until the end of the 8th
century that saw the rule of Rudravarman (514-539) and Bhavavarman I (c. 550) and the
construction of Bhavapura as capital of Bhavavarman followed by the kingdoms of
Isanavarman I (c. 616-635) and Bhavavarman II (635-656). This was the period as mentioned
above that the Chalukya dynasty ruled in India for two centuries from c. 550 and also saw
the magnificence of the Pallavas.
The Angkor dynasty was founded by Jayavarman II after his return from ``Java'' c. 790 and
proclaimed himself universal king. He founded the cult of god-king or devaraja with the
significant event of the installation of devaraja in 802 A.D. on Phnom Kulen
(Mahendraparvata) by the Brahman Sivakaivalya, (``Khmer royal names are Sanskrit compounds
that end in the word varman, meaning `shield'. Jayavarman is therefore the king `protected
by jaya (victory), and Isanavarman the king `protected by Isana (a name for Siva)', etc.)
- From ``Ancient Cambodia: A Historical Glimpse by Albert Le Bonheur.
Jayavarman II was succeeded through the centuries by rulers whose
names and deeds (Indravarman II with a capital at Harihaaralaya; Yasovarman, who
established a capital at Yashodharaprua and built an island temple at Indrataka and
constructed the Bakheng temple- mountain; Harsavarman I; Rajendravarman II, under whose
rule the construction of the Royal palace at Angkor began and was consecrated by the
Brahmin priest Yajnavaraha in 967 setting in motion the Banteay Srei style of
architecture; Udayadityavarman II, whose reign saw the coming of the Baphuon temple
mountain and the unique art culture that has been associated with Baphuon) reveal a
panoramic picture and sound of the clanging of metals, the rolling of stones and the
chanting of hymns in praise of Visnu and Siva.
It was in the first half of the 12th century, during the rule of Suryavarman II (1113-at
least 1143) that the temple mountain of Angkor Vat, one of the largest religious
structures in the world, was built. Famous for its intricate bas-reliefs depicting stories
from the two great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabaratha, the colossal work marked the
apogee of Khmer architecture.
It is acknowledged that the last great emperor of Angkor was Jayavarman VII (1181-1218?),
who built more monuments than any other Khmer ruler, as if to go with great hubris in a
burst of fame and renown. The huge temple of the Bayon that he erected in the centre of
the royal city of Angkor Thom gave its name to the style of the period. Jayavarman VII
made Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion.
next two centuries saw the revival of Hinduism as the state religion by Jayavarman VIII
(1243-1295), increasing Thai raids on Angkor, the growing importance of Theravada Buddhism
in Cambodia and the abandonment of Angkor and the location of the capital in Srei Santhor
region to the south. It was becoming obvious that the Khmer empire was becoming a weakened
power by alien onslaughts.
Slowly but steadily the breathtaking Angkor art was getting out of the sight of the world
under the dense foliage of Cambodian forests until the publication in 1863 of the
illustrated travel diaries of Henri Mauhot, a French naturalist and explorer, who had gone
to South-east Asia in the late 1850's and succumbed to fever there in 1861.
Mesmerised by what he saw at the temple of Angkor Vat, Mouhot in lyrical descriptions
said: ``At the sight of this temple, one feels one's spirit crushed, one's imagination
surpassed. One looks, one admires, and, seized with respect, one is silent. For where are
the words to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe? ...
What genius this Michalangelo of the East had, that he was capable of concaving such a
work.'' (Le Tour du Monde, 2-1863-299).
The outpouring of words were hyperbolic but his accounts of the lost city and the
historical treasures that were swallowed by trees and mountains, fired the imagination of
scholars and archaeologists to rediscover Angkor.Cambodia which had become a French
protectorate in 1863 lured artists, writers and tourists to the ancient sites. In the
beginning of this century, the newly founded Ecole franchised'Extreme-Orient undertook the
Herculean task of clearing and restoration of the monuments. Early explorers brought some
works of sculpture to Paris, where they finally became the nucleus of the collections of
Khmer art in the Musee national des Arts asiatiques-Guimet.
In 1918, the National Museum of Cambodia was founded in Phnom Penh to store and exhibit
the pieces that had to be removed from the monuments to prevent theft and vandalism.
restoration of the works of Angkor art, chronicling and cataloguing them in a historical
sequence and throwing light on their grandeur is a fascinating story of the pioneering
study done by French savants in this domain. Retracing of the genealogy of the Cambodian
kings, an understanding of their religious affiliations and an aesthetic appreciation of
the divine works of art that were produced during their periods of rule was done by
Indologists and Sanskrit masters and colonial administrators in a painstaking and arduous
process involving decades of dedication. The key to their success lay in decoding
histories written on blackened stone.
The critical epigraphic scholarship so essential in this exercise was set in motion by an
eminent Indologist from Leiden, Hendrik Kern, who had no problem in deciphering the
Sanskrit-based characters of the ancient Cambodian texts and stone inscriptions, which
were related to those used in southern India.
Kern's works which were translated in 1879 in French and appeared in
the Annales d'Extreme Orient had a tremendous impact in France and produced in its wake a
team of French Sanskritists headed by Auguste Barth and Abel Bergaigne. In a long-term
project, Barth and Bergaigne produced an outline of Cambodian history, emphasising the
lineage of the rulers. Helping them on the Khmer portion of the epigraphy was Etienne
Aymonier, a French administrator with an admirable knowledge of the language. His
voluminous work published as Le Cambodge (1900- 1904) is the classic reference on
unravelling the evolution of Cambodian texts. Two types of characters were used from
ancient India in the Cambodian inscriptions, the south Indian Chalukya-Pallava and the
north Indian Nagari writing. ``On the evidence of the inscriptions, the first was more
widely used from the early days until the middle of the ninth century. The second appears
only in a few Sanskrit inscriptions; it had no real influence on the Cambodian
calligraphic tradition. The south Indian type, which actually played a historical part,
was known and used across all the former territory of Khmer.'' (Khmer Epigraphy - Saveros
In understanding the religions of ancient Cambodia, a phenemonal contribution has been
made by Kamaleswar Bhattacharya in ``Les religions brahmaniques dans I'ancien Cambodge,
d'apres I' epigraphie et I' iconographie (1961).'' Bhattacharya was inspired and
influenced by the great philologist-cum-historian, George Coedes, who in 1906, at the age
of 20, published a long Sanskrit inscription from Cambodia and who over the next 60 years
translated hundreds of complex Sanskrit and Khmer texts with wide-ranging significance and
``According to the Sanskrit epigraphy, iconography, and Chinese dynastic histories,
Hinduism and Buddhism existed side by side in Cambodia during the fifth and sixth
centuries. The main religion seems to have been Sivaism, one of the two major branches of
Hinduism, but the other branch, Visnuism, also had adherents in the royal family.'' ``The
grammatical work of Panini, the greatest grammarian of antuiquity, was highly prized in
Cambodia, particularly among Sivaites. An Indian tradition held that it was Siva himself
who had revealed the secrets of grammar to Panini.'' (The religions of ancient Cambodia,
If Jayavarman II, the founder of the Angkor dynasty in 802, was an adherent of Sivaism and
had a lingam installed with all the correct rituals in Phnom Kulen by a Brahmin
well-versed in appropriate texts, ``his son and successor, Jayavarman III was a
Visnuite,'' according to Bhattacharya, and the founder of Angkor Vat, King Suryavarman II
(1113-1145?), believed in Visnuism, thus indicating that the faith in the two branches of
Hinduism varied from ruler to ruler and that a sycretism existed not only between Sivaism
and Visnuism, but between Sivaism and Buddhism, before the country embraced the Theravada
form of Buddhism in the 14th century. The National Gallery of Art in a beautifully
prepared pamphelt on Cambodian art by scholars on Khmer sculpture had outlined the broad
contours in its development and the changes that were noticed from time to time over the
centuries. Since virtually all Khmer art was religious, a background of the philosophical
moorings of the people and their rulers is essential to an understanding of their divine
stone carvings and the temple towns of Angkor and Angkor Vat that astound the beholder by
their sheer size and proportion.
In turn hieratic and majestic, Khmer sculpture reflected the profound spirituality of the
ancient Cambodian people, as well as their mastery of stone carrying and bronze
is one of the misfortunes of history that few records survive to date the
nothing is known about the artists who created these marvels. Thus the evolution of Khmer
sculpture is traced by relying on a comparative study of architectural advancements over
periods of time and a scrutiny of minute details, such as headdress styles, draperies
Pre-Angor art is distinguished from later Khmer art by its greater
degree of realism, particularly in the anatomical proportions and the delicate
the body. Almond-shaped eyes and long, thin are the other chief characteristics of works of
this age. Also early Khmer statues were generally worked out from a single block of
fine-grained sandstone and to ensure the stability of these thin, multi-armed figures, the
artisans left elements of the block un carved to serve as support. Another device
as a prop was an horseshoe-shaped arch that surrounded the body to reinforce the arms.
These attribtues slowly disappeared in the ninth century.
After the establishment of the Angkor monarchy, as if to assert their power and supremacy, the Cambodian Kings constructed imposing temples
creation of sculpture images devoted to the divinities they wished to pay homage. The art
of the ninth and 10th centuries stressed the divine nature of the figures by giving the
statues a more imposing stance and making their features more simplified.
Some statues were erected on pedestals in sanctuaries exclusively meant for
workship by the
King and the priests. Others were placed in surrounding galleries where ordinary pilgrims
made their prayer offerings. The 10th century Bakheng style, named after a major temple,
was noted for male and female draperies that presented a unique type of narrow,
vertical pleats, finely carved in relief all over the garments. The third quarter of the
10th century saw the marvel of Banteay Srei. Famous for its elegant pink sandstone and
graceful decorations, the small Shiva temple of Banteay Srei was built around 967 with
each doorway and each wall of the several gates and sanctuaries comprising the temple
complex adorned with finely detailed relief sculpture.
The National Gallery exhibition included two carved pediments of
Banteay Srei with scenes from Hindu mythology. One of them depicted two demon
fighting for the possession of a nymph sent by the gods to incite their rivalry and provoke
a fatal fight to put an end to their crimes. It is the style of the 12th century
Angkor Vat (within an enclosure of 1700by 1500 yards) that is uniquely epoch-making in the
annals of Khmer art. The approaches to the vast stone complex with shrine pinnacles
resembling sprouting shoots conjure visions of an illusion. Philip Rawson says
Vat is the crowning work of Khmer architecture, carrying to their high point all the
features of earlier styles. But Rawson could not help noting ``the ultimate foundations of
the style remain what they always were, securely Indian, reminiscent of the late Pallava
and Chola art in south-eastern India.''
Specially pertinent to this period is the image of Buddha seated on the mythological,
multi-headed serpent or naga. The Buddha, deep in his meditation, does into see a storm
coming. To protect him Mucilinda, the kind of serpents, spreads his heads in a hood over
the Buddha while coiling underneath him to form his throne. Angkor Vat's new emphasis
on ornamentation is seen in the decorative carving of the serpent's heads and
incised headdress of the Buddha.
The reign of Jayavarman VII, from late 12th century to early 13th
century,proclaimed the reaching of the pinnacle with the construction of the
Many images of Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara (compassionate lord)
belong to this era, underlining the prevalent atmosphere of compassion and
trumpet and the glory of Angkor had lasted long and the decline was so on to set in with
frequent attacks by neighbours in the late 13th and 14thecenturies. With the fall of the
Khmer empire, the temples of Angkor were abandoned to the jungles until they came to the
notice of the world of learning for restoration and preservation from the third quarter of
the last century.
It was the misfortune of Angkor to suffer a second eclipse in 1970's due to a bloody and
bitter civil was that was on the verge of wiping out an entire civilisation. When a
semblance of political stability was reached and the burst of machine-gun fire and
detonating mines stopped, work to save Angkor started with a few surviving conservators who
had escaped the holocaust. India was the first to respond to the call for international
help and the story of how the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) rose to the
well described by C. M. Bhandari, former Ambassador of India to Cambodia,in hi shook
In the face of intense international competition, the ASI was assigned thetask of
restoration of Angkor Vat because (a) 11the better placement of the Indians to understand
and respect the cultural heritage of Angkar .....(b)the competence of the ASI in handling
the work since they had undertakensimilar restoration works in India for many decades.''
On April 25, 1986 India and Cambodia exchanged letters to formalise the
Agreement for Angkor Vat.
With a civil war raging in the surrounding areas of Angkor, the security
perilous. With all educated and trained civilians brutally murdered in the ``killings
fields'', unskilled labour had to be taught the lessons of the specialised work of
conservation. There was no electricity, no communication with the outside world and the
health facilities were nil. It was under these extreme conditions that the 15 to 18 ASI
experts worked seven to eight months at a stretch for seven continuous years from
December1986 to save the Angkor Vat.
Highlights of ASI's restoration work at Angkor Vat included the
SamudraManthan gallery, entrance porches, libraries and moat embankment and southwest
corner pavilion of the third enclosure and chemical treatment. With the successful
completion of its assignment by the ASI, history had made a complete circle. What the
Indian genius had helped to found over a period of ten centuries from the fourth to the
fourteenth in Cambodia, it was able to restore when the structure was about to
Cambodian exhibition held by the National Gallery of Art in Washington was, in a manner of
speaking, a celebration of the peace accords, international cooperation for the restoration
of the Khmer art and to emphasise the hope that all is not yet lost with the world.
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