A Distant Looking Glass
By Subhash Kak
Indian ideas have prospered greatly in the West.
Consider yoga, meditation, the notion that reality transcends the divides of
body and mind. Indian ideas were the foundation of the Transcendentalist
movement of Emerson and Thoreau that has played a great role in shaping the
American world-view. Indian immigrants have not matched the fervor of the
Westerners for these ideas. Going through a period of adjustment and
consolidation, their efforts have focused on the building of temples and
establishing dance and music schools.
But even these efforts can lead to deeper meaning, if
we ask the right questions. Speaking just of temples, why do temples have a
characteristic look? Can we build temples that are functionally modern, and
still not lose touch with our tradition? What role should a temple have in the
life of the community?
The answer can be gleaned by peering into a looking
glass -- distant in time and space -- that best embodies, in brick and stone,
the meaning and role of a temple. I am speaking of the great Vishnu temple of
Wat in Kampuchea (Cambodia), one of most impressive and enduring
architectural monuments of the world. The plan of this incomparable temple
reveals to us many secrets that were lost to India for centuries. These are
secrets about the nature of temple design and, ultimately, about the fundamental
bases of Indian culture.
Together with my friends, the historian of astronomy
Graham Millar of Halifax, Canada, and Lokesh Chandra, India's foremost scholar
of Asia, I have investigated the architecture of this temple during the past few
years and discovered amazing continuity with Vedic knowledge. But this is not
the appropriate place to speak about the technical details of this surprising
continuity, so let me give you a broad outline of what we know about this
The Angkor Vishnu temple was built by the Khmer Emperor
Suryavarman II, who reigned during AD 1113-50. One of the many temples built
from AD 879 - 1191, it arose when the Khmer civilization was at the height of
its power. Although Vishnu is its main deity, the temple, through its sculpture,
pays homage to all the Vedic gods and goddesses, including Shiva.
Apart from its other uses as a place for ritual, dance
and drama, study and scholarship -- it had many libraries -- , the temple served
as a practical observatory where the rising sun was aligned on the equinox and
solstice days with the western entrance of the temple. The temple architecture
reflects calendric and cosmological time cycles.
The most impressive aspect of the design of this temple
is that the representation of the universe -- which is what a temple is supposed
to be -- occurs in several layers in a recursive fashion, mirroring the Vedic
idea that the microcosm symbolizes the macrocosm at many levels of expression.
This is done not only in the domain of numbers and directions, but also using
appropriate mythological themes, and historical incidents. The mythological
scenes skillfully use the oppositions and complementarities between gods,
goddesses, asuras, and humans defined over ordinary and sacred time and space.
The temple complex is vast: it is a bit less that a
square mile in size. At the heart of the temple are three rising, concentric
galleries. Bordering these is further space, and a rectangular moat. About 40 m
in from the moat is a laterite wall, 4.5 m high, with large single entrances
from the east, north, and south, and five entrances on the west.
The dimensions of the temple reflect various
astronomical numbers. For example, the west-east axis represents the periods of
the yugas. In the central tower, the topmost elevation has external axial
dimensions of 189.00 cubit east-west, and 176.37 cubit north-south, with the sum
of 365.37. This division of the almost exact length of the solar year into
unequal halves remained a mystery for some time until it was found to be based
on the Vedic numbers for the asymmetric motion of the sun.
The Khmer kings of Kampuchea (Cambodia) trace their
ancestry to the legendary Indian Kaundinya and to Soma, a Khmer princess. At
first there were several warring kings. The state was unified by King Jayavarman
II, who in 802, in a ceremony near Angkor, declared himself a ``universal
The kings of the Khmer empire ruled over a domain that,
at its broadest, reached from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunan, China and
from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor
today, more than 100 temples in all, are the surviving religious remains of a
grand social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings -- palaces,
public buildings, and houses -- were all built of wood and are long since
decayed and gone. As in most parts of India where wood was plentiful, only the
gods had the right to live in houses of stone or brick; the sovereigns and the
common folk lived in pavilions and houses of wood.
Over the half-millenia of Khmer rule, the city of
Angkor became a great pilgrimage destination because of the notion of Devaraja,
that was a coronation icon. Jayavarman II (802-850) was the first to use this
The increasingly larger temples built by the Khmer
kings continued to function as the locus of the devotion to the Devaraja, and
were at the same time earthly and symbolic representations of mythical Mt. Meru,
the cosmological home of the Hindu gods and the axis of the world-system. The
symbol of the king's divine authority was the sign (linga) of Shiva
within the temple's inner sanctuary, which represented both the axes of the
physical and the psychological worlds. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu
separately, and together as Harihara, had been popular for considerable time in
southeast Asia; Jayavarman's chief innovation was to use ancient Vedic mahabhisheka
to define the symbol of government.
Angkor Wat is the supreme masterpiece of Khmer art. The
descriptions of the temple fall far short of communicating the great size, the
perfect proportions, and the astoundingly beautiful sculpture that everywhere
presents itself to the viewer. Its architecture is majestic and its
representation of form and movement from Indian mythology has astonishing grace
and power. The inner galleries of the temple have depiction of the battle of
Kurukshetra, procession of King Suryavarman and his ministers, scenes from
heavens and hells, churning of the sea of milk, the battle of Vishnu and the
asuras, victory of Krishna over Bana, battle of the devas and asuras, Ravana
shaking Kailasa with Shiva and Parvati atop, and the battle of Lanka between
Rama and Ravana. These and other scences are drawn with great artistic beauty.
No wonder, the temple ranks amongst the greatest creations of human imagination.
To understand the astronomical aspects of Angkor Wat it
is necessary to begin with the Indian traditions of altar and temple design on
which it is based. And since the Angkor Wat ritual hearkened to the Vedic past,
that is where we must begin. Vedic astronomy was decoded very recently. The
Vedic altars had an astronomical basis related to the reconciliation of the
lunar and solar years. The fire altars symbolized the universe and there were
three types of altars representing the earth, the atmosphere and the sky.
The altar in its grandest form becomes the temple, now
considered a representation of the Cosmic Purusha (Man), on whose body is
displayed all creation in its materiality and movement. Paradoxically, the space
of the Purusha is in the sanctuary only ten fingers wide, although he pervades
The temple construction begins with the Vastupurusha
mandala, which is a yantra, mostly divided into 64 or 81 squares, which are
the seats of 45 divinities. Brahma (symbolizing the origin of time) is at the
centre, around him 12 squares represent the Adityas (the twelve months of the
year), and in the outer circle are 28 squares that represent the nakshatras
(the constellations of the moon's orbit). The Vastumandala with its
border is the place where the motions of the sun and the moon and the planets
are reconciled. It is the Vastu in which the decrepit, old Chyavana of the
Rigveda asks his sons to put him down so that he would become young again. In
this story Chyavana is the moon and Sukanya, whom he desires, is the sun.
Clearly, astronomy, an understanding of the physical universe, is the very basis
of temple design.
The altar or the temple, as a representation of the
dynamism of the universe, requires a breaking of the symmetry of the square,
which stands for the heavens. In particular, the temples to the goddess are
drawn on a rectangular plan. In Shiva or Vishnu temples, which are square,
change is represented by a play of diagonal lines. These diagonals are
essentially kinetic and are therefore representative of movement and stress.
They embody the time-factor in a composition.
Alice Boner, art-historian, writes that the Devi
temples ``represent the creative expanding forces, and therefore could not be
logically be represented by a square, which is an eminently static form. While
the immanent supreme principle is represented by the number ONE, the first stir
of creation initiates duality, which is the number TWO, and is the producer of
THREE and FOUR and all subsequent numbers upto the infinite.'' The dynamism is
expressed by a doubling of the square to a rectangle or the ratio 1:2, where the
garbhagriha, the sanctum sanctorum, is now built in the geometrical
centre. For a three-dimensional structure, the basic symmetry-breaking ratio is
1:2:4, which can be continued further to another doubling.
The constructions of the third millennium BC in India
appear to be according to the same principles. The dynamic ratio of 1:2:4 is the
most commonly encountered size of rooms of houses, in the overall plan of houses
and the construction of large public buildings. This ratio is also reflected in
the overall plan of the large walled sector at Mohenjo-Daro called the citadel
mound. It is even the most commonly encountered brick size. Structures, dating
to 2000 BC, built in the design of yantras, have been unearthed.
As a representation of the macrocosm, change in the
temple is described in terms of the motions of the heavenly bodies. But the
courses of the sun, the moon and the planets are unequal, so the temple design
represents all characteristic time sequences: the day, the month, the year and
the wider cycles marked by the recurrence of a complete cycle of eclipses.
But astronomy only fixed the framework for the temple,
the details were related to social and spiritual function. The temple was more
than an observatory and ritual ground, it was also the drama and dance school,
the arts society, yoga academy, library, school and college and publishing
Angkor Wat has revealed to us the grammar of the Hindu
temple. Given this knowledge, it should be possible to create new forms and
designs. The modern temple will facilitate the understanding of old symbols;
more importantly, it will have functions that help us fathom the mysteries of
our own beings.