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A Distant Looking Glass 
By Subhash Kak
~ March 10, 2000  


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

Angkor 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 temple.

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 ruler'' (chakravartin).

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 royal icon.

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 earth.

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 house.

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.  




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