Angkor Wat, the wonder of Cambodia

Unique carvings in Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire

Angkor Wat is part of Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire that flourished from approximately the 9th to the 15th centuries and is the most spectacular attraction in Cambodia. If Cambodia had nothing else, only Angkor, millions of tourists would still flock there. But what is Angkor Wat and what is precisely the story behind it?

According to legend, God Indra, the God of thunder and lightning, ordered its construction for his son, and it was pulled up in a single night. It was initially a Hindu temple, but from the 12th century, it was gradually converted into a Buddhist shrine. By the end of the 15th century, it was of pure Buddhist character.

II. Suryavarman, who built the temple, ascended the throne by killing his uncle in 1113. He stabilized the Khmer Empire and extended his rule to parts of Laos besides present-day Cambodia. As he ascended the throne by murder, he used other means to reinforce himself as a legitimate ruler. The best way to achieve this was to show himself as a king chosen by gods.

Angkor Wat

He chose Vishnu as his principal God, so he built a colossal shrine for him. The king built more than 700 temples, including the largest, Angkor Wat. He imagined divine dimensions and planned to build a replica of heaven, which is Mount Meru in Hindu mythology, north of the Himalayas.

At the heart of the church is a complex of five towers. It is a shrine dedicated to Vishnu, but at least as much the future burial place of the king. The idea was that as soon as he died, he would ascend to heaven and would become a god — and the surest way to do that was to create paradise here on earth. So, Angkor Wat is the gate between the earthly world and heaven.

It was built in 35 years, an incredibly short time compared to medieval cathedrals, and Angkor Wat is much larger than that. However, the king makes it his priority to get the temple ready. Hundreds of thousands of people from all parts of the empire were working on it.

Angkor Wat at night

This huge structure was built on a swamp, where making a suitable foundation was a real challenge as it weighs thousands of tons. However, the hardest part was to cope with the seasonality of the monsoon. There is considerable precipitation in the rainy season, while hardly any during the next six months. Thus, the main difficulty was not that a church of this size does not sink into the swamp but that the changing groundwater and soil level should not ruin the buildings.

There were no binders used for Angkor Wat. The blocks of stones were polished smoothly before being placed on top of and next to each other. The exact fit was important mainly so that the carvings would give a continuous image without any interruptions.

Angkor Wat’s reliefs describes the meeting of two worlds. Some reliefs show the king’s court, or an army of dancers, servants, soldiers, and fighting elephants, staying at the disposal of the king even after his death.

Others depict the gods who dwell in heaven. The delicate carvings rich in detail are estimated to have taken half of the 35 years of construction.

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