In northern Cambodia, north of
the Great Lake of the Tonlé Sap, the magnificent ruins of a bygone
civilization shoot rebelliously through the thick jungle canopy. Rendered variously
in brick, red and blue sandstone and laterite, the monuments of the vast Angkor
group are so stunning in their refinement of style, architectural ingenuity,
and sheer magnitude that the first whispers of their existence met with
disbelief in Europe. Those few Westerners who wrote accounts of the “Indian Babel”
in the 17th and 18th centuries were eager to agree with
the natives’ belief that these ruins must have been built by foreigners (Dagens
32). One particularly ridiculous 1647 account asserted that “A learned man
supposed these to be the work of Trajan.” (Higham 3) Whatever resemblance to Roman
architecture this observer might have seen is extremely superficial1,
and upon even a cursory view of these ruins it is obvious that they are the
sublimely original work of a society that apparently no longer exists.
Built between the 9th
and 14th centuries C.E., Angkor is a massive complex of temples,
monuments, and shrines that was at one time a city, the center of a flourishing
empire. While many of these structures display considerable sophistication and
complexity, it is generally agreed that the finest of all of the monuments is
the early 12th century temple-mountain Angkor Wat2.
Dating from the reign of the Khmer ruler Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat is the
largest free-standing stone structure in the world. Unlike the other monuments
of the Angkor group, Angkor Wat has been occupied continuously since its
construction, despite the abandonment of the rest of the city around 1431 (Laur
Of all the monuments in the Angkor
group, Angkor Wat is perhaps the most interesting; due to its constant
occupation by monks, scholars, and pilgrims from across the Asian world, its
estimated 1 sq km of bas-reliefs has been rather well preserved. These
extensive bas-reliefs, carved into sandstone, attain extraordinary levels of
artistic sophistication and narrative power. Study of this great monument
provides a window into the lives of a people otherwise forgotten (ibid).
Wat: Environment and Structure
The Angkor group, a series of
some thirty major monuments and hundreds of smaller ruins, was built in the Cambodian
lowlands between the years 800 and 1432 C.E. by a civilization now known as the
Khmer (Highham, 2001). The climate of this area is extraordinarily hot and
humid, with a wet season during which most waterways reach flood stage. This
climate, along with the dense deciduous forest it nurtures, proved formative
to the Khmer people, and its influence can be seen in many aspects of their
technology and culture3.
While there is some debate as to what sort of system was used for irrigation,
it seems clear that rice was the primary crop. Some contemporary reports
claimed that complex irrigation systems were used to produce three or four
harvests a year in the vicinity of Angkor, but subsequent investigation has
found this possibility remote4.
(Mabbett and Chandler, 1995)
The soils, mostly sandy or
alluvial, are poorly drained, perfect for rice cultivation. The clay found at
relatively shallow depths (0.3-1m) over much of Angkor inhibited the growth
of more demanding crops, but provided a good building material in the form of laterite.
(Mabbett and Chandler, 1995, Fujioka et al., 1972)
The monuments themselves are built
of various materials, most of which could be found within a few tens of
kilometers of Angkor. The early monuments were constructed using clay bricks,
which were made of a mixture of clay and quartz sand. These strong bricks
were easy to manufacture and were strong, but they were extremely difficult to
carve. Thus, brick continued to be used in small shrines, but around the 10th
century there was a shift to the use of stone in larger monuments (Fujioka et
al., 1972). For the larger monuments, such as Angkor Wat, this meant the use
of both laterite and sandstone5.
The substructure, foundation, and retaining walls of these earth-filled monuments
(which could be quite substantial) were built from durable laterite (Leisen,
2002). For the exterior of the temple, the blue variety of sandstone was laid
over the top of the laterite (with the exception of Banteay Srei, which uses
the more durable red sandstone, hence that monument’s exceptional state of
preservation) (Laur, 2002).
Angkor Wat, the largest single
monument of the Angkor group, is a temple-mountain surrounded by three
enclosures, a laterite wall, and a moat. It has five main towers in a quincunx
arrangement, with the four subsidiary towers emerging from the first enclosures
and the main tower reaching the astounding height of 58 m above ground level.
The curbed moat alone is an extremely impressive achievement, measuring 200m
wide and 2m deep in most places. It is calculated that digging this moat
required the transportation of 1,700,000 m3 of earth. Including the
moat, the temple measures 1,470 m by 1,650 m and therefore covers an area in
excess of 240 ha (ibid).
The inner island is served by a
long causeway from the west (an unusual feature for an Angkorean temple, in
this case probably due to the association of this temple with the cult of the
dead) which connects to the island at a large, three-towered entry pavilion, or
gopura. (Fujioka et al., 1972) These gopuras are an elaborate form of
entranceway, and were built wherever a path intersects an enclosure.
The 3rd, outer enclosure
which defines the temple proper measures 187 m by 215 m and consists of an
enclosed rectangular gallery with a corbelled roof (Laur, 2002). The
interior of this gallery contains some of the finest and most important bas-reliefs
in the temple, such as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and the so-called
Historical Parade. These bas-reliefs are important because they give an
enlightening perspective on the symbolic purposes of the temple (to be
discussed later in detail), as well as giving us a glimpse into the life of 13th
century Khmer (Rooney, 2001).
The 2nd enclosure is
raised 5 m from the ground, and is notable for its cruciform gallery, which
divides the southern courtyard into four basins (Laur, 2002). These basins may
have numerological significance as circumambulatory centers (Manikka, 1996).
This enclosure also contains the famous devata sculptures, the celestial
maidens who have entranced so many visitors of the temple6
The 3rd enclosure, the
highest, is raised 12.5 m from the ground of the 2nd enclosure. Here
are four more basins, and also more devatas. Contained within this final
enclosure is the central shrine of Angkor Wat. Originally accessible by four
entrances (each with extremely high thresholds to keep out ground-hugging
spirits), it may now be reached by only one: Therevada Buddhists, zealous
iconoclasts who took over the temple in the 16th century, closed
three of them and placed Buddha statues in front of the niches. There is not
much to see, however, in the central shrine, because the floor was dug out in
1935 to reveal a central well. This well goes all the way down to the ground
and penetrates 23 m into the soil. At the bottom was the foundation stone of
the temple, with several gold leaves and white sapphires (Laur, 2002).
Discovery by the
West and a History of Research
Since the Eastern civilizations had
never forgotten about Angkor in the first place7,
it is somewhat amusing that Westerners have so frequently claimed to discover
it. Nonetheless, if it was not “discovered” in the strictest sense of the
world, there was certainly a brief decade which saw the ruins of Angkor
projected into the minds and hearts of most of intellectual Europe. While much
of the information disseminated was sensationalized and of little real value,
the important fact was that the West was made aware of a new object for the studies
of its burgeoning archaeological institutions. (Dagens, 1995)
This rapid spread of knowledge was
begun in 1864 with the belated publication of the accounts and illustrations of
the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who had traveled to Angkor in 1858-608.
In the same year, Cambodia became a French protectorate, and an exploratory
mission was sent under Doudart de Lagrée. It was soon determined that the ruins
at Angkor deserved archaeological attention. Although Thailand had annexed Angkor
with the province of Siem Reap in 1794, French explorers returned statues and
artifacts piecemeal until the province came under Cambodian (and thus French)
control again in 1907 (ibid).
Once Angkor was officially under
the control of the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, the scientific branch of
the colonial authority in Phnom Penh, study and restoration of the Angkor
group could be carried out in earnest. Initially, much of the work done was to
shore up monuments in imminent danger of collapse. Much of the encroaching jungle
was also hacked away to allow access to the monuments. But the EFEO wished to
take a more active role in the curatorship of the Angkor monuments. In 1927,
the restorers began to use a process called anastylosis, which attempted to
restore monuments to their original condition using clearly marked new work to
replace whatever had been lost to the ages (Laur, 2002). While the results may
have been more aesthetically pleasing to Westerners, some feel today that it is
more important to respect the integrity of the site as a whole than to attempt
to restore it to pristine condition9
These early efforts were often
ineffective and did little to stabilize the monuments, at the cost of a great
disturbance to the local region. Far more important was the work of numerous
epigraphists at translating the tens of thousands of Sanskrit inscriptions
left behind by the Khmer over the centuries. With the deciphering and
cataloguing of these inscriptions, historians could slowly begin to piece
together the historical record of the Khmer. The purpose of Angkor Wat was
now clear (ibid).
Significance of Angkor Wat
The inscriptions left by the Khmer have made
it possible for us to definitively date many monuments, as well as reconstruct
the dynasties of the Angkorean state. From inscriptions at Angkor Wat, we
know that the temple was built during the reign of Suryavarman II, which
lasted from 1113 C.E. until 1150 C.E. It can be postulated that the temple took
at least this long to complete, as certain bas-reliefs in the 3rd
enclosure were left uncompleted10
The temple is a mausoleum for the
king, but also a place of communion with the gods; it, like other temple-mounts,
is an earthly representation of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Brahmanic
cosmology. Every feature of the temple corresponds to this mythical mountain;
the five peaks of Mount Meru to the five towers, the four rivers of Mount Meru
to the four paths of the temple, and the surrounding ocean to the temple’s moat.
And these are just the obvious similarities. Eleanor Manikka has argued
persuasively for another level of symbolic significance based on astronomical
alignments and numerological measurements. While this approach has attracted
much skepticism, the evidence is hard to ignore: when converted into cubits,
many apparently arbitrary measurements are shown to be values with deep religious
numerological significance. For example, an area on the cruciform terrace from
which certain lunar alignments can be made with the subsidiary towers is shown
to possess measurements in modules of 27 cubits, 27 being the length of the lunar
month in days. The towers themselves are each 27 phyeam tall, phyeam being
equivalent to 4 cubits. Another example is that the vertical dimensions of
all five towers add up to 540 cubits, exactly the same length as the entrance
causeway. While some of the significances cited by Manikka may be artifacts of
the process used to select the measurements (that is, trial and error), the
case for the significance of Ankgor Wat as a mandala, or geometric diagram,
seems very strong (1996).
Conservation and Research
In recent years, work at the Angkor
site has taken on international proportions, as archaeological teams have been
sent from just about every developed nation. Much progress is being made with
new technologies, revealing information that was once thought irrevocably lost.
First, evidence has been found
through remote sensing of a larger urban complex underneath and surrounding the
Angkor group monuments. Using a ground-penetrating synthetic aperture radar,
NASA scientists discovered hidden groundworks fitting ancient descriptions of
an extended infrastructure at Angkor11.
This “low-density urban complex” could have housed perhaps one million people,
more than enough to constitute the vibrant cities that Chou Ta-Kuan saw in
1296 (Fletcher and Pottier, 1996).
With regards to Angkor Wat
itself, a Japanese team has used the magnetic susceptibility of sandstone
to discover the sequence by which the large Angkor monuments were built12.
They studied several large monuments, including Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Preah
Kahn, all similar, and discovered that all of the blocks had come from a small
number of quarries. It was therefore possible to distinguish the order in which
the blocks were placed13
(Uchida et al., 2003).
Finally, great strides have been
made in conservation techniques. In particular, it has become much more
feasible to fight the erosion processes that attack the monuments. One such
process, contour scaling, is at work on 30% of the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs,
and can cause the sudden detachment of whole sections of sandstone14.
A German team is combating contour scaling by using minimally invasive drill
techniques to determine the strength of the sandstone at various depths and
to determine if a scale is developing; if it is, a polymer injection through
the drill hole can fix the problem (Leisen, 2002).
The classical civilizations of Rome,
Greece, and Egypt are a firmly ingrained part of our consciousness because
they are the seeds from which our society has flourished. We manage to achieve passing
familiarity with other great cultural traditions, such as the Chinese and Indian,
because they are a part of our world today. But there are other societies, just
as great as any of these, which have, for one unfortunate reason or another,
vanished from the earth.
Through the study of forgotten
cities like Angkor, and their magnificent temples, such as Angkor Wat, we
may come to understand the full breadth of human adaptation. Part of the modern
predicament is an obsession with the subjective; learning about such exotic
masterpieces as Angkor Wat both captivates and stimulates our imagination.
With the recent addition of Angkor Wat to the UNESCO World Heritage List,
it is likely that we will have Angkor Wat to excite us for years to come (Beschaouch,
Bechaouch, A. (2002). Exceptional Measures for a Site of
Exceptional Value. Museum International 213-214, 104-109.
Dagens, B. (1995). Angkor: Heart of an
Asian Empire. Trans. Ruth Sharman. New York:
Harry N. Adams, Inc.
Higham, C. (2001). The Civilization of Angkor.
Berkely: University of California Press.
Fletcher, R. and Pottier, C. (2002). The Gossamer City: a
new inquiry. Museum
Fujioka, M., Tsuenenari, K., Mori, C. (1972). Angkor
Wat. Tokyo: Kodansha International LTD.
Laur, J. (2002). Angkor: An illustrated
Guide to the Monuments. Trans. Diana Pollin. Italy: Flammarion.
Leisen, H. (2002). Contour Scaling: the disfiguring disease
of Angkor Wat reliefs.
Museum International 213-214,
Mabbett, I. and Chandler, D.P. (1995). The Khmers. Oxford:
Manikka, E. (1996). Angkor Wat: Time,
Space, and Kingship. Honolulu: University of
Rooney, D.F. (2001). Angkor Observed.
Bankok: Orchid Press.
Uchida, E., Cunin, O., Shimoda, I., Suda, C., and Nakagawa,
T. (2003). The construction
process of the Angkor monuments
elucidated by the magnetic susceptibility of
sandstone. Archaeometry 45,
Obviously the ruins of Angkor were not built by Trajan, who lived centuries
before even traces of pre-Angkorean style appear in the archaeological
record. Intriguingly, however, Fujioka, Tsunenari, and Mori note a strong
Western influence from an architectural point of view:
“Ornamental patterns that are
Western in type appear on pilasters, false doors, and lintels: these are
leaf-shaped …. The fact that some of the leaves closely resemble the acanthus,
as it was used in Greece and Rome, might seem coincidental, with no
relationship to classical Western art, but this would be a rather simplistic
judgment, since Roman-type arabesques based on the curled leaf are found on
the pillars of such buildings as Prah Ko and Bakon Lolei.” (1972)
Given the separation, in both time and distance,
between the Roman and Angkorean empires, this comparison seems a bit
far-fetched, although the authors do concede that the validity of this
conjecture must be further investigated.
Most of the temples of the Angkorean group fall into one of two categories:
flat temples and temple-mountains. Flat temples, somewhat ironically, are not
necessarily flat, often constructed of one or more towers, but crucially, are placed
upon a flat terrace or simply the ground. These monuments were built to honor
mortals, both as memorials and as apparati of deification. Temple-mountains,
on the other hand, are strikingly vertical structures designed to praise the
gods. This distinction is to be taken broadly, as any flat temple would contain
references to the gods, and any temple-mountain is partially an aggrandizement
of the ruler’s prestige (Laur, 2002).
A striking example is the dress of the Khmers, as reported by the Chinese envoy
Chou Ta-kuan, who visited Angkor in the 13th century during the
reign of Jayavarman VIII. This consisted merely of a simple, pleated skirt
called a sampot, worn by both men and women. Women wore nothing above the
waist. Another aspect of technology affected by the climate was the technique
by which houses were built. Chou reports that the houses were built six feet
off of the ground around a tree, not to avoid flooding but to allow adequate
air circulation. Curtains lowered during the day enclosed the houses to cool
them, and were raised at night (Mabbett and Chandler, 1995)
This “hydraulic theory” of Angkorean civilization, put forth by the eminent Khmer
scholar Bernard Groslier in “La cité hydraulique Angkorienne,” holds that the
numerous reservoirs, or barays, were built by Khmer rulers as the feeders
for extensive and complex irrigation systems, which supplemented the average
1 m per yr rainfall to allow the multiple harvests attested to by Chou Ta-Kuan.
There are technical problems with this hypothesis, however, in the transfer of
water from the barays to the peripheral canals, and it now seems unlikely
that such an advanced scheme was ever in place (Ibid).
Laterite is a type of infertile, iron-bearing soil that is formed by the
rotting away of clay minerals in solution. It is easy to obtain by digging
about a meter down into the soil throughout much of the Angkor area, although
there is some question as to where the quarries actually were. Once removed
from the ground, the laterite was cut using a specialized method and allowed
to dry. As it desiccated in the Cambodian sun, an extremely hard, ferruginous
crust formed, making the material suitable for use in substructures and
retaining walls, but not as an exterior to be carved and decorated (Fujioka et
al., 1972). The foundation consisted of a bed of crushed rocks placed directly
on the sandy soil. On top of the rocks were placed the uncemented laterite
foundation blocks. The failure of the Khmer builders to properly pack the
sand has resulted in serious subsidence problems (Laur, 2002).
After Henri Mouhot’s “discovery” was made known to Europe in the 1870’s, the
temple was much romanticized, and many conflicting and spurious accounts were
given of the features of Angkor Wat. The beauty of these devatas, however,
was one nearly universal theme. Here is the breathless account of Pierre Loti,
“Oh! the adorable creatures
here and there upon the walls, as if to afford a respite to the eyes from the
long battle …. How lovingly the artists of old have chiseled and polished
their Virgin-like breasts!... What has become, I wonder, of the dust of the
beauties from whom their perfect bodies were copied?
These devatas, known commonly by the misnomer ‘apsares,’
apparently were servants of the gods, and the implication is that they served
as a harem. As the entirety of Khmer art is notably devoid of the explicitly
erotic elements found so strongly in similar Indian sculpture, the devatas,
while lithe, appear almost plain in their monotonous lack of individuality:
they are mirror images of each other (Rooney, 2001).
The Chinese, in particular, had contact with the Khmer for hundreds of
years, and numerous reports of such contacts have been preserved for us by the
remarkable Chinese archival tradition. Especially useful are the accounts of Chou
Ta-kuan, and his less famous contemporary, Ma Touan Lin, which tell us much
about the daily lives of the Khmer people (Dagens, 1995).
Mouhot himself never claimed to have discovered anything, merely devoting
himself to the faithful reproduction of his experiences. He acknowledged that
there were, in fact, many visitors to Angkor before him, upon whose
collective experience he drew. Some of these visitors had even published
accounts, and one, Father Jean Commaille, unfairly accused Mouhot of taking
undue credit. The popularity of Mouhot’s account was simply due to its honesty
of character and true-to-life illustrations that truly captured the
Jean Laur is not among those voices. He writes that the process of anastylosis
was “unfortunately” stopped in 1960 – one year after the end of his curatorship.
The reliefs eventually were completed in the 16th century by the
inhabitants of Angkor, who were believed to be Khmer at that time. (Laur, 2002)
The work, unfortunately, is of inferior quality, and devoid of the original
significance of the temple.
This sort of radar has revolutionized the field of remote archaeology because
it allows the visualization of elements that would be completely impossible to
see from the ground. It can pick up large-scale disturbances in the earth that
are evidence of human influence, and detect the foundations of buildings even
when only subsurface rubble remains (Fletcher and Pottier, 1996).
Magnetic susceptibility is the degree to which a substance becomes magnetized
when exposed to a magnetic field. Materials with higher magnetic
susceptibilities often contain ferromagnetic substances; in the case of sandstone
it is most likely a result of trace amounts of magnetite, rather than the
more prevalent but magnetically weak biotite (Uchida et al., 2003).
Actually, the building order of Angkor Wat itself could not be determined,
because all the blocks from that monument came from the same quarry. It is
known from inscriptions, however, that the process used to build Angkor Wat
was the same as used for other, similar monuments. This research should
eventually allow researchers to pinpoint the quarry from which any sandstone
block was cut, although at the moment access to the quarries is limited due to the
presence of landmines on key paths (ibid).
Sandstone formed from clay soils, as is found in much of Cambodia, acquires
some of the chemical and structural characteristics of clay – layers of
interlinked crystals held together by relatively weak attractive forces.
When water molecules infiltrate these layers, they can swell and begin to
separate. If the slabs are laid perpendicular to the bedding plane, large
areas, or “scales,” can begin to detach from the sandstone. This sets the
stage for the sudden loss of valuable bas-reliefs which must then be
reattached (Leisen, 2002).