Saturday, June 23, 2007

Angkor Wat - Cambodia

Angkor Wat, a temple complex dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu, was built in the twelfth century a.d. in the ancient city of Angkor, 192 miles (310 kilometers) northwest of Phnom Penh. It is probably the largest (and, as many have claimed, the most beautiful) religious monument ever constructed. Certainly it is the most famous of all Khmer temples.

Angkor served as the capital of the Khmer Empire of Cambodia from a.d. 802 until 1295. Evidence uncovered since 1996 has led some scholars to assert that the site may have been occupied some 300 years earlier than first thought, obviously affecting accepted chronologies. Whatever the case, its powerful kings held sway from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunnan, China, and westward from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal. The city site was probably chosen for strategic reasons and for the agricultural potential of the region. The Khmer civilization was at its height between 879 and 1191, and as a result of several ambitious construction projects, Angkor eventually grew into a huge administrative and social center stretching north to south for 8 miles (13 kilometers) and east to west for 15 miles (24 kilometers). The population possibly reached 1 million.

Apart from the hundreds of buildings—temples, schools, hospitals, and houses—there was an extensive system of reservoirs and waterways. The public and domestic buildings, all of timber, have long since decayed. But because they were the only structures in which masonry was permitted, over 100 temple sites survive. Earlier examples were mostly of brick, but later, the porous, iron-bearing material known as laterite was used, and still later sandstone, quarried about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.

The city of Angkor was the cult center of Devaraja, the “god-king,” and an important pilgrimage destination. The Khmer kings themselves, from Jayavarman II (802–850) onward, had come to be worshiped as gods, and the temples they built were regarded as not only earthly but also as symbols of Mount Meru, the cosmological home of the Hindu deities. The official state religion was worship of the Siva Lingam, which signified the king’s divine authority. Jayavarman II had identified the kingship with Siva, and acting upon that precedent, King Suryavarman H (1113—ca. 1150) presented himself as an incarnation of Vishnu. He built Angkor Wat as a temple and administrative center for his empire and as his own sepulcher (which is why it faces west); to celebrate his status, he dedicated it to Vishnu.

Financed by the spoils of war and taking over thirty years to finish, the sandstone-and-laterite Angkor Wat occupies a 2,800-by-3,800-foot (850-by-1,000-meter) rectangular site. Its layout provides an architectural allegory of the Hindu cosmology. The temple is surrounded by a 590-foot-wide (180-meter) moat, over 3 miles (5 kilometers) long, which represents the primordial ocean. A causeway decorated with carvings of the divine serpents leads to a 617-foot-long (188-meter) bridge that gives access to the most important of four gates. The temple is reached by passing through three galleries separated by paved walkways. It is an approximately pyramidal series of terraces and small buildings arranged in three ascending stories—they stand for the mountains that encompass the world—and surmounted at the center by a temple “mountain” of five lotus-shaped towers, symbolizing the five peaks of Mount Meru. Four of the original nine towers have succumbed to time and weather. The temple walls are replete with wonderfully crafted bas-reliefs, many of which were once painted and gilded, including about 1,700 heavenly nymphs and others that depict scenes of Khmer daily life, episodes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the exploits of Vishnu and Siva, and (of course) the heroic deeds of King Suryavarman II.

In 1177 Angkor fell to the Cham army from northern Cambodia, who held it until it was retaken early in the reign of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (1181–ca. 1215). When he built Angkor Thom nearby he dedicated his new capital to Buddhism, and Angkor Wat became a Buddhist shrine. Many of its carvings and statues of Hindu deities were replaced by Buddhist art. The Thais sacked Angkor in 1431. The following year the Khmers abandoned the city, and it was left to the encroaching jungle for a few centuries. However, Theravada Buddhist monks kept Angkor Wat as intact as possible until the late nineteenth century, making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Southeast Asia.

The French explorer Henri Mouhot “discovered” Angkor in 1860. After French imperialism imposed itself in Indochina in 1863, the site attracted the scholarly interest of westerners. In 1907, when Cambodia had been made a French protectorate and Thailand returned Angkor to its control, L’École Française d’Extreme Orient established the Angkor Conservation Board. It seems that for forty years the European colonizers were more interested in reconstructing Angkor Wat than in undertaking scholarly restoration. The prodigal use of reinforced concrete made many of the buildings unrecognizable. The vandalism was mercifully halted when Khmer Rouge guerrillas occupied the site, followed by the Vietnamese army. When an uneasy peace was restored in 1986, the Archaeological Survey of India took up the project, replacing much of the French work with more modern and less intrusive techniques. At the invitation of the Cambodian government, the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor began a four-year preservation and restoration project in November 1994, initially focused on the Bayon temple in Angkor Thom but extending to the outer buildings of Angkor Wat. Because of delays caused by the July 1997 conflicts in Cambodia, the program was extended into 1999.

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