What is Angkor Wat?
A massive Buddhist temple complex, Angkor Wat can be found in northern Cambodia. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple sometime around the first part of the 12th century. Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple complex in terms of land area, spanning over 400 acres. The name, which means “temple city” in Khmer, refers to the fact that it was constructed as the state temple and political capital of the region’s empire by Emperor Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150.
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple to honor Vishnu, but by the end of the 12th century, it had been converted into a Buddhist shrine.
Despite extensive damage incurred during the dictatorial rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and earlier regional battles, the temple continues to serve as an important tourist attraction in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Location
About five kilometers to the north of modern Siem Reap, the Cambodian city that is home to over 200,000 people, is where you’ll find the ruins of Angkor Wat.
The Khmer empire, which governed the area at the time it was constructed, called it home. Khmer words “Angkor” and “Wat” both mean “capital city” and “temple,” respectively.
Since Suryavarman II, the region’s monarch at the time practiced Hinduism, the first incarnation of Angkor Wat was conceived as a Hindu temple. By the end of the 12th century, however, it had been designated as a Buddhist pilgrimage place.
Unfortunately, by that time, Angkor Wat had already been sacked by a rival Khmer tribe; consequently, the Khmer relocated their capital to Angkor Thom and their state temple to Bayon, a few kilometers to the north of the historic site, at the instruction of the new emperor, Jayavarman VII.
The mythos of Angkor Wat grew in importance alongside the temple’s role in the local Buddhist community. Many Buddhists think the god Indra personally oversaw the construction of the temple and that it was built in a single night.
The design and construction of Angkor Wat, however, took decades of academic study to determine.
Structure of Angkor Wat
Although Angkor Wat lost its importance as a political, cultural, and commercial center by the 13th century, it continued to serve as a significant Buddhist monument well into the early modern era.
True, Angkor Wat was never truly abandoned like so many other historical places. Instead, it slowly lost importance and began to deteriorate as time went on.
Even yet, it remained a one-of-a-kind architectural wonder. French explorer Henri Mouhot “rediscovered” it in the 1840s, describing it as “grander than anything bequeathed to us by Greece or Rome.”
Given that the temple is meant to depict Mount Meru—the abode of the gods in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems—it is not hard to see why it has received such praise. The walls and moat below are meant to represent the surrounding mountain ranges and the sea, while the five towers above are meant to represent the five summits of Mount Meru.
The Khmer had already perfected their distinctive sandstone-based architectural style by the time this structure was built. Because of this, sandstone stones were used in the building of Angkor Wat.
The city, its temple, and its inhabitants were defended by a wall 15 feet high and a broad moat, both of which are still in place. The primary entrance to the temple was via a sandstone causeway.
Beyond these fortifications is more than 200 acres of Angkor Wat. The city, the temple, and the emperor’s palace (located to the north of the temple) were probably all part of one larger territory.
The city’s outer walls and the temple were constructed of sandstone, while the rest of the city was built using wood and other, less sturdy materials, as was the custom of the period. Therefore, the temple and city wall are only partially intact.
Nonetheless, the temple is a magnificent building: At its pinnacle, atop the tower that overlooks the main shrine, it rises to a height of about 70 feet.
Thousands of bas-reliefs depicting gods and heroes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology and pivotal moments from the temple’s narrative history decorate the temple’s walls. On the other hand, a bas-relief shows Emperor Suryavarman II entering the city for the first time, possibly after it had been completed.
Present-Day Angkor Wat
Even though Angkor Wat was in use until the 1800s, the site has been severely damaged by things like forest overgrowth, earthquakes, and conflict.
In the early 1900s, the French, who dominated the area now known as Cambodia for much of the 20th century, set up a committee to repair the monument for tourist purposes. This organization was also responsible for monitoring any current archaeological digs.
Although some restoration was done when France was in control, serious work didn’t start until the 1960s. By that time, Cambodia had begun the process of transforming from colonial authority to a constrained type of constitutional monarchy.
Angkor Wat astonishingly survived the devastating civil war that ravaged Cambodia in the 1970s with just minor damage. Bullet holes can be found on the outside walls of the historic city as a result of fighting between troops from the neighboring country of Vietnam and the despotic and barbaric Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
Since then, delegates from India, Germany, and France, among others, have participated in ongoing restoration efforts in Cambodia, despite various changes in the country’s governing structure. Cambodians continue to look to the spot with great pride.
It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1992. Once visited by only tens of thousands of people every year, Angkor Wat now attracts over a few million tourists annually, many of whom arrive before dawn to photograph the sunrise over what is still a very wonderful and spiritual area.