Throughout the semester, my classmates and myself have been working on a research paper involving an example of non-western architecture of our choosing. The architectural work that I selected is Angkor Wat. I would like to share some interesting information that I've found. Though the name and general information about this temple in Cambodia is well known, the magnitude and beauty of Angkor Wat may be lost on even the most astute architectural scholars.
The Buddhist temple known as Angkor Wat began its long history in northern Cambodia in the early 12th century. It is a product of the ancient Khmer Empire. As interesting as the temple is itself, it serves to tell the stories of the people involved in its distant past. It has survived the ever-changing political and natural landscape it has found itself in with great poise. Though it is partly succumbing to the landscape around it, it is still serves as a testament to the resourcefulness of the people who built it. (Fujioka, Tsunenari & Mori, 1972)
Suryavarman, the Khmer king who commissioned the construction, broke with the tradition of his ancestors and dedicated the temple to the god Vishnu instead of the more common Shiva. Purportedly for this reason, the temple faces the west. The west was considered to be the domain of the god Vishnu. The people of Khmer toiled away at the construction of the moat and temple for approximately thirty to thirty-five years before they finally finished. From the excavation of the moat to the skilled carving of the bas-reliefs, it took nearly the whole reserve of man-power to complete Angkor Wat in time for Suryavarman's death. (Mannikka, 1996)
The word “angkor” translates to English as “town”, “thom” translates to “town”, and “wat” literally translates to a pagoda. Therefore, Angkor Wat can be characterized as the royal temple of its host city, Angkor Thom. (Fujioka, Tsunenari & Mori, 1972) The influence of the pagoda upon ancient Khmer architecture can be traced from farther east in China. The tiered form of the pagoda is representative of an religious ascension. As a visitor climbs the levels of the building, they also embark upon an upward journey of the soul. The pagoda itself is, just as many other elements of the Khmer civilization, was an interpretation of the Indian stupa. A stupa is a domed structure representative of the Great Buddha himself. (Stratton, 2000)
Few descriptions of Angkor Wat are as poetic as that of the architect from the eleventh century, Ramacandra Kaulacara. About it, he stated:
He, the creator (Visvakarman), lays out the plan of the universe according to measure and number. This small universe (the temple) has to be situated with respect to the vaster universe, of which it forms a part. It has to fall into line with the position of the earth in relation to the course of the sun, and also the movement of the planets. The layout of a temple is based on fundamental cosmic and metaphysical conceptions that govern the whole structure. The situation of the temple must, in its space directions, be established in relation to the motion of the heavenly bodies. But inasmuch as it incorporates in a single synthesis, the unequal courses of the sun, the moon, and the planets, it also symbolizes all recurrent time sequences: the day, the month, the year.
Angkor Wat has served the local people in so many different ways throughout the years. It is an awe inspiring religious monument for Hindus and Buddhists alike. It has relatively recently become a tourist draw. Without fail, since antiquity, it has given the people of Cambodia more than they gave to create it. In any creative practice, whether architecture or any other artistic expression is examined, that is a true testament to the success of one's efforts. Does it give back? Angkor Wat has for centuries and continues to today.
Fujioka, M., Tsunenari, K., & Mori, C. (1972). Angkor wat. Tokyo: Kodansha International.
Mannikka, E. (1996). Angkor wat: Time, space, and kingship. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Stratton, E. (2000). The evolution of indian stupa architecture in east asia. New Delhi: Vedams ebooks Pvt Ltd.