The symbolism of Angkor Wat

Visit to Kuala Lumpur and Cambodia – 3

 

We entered Angkor Wat through the western entrance gopura, which is also the main entrance, for the temple faces west. Once inside, we realised the complicated structure of the architectural plan with a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways.

A slight detour to the right took us to the shrine under the southern tower and there was an idol of Vishnu, tall and majestic with eight arms standing under a saffron coloured umbrella made of shining silk.

combodia VISHNU

The headgear was shaped differently from that adorning deities in south India. A few flowers were placed at the foot and a middle-aged woman with tear-filled eyes was sitting and praying there. The place has an aura of its own.

There is just enough space to prostrate before the deity and to circumambulate. You look around for his consort, Goddess Lakshmi, and you shrink at the sight of a headless figure nearby! When I expressed my shock and disappointment, Chi observed, “The bad people caused all the destruction.”

A word about the architecture of Angkor Wat and its symbolism:

Suryavarman II (1113-50) had a long reign in which he was besieged by invasions from neighbouring enemies – the Chams in South Vietnam and the Siamese (the Thais today) in Thailand.

Despite waging wars with these two kingdoms, he built Angkor Wat , the greatest architectural achievement of the Khmers. The height of the temple is 213 metres (699 ft.) with three rectangular or square levels .Each one is progressively smaller and higher from the one below starting from the outer limits of the temple. Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and second levels.

The third level supports five towers – four in the corners and one in the middle which are the most prominent features of Angkor Wat. Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point which makes the overall profile look like a lotus bud.

The ingenious plan of the temple is quite deceptive from the entrance which appears like a colossal mass with one level and you get to see all the five towers only from certain angles.

Symbolism

Angkor Wat is a microcosm of the Hindu Universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The moat represents the mythical oceans surrounding the earth and the succession of concentric galleries represents the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the Gods. The towers represent the mountain’s peaks and the experience of the ascent, to the central shrine is, may be intentionally a fairly convincing imitation of climbing a real mountain.

We were amply convinced after reaching the top puffing and panting , drenched in sweat , but with a great deal of satisfaction of having made it to ‘Mount Kailash’ as Chi compared it to the ultimate experience of reaching God “which was not easy”, he said.

Gallery of bas-reliefs

One of the most famous creations in Khmer art cover the exterior walls of Angkor Wat’s third enclosure, just above ground level. Except for two panels which depict the historic procession of Suryavarman II and the Heavens and Hells, the source for themes for bas-reliefs is mainly our Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha.

We were fascinated by the detailed presentation of the battle of Kurukshetra along the south half of the western gallery and the churning of the sea of milk along the south half of the east gallery.

In the north-west corner pavilion a scene has Vishnu with four arms depicted in sitting pose surrounded by a bevy of Apsaras (here Chi enlightened us about their importance in Khmer art). On top of this scene we see the celestial beauties floating with lissome grace and underneath, Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta and floating on the ocean. His upper torso rests on his shoulder and his consort Lakshmi sits near his feet.

Finally, after a tour of nearly two hours we emerged from the temple quite exhausted when Chi said it was the right time to view the sun set in all its glory. We expectantly walked towards the moat from where we could also have a view of all the five gopuras but the sun set eluded us because the sky suddenly turned cloudy.

The row of shops on our way out seemed to beckon us with oversized tender coconuts displayed prominently. “One dollar each,” said the young girl and it didn’t appear too much of a price to pay at that moment!

N Meera Raghavendra Rao

 

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