Before French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, before the uninvited American intervention during the Vietnam War, before “sainted” President Reagan’s support for the murderous Pol Pot, his reign of horror and the civil war he pursued for a decade after his overthrow in 1979 by Vietnamese forces, there was the glory of the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th century) and it’s capital the Royal City of Angkor Thom.
The greatest of the 292 temples that comprise Angkor Thom is the 12th century Angkor Wat constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II (1112-1150) when the Khmer Empire was at its height dominating most of present day Southeast Asia. The temple complex covers over 200 acres making it the largest religious complex on Earth. It was built to impress. Its outer walls and outer temple are at the end of a 1,000 foot stone causeway over an equally wide 30 feet deep hand dug moat. The inner temple complex is reached by walking on another 1,000 foot raised stone causeway through the vast interior courtyard.
To attempt a detailed explanation of Angkor Wat, its architectural significance and the meanings of its intricate bas reliefs requires a text-book. Viewing any of the temples with out arranging for a private guide (US$45-55 for 8-hours, guide and driver) would be a waste of time. The bas reliefs of Angkor Wat are the largest in the world covering dozens of walls hundreds of feet in length and 12 – 15 feet in height. They are in stunning condition. Both carved into solid sandstone and covered from the elements over the centuries they tell the stories of Khmer glory and the religious texts of Hinduism in excruciating detail. Many are horizontal tryptics: royal life/battles top third, everyday life middle third and the ocean or hell on the bottom third.
King Suryavarman II is depicted (picture below) riding in triumph on an elephant covered with the 15 umbrellas that signify his rank as god-king.
The Khmer Empire at its beginning was Hindu, but openly adopted Mahayana Buddhism in the 12th century. The Buddha, a Hindu prince himself, was not a religious monolith and therefore Mahayana Buddhism blends all of Hindu beliefs within Buddhist teachings – the divine trinity, heaven/hell (good and evil), the commandments. The result is a masterful melange of art and philosophy.
By the 14th century the Khmer Empire was under assault by its neighbors, especially the Kingdom of Thailand which succeeded in sacking Angkor Thom. The Royal Court moved south and the jungle slowly overtook 291 of the temples. Angkor Wat was, for the most part, spared that fate due to the diligence of the Buddhist monks who refused to abandon the complex even during the horrendous events of the recent Southeast Asian wars. Angkor Wat today is an active temple with two Buddhist monasteries – it is “Mecca” for Mahayana Buddhist monks. UNESCO World Heritage status and on-going restoration projects (currently being conducted with Japanese and German funding) once again are making the temple the focal point in Khmer culture it enjoyed in the 12th century.
Angkor Wat is a fitting symbol for both the Kingdom of Cambodia, which is enjoying its longest period of peace and stability (20 years) in centuries, and the resilience of the Khmer culture.