The Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia is One of Asia’s Finest
People know Cambodia mainly because of the infamous Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot. The infamy they received was very much deserved, after what they have done to the people of Cambodia, something that remains unforgotten even until today. For the unacquainted, the Khmer Rouge ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, although it was able to maintain a stronghold in the Anlong Veng District until 1998. Although the statistics are hazy, especially due of the reclusive of the Khmer Rouge to cooperate, it is known that more than one million Cambodians died during Pol Pot’s rule through its extreme social engineering and through extreme torture and execution, as well a forced labor. Although obviously a very important part of the country’s history, the regime of the Khmer Rouge was not thought in schools as part of the student’s history curriculum, although the government has allowed the teaching of the Pol Pot regime in the 2009 academic year. This perhaps can attribute to the younger generation’s lack of knowledge regarding the atrocities the Khmer Rouge has done.
In any case, Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country that attracts more than two to four million tourists a year, has more to offer than just a gruesome history. The country has only recently opened itself to the foreign country, making it a relatively new and definitely exciting tourist destination. Cambodia boasts of its pristine beaches in Sihanoukville and its capital, Phnom Penh. However, one of their most renowned attractions is the Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the most fascinating, magnificent, and important archaeological parks in Asia—and among of the most notable in the world. This archaeological park contains a number of artifacts and remnants from the Khmer Empire that lasted six centuries (from the 9th century to the 15th century). It is also part of one of the World Heritage site list of UNESCO, along with Preah Vihear, a Cambodian temple. Today, however, the Preah Vihear is part of the territory being disputed by the Cambodian and Thailand governments.
The rise of the Khmer Empire and the rise of Angkor
Obviously, the Khmer Empire is the base of what today is now the country of Cambodia. Before the empire, the country was rule by the Chenla, a pre-Khmer kingdom that was mainly of Chinese origins. It was able to hold its power until the 15th century, although the kingdom as a whole already began to decline by the 12th or 13th century. The Khmer Empire was founded by Jayavarman II; it was Angkor (which is now known as the Angkor Archaeological Park) that served as the seat of the entire empire. However, it was during the time of Suryavarman II when the main temple of the Angkor was built—the Angkot Wat, constructed in 1113 and finished in 1150. As withy most historical sites that survive today, the Angkor was looted by invaders—mostly from Thailand—during the empire’s end. Because of this, Angkor as was neglected, except for the Angkor Wat which served as a religious center.
In any case, the Angkor served as the center of the Khmer Empire, which explains why it is very significant in the country’s history and culture. As an archaeological site, it gave many clues to historical happenings during that period, many of which had holes and gaps due to insufficient documentation. In fact, many of what is known today about the Khmer Empire was acquired through what was found in Angkor. The Angkor is actually the whole area that encompasses the capitals of many Khmer rulers.
Angkor Wat is the centerpiece of this archaeological park. Of course, more than that, it is also the most recognizable icon in the country; after all, it appeared in all the version of the country’s national flag. Of all the temples in the Angkor, the Angkor Wat is the only temple within the site that remained its religious significance. The rulers of the Khmer Empire—just like the royal family of Japan—were viewed as part religious leaders; although not so much when compared to Tibet’s the Dalai Lama. In any case, besides being the seat of power, the Angkor Wat was also a Hindu temple, in dedication to Vishnu, the supreme God in Hinduism. The name “Angkor Wat is presumably modern, although its actual name during the Khmer Empire isn’t known. Angkor, from Sanskrit where the word was derived, means city; hence, Angkor, the center of the empire, is literally a city. On the other hand, Wat means palace—making Angkor Wat a “city palace.” Of course, judging from its history, its grandeur, and its various functions, this quaint description does not do justice to the spectacular
The Angkor Wat is remarkable until today because it incorporates traditional Khmer architectural styles, particularly those applied when building Khmer temples: the galleried temple and the temple mountain. Temple mountains serve as the representation of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Jain mythology, Buddhist cosmology, and Hindu. Mount Meru is supposed to be the home Hindu gods, represented by the sanctuary at the temple’s center. Although there are other temple mountains in the country, the first being the Bakong, the Angkor Wat remains to be the most notable temple mountain in the country. The galleried temple, on the other hand, pertains to the temple’s passageway, a cruciform that separates the Angkor Wat courtyards. Because of this, the Angkor Wat is also a prime example of classical Khmer architecture; designers even coined a term, “the Angkor Wat style,” pertaining to the general style of the temple. One of the known proponents of the Angkor Wat style is the use of the devatas, or deities in the Hindu religion. The devatas are main features in the decoration of the temple.
This design is noted for its use of sandstone blocks and laterite, using what could slaked lime or resins as binding agents. Many compare the Angkor Wat to architecture in ancient Rome or ancient Greece. Although grand and elaborate, the Angkor Wat remains to restrained, as some experts say. This restraint is probably the result of balanced elements in the temple—their arrangements are all in proportion, making the Angkor Wat as a whole unified, powerful, and stylistically superior. The decorations of the Angkor Wat are particularly famed, since it is carefully integrated with the whole architecture of the temple. For instance, the inner walls in the temple’s outer gallery have engraved scenes depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which are Hindu epics. The western gallery, on the other hand, has carvings of the Battle of Lanka (also from the epic Ramayana) and the Battle of Kurukshetra (which is from the epic Mahabharata). Meanwhile, the southern gallery has carvings of a historical scene—Suryavarman II’s procession (Suryavarman II was responsible for the construction of the Angkor Wat)—and an illustration of Hindu mythology’s 32 hells and 37 heavens. However, the most popular among these galleries is the eastern gallery, with is Churning of the Sea of Milk wall carving. Again, what makes this more famed is that most of the decorations here are products of relief. When Suryavarman II died, the construction of the Angkor Wat was not yet complete. And since the temple was the ruler’s idea, succeeding constructions had to rely on bas-relief to finish the construction of the Angkor Wat.
Ironically, although the Angkor Wat was mainly a place in honor of Hindu gods and Hindu beliefs, the temple was turned into a Theravada Buddhist temple. Buddhism was actually among the prominent religions in the pre-Angkor Cambodia. However, Theravada Buddhism became prominent in Cambodia during the 13th century, most due to foreign pressures brought about by the attack of the Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still practice in Cambodia.
But the Angkor Wat isn’t the only notable temple within the premise of the Angkor Archaeological Park. Another famed structure here is the Bayon, located at the Angkor Thom. The Bayon obviously isn’t as popular as the Angkor Wat, but it is nonetheless notable as it served as Jayavarman VII’s state temple, making it the seat of power during his time. Like the Angkor Wat, the Bayon was modified according to what was the prevailing religion then, usually Theravada Buddhism and Hindu. The Bayon—and the Angkor Thom—is known for the stone faces on the towers of the building, which many describe as massive yet serene. And just like the Angkor Wat, many of the decors here are products of bas-relief. The Bayon in general is described as baroque, in contrast to the classical style that was mainly the inspiration of Angkor Wat. Therefore, the Bayon isn’t concerned as an example of basic Khmer architecture.
The Bayon is known to be the last state temple built inside the Angkor. It was built during the end of the 12th century, while the Angkor Wat was built during that century’s first half. Nonetheless, Bayon was Jayavarman VII’s centerpiece program in public works, since he built a number of bridges and walls within Angkor Thom. He also built temples in Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, and Preah Khan. At that time, the prevailing religion in the country was already Mahayana Buddhism, which was Jayavarman VII’s religion of choice. The Bayon was ultimately altered during the following years of the Khmer Empire. For instance, the Bayon became a Hindu temple during Jayavarman VIII’s reign. According to research, a number of the inner galleries, the upper terrace, and the libraries were not included in the Bayon’s original plan.
The Bayon also has noted galleries with carvings from historical and religious sources. Some, on the other hand, are not in tune with the general design of the carvings since it was also a product of bas-relief. Carvings on the outer gallery include images of the marching Khmer army, scenes of domestic life in Angkor, scenes from the battle between the Khmer forces and the Cham forces, among others. On the other hand, the inner gallery contains carvings based on Hindu mythology. This part was probably included during the structure’s later years, since the one who constructed the Bayon was Buddhist. The upper terrace contains the face towers, home to 200 faces of Lakesvara. Lakesvara is a bodhisattva, a prominent figure in Mahayana Buddhism. The central tower, now in circular form, used to house a statue of Buddha in its sanctuary, although Javayarman ordered the statue to be destroyed. Pieced back together, the Buddha statue is displayed in Angkor.
Cambodia and Angkor today
Of course, there is no question that Angkor is very important to Cambodia. After all, tourism is part of Cambodia’s major source of money, and tourists mainly go to the Angkor Archaeological Park when visiting the country. It is termed as an archaeological park because many of the sites are major and significant archaeological sites, such as the Phnom Bakheng, the Phnom Krom, the Baksei Chamkrong, the West Baray, and the Terrace of the Elephants, among others. Expectedly, all of them are significant as they present and illustrate part of the history of the Khmer Empire. For instance, the Terrace of the Elephants was used by Jayavarman VII as a viewing platform, to see the return of his victorious army. It is also among the many structures he made during his time. The Phnom Bakheng, on the other hand, is one of the most visited areas in the park—and also one of the oldest, since it was built two centuries before the more popular Angkor War. It served as King Yasodharapura’s capital centerpiece. Like the Angkor Wat, it is also a representation of the sacred Hindu Mount Meru, home of Hindu gods.
According to reports, aggressive tourism in the country is endangering the Angkor; which is why the UNESCO included the Angkor Archaeological Park as part of their endangered World Heritage list. In efforts to conserve and protect this sprawling Cambodian gem, the local government and other international agencies are working on ways to preserve the area, an effort which started even as early as the 19th century.