Once we crossed the naga icon, we were overwhelmed by the sight of the temple towers soaring ahead of us. Graduated layers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point. The overall profile is much like a lotus bud. The five stone towers are said to mimic the five mountain ranges of Mt. Meru, the mythical home of the gods.
We paused, just sitting on the stone steps imbibing the sublime beauty of the temple as the rays of the morning sun slowly caressed its magnificent towers.
After the much needed respite (we have been on our feet from four in the morning to have a glimpse of the famed sunrise!), we made our way to savour the famed bas reliefs that adorn the galleries.
The lower gallery which wraps around the temple is replete with a plethora of incredible bas reliefs. When we enter from the east, the first bas relief that we set our eyes on was the legendary Churning Of The Ocean. Ninety-two asuras (demons) on the left and eighty-eight devas (gods) on the right grasp the serpent Vasuki at opposite ends and pull back and forth for1,000 years as they try to produce amrita, the nectar of immortality. The serpent coils around Mount Meru, which serves as the implement to churn the ocean. Gods and demons stretch across the entire panel. Above them, apsaras dance in the heavens. A four-armed Vishnu dances in the centre of the panel. A demon king holds the head of the serpent while the god of monkeys, Hanuman, holds its tail high over the devas’ heads. Below the temple mount and the dancing Vishnu, Kurma, a reincarnation of Vishnu in the shape of a tortoise, provides a solid base in the churning ocean for Mount Meru to rest on. Mythical sea creatures swim around the bottom of the panel. The entire panel which stretches across a vast span is distinctive in its harmony of proportions and purity of lines. Its dynamism and lightness of touch gives it an ethereal quality. There are many different explanations and interpretations of the legend of the Churning Of The Ocean. But to me the ocean is a symbolic representative of the mind and transformation and realization of self is a churning process which requires an integration of both positive and negative aspects of the human personality.
We had to really prise ourselves away from this stunningly beautiful panel to have a look at others which adorn the outer wall of the temple. The bas relief depict battle scenes and stories from the Hindu epics. There are depictions of the battle of Kurukshetra, Lanka, Vishnu subduing the asuras, Krishna confronting the Bana and depictions of Suryavarman II. The portrayals of the battle scenes are very vivid with foot soldiers, warriors on horses, elephants.
The panels run horizontally along the wall and mostly consist of two or three levels. Sometimes the borders at the top and bottom are also decorated. Often traces of gilt and paint can be found on the relief's. Some of the artistic representations are quite interesting. A river is represented by two parallel lines with fish swimming between them while a person's rank is indicated by his size: higher the rank the larger the size. In battle scenes, broken shafts on the ceremonial umbrellas of a chief signify defeat. The detail, quality of composition and execution of the panels is outstanding. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the reliefs. The effect is one of textured wallpaper that looks like the work of painters rather than sculptors. The bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat are truly a repository of sublime art, a glowing testament to human creativity. When I was looking at these panels it was much like reading a graphic novel of the epics!
After spending several hours imbibing the immeasurable beauty of the bas reliefs, which is on the first level, we made our way inside the temple. The central complex of the temple consists of two and three levels. The second level has a profusion of exquisitely carved apsaras (more of it later!). The third level forms the base for all the five towers, four on the corners and one soaring high in the centre. The central tower was out of bounds for a while and now people are only allowed to visit it in batches. The access to the central tower is through a steep flight of stairs. Once we reached the topmost part of the Angkor Wat a cool breeze enveloped us. Suryavarman II installed an imposing statue of Vishnu in the central tower, which is presently housed in the outer precincts of the temple. It’s place is now taken by a meditative Buddha. It was a humbling experience to be right on top of one of the most beautiful temples ever built and savour its sprawling, symmetrical layout below.
As we walked down from the central tower, we were greeted by a bevy of Apsara dancers and people were busy clicking keepsake photographs with them. We must have spent several hours in the temple by now and the noon sun was bearing down on us. Having watched us peering at every nook and corner of the temple, our guide gently suggested that it was time for a break. On our way back to the parking lot, we had a good look at the two beautiful libraries adjoining the lotus pond and the imposing Vishu.
Casting a final glance at the vast temple, I was struck by the shifts that have occurred over the centuries. It was initially a Hindu temple, then a Mahayana Buddhist shrine which in turn was replaced by a Theravada Buddhist place of worship, and now finally a testimony to the tourist dollar!
Some interesting facts about Angkor Wat:
Hindu cosmology recognizes four time periods or Yugas, that are represented in the dimensions of the temple:
- The dimensions of the highest rectangular level of the temple are 189 hat ( a Cambodian cubic unit) in the east-west direction and 176 hat in the north-south direction. Added together these give 365, the number of days in a year.
- In the central sanctuary, the distance between sets of steps is approximately 12 hat. There are 12 lunar cycles (from full moon to full moon), which form the basis for our modern month in a year.
- The length and width of the central tower add up to approximately 91 hat. On an average, there are 91 days between any solstice and the next equinox, or any equinox and the next solstice, that is the 4 seasons in a year.
- The length of the Kali Yuga, is 2 x 603 years, or 432 thousand years.
- The width of the moat surrounds the temple, is approximately 432 hat.
- The length of the Dvapara-Yuga is 4 x 603 years, or 864 thousand years.
- The distance from the entrance to the inner wall is 867 hat.
- The length of the Treta-Yuga is 6 x 603 years, or 1,296 thousand years.
- The distance from the entrance to the central tower is 1,296 hat.
- The length of the Satya-Yuga is 8 x 603 years, or 1,728 thousand years.
- The distance from the moat bridge to the center of the temple is 1,734 hat.
Rarely in history has any culture given rise to a structure that so elaborately envisions the concept of the cosmos!
Angkor Wat bears a testimony to a glorious chapter in the history of mankind. In the words of the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who stumbled across Angkor Wat several decades ago “It is a rival to that of the temple of Solomon, erected by some ancient Michaelangelos and is grander than anything left to us by Greeks or Romans. The sight of it makes the traveller forget all the fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as should be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert."
Here is the link to my images at: photos.app.goo.gl/a8umkv3bN9mQm2kf1
There are scores of them in the album. It will require lots to time to scroll through them!
But do look at them leisurely and relish each one of them!!
And post your comments in this blog rather than in google photos!