Considered to be the eighth wonder of the world, Angkor Wat is a temple of spiritual and physical importance. It is located in Angkor, Cambodia which was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century and was the largest city in the world. Temples such as Angkor Wat represent the Khmer Empire which encompassed much of South-east Asia. It exemplifies the captivating architecture as well as the cultural, religious and symbolic values of the time.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century. Its name means “City of the Temple”. It was built under the reign of the Khmer Emperor Suryavarman II as a dedication to his personal protector Hindu god Vishnu. Despite the fact that he assassinated his great Uncle to take to the throne, he is considered one of the greatest monarchs of the Khmer Empire as he built successful relations with China which increased trade and stimulated the economy. One way in which he legitimised his rule was through the construction of the grand complex of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat was designed to represent Mount Meru, the spiritual and physical nexus in Hinduism which is the centre of all reality. The stories of Hinduism are told all over the temple. There are scenes from the classic works of Hindu religious literature such as the Ramayana and Bhagavad-Gita. Most people could not read in the 12th century so Angkor Wat served as a gigantic book.
The spiritual element of Angkor Wat expands further. It was designed to represent the world with the four corners of the outer wall anchored at the four corners of the earth and the moat representing the surrounding ocean and eternal waters. The spires represent the mountains of eternity.
The temple was galleried meaning it progresses upwards through a series of galleries. This, according to some scholars, was used for astronomical observations. They believe it was built specifically for that purpose so that astronomers could clearly view the rotation of the heavens in the night sky.
Angkor Wat was largely built using 1.5 cubic metres of sand and silt in the 12th century. It included a city, temple and the emperor’s palace. Only the temple and walls were built out of sandstone and therefore the only structures that still remain today.
In the late 13th century its function as a Hindu temple ceased. Angkor Wat was overtaken by Buddhist monks in the 15th century. Statues of Buddha and related stories were added to the temple. However, the Buddhists did respect the beliefs of Hindus who still worshipped there and so all of the original artwork was left in place.
By the 16th century, Angkor Wat was largely abandoned and slowly became taken over by the surrounding jungle. Soon it became the subject of stories and legends.
Thanks to Western documents it was revealed that Angkor Wat was first visited in 1586 by a Portuguese monk called Antonio da Madalena. His notes convey wonder and awe over the grand temple.
In 1860 French archaeologist Henri Mouhot visited and was the first Westerner to take an active interest in Angkor Wat. He is cited as the man who “discovered” Angkor Wat. Of course, the temple was never lost, but Mouhot publicised it and thereafter devoted himself to its restoration and renovation. Through him the word was spread to the Western world.
France ruled Cambodia for much of the 20th century and restored the site in the early 1900s for tourism. However, the Cambodian Civil War disrupted this as did the rule of the Khmer Rouge. There are still bullet holes on the outer walls due to the battles of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. It has controlled Angkor Wat ever since. In 1992 UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Angkor Wat welcomes around 2 million visitors every year. It was highly popularised after Tomb Raider (2001) starring Angelina Jolie was largely filmed in Angkor. Scenes include Angkor Wat and the temple of Ta Prohm. In recent years an app made an appearance where you have to run around the remains of Angkor to escape evil animals at your heels. Of course the fast-paced, addictive game is the famous Temple Run.
Angkor Wat is like stepping into another world. It’s hard not to be in awe of its architecture, spirituality and history. It is mesmerising and has a special place on the flag of Cambodia as a symbol of integrity, justice and heritage.