The Angkor Temples
Angkor Wat, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm
These three temple complexes together with the Bayon are the best – known and most visitited temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park. They are best visited early mornings before the tour buses arrive (i.e. before 10 am) or late afternoon after the tour buses have left (i.e. after 3pm). On my first day I made the mistake of visiting the Bayon at midday and it was pretty much “carnage”, the upper level of the temple was covered in tourists to the point where moving became difficult. However, outside the core hours strolling around these temples is a pretty pleasant experience.
According to a myth, the construction of Angkor Wat was ordered by Indra to serve as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea. According to the 13th-century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan , some believed that the temple was constructed in a single night by a divine architect.
The initial design and construction of the temple took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II who reigned from 1113 CE to about 1150 CE. Built as the king’s funerary temple, construction took more than 3 decades. The whole complex comprises more than 1000 buildings and it is one of the largest religious structures in the world.
All of the early religious motifs derived from Hinduism as the temple was initially dedicated to the gods Shivam Brahma and Vishnu. The five central towers of Angkor Wat symbolize the peaks of Mount Meru, which according to Hindu mythology is the dwelling place of the gods. The mountain is said to be surrounded by an ocean, and the complex’s enormous moat suggests the oceans at the edge of the world. A 188-metre bridge allows access to the site. The temple is reached by passing through three galleries, each separated by a paved walkway. The temple walls are covered with bas-relief sculptures of very high quality, representing Hindu gods and ancient Khmer scenes as well as scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
In 1177, approximately 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked by the Chams, the traditional enemies of the Khmer. The Khmer Empire was restored by King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 CE to 1220 CE. He established a new capital and state temple (Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple respectively) a few kilometres to the north of Angkor Wat. After the sacking of Angkor Wat by the Chams, King Jayavarman VII decided that the Hindu gods had failed him and dedicated Angor Thom and the Bayon to Buddha. Thereafter, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist shrine, and many of its carvings and statues of Hindu deities were replaced by Buddhist art.
By the 14th century, the Khmer empire suffered a long, arduous, and steady decline and Angkor was abandoned in the early 15th century. However, unusual among the Angkor temples, Angkor Wat was never completely abandoned. Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in Angkor area testify to Japanese Buddhist pilgrims that had established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was thought by the Japanese visitors as the famed Jetavana garden of the Buddha, which originally located in the kingdom of Magadha, India.
This is one of my favourite temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park mainly because of its decoration, which I thought was absolutely wonderful only surpassed by that one of Banteay Srei. Moreover, restoration at this site has been fairly restrained and is mostly limited to “stabilisation” work, i.e. to keeping the various structures from falling apart. Wondering around Preah Khan gives the impression that it has been discovered only very recently, which makes up a lot of its charm.
Preah Khan was built on the site of Jayavarman VII’s victory over the invading Chams in 1191. Unusually the modern name, meaning “holy sword”, is derived from the meaning of the original—Nagara Jayasri (holy city of victory). The site may previously have been occupied by the royal palaces of Yasovarman II and Trbhuvanadityavarman. The temple’s foundation stele has provided considerable information about the history and administration of the site: the main image, of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the form of the king’s father, was dedicated in 1191 (the king’s mother had earlier been commemorated in the same way at Ta Prohm). 430 other deities also had shrines on the site, each of which received an allotment of food, clothing, perfume and even mosquito nets; the wealth and treasure of this ruin includes gold, silver, gems, 112,300 pearls and a cow with gilded horns. The institution combined the roles of city, temple and Buddhist university: there were 97,840 attendants and servants, including 1000 dancers and 1000 teachers.
The temple of Ta Prohm was made famous by the 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie and is, as mentioned above, one of the most popular temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Between 10am and 2pm there is a constant stream of tour buses arriving at its gates, disgorging vast amounts of tourists, most of which are armed with selfie-sticks. So it is best to arrive outside of these core hours. Nevertheless, with a lot of patience it is still possible to get pictures of the temple without people in the frame.
Ta Prohm was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII, who reconquered the Khmer empire from the Cham invaders in the years 1177-1181. As the war with the Chams had caused great damage to the ancient capital of Angkor, Jayavarman VII embarked on a massive program of construction in order to restore his capital to its former glory. Build in 1186 and originally called Rajavihara (“Monastery of the Kings”) Ta Prohm was a Buddhist Temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. Though the temple covers barely 2.5 acres, its walls and moat encompass 148 acres. According to a stele found on the site, 12,640 people lived within its walls, supported by a population of 79,365 who worked in nearby villages to provide food and supplies. The stele also notes that the temple amassed considerable riches, including gold, pearls and silks.
Jayavarman VII constructed Rajavihara in honour of his family. The temple’s main image, representing Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, was modelled on the king’s mother. The northern and southern satellite temples in the third enclosure were dedicated to the king’s guru, Jayamangalartha and his elder brother respectively. As such, Ta Prohm formed a complementary pair with the temple monastery of Preah Khan , dedicated in 1191 A.D., the main image of which represented the Bodhisattva of compassion Lokesvara and was modelled on the king’s father. Expansions and additions to Ta Prohm continued as late as the rule of Srindravarman at the end of the 15th century.