Andre Akito


March, 2022

Angkor Wat | Angkor | Cambodia

Angkor Wat was built by King Survavarman II in the beginning of the 12th century. It is the largest religious monument in the world, spreading across an area of more than 400 acres, making it 4 times bigger than the Vatican City. Angkor Wat was designed to represent Mount Meru, a sacred five peaked mountain from both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, which is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. The five towers of Angkor Wat represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, while the walls indicate the surrounding mountain range and the moat represents the sea.

Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu (one of the three primary gods in the Hindu pantheon). Most of Hindu temples are not a place for religious congregation. Instead, they are mostly considered homes of the gods. Therefore, the construction of temples and religious monuments by Khmer kings was seen as way of legitimizing their claim to the throne and also to lay claim to the protection and power of the gods. As a consequence, each Khmer king was faced with the goal of building the grandest temple for the gods. By doing so, the king could materialize his devotion to the gods. However, unlike most temples from the complex, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, a direction associated with death in Hindu culture. Hence, many scholars believe that Angkor Wat was not only a temple dedicated to Vishnu but that it was also intended to serve as the king’s mausoleum after death. 

However, towards the end of the 12th century, the Cham Empire (whose empire was situated in the south of modern-day Vietnam) sacked the entire city of Angkor. After peace was restored, the new king Jayavarman VII converted himself to Buddhism, believing that the Hindu gods had failed him. New buildings (such as Bayon) were dedicated to Buddhism. Thereafter, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist shrine, and many of its carvings and statues of Hindu deities were replaced by Buddhist art.  Since then, Angkor Wat has been one of the most important monuments for Buddhism. 

The 15th century marked the fall of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Wat, however, presents itself as an unusual case among other temples. Although it was largely neglected in the 15th century, it was never completely abandoned. Several Theravada Buddhist monks who were living in the nearby area, maintained Angkor Wat, which remained an important pilgrimage site in the region.

A long that passed until Angkor Wat was finally “rediscovered” by the French explorer Henri Mouhot after the French colonial regime was established in Cambodia in 1863. At first, Mouhot described Angkor Wat as “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome” and spread the word about the monument all around the western world, the moment when it started to attract international attention. 

Under French influence, who ruled Cambodia for most of the 20th century, a series of restorations in Angkor started in the site. Cambodia finally gained independence from France in 1953 and since then it has controlled and maintained Angkor Wat. However, the restoration work was then interrupted by the Cambodian Civil War and during the Khmer Rouge period. During this violent period, Angkor Wat sustained minimal damage – however there are still bullet holes on some of its outer walls due to the conflicts of the Khmer Rouge regime. When restoration efforts were resumed after the end of the civil war, the site still required extensive repairs and many sections had to be dismantled and rebuilt. 

In 1992 the Angkor complex (which included Angkor Wat) was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO and was immediately added to the list of World Heritage in Danger. In the ensuing years, restoration efforts increased, and Angkor was finally removed from the danger list in 2004. Today Angkor Wat is one of the most important pilgrimage shrines in Southeast Asia and a popular tourist attraction. The temple is one of the most important symbols of the Cambodian history and culture.

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