ANGKORWAT: Hindu Civilization in the Cambodian Jungle

Features Issue 100 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Finn Thilsted

In the 1860s, the French explorer Henri Mouhot, who, together with a French team, stumbled across the magnificent ruins and “discovered” Angkor Wat in the midst of a jungle while exploring the Mekong River. With his publication, Voyage a Siam et dans le Cambodge in 1863, he brought Angkor Wat to the public in the Western world. The jungle had hidden the temples since the 14th century. With the French team’s “discovery”, it became famous worldwide and is the most important tourist attraction in Cambodia today.

It all started in 802 AD when the Khmer King, Jayavarman II, pronounced himself as “World Emperor” and established a new capital in the Kulen Plateau in Northern Cambodia. He began to build huge temples for the Hindu gods. Indians, through trade with South Asia, brought their culture and religion to this part of Asia. Hinduism was well received, and devotion was given to the gods Shiva and Vishnu in particular. Hinduism and the epics of India dominated the Khmers’ way of life until the 12th century when Mahayana Buddhism took over.

The name Angkor Wat is used to describe the whole area, but it is in fact the name of the biggest temple. It means the “temple of the capital”. The temple is the biggest in the world and was built between AD 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II, and dedicated to Vishnu. It was built at the same time as the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and its highest tower is of similar height as Notre Dame’s. The Angkor Wat complex is huge; the outer wall of the temple covers a rectangle of 1.5 km by 1.3 km. The centre of the temple complex is like a pyramid with three levels, each enclosed by a concentric gallery.

Like so many other tourists, I visited the temple at sunrise. The colorful red sky was mirrored in the moat that surrounds the temple, and symbolizes the mythical oceans surrounding the earth. I crossed the causeway over the moat, went through the gate of the outer wall and found myself inside the temple compound facing the central temple building silhouetted against the morning sky. I could see the characteristic five towers which symbolize the holy Mount Meru and its five peaks. Many tourists had gathered in the compound to see the temple growing out of darkness in the early morning. The atmosphere was serene and majestic.

As it began getting light, I started to walk in the cool morning around the temple and in the lower galleries where the marvelous bas-reliefs are found. These are considered the most famous creations of Khmer art. The subjects are from the Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, including the Battle of Lanka. I marvelled at the relief of Sita and Rama. I reminisced the beautiful story of Sita, the reincarnation of Lakshmi, who was found as a baby in the kingdom of Mithila (Nepal) by King Janak. Sita was married to Rama, son of the King of Ayodhya. She was later kidnapped by the demon King Ravana, but was rescued and returned to Rama with the help of the monkey God Hanuman and his troops.

Not much is known about the daily life of the Khmers during this period and the glorious civilization. It is believed that there were many manuscripts written on fragile palm leaves and kept in libraries, but these have since been destroyed by the tropical humid weather. However, the reliefs as well as Sanskrit inscriptions on the walls give a pretty good picture of court and everyday life. Also, some descriptions of the life in Angkor Wat were given by a Chinese traveler and diplomat, Zhou Daguan, who lived in Angkor Wat in the 14th century and wrote Notes on the Customs of Cambodia. What we see in Angkor Wat today are the temples built by the Khmers for the Hindu gods and later for Buddha. One has to imagine the very vibrant life of the many people living in the palaces, temples, cities and countryside. There were more that one million people living in the cities. The ordinary people lived in the same simple houses as we see today, on stilts, built with bamboo and palm leaves. Rice growing and fishing was the mainstay of the livelihoods of the Khmers. In the nearby Tonle Sap Lake that is flooded by the Mekong River every year, fish was found in abundance. The Khmers constructed huge water reservoirs – barays – around the cities, and were masters in controlling the flow of water for the irrigation of the rice fields.

It is a pleasure to walk around the ruins of Angkor Wat. In addition to the main Angkor Wat temple, the complex of Angkor Thom is a must-visit. Angkor Thom was one of the largest cities in Angkor Wat and when you get to the city gate, you see a very, very big head with a mysterious curved smile on the lips at the gate tower, which infuses a sense of spiritual peace. The head is repeated many fold in the towers of the main temple, Bayon. This city was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, and it is his face that we see. Indeed very impressive!

The Ta Prohm temple is also worth a visit. Here you get a very good feeling of the power of the jungle. Huge trees grow out of the temple, which is shaded by a large green canopy, giving the whole site a very romantic atmosphere. It must truly have been a wondrous site when the French “discovered” Angkor Wat.

Hours or, rather, days can be spent in discovering the temples and taking in the different art decorating the walls - dancers (apsaras), guards, battle scenes, processions - and the many different arches around doors and windows lintels. The Khmers were real masters of stone carvings.

In the 14th century, the Thais attacked Angkor Wat, the Khmers lost; Angkor Wat was destroyed and the people began moving to other centers. The buildings slowly disappeared into the jungle.

Angkor Wat is now a World Heritage Site. A lot of damage has been done by nature and, unfortunately, also by man. Free-standing figures, lintels and other carvings have been hacked away and sold to collectors.

It is not difficult to get to Angkor Wat, either by air or road from Phnom Penh or Bangkok. The town Siem Reap, near the ruins, has many hotels at different prices. I stayed with my family in Siem Reap for four days. We hired a motorbike rickshaw to take us to the ruins; some visitors hired a car or bicycle. I walked in and around the ruins for many hours each day, and as it was in December, the weather was pleasant and not too hot. In Angkor Wat, I met the friendly Cambodian people, and at the many small food stalls, there were several choices of food and drinks. The days spent in Angkor Wat were very enjoyable and interesting. A visit to Angkor Wat to experience this Hindu civilization with its splendid Khmer architecture and art is a trip that I highly recommend.