Angkor Wat: Cambodia’s Crown Jewel (Lost and Found)

Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of Khmer art. Understanding this intricate temple complex and history brings to light Cambodia’s fascinating artistic and historical heritage.

May 24, 2020By Lou Mo, BA Art History w/ Chinese Art & Asian Studies concentration
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, courtesy Smithsonian


Where do you find a perfect Indian temple? Outside of India, of course! When you think of Siem Reap, it could just evoke the image of holidays tanning under the sun with a coconut or Laura Croft in a mysterious temple in the jungle. However, the discovery and art of Angkor Wat is such a thrilling tale that it extends far beyond a quick romantic or touristy snapshot. The story of the perfect temple is a witness to Cambodia’s classical past and its most iconic form of art, Khmer sculptures. 


Angkor Wat, Head of a Great Empire

The former state of present-day Cambodia is the Khmer Empire. Angkor, also called Yasodharapura, was the empire’s capital during its heyday, corresponding roughly to the 11th to 13th centuries. 


Map Of Cambodia with Angkor Wat


The Kingdom of Cambodia is tucked between Thailand on the west, Laos to the north and Vietnam to the east. It embraces the Gulf of Thailand to the south. The most important waterway is the Mekong river coming in through Vietnam and later joins the great Tonlé Sap lake in the heart of the country. The Angkor Archaeological Park area is close to the Tonlé Sap’s northwestern tip, not far from Thailand. 


Angkor Wat is a palatial temple structure built during the reign of king Suryavarman II (reigned 1113 to circa 1150 AD) during the 12th century. Situated . At that time, it was the largest structure built in the capital Angkor. Suryavarman II’s successors would continue on to build other well-known temples in the Angkor area such as Bayon and Ta Prohm. 


King Suryavarman II
King Suryavarman II depicted in Angkor Wat

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We can find the likeness of Suryavarman II on a bas relief frieze in the Angkor Wat temple, the first time a Khmer king is depicted in art. He is shown in court attire, sitting cross legged. His retinue surrounds him with fans in front of a lustrous tropical vegetation backdrop. The king Suryavarman II, carved much bigger in size than his attendants, seems at ease. This is a common device we see across cultures where the most important character is represented to be physically much more imposing than they could have in real life. 

Lost to History

Starting from the 14th century, the Khmer Empire experienced a period of gradual decline influenced by a number of reasons including civil wars, conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism, war with the neighbouring Ayutthaya kingdom (located in current day Thailand) and possibly natural factors such as environmental collapse. The center of Khmer life then shifted south close to current day capital Phnom Penh on the Mekong. The decline and abandon of Angkor is not a singular case in the history of the Khmer Empire. For example, an even more ancient capital Koh Ker, north east of Angkor, had fallen before the building of Angkor Wat. 


The Customs of Cambodia as it appears in the imperial collection version
The Customs of Cambodia as it appears in the imperial collection version


The Chinese imperial court had diplomatic relations with the Khmer Empire. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) official Zhou Daguan travelled to Angkor as a part of delegation and stayed there in the years 1296 and 1297 during which he made a record of what he observed in the Khmer capital. The subsequent The Customs of Cambodia survived in variants in later Chinese anthologies but was mostly a neglected miscellaneous work. Zhou wrote about Khmer life under forty categories, including subjects such as palaces, religions, language, attire, agriculture, flora and fauna, etc. This Chinese work is also significant as the only other kind of contemporary textual source is remnants of old Khmer inscriptions on stone, some already heavily eroded. 


For a very long time, Angkor’s location remained known but the former royal city was abandoned and claimed by the forest. People would occasionally encounter these majestic ruins but the lost capital stayed out of the circuit. Angkor Wat itself was maintained in parts by Buddhist monks and was a pilgrimage site. 


Discovered Again

By the first half of the 19th century, Zhou Daoguan’s book had been translated into French by French sinologists. Published in the 1860s, French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot’s largely popular and illustrated Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos was instrumental in introducing monumental Angkor to the European public. 


Angkor Wat, drawing by Henri Mouhot
Angkor Wat, drawing by Henri Mouhot


In following years, a number of French explorers documented the temples of Angkor. Louis Delaporte not only depicted Angkor Wat with intricate dexterity but also installed the first exhibition of Khmer art in France. Plaster casts of Angkor Wat’s structures and Delaporte’s drawings were shown in Paris’ Musée Indochinois until well into the 1920s. This kind of documenting produced a huge quantity of invaluable materials but was also directly connected to Europe’s colonial expansion. In fact, many painters were sent as a part of delegations dispatched by the Ministry of Overseas. 


Bayon’s Eastern Façade
Bayon’s Eastern Façade, drawing by Louis Delaporte, courtesy Musée Guimet


Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. Frances great interest in Khmer art prompted other explorations and the first modern archaeological excavations at Angkor Wat. The French School of the Far East (L’École française d’Extrême-Orient) started scientific studies, restoration and documentation at Angkor from 1908. They are still there more than 100 years later with representatives in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, along with archaeologists from other countries actively studying Khmer sites. Angkor Wat is a UNESCO protected site and part of the Angkor Archaeological Park managed by the APSARA authority. 


The Structure of Angkor Wat

Vishnu On His Mount Garuda
Vishnu On His Mount Garuda, A Bas Relief From Angkor Wat


Angkor Wat temple faces west and is originally dedicated to the god Vishnu the preserver. This is rather uncommon, as most Khmer temples face east and were dedicated to Shiva the destroyer. Along with Brahma the creator, the three gods of the Trimurti make up the most important trinity of the Hindu pantheon which had become hugely popular on the Indian subcontinent since the 1st century BCE and later over all the areas influenced by Hinduism. 


Bird Eye View Of Angkor Wat 
Bird Eye View Of Angkor Wat


In old Khmer, Angkor means capital and Wat means monastery. However, it is believed that Angkor Wat is built to be a funerary temple to Suryavarman II. Constructed entirely in sandstone from the Kulen mountains, the structure of Angkor Wat is precious and encapsulates the idea of a perfect Hindu universe. Surrounded by a very wide moat and rectangular (1500 metres west east by 1300 metres north south) in shape, its design is concentric, regular and symmetrical. Laid out on a tiered platform, the heart of the structure is the five peaked central tower (a quincunx) rising to 65 metres tall in the middle. This configuration represents the five peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe and residence of kings. This symbolism is obviously claimed by Khmer kings. The combination of an imposing central temple-mountain and galleried temple, influenced by South Indian architecture, is the signature of classical Angkorian architecture. Mount Meru is equally important in Buddhism and Jainism. In fact, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple in the late 13th century. 


Sculpture at Angkor Wat

Sculpture Of A Buddhist Divinity
Angkor Wat Style Sculpture Of A Buddhist Divinity, courtesy Christie’s


The walls and colonnades of Angkor Wat are covered in delicately carved bas relief friezes. Everywhere you look, a goddess is looking back at you. The sculptural style of that time, of which Angkor Wat is the prime example, becomes known as the classical Angkorian sculpture style. For example, on a freestanding sculpture of a divinity, you will notice that the body is usually represented well proportioned but stylized with simple lines. Most of the time, their upper body is unclad but they would wear a sampot covering their lower body. The earrings dangling from their long earlobes, the jewels on their chest, arms and head as well as the belt holding the sampot are decorated with carved motifs, often of lotus, foliage and flames. The rounded faces are serene with a slight smile, and the almond-shaped eyes and lips are often emphasized with double incisions. 


The battle of Lanka, Angkor Wat
The battle of Lanka, Angkor Wat


The friezes at Angkor Wat draw inspiration from many sources. Some of them depict scenes from the twin pillars of Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Battle of Lanka, from the Ramayana, can be found on the north wall of the western gallery. There are scenes from Hindu cosmology such as images of heaven and hell, or the Puranas, for instance The Churning of the Sea of Milk. Historical depictions include military campaigns of Suryavarman II. Otherwise, every inch of wall at Angkor Wat is covered in divine image. There are over a thousand apsaras, female spirits, decorating the galleries of this temple. 


To this day, Angkor Wat continues to fascinate the world, at home and internationally. From its monumental structure down to a small scale depiction of a smiling apsara, this awe inspiring heritage site touches our hearts. The history and art at Angkor Wat capture the glorious past of the Khmer Empire at the crossroad of cultural and religious influences between South and East Asia. 

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By Lou MoBA Art History w/ Chinese Art & Asian Studies concentrationI graduated with BA in Art History from McGill University and later studied Chinese Art in the Asian Studies division of Paris' École des hautes études en sciences sociales.