Hidden for centuries in the depths of the Cambodian jungle, the venerable crumbling stone temples of Angkor, capital of the medieval Khmer Empire, are among the world’s greatest cultural treasures. While hacking a path through the dense Cambodian jungle in 1850, the French missionary Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux stumbled upon the sprawling ruins of an ancient city.Among them stood one of the world’s greatest religious shrines, Angkor Wat. “I discovered,” Bouillevaux wrote,”some immense ruins which I was told were the site of a royal palace. On the walls, which were carved from top to toe, I saw combats between elephants, men fighting with clubs and spears, and others firing three arrows at a time from their bows.” However, in recent times, a city even older than Angkor Wat named Mahendraparvata has been discovered.
Ten years later the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, retracing Bouillevaux’s footsteps was equally astounded by what lay before him in the jungle clearing: more than 100 wats (or temples) dating from the ninth to the 13th centuries, with architecture that changed in religious focus from Hinduism to Buddhism. Statues, reliefs and carvings brought to life before his eyes scenes from Hindu mythology, exotic dancing girls, a king on elephant-back, an emperor leading his troops into battle, and row upon row of serene Buddhas. Mouhot’s exited reports posed many questions: who had built this magnificent place and what was the story behind its rise and fall? The earliest Cambodian records dated only from the 15th century: now a previously unknown era of civilization began to unfold.
The ruined city of Angkor lies about 190 miles (300km) north-west of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, near the great lake of Tonle Sap. At the height of its development in AD 1000, it covered an area of 75 sq. miles (190km), making it the largest city of the medieval world. Around 600,000 people lived and worked in its sprawl of streets, squares, terraces and temples, and the population of the surrounding area numbered around one million. The inhabitants of the city of Angkor were Khmer, whose religion, a form of Hinduism, was introduced to South-east Asia by Indian traders in the first century AD. Scholars today are still puzzled by the fact that, although this area was well populated and technologically advanced by 1000 BC, there is no evidence that any cities or towns existed until around the seventh century AD. After that date, civilization blossomed, and Angkor Wat is the supreme expression of the Khmer talent for creating stupendous works of art and monumental architectural structures.
Khmer history, undocumented anywhere else, is recorded in the bas-reliefs adorning the outer terrace of the Bayon, a religious building at the centre of Angkor’s main square. Here, foot soldiers fight alongside elephant-borne warriors.
Khmer documents, written on perishable materials such as palm leaves and animal skins, have disintegrated with time; therefore, to glean information about the city’s past, archaeologists have referred to more than 1000 carved inscriptions, most of them written in Khmer and Sanskrit. There reveal that the key figure of the Khmer ascendancy was Jayavarman II, who freed his people from Javanese rule in the early ninth century and founded the Khmer Empire. He worshipped Shiva, one of the main Hindu deities, and founded the cult of the god-king (devaraja), whereby his own mortal powers were enhanced by Shiva’s creative energies. He, and each of his successors, built a temple to house his lingam, the phallic symbol of his spiritual and temporal powers. After the rulers’ deaths, these temples became their tombs.
The city of Angkor (Angkor means city in the Khmer language) became a huge metropolis. Ta Keo (AD c.1000) was the first major temple built of sandstone. Temples are the only buildings still standing at Angkor (hence the epithet ‘the city of temples’) because only the temples were built of durable materials such as brick or stone. All other edifices, including the kings’ palaces were made of perishable wood.
Phnom Bakheng (AD x.907), the first temple at Angkor, was constructed on a natural hill. It was created by Yashovarman I, who was also responsible for diverting the Siem Reap River to fill the Eastern Baray, Angkor’s first irrigation project. The finest building by far was Angkor Wat, built by Suryavarman II early in the 12th century as his own temple and tomb.
The best preserved of all the temples at Angkor, Angkor Wat is approached by a roadway exactly twice as long as the height of the tallest tower. Fashioned like lotus buds, the perfectly preserved central towers of Angkor Wat rise gracefully from the tangled vegetation of the jungle. The temple covers an area larger than the Vatican in Rome. Isolated from the surrounding buildings and countryside by a moat 650ft (200m) wide, it typifies the Khmer tradition of siting places of worship away from the bustle of daily life. Temples were designed as places for contemplation and veneration of the Khmer kings in whose honour they were built.
Some 5000 craftsmen and 50,000 other workers were employed to complete the complex. Its labyrinth of corridors within is lined with elaborate sculptures and carvings, including a 160ft (50m) long depiction of the Hindu creation myth known as Churning of the Sea of Milk. The temple of Angkor Wat is contemporary with the great cathedrals of Chartres and Canterbury. While European architects prized interior space, which they achieved through high, vaulted ceilings, their Khmer counterparts never perfected the true arch on which these structures depend.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat covers nearly 1 sq. mile (2.5km) and is possibly the largest religious complex ever built. This vast Hindu shrine is arranged as a series of rectangular and concentric enclosures, its tallest towers rising 200ft (60m) above the tangle of the jungle. At the midwinter solstice, the nearby temple of Prasat Kulk Bangro forms an alignment with Angkor Wat, suggesting it may also have had some astronomical function.
Angkor was a prosperous city: its rich soil yielded three crops of rice each year; fish were abundant in the lake of Tonle Sap, and the dense forests supplied all the teak and other woods that were necessary for making temple floors and building galleries. The presence of such plentiful supplies of food and building materials makes it all the more difficult to explain Angkor’s decline. Why did this once-magnificent city deteriorate into a deserted ruin?
Two theories have been put forward as to its collapse, both of which have a religious foundation. After the sacking of Angkor in 1171 by the Cham, the Khmer’s warrior neighbours, Jayavarman VII lost his faith in the protective power of the Hindu gods; the Khmer adopted a form of Buddhism that renounced violence and espoused pacifism, and Jayavarman dedicated his temple, the Bayon, in Angkor Thom square, to Buddha. As a result of this conversion, the Thai army that attacked Angkor in 1431 met with little resistance and sacked the city after a seven-month siege. Angkor never regained its former glory.
The second, more fanciful, theory derives from Buddhist legend. A Khmer king was so offended by a priest’s son that he ordered the boy to be drowned in the waters of Tonle Sap. In retaliation, an angry god caused the lake to overflow, thereby destroying Angkor. Since Tonle Sap is still prone to flooding during the monsoon season, there may be at least a grain of truth in this story.
Today, the encroaching jungle is prising Angkor’s remaining buildings apart, while mosses and lichens obscure the stones. Chemicals have been used to remove this growth but the long—term effects of such treatment on the structure is not known. Even more destructive is the wholesale damage wrought by war, the ravishment of the temples by art thieves, who have removed carvings to sell abroad, and rapidly increasing tourist numbers. Due to political unrest and civil war in Cambodia, from the 1960s until around the end of the 1980s the great square of Angkor Thom was closed to civilians. Now it is open again, and local people return from market through the square. Visitor numbers have also increased in recent years. It appears the future of this unique site is again in the balance.