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The Mysteries of Angkor Wat

The Cambodian flag bears the image of a nearly 1,000-year-old structure that has been the source of mystery and heated debate among historians. The image depicts Angkor Wat, a 12th century temple complex in present-day Cambodia whose 900-year history is still shrouded in darkness.

The Khmer empire lasted from 802 to 1431 as the largest empire of its era and, based on contemporary uncoverings, one of the most advanced ancient civilizations in history. For a time, its capital was the city of Angkor, home to between 700,000 and 900,000 people at its peak in the 13th century and largest city in the world prior to the industrial revolution. Its crown jewel – indeed that of the empire as a whole – was Angkor Wat.

The gargantuan edifice is a rarity in that it has managed to retain the title of largest religious monument on earth, with a central tower that stands 699 feet (213 meters) above the ground and the whole complex spanning 17.5 million square feet (1.63 million square meters). To give you some perspective on how enormous that is, it not only dwarfs every cathedral in the world, but it also covers more than three times the area of the entire Vatican City.

Like the rest of the city, the temple was abandoned seemingly overnight. With almost no records left behind, professionals have been forced to resort to speculation and in-fighting with regards to the fall of Angkor and the mysteries of Angkor Wat. Researchers do their best to hazard their most educated guess and hope it doesn’t get disproved in the next few years, so let’s take a look at what we’ve come up with so far.

The mystery of who and why

The local legends surrounding the origin of the structure are as grandiose as it gets: some say it built itself, others say it’s always been there, but the most widespread one says that it was commissioned by the god Indra as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea and that it was built in one night.

Historians believe that King Suryavarman II, who ruled over the Khmer empire from 1113 to around 1150, is the mind behind the structure, intending for it to be his mausoleum that affirmed his commitment to Hingu god Vishnu. This idea is supported by the fact that the temple was clearly designed with the movements of the sun in mind.

King Suryavarman II depicted in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat
King Suryavarman II depicted in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat. By Maharaja45, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

For instance, unlike most temples in the city, Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west so that it’s always to the east of whoever’s approaching it; the appropriate direction for Vishnu, a solar deity. This also ties back to the site being where Suryavarman II wanted to be interred, as facing towards the setting sun is a straightforward enough symbol for death.

Moreover, every year on the exact day of the spring equinox, i.e. when the sun crosses the plane of the equator heading north, making day and night equal in length, the rising sun is aligned with the temple’s western entrance. To an observer standing at this point at dawn on equinox days, the sun is seen to rise directly from the central tower.

Other cosmologically and astronomically favorable designs are found at the temple, including similar solistitial alignments as well as different vantage points for highly precise seasonal observation of the sun and moon’s movements.

So far, these aspects of the temple design have been found to have roots in Puranic, Siddhantic and Vedic ideas, but it’s still unknown whether or not they served purely religious purposes.

The mystery of how it was built

Estimates place construction at between thirty and forty years using the labor of approximately 300,000 workers in the 12th century but what hasn’t been as easy to pin down is the logistics of the whole operation. The crux of this uncertainty stems from the fact that there are no quarries immediately around the site that could have supplied the 5 to 10 million blocks used to build the temple, some of which weigh up to 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) each.

The first part of a plausible answer came after archaeologists identified that the blocks were transported about 25 miles (40 km) south west from Mount Kulen. Initially, the idea was that roads were used for shipping, but a couple of decades ago, archaeologists found canals that connected the whole city to different quarries where rafts could be used to get the blocks to their intended destination.

Phnom Kulen National Park
Phnom Kulen National Park. By Narith5, is licensed under CC-BY

One route put forward stretched 22 miles (35 km) through a canal towards Tonlé Sap Lake, another 22 miles across the lake, and 9 miles (15 km) against the current along the Siem Reap River, for a total distance of 55 miles (90 km).

However, in 2012, researchers from Waseda University in Tokyo challenged this idea. A paper by the institution’s Etsuo Uchida and Ichita Shimoda detailed studies that found more than 50 sandstone quarries along a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) bank at the foot of Mount Kulen and used satellite imaging to uncover a previously unknown network of canals that connected the quarries directly to Angkor Wat. This route was considerably shorter at 22 miles (35 km), making it more likely that it was the one used during construction. It also fits better into the window wherein construction is estimated to have occurred.

The mysteries of its design elements

Angkor Wat is an intricately designed bit of architecture that you have to both get up close to notice the fine detail as well as pull far back to take in the whole thing at scale.

The complex replicates an earthly model of the entire universe under Hindu cosmology; the five towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods at the center of the universe, and the 650-foot (200 m) wide moat that encircles all but the causeway represents the oceans at the edge of the universe.

One thing we’re yet to explain is the sprawling mile-long spiral structure composed of several smaller spirals that was only recently spotted using ground-penetrating through centuries’ worth of obstructions. It’s difficult to make out and study from the ground, but we know it measures more than 4,900 by 2,000 feet (1,500 by 600 meters). It’s been dated to the around same time that the temple was being built but archaeologists still don’t know what the structure was intended for or how it functioned because there’s nothing else like it that’s ever been found. They also believe that it was never completed.

Closer inspection revealed it was made of archeologically sterile banks of sand, meaning that it contained no artifacts from the time. Researchers Damian Evans of the French School of Asian Studies and Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney co-authored a report where they posited that the structure was used as a garden to supply the temple with produce and that the recti-spiral designs perhaps carried some spiritual meaning.

In addition to this, the temple has a large gallery of stone carvings known as bas-reliefs covering nearly 13,000 square feet (1,200 square meters) whose significance we’re largely still trying to piece together. The most notable one of these are the devata – 1,796 carvings of women in different sections of the temple, excluding the ones on the high towers. At first they were pegged as mere decorations before the level of detail across the rest of the temple complex made it more likely that they also bore a greater significance.

One of the earliest modern mentions of these sculptures comes from a mid-1920s book published by Sappho Marchal chronicling the jewelry, clothing and hairstyles of 1,737 of the women. At the time, her father, Henry Marchal, was in charge of restorations at the site, and it’s believed that the number cited in the study is lower following exclusion on the basis of fading, partial completion or going unnoticed owing to obstructions.

A more recent study by researchers from Michigan State University used digital photographs, 3D imaging and facial recognition software to group the portraits by similarities. Their findings suggest that the carvings are of women of different ethnicities living in the region at the time of the temple’s construction and are intended to visualize socio-political relationships within the Khmer empire.

Analyzing the features of the faces led them to infer that the ethnicities represented are Central Cambodian, East and South Asian, Coastal Vietnamese, North Central Thai, Malaysian-Indonesian, and more.

4 portraits in the West Library are done in a different style and are believed to have been added later during the reign of Jayavarman VII – more on him in a bit.

The mystery of how it became neglected

With everything you’ve learned about the temple you may be asking yourself how something like this could disappear from the larger public’s consciousness for hundreds of years and the short answer is we just don’t know. The longer answer is that the temple, along with the rest of the city, had been vacated by the early 15th century but no records have been found explaining a reason for why this happened.

Information from the time is so scanty that we actually have no idea what the temple itself is even called – “Angkor Wat” translates to “temple city” in the ancient Khmer language. Historians have found records that mention the complex but never by name, leading them to believe that it never needed one, as people knew when it was being referred to.

The angkor wat
The angkor wat

Contrary to popular belief, however, the temple was never fully abandoned as, despite significantly reduced use, Theravada Buddhist monks maintained the site long after the fall of Angkor and it remained an important pilgrimage and tourist destination, with mentions by visitors from all over the world well into the 17th century.

Its current bout of popularity can be traced back to 1860 when global interest was sparked after French explorer Henri Mouhot stumbled upon it and described it as such: “One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan lived in Angkor from 1296 to 1297, all the while writing everything he could about life in the Khmer empire, including its homes, the state of public health, the language, the justice system and the king’s wardrobe. Apart from inscriptions in temple walls, his diary, Customs of Cambodia, is the only known written record of daily life in Khmer.

It also notes that the city’s rapid period of development had slowed down and that some of its parts had been weakened by conflicts with neighbors. The next firsthand account we have of the region is from the 16th century but by then, the city was mostly empty and its buildings were ruins overgrown with the jungle.

This has created different theories regarding the decline, one of which puts the blame squarely on a 1431 attack by the Tai state of Ayutthaya but later findings paint the picture of a more gradual descent with several intertwined factors rather than one definitive event.

Sediment can be analyzed to determine changes in land use, vegetation, climate, etc., and when the sediment in the region was cored, it was determined that land use was in decline by the 14th century.

It’s long been held that increasingly unfavorable conditions forced the population to leave the area, but it’s also possible that the inverse is true. Maritime trade with China was picking up and meant the capital moved south near present-day Phnom Penh, and the spread of Buddhism disrupted existing Hindu power structures, so there was already a steady mass exodus of the urban elite out of the city underway by the 1300s, nearly a full century before the Ayutthaya supposedly forced their hand.

This created a domino effect where the city’s infrastructure systematically fell apart and when monsoon rains struck, floods decimated everything and Angkor was never able to recover, in no small part because at that point, there was little reason to rebuild.

The mysteries of its post-construction developments

The story of Angkor Wat is the story of the Khmer and vice versa. The additions to the temple in the years between its completion and the fall of the empire reflect this, and they could be the key to answering our questions about the ancient civilization.

While the temple was originally built as a Hindu monument, it has noticeably had a Buddhist facelift that was clearly implemented by a different regime, evident in how a lot of the newer elements don’t blend in with the rest of the architecture.

In 1177 when the Cham people of present-day Vietnam attacked Angkor, Jayavarman VII, Suryavarman II’s grandson and heir apparent to the throne, felt that the Hindu gods had abandoned him, and when he took the reins in 1181, he embarked on a campaign to establish Buddhism as the dominant religion. Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist temple but without the care or precision from its construction, possibly because most resources were focused on building Bayon, Jayavarman VII’s own grand mausoleum in the center of his new capital at Angkor Thom.

The pendulum would briefly swing back the other way during the reign of Jayavarman VIII as suggested by the construction of Mangalartha, the final major stone temple at Angkor. The Hindu structure was dedicated on Thursday, April 28, 1295, and has the distinction of being the last known monument in the city that was dated with precision but it was too late; the writing was on the wall for Angkor Wat.

The final significant project undertaken at the temple was a series of fortifications on its laterite walls for defense somewhere between the 13th and 16th century. We still don’t know when they were installed, so we don’t know if they were necessitated following conflicts with one or more groups, but Angkor Wat remains the only known temple in Angkorian history that was modified in this manner.

Whatever its purpose or date of construction, the fortification project is considered “one of the last major constructions at Angkor and … perhaps indicative of its end.”

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