Courtesy Wiimedia Commons - Erik HooymansIts classic architecture and the colossal past, its sheer magnitude and the view during the sunrise and sunset, all come together to underscore the grandeur of Angkor Wat, writes Dr Ram Mohan

I had all sorts of pre-conceived ideas about Angkor Wat before my fist visit last month, and the biggest one was that it is one temple. It is not. Angkor Wat covers an area over 162.6 hectares, and the whole Angkor consists of more than a thousand temples, which are all scattered around.

Before you get to the main temple of Angkot Wat, you get to the city of Siem Reap, which is a booming tourism hub with all the infrastructure developed to cater to the tourists. So much so that nearly half of the tourists to Cambodia are international visitors wanting to visit Angor Wat.

As you get to the various temples, you are swarmed by little kids trying to hustle you into buying trinkets, guidebooks, bracelets, and all that. And they were are pretty relentless too at that. But once you get inside the temple complex, you are struck by how well preserved the carvings are, which are indeed beautiful and awe-inspiring and make you wonder how could they have been preserved so well. You rather enjoy roaming around on the 3rd floor of Angkor Wat, which in the times of its original glory was reserved for only the king and the queen.

Seeing the sunrise at the temple

As you cross Angkor Wat main gate, you have to find a spot in front of the building. There is a bridge leading to the temple, and you want to stay on the left of the bridge, where you can see a lake with flowers. That’s your spot to appreciate the sunrise at the Angkor Wat. The reflection of the temple and the clouds in the lake makes the sunrise all the more beautiful, even stunning with intense colours and clarity.

Angkor Wat’s history

Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Untill the 15th century, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Kingdom, but after that Angkor was abandoned and the temple Angkor Wat came to be regarded as a Buddhist shrine. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

The original name of the temple was Vrah Viṣṇuloka or Parama Viṣṇuloka (Sanskrit), which means the sacred dwelling of Vishnu. According to legend, the construction of Angkor Wat was ordered by Indra to serve as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea. According to the 13th-century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan, some believed that the temple was constructed in a single night by a divine architect. Towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu centre of worship to Buddhism, which continues to the present day.

Classical architecture

Angkor Wat beautifully displays the classical style of Khmer architecture. By the 12th century architects in the Khmer region had become skilled in the use of sandstone as the main building material, choosing not to use bricks or laterite. Most of the visible areas within the temple are build with sandstone blocks, and only the outer wall and for hidden structural parts are built with laterite.

The temple has drawn praise above all for the harmony of its design. According to Maurice Glaize, a mid-20th-century conservator of Angkor, the temple “attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions. It is a work of power, unity and style.”

Architecturally, the typical decorative elements are the carved images of devatas and apsaras, bas-reliefs, extensive garlands and narrative scenes. Many elements of the design have been destroyed by looting and the passage of time, including gilding on some figures on the bas-reliefs, and wooden ceiling panels and doors.