Founded: Early 12th century
History: Built by Khmer King Suryavarman II
Trivia #1: Originally a Hindu temple; converted for Buddhist use
Trivia #2: Temple represented the microcosm of the Hindu universe
I started my first solo trip in 2008, and a year later I decided to explore Cambodia. When I first stepped foot in Siem Reap, I felt that I had, for a moment, traversed through hundreds of years back in time.
Maybe a thousand years, even. I was awed by its brimming ancient relics of the past. Great carved stone temples, statues of lore and religious artefacts – they stood still as time passed by, undeterred by man’s progress, and simply observed in silence.
They tell a much greater story than what we see before our eyes, of the mighty ambitions of an ancient civilisation, powerful and deeply advanced in engineering in an era when it reached its military and religious height.
It blew my mind when I learnt that, at its greatest extent in the 12th century, the Khmer kingdom encompassed (in addition to present-day Cambodia) parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the Malay Peninsula.
Thailand and Laos still contain Khmer temple ruins and inscriptions, though ownership disputes are on-going. After a Thai invasion in 1431, what remained of the Cambodian elite shifted southeastward to the vicinity of Phnom Penh.
Majestic. Steeped in rich ancient history, the magnificient religious monument represents the epicentre and height of the once all-powerful Khmer kingdom in the past.
The Khmers were great builders. And out of 1,080 temples across the country, its greatest and most complex temple system, Angkow Wat, was built by King Survayarman II in the late 12th century, at a time when Angkor reached the peak of its influence and power.
An interesting point to note is that, through research, many scholars have noted that the world’s largest religious monument did not have “Angkor Wat” as its original name – it was lost through time.
Angkow Wat was a dedication to the god Vishnu. It has been described, figuratively, heaven on earth as its temple system represented the microcosm of the Hindu universe.
For example, the moat that surrounds the monument represents the mythical oceans surrounding the earth and the succession of concentric galleries represent the mountain range that surrounds Mount Meru.
The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia. It is the national symbol, the epicentre of Khmer civilisation and a source of fierce national pride. Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat that would make its European castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.
The temple complexes’ architecture is a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of humanity’s devotion to its gods, and perhaps, the quest for perfection. Having some 1,200 square meters of carved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, these represent eight different Hindu stories altogether.
In Cambodian culture, an Apsara is a young and beautiful supernatural being who’s purpose is to perform a ballet like dance, known as the “Apsara Dance”, only in the presence of the King of Cambodia. An Apsara has its origins in Hindu and Buddhist mythology where it is a female spirit of the clouds and waters.
They are as much of a beautiful and beguiling sight as they may have been in the flesh when they were immortalised in the reliefs at the Angkor Wat Complex.
Reamker is a Cambodian epic poem, based on the Sanskrit’s Ramayana epic. The name means “Glory of Rama”. It adapts the Hindu ideas to Buddhist themes and shows the balance of good and evil in the world.
More than just a reordering of the epic tale, the Reamker is a mainstay of the royal ballet’s repertoire. Like the Ramayana, it is a philosophical allegory, exploring the ideals of justice and fidelity as embodied by the protagonists, Prince Rama and Queen Sita.
The epic is well known among the Khmer people for its portrayal in Khmer dance theatre, called the L’khaon, in various festivals across Cambodia.
It is considered an integral part of Cambodian culture.
Built at the beginning of the 12th century AD as a Hindu capital for the Khmer empire, Angkor Wat became a centre of Buddhist worship at the end of the 12th century.
New monuments featured the Buddha and bodhisattvas, most notably the temple of Bayon, which was built by the Khmer ruler who embraced Buddhism King Jayavarman VII.
Below: Over time, the stone statues have fallen apart.
Till today, Angkor Wat is a national symbol and it continues to play an important role in Cambodia’s national identity even though its population is largely Buddhist.
The temple ruins are fast disappearing, falling prey into the unabated forces of nature and time. Through my conversations with local folks, to my dismay, I learnt that some of the temples and stone statutes are disintegrating fast.
I hope that my personal travel journal on the country’s most historically and culturally significant medieval city will serve to enrich your knowledge about the ancient world of Cambodia, and not forgotten through the passage of time.
With this account of my travel in this fascinating land, I present: Cambodia: Of Glories Past.
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