The temples of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are a vast temple complex near Siem Reap, Cambodia, about 200 miles from the capital of Phnom Penh. Angkor Wat (which means Holy Temple), was built by King Suryavarman II (1113 A.D. to 1145) as a vast funerary temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. Suryavarman united the kingdom, following a period of conflict, and conquered many of the surrounding kingdoms, which included the present day Thailand and an area stretching to Burma, the Malay Peninsula and Laos. It is believed that he died during a military expedition against the Vietnamese Kingdom of Champa, and in 1177 the Champa were responsible for sacking Angkor.
In 1181 King Jayavarman VII began to expand the empire. He invaded Champa and made it part of the empire, turning the Khmer Empire into one of the most prosperous and sophisticated kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia. Its prosperity resulted in the construction of a wide range of architecture under Jayavarman, who was one of history’s great builders and it was he who started the construction of Angkor Thom (meaning Great City) which was to extend over 400 square kilometres. It is the largest religious complex in the world and is the best preserved example of Khmer architecture in Cambodia.
During its six centuries as the imperial capital, Angkor went through many changes in architectural styles and in religion. The city of Angkor changed from the Hindu God Shiva to Vishnu, and finally to the Mahayana Buddhist Deity Avalokitesvara; all of which had a major influence on its’ temple architecture. The design of the temples was based on Hindu cosmology, having been built around a central temple situated on a hill. This symbolized Mount Meru, the home of the Gods, with the central tower of each temple also representing Mount Meru. The outer walls of the temple represented the mountains that were believed to encircle the cosmos.
Angkor Thom contains many buildings. There is the Buddhist Temple dating from the late 12th century, which is famed for its 200 large faces; the Bayon with its towers and the faces of the Mahayana Buddhist Deity Avalokitesvara. Each is several metres high and is carved out of stone; and there is the Terrace of the Elephants, which was where the Royal family would stage entertainment, and ministers and Generals would review their forces. The waterways, canals and moats of Angkor served a dual purpose. They symbolized the waters of the cosmos but also had a more practical purpose of water supply and irrigation.
Angkor Wat consists of five central shrines, and three galleries. To gain entry to the complex, a paved causeway runs over the moat and under a portico, and continues on between two libraries to the main entrance of the main building. The galleries are all beautifully decorated with apsaras (heavenly nymphs), together with dancing male figures and animals. Temples are decorated with bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Hindu sacred texts that recount the adventures of two major incarnations of Vishnu. They consist of Gods, men and animals, which are displayed on every flat surface. Also to be found in Angkor is the longest relief in the world with 1,200 metres of bas-reliefs carved into the stone and incorporating over 11,000 figures.
Angkor flourished from the 9th to the 15th century. At its peak, between the 11th -13th century, it was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of in the region of 80 – 150,000. (London at that time had a population of 30,000). 12,000 people served the temple, but its prosperity was to end in 1431 when it was sacked by the Siamese, resulting in the capital being moved to Phnom Penh and Angkor being abandoned and becoming overgrown by the jungle. The process of reclaiming Angkor from the jungle was begun in the 1860s by the French, but the task had to be suspended in the 1970s during the rule of Pol Pot. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.