Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cambodian Temple: Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, which means “Great City” in Khmer, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. Established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII, it covers an area of 9 km², within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors.

At the center of the city is Jayavarman's state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north. There were several other earlier cities in the region that were known as the capital, but the name of Angkor Thom—great city—was in use from the 16th century.

Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII's empire, and was the centre of his massive building program. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride.

The complex was abandoned some time prior to 1609, when an early western visitor wrote of an uninhabited city, "as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato." It is believed to have sustained a population of 80,000–150,000 people. The city was abandoned when the Khmers were driven out. Wars have been ongoing in Cambodia for centuries and they are taken a toll on the architecture and the people.
Angkor Thom is in the Bayon style. This manifests itself in the large scale of the construction, in the widespread use of laterite, in the face-towers at each of the entrances to the city and in the Naga-carrying giant figures which accompany each of the towers. A number of the heads of the figures are missing or have been restored.

The city lies on the west bank of the Siem Reap River, a tributary of Tonle Sap, about a quarter of a mile from the river. The south gate of Angkor Thom is 7.2 km north of Siem Reap, and 1.7 km north of the entrance to Angkor Wat. The walls, 8 m high and flanked by a moat, are each 3 km long, enclosing an area of 9 km². The walls are of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top.

There are gates at each of the cardinal points, from which roads lead to the Bayon at the centre of the city. Another gate—the Victory Gate—is 500 m north of the east gate; the Victory Way runs parallel to the east road to the Victory Square and the Royal Palace north of the Bayon. This gives you an idea of just how large this complex is which makes it even more amazing considering when it was built!

The faces on the 23 m towers at the city gates, which are later additions to the main structure, take after those of the Bayon and pose the same problems of interpretation. They may represent the king himself, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, guardians of the empire's cardinal points, or some combination of these.

A causeway spans the moat in front of each tower: these have a row of devas on the left and asuras on the right, each row holding a naga in the attitude of a tug-of-war.

This appears to be a reference to the myth, popular in Angkor, of the “Churning of the Sea of Milk.” The temple-mountain of the Bayon, or perhaps the gate itself, would then be the pivot around which the churning takes place. The nagas may also represent the transition from the world of men to the world of the gods (the Bayon), or be guardian figures.

At each corner of the city is a Prasat Chrung—corner shrine—built of sandstone and dedicated to Avalokiteshvara. These are cruciform with a central tower, and orientated towards the east.

Before entering the South gate by car, we stopped to take in the view of the complex from a distance. Several elephants were coming down the causeway and our guide explained that the elephants come here every morning. Nowdays it is for the purpose of giving visitors a chance to sit on an elephant, but in the time when this was an active community, the elephants were part of everyday life and lived inside the walls.
Overall, this temple development was very sophisticated in both size and engineering. Angkor Thom is considered “an expression of the highest genius” by archeologists. It is said to be “in three dimensions and on a scale worthy of entire nation, the materialization of Buddhist cosmology, representing ideas that only great painters would dare to portray.”

Angkor Thom is the last capital of the Khmer Empire. It was a fortified city enclosing the residences of priests, officials of the palace and military as well as buildings for administrative operations of kingdom.
The bulk of the land enclosed by the walls would have been occupied by the secular buildings of the city, of which nothing remains. This area is now covered by forest. It is thought that many of these buildings were made of woods and perished many years ago.

Symbolically, Angkor Thom is a microcosm of the universe, divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon is situated at the exact center of the axes and stands as the symbolical link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stone wall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolizes the cosmic ocean.

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