You may wish to see a page with some historical background information and showing a gate of Angkor Thom first.
When comparing Angkor to cities of other ancient civilizations two aspects are immediately evident: the small relevance of funerary monuments and the minimal use of inscriptions to celebrate the achievements of the kings: the first aspect is explained by the belief in reincarnation and the tradition of cremation, which both contributed to diminishing the importance of a burial site. The lack of inscriptions is perhaps due to a very limited knowledge of writing which made them useless in conveying messages to most of the king's subjects.
Decoration of a terrace in Angkor Thom (Terrace of the Leper King)
Reliefs had often just a decorative purpose, with similar subjects being repeated in very large numbers, but there were also narrative reliefs
depicting stories from mythology or history; they had the same function that frescoes had in Europe and were used by the kings to speak to the people.
Angkor's reliefs are mainly bas-reliefs, sculptures in which the figures never project more than half their true depth from the background.
A typical lintel
Columns had rarely a supporting function; they were just a decorative element; this aspect was emphasized by plenty of moulded rings. Lintels were usually decorated with an elaborate curvilinear motif starting from a kala, a symbol of all-devouring time, a monster with a remarkable upper jaw.
They are sculptured in the thickness of the wall, and are curious from the scenes and costumes they represent. These scenes are drawn more from the sacred books of the people than from their history; for men with ten heads and twenty arms, fantastic animals, griffins and dragons, are favourite subjects.
Henri Mouhout - Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos: during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 - 1864
The odd number of heads was not peculiar only to snakes (Naga) and elephants (Airvana), but also to other animals. Devata were often portrayed as dancers on a lotus flower: in this case they were called apsara. Dvarapala were temple guardians, usually armed with a club: occasionally one can find an apsara acting as a dvarapala.
Angkor Thom retains monuments of different periods, which were built both before and after the foundation of the city by King Jayavarman VII.
Prah Palilay is a small Buddhist temple having the mountain-like shape of the Hindu tradition, an indication that the move to a different religion did not bring about radical changes in the way temples were designed and decorated. It is one of the most evocative sights of Angkor Thom because it gives an idea of what the first visitors felt when they discovered the ruins of its buildings in the forest. The many mountain temples of Angkor symbolize Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology.
Phimenan Aca. The Palace of the ancient Kings.
Three walls at some distance from each other, and each bounded by a moat, surround what remains of the palace of the ancient kings. Within the first enclosure are two towers connected by galleries, which form four sides, like a triumphal arch. The walls are of ferruginous stone, and the length of each block forms the thickness of the wall. The towers and galleries are of sandstone. Mouhout
Phimeanakas (built in 978) is a striking example of a mountain temple: it is characterized by three high terraces and by very steep stairs: this steepness (which makes the ascent very dangerous and even more the descent) is attributed to both a religious and a monumental objective: it was an indication of the difficulty of achieving heaven and it gave a vertical thrust to the whole building. Phimeanakas was a sort of Royal Chapel and this explains why it was guarded by lions, a symbol of royalty even among the Khmers.
Baphuon (built in 1060) was the largest temple of Angkor before the construction of Angkor Vat. Its structure however was greatly damaged by the growth of trees and the impact of rain. The roots of the trees opened gaps in the terrace pavements; thus water seeped into the ground which filled the lower structures of the monuments. In 1943 torrential rains caused the collapse of the temple. It was recently rebuilt on a concrete structure; although it was dedicated to Hindu deities, it is now used by Buddhist monks for their prayers.
King Jayavarman VII, the founder of Angkor Thom, left his mark on Bayon, the most interesting temple of the city.
Within the enclosure of Ongcor Thom, and two miles
from the west gate, are to be seen through the trees the
tops of the high towers of a building called by the Cambodians "Prea sat Ling poun," that is to say," The Pagoda
where they play hide and seek." (today known as Bayon). It is a collection of 37
towers of unequal size, connected by galleries which cross
each other perpetually, and form a labyrinth through
which it is not easy to find one's way. A long shallow
ditch, crossed by four roads leading to the principal
entrances, surrounds it on all sides. (..)
On visiting this place you behold on every side the tops
of these numerous towers, and the roofs of the galleries,
intermingled with large trees, creepers, and thistles, which
invade the courts, the terraces, and other parts ; and you
have at first some difficulty in comprehending the arrange-
ments of the different buildings. It is only after a long-
examination that you perceive the symmetry of them as a
whole, and that these thirty-seven towers and numerous
galleries are all in regular order. Mouhout
Bayon is a very complex monument: the first travellers thought it was a mountain range, covered by grass and trees. The work of the archaeologists brought to light 54 towers built on the chapels and galleries around the main temple.
Avalokitesvara (also in the image used as background for this page)
Some parts are in good preservation; others have been dealt hardly with by time,
in spite of the immense size of the blocks of stone, and
the skill with which they are united; and the condition
of this stone, ready to crumble to powder, seems to prove
that this structure was anterior to Ongcor-Wat.
Like it, it is built of sandstone, and the roofs are very
similar, only that, (..) these are embellished, at about
two-thirds of their height, with four gigantic sculptured
Each side of the towers was decorated with the benign face of Avalokitesvara, (the Lord who looks down with compassion) which was both a religious symbol and a portrait of the king.
(left) One of the "libraries"; (right) one of the galleries decorated with bas-reliefs
The temples of Angkor (including the Bayon) often have some small buildings detached from the main structure but inside the temple precinct: they are called libraries, but their function was more similar to that of a sacristy in a church, where vestments and objects used during ceremonies were kept. Narrow porticoes surrounded the main group of temples. King Jayavarman VII had their walls decorated with narrative bas-reliefs mainly describing his victorious campaigns against the Champa.
A devata and three apsara
In numerous places the water, trickling through holes in
the roof, has so obliterated the carving that the subjects
can no longer be recognised. Mouhout
Although Bayon was a Buddhist temple the king did not renounce the decoration of it with the traditional motifs of the Hindu tradition. He could rely on very skilled artists who excelled also in the so called (in Italian) stiacciato, a very low relief.
On the exterior of the wall, which on one side sustains the high roof, are a series of bas-reliefs, surrounding the whole gallery. They are sculptured in the thickness of the wall, and are curious from the scenes and costumes they represent. (..) The men all wear the langouti, and often nothing beside, and have the ears pierced and hanging on their shoulders: many have long beards. Mouhout
In the vestibules of the towers, and in the high galleries near them, are kings and queens seated on a rich dais, with a numerous court, and surrounded by persons carrying parasols, fans, standards, and caskets : there are likewise many musicians with drums, flutes, and harps. Mouhout
A war elephant
The chiefs are mounted on elephants or horses, or seated in carriages drawn by four led horses, and by their side march a numerous company bearing standards, parasols, and caskets. Mouhout
Scenes of fight
They represent various subjects: worshippers prostrated before their idols, musicians and comedians performing pantomimes, chariots filled with warriors standing up, and drawn by horses galloping: in some instances they appear to be running races. Mouhout
Other scenes of fight and a devata
The richness and accuracy of the Bayon bas-reliefs can be compared with those of Trajan's Column in Rome. The Khmers are identifiable by being bare headed and by protecting themselves with ropes; the Champa have a conical hat, while Chinese soldiers (fighting with the Khmers) have a more elaborate hat.
|Day One - Page One||Introduction - Angkor Thom (Southern Gate and Terraces)|
|Day One - Page Two||Angkor Thom (Temples)|
|Day One - Page Three||Angkor Vat|
|Day Two - Page One||Prah Khan - Ta Som|
|Day Two - Page Two||Banteay Srey|
|Day Two - Page Three||East Mebon - Pre Rup|
|Day Three - Page One||Baksei Chamkrong - Ta Prohm|
|Day Three - Page Two||Prasat Kravan - Phnom Bakheng|
|Day Three - Page Three||An excursion to Tonle Sap|