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Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Temples of Angkor

Panorama of the causeway across the moat to Angkor Wat (Wikimedia commons)

The second day in Siem Reap, we spent visiting the temples of Angkor. I had visited them a long time ago in 1969 before the genocide of the Khymer Rouge, who adopted Angkor as a symbol of their backward 'revolution' to primeval subsistence and had dark memories of the sinister faces on the Bayon, smiling in more of an ominous grimace than humor or pleasure and the stories of friezes sealed under stairs and the artists being killed when they had completed then because the images were of divine themes meant to be seen by no woman or man.

Panorama of the moat around Angkor Wat

However Angkor has a very interesting history of an ebb and flow between Shiva and Krishna worship and then the influence of Buddhism, a return to Hinduism and then finally the encroachment of Theravada Buddhism over both Mahayana and Hindu practices and some historians cite the nihilistic aspects of Buddhism, particularly in relation to the power and driving force of kingship, as one cause of the eventual dissolution of the Khymer empire.

A map of the Angkor area showing the temples visited

Looking back at the entrance from inside the Angkor Wat compound

Approaching Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat itself was dedicated by Suryavarman II in the early 12th century to Vishnu as a mausoleum to himself, rather than the previous kingly tradition of Shiva worship.

One of several Buddhist shrines in what was originally a Vishnaivite mausoleum

I climbed to the top of the central temple mountain of Angkor Wat. The steps were huge and very steep.

Panorama from the top

The inner walls of the outer gallery bear a series of large-scale scenes mainly depicting episodes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Here is a Wikipedia excerpt.

Higham has called these, "the greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving". From the north-west corner anti-clockwise, the western gallery shows the Battle of Lanka (from the Ramayana, in which Rama defeats Ravana) and the Battle of Kurukshetra (from the Mahabharata, showing the mutual annihilation of the Kaurava and Pandava clans). On the southern gallery follow the only historical scene, a procession of Suryavarman II, then the 32 hells and 37 heavens of Hindu mythology. On the eastern gallery is one of the most celebrated scenes, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, showing 92 asuras and 88 devas using the serpent Vasuki to churn the sea under Vishnu's direction (Mannikka counts only 91 asuras, and explains the asymmetrical numbers as representing the number of days from the winter solstice to the spring equinox, and from the equinox to the summer solstice).[39] It is followed by Vishnu defeating asuras (a 16th-century addition). The northern gallery shows Krishna's victory over Bana (where according to Glaize, "The workmanship is at its worst"[40]) and a battle between the Hindu gods and asuras. The north-west and south-west corner pavilions both feature much smaller-scale scenes, some unidentified but most from the Ramayana or the life of Krishna.

Scenes from the Mahabarata at Angkor Wat

Panorama of the surroundings of the temple inner island

View from the rear of the temple (Wikimedia commons)

Google Earthl view of Angkor Wat

Aerial view courtesy of

The gates into the Bayon compound

From Angkor Wat we proceeded to the Bayon. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom.

Views of the Bayon

Face towers of the Bayon represent the king as the Bodhisattva Lokesvara

This Buddhist nun was holding ceremonies in a small shrine on the Bayon, She was very engaging when I took an interest in her.

Here is her shrine and below the woman herself

Shiva lingam. A subsequent king became a Shiva worshiper
and cast the great Buddha atop the Bayon into a deep well.

The Baphuon, part of the Angkor Thom complex.

We then went to Preah Khan a temple overrun with vegetation which once was the centre of organization of up to 100,000 officials.

The temple has been partially restored in a way to leave a relationship between the temple and the large forest trees which have engulfed it making it famous for its images of temples lost in the jungle.

Vertical panoramas of the two most outstanding trees

We then drove out to a temple on the outskirts of the Angkor complex, Pre Rup, which is made of brick rather than stone and has an extraordinary view back through the jungle all the way to Angkor Wat several kilometers away.

View across the jungle to Angkor Wat about 6 kms away, just discernible to the right
of the central tree on the horizon, and clearer in the video telephoto explosion below.

A NASA satellite image of the Angkor complex
which may bring further light onto the history and archaeology

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