Wat an art

The sculptures and carvings of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple, are a juxtaposition of Hindu and Buddhist relics, says Kanwarjit Singh Kang

THE largest Hindu temple in the world "is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decorations and all refinements which the human genius can conceive of."

The architecture of Angkor Wat is reminiscent of the medieval temples of Orissa and Tamil Nadu
The architecture of Angkor Wat is reminiscent of the medieval temples of Orissa and Tamil Nadu

An artistically worked bas-relief representing Apsaras or celestial nymphs adorns a gallery
An artistically worked bas-relief representing Apsaras or celestial nymphs adorns a gallery

This largest Hindu temple is not in India but in Angkor, Cambodia, and the above observation is by a Portuguese monk Antonio da Magdalena, who visited the temple in 1586.

This observation was vouched for in the mid-19th century by Henri Mouhot, a French explorer, who wrote of it: "One of the temples — a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome...".

The city of Angkor was the capital wherefrom a dynasty of Khmer kings ruled one of the largest and prosperous kingdoms in the history of South-East Asia. Hindu king Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150, took nearly 30 years to complete Angkor Wat (wat is the Khmer word for temple). It was dedicated to Lord Vishnu and at that time was known as Vrah Vishnuloka or the Sacred Abode of Vishnu. In the 13th century, Khmers embraced Buddhism and king Jayavarman VII transformed Angkor Wat from a Vishnuite sanctuary into a Buddhist Wat. The sculptures and carvings in this temple, therefore, are a juxtaposition of the Hindu and the Buddhist relics.

The temple built in limestone covers an enclosed area approximately 850 by 1,000 metres and is designed to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, according to the Hindu mythology. At the centre of the temple stands quincunx of towers, ogival and shaped like lotus buds. The style was influenced by the medieval Indian temple architecture of Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

The elevated sanctuary at the centre of the temple, open on each side, was originally occupied by a statue of Lord Vishnu. When the temple was converted to Theravada Buddhism, the open sides were covered with walls featuring images of standing Buddhas.

Integrated with the architecture of the building are bas-relief friezes illustrating scenes from the Hindu mythology, folklore and epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The most conspicuous scenes illustrate enticed Rama killing the enchanted gazelle and Ravana carrying off Sita in his aerial car Pushpeka; Ravana taking the form of a chameleon, enters the women’s chambers in the palace of Indra; Ravana with multiple heads and arms shaking the mountain on which Shiva is throned; Krishna raising mount Govardhana with his arm to shelter the shepherds and their flock from the storms unleashed by the fury of Indra; a scene from the legend of Vishnu depicting churning of the Sea of Milk that extracts the elixir of immortality over which the gods and demons dispute; and the scenes thus go on, too numerous to mention.

In the western part of the southern gallery, known as ‘Historical Gallery’, is a 90-metre-long bas-relief panel dedicated to king Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat. In one of the scenes, the king is sitting cross-legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasoles and fans.

The decline of Angkor started in 1431 when Thai armies captured and sacked it and forced Khmer to move further south. Angkor, with its temples, was deserted to be swallowed by the tropical forests until it was rediscovered by the French in the mid-19th century.

With the establishment of the French colonial regime in 1863, Angkor became the focus of an intense scholarly interest, followed by a comprehensive programme of research by a group of French archaeologists. Much of the encroaching jungle was hacked away to allow access to the monuments.

Historical, archaeological and preservative work at Angkor has taken on international proportion in the recent years. Several countries have been involved in this gigantic task by sending their archaeological teams. The archaeological Survey of India contributed to the conservation and restoration work between 1986 and 1992. It was declared Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992. Concerted efforts have restored it to something of its original grandeur.