Angkor is a rich cultural site, and is located about 5.5 km north of the present town of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is rich in ancient structures, the most important of them being the Angkor Wat temple. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II, as his state temple in the capital city of Angkor. It was dedicated to the Hindu God, Vishnu. The temple took 37 years to be built and had turned the people of the kingdom into slaves who worked hard to raise the temple. Though, initially a Hindu temple, it became an important Buddhist religious center, under the rule of Srindravarman who adopted Buddhism as the state religion.
Spread over an area of more than 200 hectares, the Angkor Wat was built using the two fundamental plans of Khmer architecture: the Temple Mountain and the Galleried Temple. According to the Temple Mountain plan, the temple is depicted as Mount Meru, the abode of Hindu Gods. The wall and moat enclosing the temple, represent mountains and oceans respectively. The temple's conformity with the Khmer architecture, can be best understood if we divided the temple into an outer structure and inner structure.
- Outer Structure
The temple complex is enclosed within a 190 m wide moat. A stretch of 30 m wide open ground separates the moat from the 4.5 m high outer wall that surrounds the temple on all four sides. Entry to the temple complex is guarded by an impressive architectural structure, which is on each side of the outer wall, is known as the gopura. Inside the walls lies an area of 820,000 square meters that not only has the temple, but that once also housed the entire city and the royal palace.
- Inner Structure
The inner structure contains the temple, that stands on a raised terrace made of three rectangular galleries, rising to a central tower. The three galleries are believed by some to represent Brahma - the creator according to Hindu mythology, the moon, and Vishnu the Hindu god who is supposed to be the preserver of all forms of life. The central tower forms a quincunx with the other towers on the gallery to represent mount Meru, surrounded by other peaks.
By the 12th century the Khmer craftsmen had become skilled workers of sandstone. The temple is made of sandstone, and is intricately decorated with scenes from Hindu epics, like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It preserves the style of the Khmer period, in the form of towers that are shaped like lotus buds, cruciform terraces and axial galleries that connect enclosures.
Although the temple follows the basic principles of Khmer architecture, unlike other temples built around the same time, the Angkor Wat faces the west. Some believe that this deviation from the usual orientation of Khmer temples towards the east, is because it is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, who is associated with the west direction. However, some other scholars believe that orientation towards the west direction reflects Suryavarman II's desire to use the temple for personal funerary purpose.
Angkor Wat is the largest temple in the world that has been compared to the architecture of Rome and ancient Greece. It has been a part of the Angkor World Heritage Site since 1992 and is a symbol of pride for the people of Cambodia.