Walking in Shadows of Serenity: The Great Sacred City of Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom (which means ‘Great City’) was the last capital of the mighty Khmer Empire, which was based in modern day Cambodia. This typically intricately decorated Khmer city, which is located in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, was fortified by massive walls, which in turn were surrounded a great moat. In order to enter this protected city, one had to cross one of Angkor Thom’s enormous causeways. As a capital city, Angkor Thom contained numerous important structures, including temples, royal residences, and administrative buildings. Today, Angkor Thom is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor, which also includes the famous Temple of Angkor Wat.
The south gate - the best-preserved gate of Angkor Thom, showing the left side 54 god statues (CC BY 2.0)
A Very Symbolic Design
Angkor Thom was founded around the later part of the 12 th century AD, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, who is often regarded as the greatest king of the Khmer Empire. This city was established following the sacking of the previous capital, Angkor, by the Chams during the reign of Jayavarman’s predecessor. The layout of Jayavarman’s new capital was in the shape of an almost perfect square, which was separated from the surrounding areas by a circuit of huge walls, and a moat reported to have contained crocodiles.
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The five entry towers or gates are the most photographed of all the ancient Cambodian ruins. Each tower rises 75 feet to the sky and is crowned with four heads, one facing each direction. ( CC BY 2.0 )
It has been remarked that, apart from their imposing size, these walls might not have been very suitable as defensive structures. For instance, there is nowhere along the walls for the city’s defenders to take shelter from enemy projectiles, or to return fire safely. Instead, the walls of Angkor Thom served a symbolic function. It has been pointed out that the city’s design was meant to be a representation of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in the cosmology of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, being surrounded by the mountains and the ocean.
Serene Buddhist bodhisattva faces watch over you at the Bayon at the Angkor Thom (CC BY 2.0)
If the walls of the city represent the mountains, and the moat the ocean, then Mount Meru is symbolised by the Bayon Temple, which is located at the very heart of Angkor Thom. This temple served as one of the three state temples of Jayavarman (the other two being the Baphuon and the Phimeanakas Temples). Although the Bayon Temple was built as a Buddhist temple, it also contains elements and motifs from Hindu mythology and cosmology. For instance, this temple is renowned for the numerous giant smiling faces of the Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. It has been proposed that the features of these statues are based on those of Jayavarman himself. As for Hindu elements, these may be seen in the bas reliefs of the temple’s inner gallery, which depict scenes from Hindu mythology.
Bayon Wat, Angkor Thom, Cambodia ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Entering the Great City
In order to enter Angkor Thom, a visitor would need to pass through one of the five monumental gates that are found along the city walls. The northern, southern and western walls each have a gate, whilst the eastern one has two. Additionally, these gates are reached via causeways that cross the moat. These causeways are flanked by 54 statues on each side, demons on the right, and gods on the left. The demons may be identified by their fearsome facial expressions and military headdresses, whilst the gods look calm, and are wearing conical headdresses. At the beginning of each causeway is the statue of a nine-headed serpent, whose body is held by the gods and demons. This arrangement depicts the famous Hindu myth known as the ‘Churning of the Ocean’.
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Phimeanakas a Hindu temple in the Khleang style, built at the end of the 10th century inside the Royal Palace enclosure ( CC BY 2.0 )
Symbols of the Past
Other notable structures in Angkor Thom include the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and the Royal Enclosure. The first of these functioned as a viewing platform for royal parties, and is decorated by elephants and a type of mythical creature known as the garuda. The second is a decorative platform, on top of which is a central statue surrounded by four lesser ones with their faces turned away from it. It has been suggested that the central statue depicts a Khmer king who died of leprosy. As for the Royal Enclosure, this is the site where the royal buildings once stood. These, however, are no longer in existence, and therefore may have been constructed of wood.
Baphuon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia ( CC BY 3.0)
Top image: Bayron Temple, the most notable temple in Angkor Thom (Robert Nyman CC BY 2.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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