Angkor Wat Galleries: Telling Stories in a Timeless Manner

Siem Reap - It has always been one of mankind’s unstoppable desires to immortalise one’s story until the end of time. Either by forging legends or etching long-lasting depictions on stones, it seems that the names that are longest remembered are the ones belonging to the victors.

From the Egyptians to the Romans, and from the Aztecs to the Indians, monuments, in a variety of scales and a spectrum of complexity, rarely fail to capture present-day humans’ imagination by romanticising how the past could have actually looked based on the vestiges and ruins scattered here and there.

The temple of Angkor Wat is no exception to this urge of romanticism. It has seen, since its onset, times of glory and times of failure, the comings and the goings of divine kings, and the work of those—some remembered and some forgotten—behind the crowns.

Despite having largely faded from the maps and overshadowed by more prominent kingdoms of neighbouring worlds, covered with thick vegetation, eroded by rains, tumbled by winds and torn apart by invasive roots, Angkor Wat, although laid dormant, was visited by some pilgrims, called home by some villagers, and later restored by some lesser-known kings, held on patiently waiting for a new future.

As the age of exploration by the Western hemisphere matured and scientific understanding progressed, Angkor Wat and its peers including hundreds of other large temples appeared once more, this time on the pages of modern maps, scientific journals, magazines, posters and books.

From the 1900s on, each temple was meticulously studied and, by Dec. 14, 1992, the representatives of nations finally considered the Angkor Archaeological Park a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.

Scale should not be the only focus here. Angkor Wat, beside its awe-inspiring geometry, contains one of the longest ancient galleries in the world.

This 12th century monument—the product of King Suryavarman II—is the biggest temple in Cambodia.

Considering the moats crucial to the temple’s foundation, Angkor Wat is 1,500 metres by 1,300 metres, constructed to symbolise the mythical Mount Meru with a dedication to Lord Vishnu who is a deity of the western direction, giving Angkor Wat the rare architectural characteristic of facing the sunset.

Adorned by the five-headed naga handrails and the firmly standing statues of roaring singhas, the way into Angkor Wat requires visitors to venture across a 197-metre causeway bridge toward an enclosure wall and an antechamber deprived of sunlight, yet saturated with the echoes of visitors’ chatters.

It is at this very moment that the beauty of Angkor Wat becomes amplified. The view of the lone central tower emerges in full force alongside the green fields and another causeway raised above ground at a considerable height and flanked by two distinctive buildings commonly known as libraries.

By entering the main compound and for visitors to experience Angkor Wat at a more comprehensive level, a perspective toward the details should be encouraged.

Facing the four cardinal directions, each of Angkor Wat’s galleries are more than 600 metres on each side. They represent the four yugas (epochs) from ancient Indian mythology namely the Satya Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dwapara Yuga, and the Kali Yuga.

Leading from the first to the last yuga, the world is seemingly transformed into a place of more turmoil.

Ea Darith, director of the Department of Conservation and Archaeology at the APSARA National Authority, which manages Angkor park, will guide us through each gallery along the gigantic monument of Angkor Wat.

Ea Darith: Starting from the eastern gallery, the first yuga shows us a world in the best of form, a world where good spirits reign supreme. Here, we can also see the famous story called the Churning of the Sea of Milk at the southern wing of the eastern gallery. The 5-headed naga is present here with asura (evil spirits) leaders and followers. The asuras and devas (good spirits) are in a “tug-of-war” movement against one another, disturbing the marine animals living underneath the waves. This section here is about 50 metres with 92 asuras and 88 devas. The figure with four arms here is Lord Narayana or Lord Vishnu, and above here we can see groups of apsaras as well as Lord Indra.

Every gallery on all four sides is partitioned in half. For this eastern gallery, there are three entrances in the middle and one on each of the far sides, making it five entrances in total.

No area of stone surface has gone wasted without some forms of aesthetic touch. From the base of the staircase to the doorframe and from the lintel to the pediment above as well as the window frames nearby, the entrance itself is adorned with depictions of artistic patterns.

Ea Darith: In the northern wing of the eastern gallery, we can see Narayana or Vishnu gaining victory over the asuras as continues the story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. When one of the asuras, Rahu, stole and drank the elixir of immortality, Narayana was really furious and fought back. From that point on, the trust between the good and the evil spirits deteriorated.

Below the galleries, the supporting stones are also adorned with specific patterns. Extended outward, there are two rows of rectangular pillars supporting the gallery roofs. Here, it consists of 76 pillars with sculptures of flowers, animals and angels. On the lower portion, we can see sculptures of hermits sitting in a praying position. At each concern, the galleries of perpendicular direction are connected by an entrance with sculptures of its own.

Ea Darith: The northern gallery is where the second yuga begins. At the eastern and the western wing, we can see the battle between Krishna and Banasura as well as devas and asuras respectively. We can differentiate the two characters by their headwears.

Actually, the northern and southern galleries are longer than the other two with the former having 128 pillars in total to support the gallery roofs.

Ea Darith: The western gallery, representing the third yuga, depicts the Hindi epic poems Ramayana, known as Reamker in Khmer, and Mahabharata. During this third yuga, an equal proportion is met between the power of divinity and normal human strength. The battle between Rama and Ravana, with their armies of monkeys and asuras respectively, can be seen in the northern wing while the battle of Kurukshetra between the Pandavas and Kauravas armies can be seen in the southern wing. One of the most prominent scenes here is the scene in which Bhishma, the uncle of both armies, is killed by arrows.

In between these large galleries, smaller bas-reliefs depict a form of folklore, daily tasks, hunting as well as unknown stories. In some window frames, we can see bas-reliefs of Chinese silk.

Ea Darith: The southern gallery’s western wing depicts the procession of King Suryavarman II with this section depicting no sign of divinity. The king, being seated on a throne, gathers his followers and army commanders from 19 different regions. The commanders are ranked hierarchically.

Ea Darith: In the eastern wing of the southern gallery, we can see the distinctive depiction of heaven and hell. Normally, when people die, they end up in one of these two places. If we try to look at some very small writings here, we can read “this road leads to hell” and “this road leads to heaven.” Those who end up in heaven are beautifully dressed while those who do not are chained and with bad physiques. Almost in the middle of the depiction, we can see the presence of Yama, the lord of the underworld, holding maces. Plus, we can see Chitragupta, a deity who determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

Besides these long galleries, the temple of Angkor Wat has much more to offer in its different sections and architectural elements. From its religious to its design and engineering aspects, Angkor Wat is one of the most important ancient libraries of the world.

Written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey News, the story was translated by Ky Chamna for Cambodianess News.

To watch the original interview in Khmer language, click here.

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