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Built around the year A.D. Angkor Wat, built between 1113 and 1150 on an area of about 500 acres (200 hectares), is one of the largest religious monuments ever built. Its name translates as "temple city."
Originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and Buddha statues were added to the temple's already extensive artwork. It was later converted into a military fortification. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that scientists are working hard to preserve.
Its 213-foot-tall (65-meter) central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers and a series of enclosure walls, resembling Mount Meru, a legendary place in Hindu mythology said to lie beyond the Himalayas and be the home of the gods.
Angkor, the city where the temple was built, is located in modern-day Cambodia and was the capital of the Khmer Empire at one time. Hundreds of temples can be found in this city. The population could have topped one million people. Until the Industrial Revolution, it was easily the world's largest city. According to airborne laser scanning (lidar) research, Angkor had an urban core that could easily hold 500,000 people and a vast hinterland with many more inhabitants. Researchers have also discovered a "lost" city called Mahendraparvata, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 650-foot-wide (200-meter) moat that extends for more than 3 miles (5 km). This 13-foot-deep (4-meter-deep) moat would have helped stabilize the temple's foundation by preventing groundwater from rising too high or falling too low.
The main entrance to Angkor Wat was to the west (a direction associated with Vishnu), across a stone causeway guarded by lions. Archaeologists recently discovered the remains of eight sandstone and laterite towers near the western gateway. These towers could be the remains of shrines that existed before Angkor Wat was completed. A second, more modest entrance could be found to the east of the temple.
The central tower was the temple's heart, accessible via a steep staircase with a Vishnu statue at the top. According to researcher Eleanor Mannikka in her book "Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire," this tower "was at once the symbolic center of the nation and the actual center where secular and sacred power joined forces" (Abbeville Press, 2002). "Vishnu and the king ruled over the Khmer people from that unparalleled space."
The central tower's hidden paintings have been discovered. A scene in one chamber of the tower depicts a traditional Khmer ensemble of musical instruments known as the pinpeat, which is composed of various gongs, xylophones, wind instruments, and other percussion instruments. In the same room, there's an intricate scene with people riding horses between two structures that could be temples. Since 2010, 200 paintings have been discovered in Angkor Wat, including these two.
Archaeologists using lidar discovered a mile-long sand structure with a variety of spiral designs near Angkor Wat. It would have existed for only a short time in the mid-to-late 12th century. Archaeologists are unsure what it was used for, and the structure may have never been completed.
During lidar research, the remains of homes and ponds used by workers who lived near Angkor Wat and serviced the temple were also discovered.
Suryavarman II, a usurper who rose to power in his adolescence by assassinating his great uncle, Dharanindravarman I, while riding an elephant, was the architect of Angkor Wat. According to an inscription, Suryavarman killed the man "as Garuda [a mythical bird] on a mountain ledgewouldkillaserpent."
Suryavarman's bloodlust would last throughout his reign, as he launched attacks into Vietnam in an attempt to gain control of the territory. He also made diplomatic advances in a peaceful manner, reopening relations with China.
He worshiped the god Vishnu, who is frequently depicted as a protector, and erected a statue of him in the central tower of Angkor Wat. This devotion can also be seen in one of the most remarkable reliefs at Angkor Wat, which is located in the temple's southeast corner. The relief depicts a scene from the Hindu creation story known as the "churning of the sea of milk."
According to archaeologist Michael Coe, the relief "describes how the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the ocean under Vishnu's aegis to produce the divine elixir of immortality" ("Angkor and the Khmer Civilization," Thames & Hudson, 2003). Scholars consider this relief to be one of the most beautiful works of art at Angkor Wat.
Suryavarman's devotion to Vishnu is also reflected in his posthumous name, "Paramavishnuloka," which means "he who is in the supreme abode of Vishnu," according to researcher Hélène Legendre-De Koninck ("Angkor Wat: A Royal Temple," VDG, 2001).
The construction of Angkor Wat was a massive undertaking that required quarrying, careful artistic work, and a lot of digging. The moat around the temple required the movement of 1.5 million cubic meters (53 million cubic feet) of sand and silt, a task that would have required thousands of people working at once.
The structures at Angkor Wat presented their own set of difficulties. To support them, a tough material known as laterite was used, which was then encased in softer sandstone, which was used to carve the reliefs. These sandstone blocks were mined in the Kulen Hills, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) to the north. According to research, the blocks were transported to Angkor Wat via a network of canals.
A shaft beneath the central tower leads to a chamber where archaeologists discovered "two pieces of crystal and two gold leaves far beneath where the Vishnu statue must have been" in 1934, according to Coe, who adds that deposits like these "spiritually 'energized' a temple, much as a battery will provide power to a portable electronic device."
Although Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu, the temple's true purpose is unknown. One question is whether Suryavarman II's ashes were interred in the monument, possibly in the same chamber where the deposits were discovered. If this is the case, the temple will have a funerary significance. Eleanor Mannikka discovered that Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north latitude and that the central tower's chamber's north-south axis is 13.43 cubits long. This, according to Mannikka, is not an accident. "In the central sanctuary, Vishnu is not only placed at the latitude of Angkor Wat, but he is also placed along the axis of the earth," she writes, emphasizing that the Khmer were aware that the Earth was round. Furthermore, Mannikka mentions a dozen lunar alignments with Angkor Wat's towers in her writing, implying that it played an important astronomical role. "During the long and clear Cambodian nights, when the stars filled every inch of the black sky, the astronomer-priests stood on the long western causeway... and recorded the moon's movements against the towers in the temple's top two galleries."