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Temples of Angkor • History • 2

by mythic44

The temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia, and is a source of great national pride that has factored into Cambodia’s diplomatic relations with its neighbour Thailand, France and the United States. A depiction of Angkor Wat has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version circa 1863. From a larger historical and even transcultural perspective, however, the temple of Angkor Wat did not became a symbol of national pride sui generis but had been inscribed into a larger politico-cultural process of French-colonial heritage production in which the original temple site was presented in French colonial and universal exhibitions in Paris and Marseille between 1889 and 1937.

The splendid artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region led directly to France adopting Cambodia as aprotectorate on 11 August 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. This quickly led to Cambodia reclaiming lands in the northwestern corner of the country that had been under Siamese (Thai) control since 1351 AD (Manich Jumsai 2001), or by some accounts, 1431 AD. Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time.

During the midst of the Vietnam War, Chief of State Norodom Sihanouk hosted Jacqueline Kennedy in Cambodia to fulfill her “lifelong dream of seeing Angkor Wat.”

Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th centuries. The influence of Khmer art, as developed at Angkor, was a profound one over much of South-East Asia and played a fundamental role in its distinctive evolution. Khmer architecture evolved largely from that of the Indian subcontinent, from which it soon became clearly distinct as it developed its own special characteristics, some independently evolved and others acquired from neighbouring cultural traditions. The result was a new artistic horizon in oriental art and architecture.

Symbolism – The temples of Angkor are highly symbolic structures. The foremost Hindu concept is the temple-mountain, where the temple is built as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru: this is why so many temples, including Angkor Wat itself, are surrounded by moats, built in a mountain-like pyramidal shape and topped by precisely five towers, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru. The linga (phallus), representing the god Shiva, was also critical and while the lingas themselves have largely gone, linga stands (carved, table-like blocks of stone) can be found in many if not most rooms in the temples. There was also a political element to it all: most kings wanted to build their own state temples to symbolize their kingdom and their rule.

While early Angkor temples were built as Hindu temples, Jayavarman VII converted to Mahayana Buddhism c. 1200 and embarked on a prodigious building spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom including Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and many more as Buddhist structures. However, his successor Jayavarman VIII returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive spree of destruction, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism again, but the (few) Buddha images in the temples today are later Theraveda additions.

One element that continues to mystify archaeologists is the baray, or water reservoir, built in a grand scale around Angkor: for example, the West Baray is a mind-boggling 8 km by 2.3 km in size. While it has long been assumed that they were used for irrigation, some historians argue that their primary function was political or religious. Not a single outlet is found in this reservoir even if it is inspected by eye or by NASA image scanning. Today, the moat around Angkor and the West Baray still contains water, but the rest have dried up.

Angkor Wat Today – The Archaeological Survey of India carried out restoration work on the temple between 1986 and 1992. Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has seen continued conservation efforts and a massive increase in tourism. The temple is part of the Angkor World Heritage Site, established in 1992, which has provided some funding and has encouraged the Cambodian government to protect the site. The German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) is working to protect the devatas and other bas-reliefs which decorate the temple from damage. The organisation’s survey found that around 20% of the devatas were in very poor condition, mainly because of natural erosion and deterioration of the stone but in part also due to earlier restoration efforts. Other work involves the repair of collapsed sections of the structure, and prevention of further collapse: the west facade of the upper level, for example, has been buttressed by scaffolding since 2002, while a Japanese team completed restoration of the north library of the outer enclosure in 2005. World Monuments Fund began work on the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery in 2008.

Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination. In 2004 and 2005, government figures suggest that, respectively, 561,000 and 677,000 foreign visitors arrived in Siem Reap province, approximately 50% of all foreign tourists in Cambodia for both years. The site has been managed by the private SOKIMEX group since 1990, which rented it from the Cambodian government. The influx of tourists has so far caused relatively little damage, other than some graffiti; ropes and wooden steps have been introduced to protect the bas-reliefs and floors, respectively. Tourism has also provided some additional funds for maintenance—as of 2000 approximately 28% of ticket revenues across the whole Angkor site was spent on the temples—although most work is carried out by foreign government-sponsored teams rather than by the Cambodian authorities.

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The Temples of Angkor   •   Locations & Activities


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