The civilization in the Indian Subcontinent had been highly developed since ancient time. When the Khmer civilization evolved in early 9th century, along with many other aspects of their culture, the Cambodians inherited Indian methods of architecture and then absorbed them into their own architectural style. Once the Indian influence on the kingdom was no longer significant, by the seventh to eighth centuries AD, Khmer architecture began to develop independently. It flourished under ambitious kings who ruled an empire rich in manpower and wealth. Both these factors were essential in bringing about the larger building projects undertaken at Angkor in the 11th and 12th centuries. We collectively know these monuments as the Angkor Temples, and the most famous ones are the Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom, both of which resided on the vast plain of Siemreap in Cambodia. The word “Angkor” is derived Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, of “Nagara” which means “City”. Angkor Wat literally means “City of Temple” and Angkor Thom “The Magnificent City” (Britannica).
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building and the finest of all the Khmer architectural wonders. It is but the most impressive and most perfectly constructed of numerous temples whose extensive ruins survive to form one of the world’s largest historical sites. Taking 37 years to complete and involving the labor of an estimated 50,000 artisans, workers and slaves, the temple forms a rectangular enclosure measuring 1,500 meters by 1,300 meters and surrounded by a moat 200 meters wide. Inside the outer walls, the structure is built up over three levels rising to a central core topped by five distinctive towers, the tallest reaching 65 meters. The proportions alone are spectacular, while the long galleries feature walls decorated with low-relief scenes of epic legends, war and courtly life. All the temple mountains of Angkor were filled with three-dimensional images and every inch of the walls are covered by sculptures. “Virtually every surface in a labyrinth of chambers and courtyards is richly decorated and carvings of nearly 2,000 apsaras, or celestial dancers, appear like a visual refrain of a beautiful melody” (Angkor Wat).
Angkor Wat complex spreads an area of some 400 square kilometers and there are more than 100 major archaeological monuments and numerous lesser remains. The lands where the city of Angkor stands were not chosen as a settlement site because of any pre-existing sacred importance, but rather for their strategic military position and agricultural potential. In time however, over the half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a great pilgrimage destination. The architectural vividness of Angkor was not separated from its engineering genius. In addition to the remarkable temples, the ancient Khmer also had showed its architectural genius by building large reservoirs and dikes, which were essential in agriculture as well as for the survival of the people. The two largest reservoirs were the East Baray and the West Baray. The former one was 7 1/2 kilometer long and 1 km 830 meters wide with the depth of 4-5 meter. The latter was almost twice larger. These reservoirs collected the water from the nearby rivers through dikes and help significantly to prevent floods by collecting water from heavy rainfall during the Monsoon season. There were also smaller reservoirs; many ponds and moats, which were constructed in the vicinity of the various temples, and thus further helped in water storage. This water was used in everyday life of the Khmer people, and irrigated to the farmland during the dry season (Angkor Wat).
Cambodians in ancient were superstition; thus, they built their buildings base on the legends they believed. According to Hinduism, the gods reside in the five sacred mountains with central Mount Meru and these mountains are surrounded by the cosmic ocean. The structure of the Khmer temples mostly symbolizes the heavenly residence of the gods with five towers, called prasats. The central dominant tower or prasat represents the Mount Meru with four smaller ones, each at its corners, to represent the other four sacred mountains of the heaven. In some temples, there are galleries connecting the towers. The moat surrounding the temple symbolizes the cosmic ocean. As the residence of gods, the temples were made up of more endurable materials such as the bricks, laterites and sandstones. Numerous stones were carved with artistic craftsmanship to portray the gods and the deities, the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, and in many instances, the important events of Khmer history as well as that of the king who was its founder. For the temples dedicated to Buddhism in the later centuries, the architecture is much less prominent with some stone carving related to the stories of Lord Buddha and his teaching.
In conclusion, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and several other Khmer temples are undoubtedly the relics of the past Khmer Civilization. Angkor is prominent because of its temples, and these massive stone monuments that constitute the Khmer civilization’s greatest legacy. Angkor represents one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. Lawrence Briggs makes the point in his book The Ancient Khmer Empire. “The Khmers,” he wrote, “left the world no systems of administration, education or ethics like those of the Chinese; no literatures, religions or systems of philosophy like those of India; but here oriental architecture and decoration reached its culminating point.” (Briggs).
“Angkor Wat.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article?eu=294605>
“Angkor Wat. Design and Architecture.” Angkor Wat Information Pages. Homepage. 2003 <http://www.angkorwat.org/design_contents.html#design>
Briggs, Lawrence Palmer. The Ancient Khmer Empire. White Lotus Co., Ltd. 1999.