First encounters with the temples of Angkor can be confusing, or worse. Myriad monuments survive, in varying states of ruin or otherwise, each with its own perplexing labyrinth of towers, enclosures, shrines, galleries, causeways and moats. Diverse and disorienting as they may initially appear, however – an effect exaggerated by the ravages of time – virtually all have numerous features in common, as well as a shared underlying structure and symbolism.

Models of the universe

Most ancient Khmer temples follow a similar pattern, serving as a miniature symbolic representation of the mythological Hindu cosmos. At the heart of each temple, the central sanctuary tower or towers (most commonly five of them, arranged in the characteristic “quincunx” pattern, like the five dots on a dice) represents the mythical Mount Meru, considered the home of the gods and the heart of the physical and spiritual universe in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. These towers are typically enclosed by a sequence of concentric enclosures, stacked within each other like a sequence of Russian dolls, symbolizing the further mountain ranges around Mount Meru, with the whole contained within a moat, representing the enclosing earthly ocean. Causeways cross these moats, often flanked by “naga balustrades” showing gods and demons tugging on the body of an enormous serpent, alluding to the famous legend of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk and perhaps providing a symbolic crossing point between the secular spaces outside the temple and the abode of the gods within.

In all but one instance, temples were designed to be approached from the east to catch the rays of the rising sun, symbolizing life. Angkor Wat, however, faces west, the direction of the setting sun – and death.

State temples and the cult of the devaraja

The majority of Angkor’s most memorable and famous monuments – including Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Baphuon, Ta Keo, Pre Rup and Bakheng – are so-called state temples – great pyramidal temple-mountains rising steeply through a series of sheer-sided storeys (equivalent to the enclosures of non-royal Khmer temples) towards a tower-topped summit. Each storey corresponds to one of the universes of Hindu cosmology, leading up to the topmost towers representing Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. All state temples were constructed by a particular king for his own use. Temples built by one king were seldom used by the next, who would build in a new location – which accounts for the constantly shifting capitals of the Angkorian period. State temples were not considered as a place of public worship but as the private abode of each king’s particular god – an aspect of the uniquely Khmer cult known as the devaraja, literally “god-king” (see Religion and beliefs).

Monasteries and shrines

The state temples are just one aspect of Angkorian architecture, however, and smaller temples, monasteries and other structures abound. Most famous are the sprawling monastic complexes of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan. These were public rather than private shrines, serving as monasteries, universities and places of worship for the hoi polloi. Very different in effect from the soaring state temples, these “flat” temples (as they’re sometimes described) nevertheless follow the same basic layout, with a cluster of central towers contained within concentric enclosures, the whole bounded by a moat.

Laterite, brick and sandstone

The building materials used by the ancient Khmer changed over time. Laterite was the basic material, readily available and easy to quarry. This was used to construct walls and other functional structures, although its distinctively rough, pockmarked appearance made it unsuitable for fine decorative carving. Early Angkor-period temples were faced largely in brick (Sambor Prei Kuk and Prasat Kravan are two particularly notable examples), often carved with extraordinary finesse. Later on, the more valuable sandstone became the material of choice for the most important buildings, ranging from the delicate roseate sandstone used at Banteay Srei to the hard, slightly blackish stone at Ta Keo and the Baphuon. Wooden buildings would also have featured, although these have all long since vanished.

Gods and guardians

Much of the beauty of Angkor can be found in the detail, with prodigious quantities of sculpture covering (in the finest temples) virtually every surface. Doors were the main focus, particularly lintel panels above entrances, often fantastically carved with gods or scenes from Hindu mythology and often featured mythical beasts such as the kala and makara. In addition, many doors are flanked by guardian figures, known as dvarapalas. Heavenly apsaras are another favoured motif, while walls and door jambs are often decorated in the flamboyant floral designs so beloved of Khmer craftsmen. The famous narrative bas relief galleries of the Bayon and (especially) Angkor Wat are among the most celebrated instances of Angkorian carving, although they’re not found at any other temples. Perhaps most iconic of all, however, are the superhuman, enigmatic faces of the bodhisattva Lokesvara carved upon the towers of the Bayon, the gateways of Angkor Thom, and at various other locations around Angkor, smiling enigmatically in benign blessing over the lands beyond.

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