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  • John Villiers,
  • Guy Nafilyan
  •  and Madeleine Giteau

Site in northern Cambodia, in a fertile plain to the north-east of the northern tip of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and near the modern town of Siem Reap. Angkor was the site of almost all the capital cities founded by successive rulers of the Khmer realm from the end of the 9th century ad until the mid-15th, when it was abandoned in the face of attacks from the neighbouring Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya. Each ruler built in the centre of his capital a state temple, usually in the form of a stepped pyramid representing Mt Meru, centre of the universe and abode of the gods, in accordance with the precepts of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology (see also Cambodia, §II, 1, (ii)). This state temple was generally surrounded by a series of concentric enclosures bounded by walls, ditches, moats and embankments, laid out in accordance with the same cosmological precepts. Within the enclosures were the chief buildings of the city, including the royal palace and other temples founded by the king, members of the royal family or leading state dignitaries. All but the religious monuments were built of wood. Important adjuncts to many of these royal cities were the reservoirs (Khmer baray), canals, moats, ponds and other hydraulic works; these also were constructed according to strict cosmological rules. Scholars differ as to whether the chief function of the baray was symbolic and cosmological or whether they were made to provide water for the daily needs of the citizens and for the cultivation of irrigated rice (see Cambodia, §I, 1).

Plan showing principal monuments at Angkor, northern Cambodia: (a) Phnom Bakheng; (b) Prasat Kravan; (c) Baksei Chamkrong; (d) Pre Rup; (e) East Mebon; (f) Sras Srang; (g) Ta Keo; (h) Phimeanakas; (i) North Khleang; (j) South Khleang; (k) Baphuon; (l) West Mebon; (m) Angkor Vat; (n) Thommanon; (o) Chau Say Tevoda; (p) Banteay Samre; (q) Preah Pithu; (r) Banteay Kdei; (s) Ta Prohm; (t) Preah Khan; (u) Neak Pean; (v) Bayon; (w) Royal Square

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1. History and urban development.

  • John Villiers

Plan showing principal monuments at Angkor, northern Cambodia: (a) Phnom Bakheng; (b) Prasat Kravan; (c) Baksei Chamkrong; (d) Pre Rup; (e) East Mebon; (f) Sras Srang; (g) Ta Keo; (h) Phimeanakas; (i) North Khleang; (j) South Khleang; (k) Baphuon; (l) West Mebon; (m) Angkor Vat; (n) Thommanon; (o) Chau Say Tevoda; (p) Banteay Samre; (q) Preah Pithu; (r) Banteay Kdei; (s) Ta Prohm; (t) Preah Khan; (u) Neak Pean; (v) Bayon; (w) Royal Square

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King Jayavarman II (reg 802–50), whose reign is generally considered to mark the beginning of the Angkor period of Khmer history, established his capital at Hariharalaya, near the town of Roluos, about 15 km to the south-east of Siem Reap. King Yashovarman I (reg 889–c. 900) abandoned Hariharalaya c. 900 and founded a new capital, about 15 km north-west of Roluos, which he called Yashodharapura. The centre of the city was the hill of Phnom Bakheng (see figs 1a and 2, and round this he enclosed a vast area of about 16 sq. km, with earth ramparts, of which traces still remain, on the east and south. On the summit of Phnom Bakheng he constructed his state temple (see §2, (i) below) and instituted there his cult of the devarāja (Khmer: ‘the god who is king’), first instituted by Jayavarman II. He also initiated a number of important hydraulic works, including the creation to the east of the city of an immense reservoir, 7.5×2.5 km in area, known as the Yashodharatataka or East Baray.

In the first half of the 10th century two small but important monuments were built at Angkor: Prasat Kravan (ded. 921; see fig.), a brick temple consisting most unusually of five towers in a row and with notable low reliefs sculpted in the brick showing Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi; and Baksei Chamkrong (see fig.), completed c. 947 and consisting of a single brick tower on a laterite stepped pyramid, 27×27 m at the base.

Jayavarman IV (reg 921[928]–44) moved his capital to Chok Gargyar (modern Koh Ker, c. 100 km to the north-east of Angkor), but his successor, Rajendravarman II (reg 944–68), returned it to Angkor, where it remained continuously thereafter until the 15th century. Rajendravarman built his state temple, Pre Rup, a classical temple-mountain in the form of a stepped pyramid surmounted by five tower-sanctuaries in quincunx, on the southern shore of the East Baray (see Cambodia, §II, 1, (ii)). He also built a temple, the East Mebon (see fig.), consecrated in 953, on an artificial island in the middle of the East Baray. His palace seems to have been between Pre Rup and the baray, and his city was apparently never surrounded by dykes or moats. According to the inscriptions, the East Mebon and several other buildings, including the baray of Sras Srang (‘Royal Pool’; see fig.), were all the work of Kavindrarimathana, who is virtually the only Angkor architect whose name is known.

Rajendravarman’s son and successor, Jayavarman V (reg 968–1001), laid out his capital, which he called Jayendranagari (‘Capital of the Victorious King’), to the west of the East Baray, with his state temple, Ta Keo, at its centre (see fig.). Ta Keo is a stepped pyramid with three tiers, clad almost entirely in sandstone and surmounted by five tower-sanctuaries in quincunx. In 968 the exquisite and elaborately decorated temple of Banteay Srei, founded in the previous reign, was completed and consecrated (see §2, (ii) below). Although Banteay Srei is situated some 20 km north of Angkor and so is not strictly on the site of Angkor, it is usually considered as belonging to it; it has also given its name to an art style characterized by many archaic features (e.g. the treatment of colonnettes and lintels) and some important innovations (e.g. the depiction of scenes from Indian mythology on the tympana).

Suryavarman I (reg 1002–50) was the first Buddhist ruler of Angkor and a prolific builder. His palace, which was to become the Royal Palace of the later city of Angkor Thom (see also §2, (v), (c) below), was built on the axis of Phnom Bakheng and the East Baray. It was the first palace at Angkor to be surrounded by a fortified wall. In the centre of the enclosure Suryavarman I completed the temple of the Phimeanakas (see fig.), possibly begun by Jayavarman V. This is a small, almost miniature temple, measuring only 35×28 m at its base and surmounted by a single central tower-sanctuary, instead of the more usual five towers in quincunx (see also Cambodia, §II, 1, (ii), (c)). In front of the enclosure is the Royal Square, originally laid out by Rajendravarman II (see also §2, (v), (c) below). Facing the square on the east are two rectangular sandstone buildings known as the North and South Khleang (see fig. and 1j). ‘Khleang’ means storehouse or treasury, but it is more likely that both buildings had a religious function. The North Khleang is the older of the two and contains several inscriptions of the usurper King Jayaviravarman (reg 1002–11). The South Khleang was evidently built by Suryavarman I, perhaps simply to balance the North Khleang, although the two buildings are not identical. Also attributed to Suryavarman I is the West Baray, the second great reservoir of Angkor.

Udayadityavarman II (reg 1050–66) built the Baphuon (see fig.), one of the largest and most splendid of all the state temples of Angkor. It faces the Royal Square on the west, immediately to the south of the royal palace, on the north–south axis formed by the Phimeanakas and Phnom Bakheng. The enclosure is surrounded by a sandstone wall 120×100 m, and it is likely that outside this was a dyke enclosing approximately the area covered by the later city of Angkor Thom, although the building works of subsequent kings have obliterated it. Udayadityavarman II also built the West Mebon (see fig.), a Vaishnavite shrine on an artificial island in the centre of the West Baray.

Early in his reign Suryavarman II (reg 1113–c. 1150) constructed his state temple, Angkor Vat (see fig.; see also §2, (iii) below), generally considered to be the crowning achievement of Khmer architecture. The temple is enclosed by a laterite wall c. 1.03×0.84 km, and it is probable that Suryavarman II built a new royal palace in the northern part of this area. On either side of the great causeway known as the Avenue of Victory that leads from the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom to Jayavarman V’s palace at Ta Keo, he built two small and very similar temples, Thommanon (see fig.) and Chau Say Tevoda (see fig.), which were probably not completed until the reign of his successor, Yashovarman II (reg c. 1150–c. 1165). During the same period one of the dignitaries at his court built the outstandingly fine ‘flat’ temple (built not as a temple-mountain, but all on one level) of Banteay Samre (see fig.) about 400 m east of the south-east corner of the East Baray. Just to the north of the North Khleang and on the same side of the Royal Square is a group of five small, beautifully decorated temples known as Preah Pithu (see fig.), some of which are thought to date from Suryavarman II’s reign.

The Buddhist Jayavarman VII (reg 1181–c. 1220) began a frenzied programme of building at Angkor (see also Cambodia, §II, 1, (iv)). Early in his reign he built Banteay Kdei at the centre of a walled city to the west of the Sras Srang baray, which he entirely reconstructed. To the north-west of this he founded the great temple-monastery of Ta Prohm, originally known as Rajavihara (‘Royal Monastery’). It was surrounded by an enclosure covering an area of 700×1000 m, which made it one of the largest in the Khmer empire. Jayavarman VII’s first capital was Nagara Jayashri, about 1 km north-west of the East Baray. In the centre he built the temple-monastery of Preah Khan (see fig.; see also §2, (iv) below), a monument of great complexity; immediately to the east he constructed the Jayatataka, a baray 3700×900 m, in the middle of which he built the exquisite temple of Rajashri, now known as Neak Pean (‘Coiled Serpents’; see fig.) on an artificial island, 350 sq. m in area. Early in his reign Jayavarman VII began the construction of Angkor Thom (‘Great Capital’; see §2, (v) below), the last and most magnificent of the royal cities of Angkor, in the centre of which he built his extraordinary state temple of the Bayon (see figs 1v and 3; see also §2, (v), (b) below). Angkor Thom was the last capital of Yashodharapura, and after Jayavarman VII’s reign there was almost no building at Angkor. The only monument certainly built by Jayavarman VIII (reg c. 1243–95) during his long reign was the Mangalartha in the north-east of Angkor Thom; the small temple known as no. 486 also dates from about the same period (see Cambodia, §II, 1, (iv), (e) c).

In 1431/2 Angkor fell to the Thais, and by 1450 it had been more or less abandoned and the Khmer capital established at Phnom Penh. Between 1546 and 1564 King Ang Chan (reg c. 1510–c. 1560) had some of the low reliefs restored. His grandson Satha (reg 1576–before 1594) apparently lived there for a time and, according to an inscription, had ‘the temple’ (Angkor Vat) restored in its ancient form. Satha also altered and embellished some of the sanctuaries of Angkor Thom, and he may have restored some of the hydraulic works.

It seems that Angkor was completely forgotten in Europe, after the appearance of Diogo do Couto’s description of Angkor and of other Spanish and Portuguese accounts in the 16th century, until it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1858 by the French botanist Henri Mouhot. Since then the site has been studied intensively, and almost all its many monuments have been meticulously documented and restored by the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient under the direction of a series of outstanding scholars, among them Henri Parmentier, Jean Commaille, Henri Marchal, George Coedès, Maurice Glaize, Jean Boisselier and George Groslier and Bernard-Philippe Groslier. In 1970 the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk and the outbreak of war in Cambodia compelled the Ecole Française to withdraw, and in the years following many of the monuments were damaged or vandalized, while all of them suffered from neglect.

2. Buildings.

(i) Phnom Bakheng.

  • Guy Nafilyan

Temple-mountain built before ad 900 by King Yashovarman I and dedicated to the worship of Shiva in the form of a liṅga (Skt: symbolic representation of Shiva as a stylized phallus). It is built on the summit of Phnom Bakheng, the highest of the hills in the area, 1.3 km north of Angkor Vat and 400 m south of the southern gate of Angkor Thom, at the centre of Yashodharapura, the first city of Angkor. Its construction marks the establishment of the stepped pyramid form as the prototype for the Khmer temple-mountain. The temple itself is a natural sandstone pyramid 65 m high and 76×78 m at its base, orientated to the east, with five terraces of decreasing height rising to a platform, on which stand five sandstone tower-sanctuaries in quincunx. Phnom Bakheng was excavated by Henri Marchal between 1919 and 1930.

The stepped pyramid of Phnom Bakheng is unique among Khmer temple-mountains in not being composed of backfill but cut from the rock and covered with a sandstone facing. It is also the earliest Khmer temple in which the central shrine has four real doors at the four cardinal points. Four axial staircases at an angle of 70° lead to the shrine. They mark the four points of the compass, with the principal approach on the east. The entire structure has the appearance of a succession of squares one inside the other round the central shrine, an arrangement that is simultaneously centrally and axially orientated, with the centre as the dominant feature (for the symbolism of this plan see Cambodia, §II, 1, (ii), (a)). Each terrace has 12 small shrines on it, making a total of 60. Round the base of the pyramid is an additional ring of 44 secondary brick shrines, all facing east; in short, there are 109 shrines surrounding the pyramid or on its slopes. On either side of the main entrance is a rectangular building facing west; these are the so-called ‘libraries’. At the foot of the pyramid three or four images of the sacred bull Nandi, the mount of Shiva, have been found. They were originally placed opposite the entrance stairways.

A quadrangular enclosure 120×190 m surrounds the entire structure. This is composed of a laterite wall punctuated by four doors facing the four staircases of the pyramid, and approached by four monumental staircases leading up from the foot of the hill. The base of each staircase is flanked by two seated lions, considered among the most beautiful in Khmer art. Phnom Bakheng hill is surrounded by a stone enclosure that is in turn surrounded by a moat with two entrance gates, one on the west and the other on the east.

(ii) Banteay Srei.

  • Guy Nafilyan

Temple c. 20 km to the north-east of Angkor, founded at the end of the reign of Rajendravarman II by a high dignitary of the empire, the Brahman Yajnavaraha, and his younger brother Vishnukumara and consecrated in 968, the first year of the reign of Jayavarman V. It was dedicated to a Shiva liṅga under the vocable of Tribhuvanamaheshvara. Banteay Srei was excavated in 1924 by Henri Parmentier and Victor Goloubew and then restored by the anastylosis method by Henri Marchal in 1931. The temple is approached on the east by a causeway 70 m long, constructed on an east–west axis, which is in turn approached on the east by a cruciform gopura (entrance pavilion). The causeway is paved in laterite and bordered by 32 stone posts. On either side of the causeway and running parallel to it is a gallery, with a pillared arcade on the inside and a solid wall on the outside, forming an interior courtyard. The galleries are traversed in the middle by two vestibules which face north on to a long hall and south on to a group of three long halls set at right angles to the galleries. All these constructions were originally roofed with wooden beams and tiles.

The temple itself is a ‘flat’ temple composed of three quadrangular enclosures round the principal shrine; they measure respectively 95×110 m, 38×42 m and 24×24 m. The outermost enclosure is surrounded by a moat that is bounded in turn by a laterite wall. Access to the second enclosure is by two causeways, which cross the moat on the west and the east. The eastern one forms a continuation of the approach causeway. The second enclosure slopes slightly to the east and is surrounded by a laterite wall with a gopura on the east and the west. These gopuras have three fine triangular frontons with highly decorative volutes). The innermost enclosure is surrounded by a brick wall and contains the three shrines of the central sanctuary, which are grouped together on a single platform and all face east. On either side of the sanctuary is a rectangular ‘library’ opening on the west towards the three shrines.

The central shrine is only 9.8 m high and contains a niche 1.7×1.9 m, while the door is a mere 1.08 m high and extremely narrow. These small dimensions are exceptional and have never been satisfactorily explained. Were they a limitation imposed on the founders, because they were only distant kinsmen of the king and were therefore obliged to build on a more modest scale and away from the royal temples? If so, this might also explain the choice of site for the temple more than 20 km from Angkor Thom.

The highly distinctive ochre colour of the various parts of Banteay Srei is due to their being built of a pink-brown sandstone in conjunction with brownish brick and laterite. These together create a harmonious blend of colour that is unique to Banteay Srei and sets it apart as an exceptionally picturesque temple. The quality and profusion of its decorations are also outstanding (see also Cambodia, §III, 2, (ii)). The scenic richness of the pediments foreshadows the great pediments decorated with narrative scenes of Angkor Vat and the classical period of Khmer art. The most remarkable decorations are in the west entrance of the east gopura of the inner enclosure, representing the goddess Durga slaying the demon buffalo Mahisha; on the east pediment of the south ‘library’, Ravana, Rama’s chief adversary in the Hindu epic the Rāmāyana, moving Mt Kailasa, Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas; on the east pediment of the north ‘library’, the rain of Indra, god of war and of rain and guardian of the eastern direction; and on the west pediment, the murder of King Kamsa by Krishna. This last scene is especially interesting because it takes place in a palace and thus gives an idea of the probable appearance of wooden domestic buildings in Cambodia in the 10th century.

(iii) Angkor Vat.

  • Guy Nafilyan

Royal temple-mountain built by King Suryavarman II but not completed until after his death (c. 1150); it is the largest and most important of all the monuments of Angkor. It is dedicated to the worship of Vishnu, one of the three principal gods of Hinduism, saviour and protector of the world, whose direction is the west, which explains the unusual westerly orientation of this temple. Located 1.7 km from the southern gate of Angkor Thom in the south-east quarter of the first capital of Angkor, Yashodharapura, it consists of a stepped pyramid on three levels surrounded by four enclosures one inside the other on an approximately square ground-plan. The pyramid is surmounted by five towers in quincunx. Angkor Vat was first excavated (1908–13) by Jean Commaille.

The outermost enclosure covers an area of 1.3×1.5 km. It is surrounded by a laterite wall 4.7 m high, outside which is a moat 190 m wide traversed on the west by a paved causeway raised on an embankment. This causeway leads to an entrance pavilion with five interconnected passages extending over a length of almost 250 m. The entrance consists of three gopuras, each surmounted by a tower replicating the central tower-sanctuaries of the temple itself and flanked on the north and south by galleries open on the outside that terminate in two further gopuras without staircases to permit carts and elephants to enter at ground level. The central gopura of the outermost enclosure opens on to a causeway 350 m long and 9.4 m wide, paved and faced with sandstone and with a nāga balustrade, that gives access to the gopura of the third enclosure. Six lateral stairways lead from the platform of the temple to the ground. Halfway along and 1.5 m below, the causeway is flanked by two ‘libraries’ and further along again by two ponds. The platform supporting the temple is about 1 m high and is surrounded by a sandstone wall with a nāga balustrade. In front of this is a cruciform terrace with three staircases on each side.

The third enclosure is entirely surrounded by a gallery, 187×215 m, consisting of a solid wall on the inside decorated with low-reliefs and a colonnade with square pillars on the outside. The low-reliefs illustrate scenes from the Ramāyāna, Mahābhārata, Harivaṃsa and other Hindu epics and sacred texts for the edification of the faithful, as well as depicting Suryavarman II reviewing his armies and marching in his posthumous form towards the kingdom of the dead (for a full description see Cambodia, §III, 3, (i), (b)). Access to this gallery is gained from the west gopura, which faces east on to a cruciform cloister with four sections, situated between the second and third enclosures. This cloister consists of three east–west galleries that join the three passages of the gopuras of the second and third enclosures. Cutting across them at right angles is a north–south gallery, which with the east–west galleries divides the courtyard into four sections. The two intermediate galleries have three corridors resting on pillars on both sides. The two end galleries have two corridors, with a solid wall on the outside containing a door in the middle that gives access to the north and south ‘libraries’ of the third enclosure. The three west galleries and the gopura of the second enclosure are linked together by three stairways roofed with projecting vaults of a particularly felicitous design.

The second enclosure is raised above the level of the first enclosure to form a second storey and measures 100×115 m. It is only 2.45 m wide and is surrounded by a gallery with a solid wall on the outside, openwork doors and windows on the inside, giving on to the courtyard of the second enclosure. It is decorated on the inside with a great number of figures of devatā (deities) with a wide variety of rich adornments. From this courtyard on the second storey, 11 m above the first enclosure, there is an impressive view of the towers of the central mass. There are two small ‘libraries’ in the courtyard built on a north–south axis and linked with each other, with the western gopura of the second enclosure and with 12 stairways, one on each side and two at each corner, leading to the first enclosure by a sandstone gangway on short sandstone columns.

The gallery of this innermost enclosure is open on both sides, with balustered windows on the outer wall and pillars on the inside supporting a corbelled vault and half-vault pierced in the middle by a gopura with a single passage and in the corners by tower-sanctuaries, which are replicas of the central shrine. Galleries with three corridors, resting entirely on pillars, link the four cruciform gopuras to the central shrine. The linking galleries have in their centre two small staircases leading down into the courtyard. The shrine is 42 m high and has four real doors that have been walled in. The shrine once housed a sacred image of Vishnu in a square niche. Vestiges of relief carving of high quality testify to the care with which the central shrine was decorated. Traces of stucco remain in some of the hollow areas, and it may be assumed that the shrine was painted and perhaps gilded. Immediately beneath the pedestal in the central sanctuary is a pit, which goes down to ground level, in which the sacred foundation deposit, consisting of two circular sheets of gold leaf, 180 mm in diameter, has been discovered laid between two stones.

Among the characteristic architectural features of Angkor Vat is the treatment of the enclosure as a gallery and the extent to which it is associated with the terraces of the stepped pyramid. The gallery-enclosures make for a predominance of horizontal lines, which emphasize the steps of the pyramid and reinforce the verticality of the tower-sanctuaries. They also provide a natural continuation of the causeways leading up to the temple and so open it to worshippers. They impart to the whole composition a balance and harmony that make Angkor Vat the finest achievement of Khmer architecture. This balance is also achieved by the plan of the temple complex, which is at one and the same time centred and axial. Its centre is the central shrine, surrounded by successive enclosures which fit into each other like a nest of dolls, and its axis follows the alignment of the favoured west entry, which from the fourth enclosure inwards consists of a series of causeways that succeed one another into the cloister galleries.

Another notable feature of this temple is its decoration, in which there is an abundance of figures in very low relief portrayed either in a continuous frieze, as in the third enclosure, or individually, as in the tympana of the pediments. There are almost 2000 devatās throughout the temple, the finest being in the central shrine, in the gopura of the fourth enclosure and in the courtyard of the second storey. The distribution of this decoration is also remarkable. The shadows cast by the mouldings, which are always judiciously placed along the lines of force of the building, emphasize their mass. This is an architecture of light and shade, in which the decorated and plain surfaces alternate felicitously to underline the balance of the whole.

(iv) Preah Khan.

  • Guy Nafilyan

‘Flat’ temple built by Jayavarman VII in the north-east corner of Angkor Thom, in a direct line with Neak Pean and the Jayatataka. According to the foundation stele, it was consecrated in 1191 and dedicated to the memory of the King’s father, Dharanindravarman II, in the form of an image of the bodhisattva Lokeshvara and to the sacred sword, symbol of the durability of the kingdom. In style, it is transitional between Angkor Vat and the Bayon and was the subject of numerous additions and alterations. It is a Mahayana Buddhist temple, although evidence that Brahmanic cults continued to flourish in Jayavarman VII’s reign is provided by the large number of images of Hindu deities it contains. The temple probably occupies the site where Jayavarman VII inflicted a decisive defeat on the Chams. It may also have been the centre of the town of Nagarajayashri, which is mentioned in the inscriptions and served as a temporary residence for the King during the reconstruction of Angkor Thom. Preah Khan was first excavated in 1927 by Henri Marchal and again in 1939 by Maurice Glaize, who restored parts of it by the anastylosis method, using the original materials on the site.

The plan of the temple is extremely complex and consists of four quadrangular enclosures, one within the other, centred on the principal shrine. The enclosures tilt slightly to the east, emphasizing the orientation of the temple towards the rising sun. A series of porches, vestibules, chambers and galleries marks the two main east–west and north–south axes. The outer enclosure is bounded by a laterite wall and measures 700×800 m. On the east it has a gopura with three passages, the central one of which is on ground level to permit access to carts and elephants. Access to the east gopura, as to the three others, is gained by a causeway across the moats, approximately 100 m long and 10 m wide, flanked by 54 figures of giants, the sign of a royal city. This is in turn preceded by an imposing avenue of stone posts. To the east the causeway leads to a terrace facing the Jayatataka, in the centre of which on an artificial island stands Neak Pean, also dedicated to Lokeshvara. About halfway up the east–west causeway leading to the third enclosure, on the north side, there is a well-preserved building that was used as a guest-house for pilgrims (dharmasālā). This building, which is mentioned in the inscriptions, is oblong in shape and has very thick walls and windows with a double row of balusters.

Entry to the third enclosure is through a gopura composed of three central towers and two end pavilions, all interlinked by five galleries. Overall it covers more than 100 m, and it recalls the west gopura with its four enclosures in Angkor Vat. Access to the second enclosure is through a covered cruciform courtyard, and matching this to the north, south and west are three miniature temples that together form a cloister. The second enclosure, which is very close to the first, was probably added subsequently, as its decoration is of a later date. The gopura of the first enclosure leads to a four-towered cloister, in which there are numerous ancillary shrines. In the centre is the principal shrine that houses a later stupa and the foundation stele, which was found intact under a pile of fallen rocks. The shrine is cruciform and was formerly covered on the inside with bronze plates; the holes that were made to fix these are still clearly visible.

The enormous dimensions of Preah Khan give it an essentially urban character. It is almost certain that the space between the fourth and third enclosures was filled with houses. In other words, there was a town round the temple, which was founded by Jayavarman VII to establish his political authority while his capital was being rebuilt. That it was only a temporary centre of power is implied both by its setting and its architecture. Preah Khan is also notable for the wealth of its epigraphy and the abundance of the data it supplies. The inscriptions refer to the installation of more than 500 statues, to the building of a hospital rest-house and of a dharmaśālā and state that 97,000 people, including 1000 female dancers, were assigned to serve in the temple. Preah Khan and its numerous additions give an impression of confusion, which is increased by the temple having been left by the Conservation d’Angkor in the state in which it was found at the beginning of the 20th century. Of all the temples of Angkor it is the most surprising and at the same time the most poetic.

(v) Angkor Thom.

  • Madeleine Giteau

The last of the royal capitals of Angkor. It appears from the evidence of the hydraulic construction works there that Yashodharapura, the city of Yashovarman I (see §1 above), was moved, probably after the 11th century, to a new site that must have occupied approximately the same area as the later city of Angkor Thom. Although it has not been possible to verify this hypothesis, it is certain that from the end of the 10th century several important monuments were erected around the space now known as the Royal Square of Angkor Thom. These included the temple of Phimeanakas (late 10th century) in the centre of the enclosure of the Royal Palace, the two Khleangs (early 11th century) and the Baphuon (mid-11th century). At about the same time the West Baray was laid out to the west of the city. In 1177 Yashodharapura was captured and pillaged by the Chams. King Jayavarman VII drove out the invaders in 1181 and began the work of rebuilding the capital slightly to the north of the city founded by Yashovarman I (see also Cambodia, §II, 1, (iv), (c) c). It was Jayavarman VII’s city that became what is now known as Angkor Thom, although it retained the name of Yashodharapura until the end of the Angkor period. At its centre, to the south of the Royal Square, he built the Bayon. By the end of his reign (c. 1220) almost all the buildings of which the ruins can still be seen within the enclosure of Angkor Thom were already in existence.

(a) City walls and gates.

The city walls of Angkor Thom form an almost perfect square, with each side more than 3 km in length. The ramparts, built of laterite, are almost 8 m high. At each corner is a small temple called Prasat Chrung containing a stele recording the founding of the city. The city wall is pierced by five monumental gates, all similar: one in each of the south, west and north walls, and two in the east wall (see fig.). The two last are known as the Gate of the Dead, which is axially aligned with the Bayon, and the Gate of Victories, which is aligned with the Royal Palace. The moat and ditches are traversed by a causeway flanked on either side by a row of 54 giant guardian figures in sandstone. These figures supported two huge nine-headed nāga who confronted anybody entering the city.

Angkor, Angkor Thom, gateway in the city wall, late 12th century; photo credit: Vanni/Art Resource, NY

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The gateways, some 23 m high and 3.5 m wide, are also built in sandstone and are crowned by four heads representing deities; the two central heads form a single two-faced block, while the lateral heads, set somewhat lower, are detached from the centre. The heads crowning the gates are thought to represent the Guardians of the Four Quarters and share the task of protecting the city with the giant divinities of the nāgas and the images of Indra, king of the gods, riding his three-headed elephant, which are carved into the corners of the gates.

The interior has now been invaded by the forest, but the Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan, who came to Cambodia at the end of the 13th century, reported that ‘the palace, the official residences and the houses of the nobility are all orientated towards the east’ and that ‘the common houses and outlying lodgings are roofed with thatch; only family temples and private apartments may be roofed with tiles’.

(b) Bayon.

Three-storey temple in the centre of Angkor Thom. Galleries on the two lower floors surround a cruciform upper terrace, which supports the central tower-sanctuary as well as the secondary sanctuaries. The central sanctuary has a circular ground-plan and from it radiates a sunburst of chapels open to the outside. The topmost point of the roof ridge is 43 m above ground level. Each sanctuary is crowned by towers adorned with four faces, and faces of equally colossal proportions appear on the various levels of the central sanctuary. Several different hypotheses have been advanced to identify these faces, which appear to protect, or perhaps to assist, the deities worshipped in the sanctuaries. The rules of Buddhist cosmology and the epigraphic evidence suggest that the Bayon was conceived as a meeting-place of the gods, where Brahma in his aspect as head of the Pancashikha gandhavas (‘celestial musicians’) would come to sit next to each god during their ‘ceremonies of good order’.

The two galleries running round the outside contain gopuras (entrance pavilions) at the axes of the building and further pavilions at the corners. The outer gallery measures 140×160 m, and the inner gallery 70×80 m. Since Jayavarman VII was himself a Buddhist, the Bayon is primarily a Buddhist temple. An image 3.6 m high of the Buddha, seated in meditation and protected by the nāga (Skt: mythical serpent dwelling in the underworld), was found in 1933 during an excavation in the pit under the central sanctuary and was erected on a small terrace to the east of the Royal Palace. The walls of the two surrounding galleries are decorated with low reliefs, the most famous of which represents the naval battle during which Jayavarman VII (see Cambodia, §III, 4, (i)) crushed the Cham fleet.

(c) Royal Square, Royal Palace and Terraces.

To the north of the Bayon lay the Royal Square, a vast esplanade 720×80 m, with monuments erected around its edges. To the east, a row of 12 towers in laterite, the Prasat Suor Prat (‘Towers of the Cord Dancers’), was built in front of the Khleangs. Their true function is unknown, but they have been given this name locally in the belief that they may have served to support the cables on which rope dancers and tightrope walkers performed, by analogy with the wooden towers set up in Thailand on the occasion of great royal ceremonies.

The western edge of the Royal Square is marked by the outer, eastern gopura of the Baphuon, which stands at the end of a causeway 200 m long, raised on short columns, and the series of terraces linked with the Royal Palace. Apart from the temple of Phimeanakas, all that remains of the buildings of the Royal Palace is the surrounding wall with its gopura, some ponds and the remains of the terraces. These served as the bases for various buildings in light materials that have now completely disappeared. The richly decorated Royal Terraces in front of the palace on the edge of the Royal Square were built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. The central, highest part appears to have been supported by telamones in the form of royal beasts—lions alternating with garuḍas (mythical creatures, half-human and half-bird)—sculpted in relief on the side. On either side of this central block are the long Terraces of the Elephants, so called because they are decorated with a frieze of reliefs depicting elephants in war and hunting scenes.

To the north of the Royal Terraces stands the Terrace of the Leper King, which owes its name to a statue on its upper platform that is traditionally thought to represent a legendary Khmer ruler who suffered from leprosy but in fact represents a deity associated with death. The supporting walls are sculpted with images of deities arranged in registers that presumably correspond to the different levels of existence.

Zhou Daguan has left a succinct description of the buildings that once stood within the precincts of the Royal Palace, as they were at the end of the 13th century (Pelliot):

The tiles of the private apartments are made of lead; those of the other buildings are of earthenware, and yellow…the long verandahs and the covered corridors are bold and irregular, without great symmetry. The council chamber has window-frames of gold; to the right and left are square columns bearing from 40 to 50 mirrors lined up on the sides of the windows. Below there are figures representing elephants. The council chamber was doubtless built on the Royal Terrace.

Zhou Daguan said little about the lives of the mass of the population in Angkor, but scenes of everyday life are depicted on the lower part of the great low relief at the Bayon illustrating Jayavarman VII’s naval victory over the Chams. These include scenes of markets, workshops, entertainments and family life in modest houses.

After the reign of Jayavarman VII few foundations were made at Angkor except for the Mangalartha, a Brahmanic temple known simply as no. 486 (see §1 above). After 1351 Angkor Thom suffered from frequent attacks from the Thais, whose new capital of Ayutthaya was uncomfortably near, but the city appears only to have been finally abandoned as the royal capital in 1432 when the Khmer court moved first to Basan (Srei Santhor) and then in 1434 to Phnom Penh. In the mid-16th century it was occupied by a Khmer king who may have been Ang Chan (reg c. 1510–c. 1560; see §1 above), but hardly any new foundations were built in Angkor Thom during the last century of the Angkor monarchy. The most important building project was the erection to the north of the Terrace of the Leper King of the monumental Buddha of Tep Pranam, a statue some 6 m high depicting the Buddha gaining his victory over the tempter, Mara (Māravijaya). Some buildings and sculptures were also repaired or rebuilt in other temples, and a number of new reliefs were carved in the northern part of the Royal Terraces, notably in one of the five small Preah Pithu temples, which was converted into a Theravada Buddhist monastery. In Angkor Vat, some Buddha images were erected in the central sanctuary.

In his description of Angkor Thom at the end of the 16th century, Diogo do Couto wrote:

As for the great moat, it is always full, for important and abundant rivers flow into it…each of these streets that goes from each of the gates is flanked by two other [channels] of water by which enter numerous small craft [loaded] with provisions, with firewood and other necessary produce, which they will unload at the very door of the inhabitants, who all have an access to the canal…and thus the city is cleaned of all the refuse which is carried outside to the moat; in this manner, after the king had discovered this city and transferred his court there, it became the most beautiful, the best-served and the cleanest of all the cities of the world.


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