Myths and history in the most fascinating temple of Asia

During the period between the 9th and 15th centuries, Cambodia was home to one of the most powerful empires of Southeast Asia: the Khmer empire. It reigned for over 600 years and it is to them that we owe the construction of one of the largest and most fascinating archaeological sites in Asia, also part of the Unesco heritage. Angkor is located 20 minutes from Siem Reap, the capital, and it is an immense park of 400 square kilometers hidden in the rainforest, with several buildings and temples inside it. It was once the religious and political center of the empire, before being gradually abandoned after its decline.

What today is left of it are basically the remains of temples, while nothing remains from the other buildings. This is because the former were built with sandstone, a very resistant material, while the latter were mainly wooden structures. 

The most important and famous building is undoubtedly Angkor Wat temple, the greatest example of Khmer architecture. It was ordered by Suryavarman II for it to be the terrestrial representation of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. It took the Khmer about 40 years to complete the work that today is called the “Temple City”, and which according to the king was to be the capital of his kingdom. It is thought that 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants were used to build it. 

The structure is surrounded by a 190-meter moat that forms a huge rectangle outside the perimeter walls. According to mythology, the walls would represent the mountains that enclose the world, while the moat would be the ocean beyond the mountains. On each side there is an entrance. The main one, on the east side, consists of a large portico full of engravings and sculptures. The avenue leading to the central temple is flanked by balustrades representing the naga, the mythological multi-headed snakes belonging to the Khmer culture. On each side there is a library, followed by a pond that divides it from the temple itself.

The central complex is spread over three levels and consists of three interconnected galleries. The internal ones have towers in the shape of lotus buds at the corners, which draw the attention towards the huge central tower. The upper floor can be reached through a very steep staircase, after all very few people could access it.

The biggest peculiarity of Angkor Wat is the fact that it faces west, unlike most Khmer temples. According to the symbology, the west is in fact the direction of death and that is why many scholars thought that Angkor Wat was a tomb. However, the temple is also dedicated to the god Vishnu, who is often associated with the west. This led to the conclusion that the building was both a temple and the tomb of King Suryavarman II. 

What really makes the complex extremely fascinating, however, is the huge amount of decorations, including the more than 3000 apsaras, the celestial nymphs carved on the walls. Outside the central temple there are instead a series of bas-reliefs representing historical events and mythological tales. 

Today, Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia and it also appears on the national flag.

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