A Monumental Reminder of the Impermanence of Things
On a lush floodplain, just above Tonle Sap Lake, deep within the tropical forest of northwestern Cambodia lie the crumbling ruins of a colossal ancient city at the heart of which is a magnificent monument called Angkor Wat. As a Hindu temple that was turned into a Buddhist sanctuary, Angkor Wat is a monumental reminder of the impermanence of things, having been reclaimed by nature in an apparent state of ruin, swallowed up by the wilderness. That is to say, the millennium-old building has been blanketed by five hundred years of overgrowth. Of course, it wasn’t always like that. In fact, about eight hundred fifty years ago, Angkor Wat was the most magnificent structure on Earth, and in many ways, it still is to this very day. Arguably, the temple is one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world, either ancient or modern.
It all began in the year 1113, in Yasodharapura, present-day Angkor, where a temple was erected in the capital of the Khmer Empire, at the behest of the first Cambodian god-king, Emperor Suryavarman II. By way of his divine royal decree, the building was to be used as a state-sponsored sacred site, constructed as a personal mausoleum for the “Sun King”, Suryavarman II. On top of that, it was ceremonially dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu. The site was even called “Vrah Visnuloka” meaning “the sacred dwelling of Vishnu”, and it was designed by a Hindu of the Brahman caste who rose through the religious and administrative ranks to serve the crown of a few different Cambodian kings. His name was Divakarapandita and he oversaw the planning and construction of Angkor Wat based on the sacred structure of stone shrines that were devoted to different deities in the Hindu pantheon.
However, unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, which is the direction associated with Vishnu and with death through the symbolism of the setting Sun. So, in many ways, Angkor Wat was a small necropolis and it was surrounded by a much larger metropolis. It was really a mega-structure within a supercity because Angkor was the largest metropolitan area in the world until the Industrial Revolution. At that time, Eastern civilization was much more advanced than western civilization. In fact, the vast urban landscape of Angkor housed around 700,000 citizens, at a time when the population of London was an order of magnitude smaller at about 70,000. Plus, since the temples taxed the population, Suryavarman II was able to amass a vast fortune from the development of Angkor Wat. After all, it was the civic duty of every member of the Khmer Empire to make “donations” to their local temple, especially the Angkorian people.
As such, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” towered over and dominated the landscape, containing more stone than there is in the Great Pyramid of Giza which had been used for Pharoah Khufu. This was because Emperor Suryavarman II was a monarch like no other. Only Pericles in ancient Athens ever came close to achieving the kind of architectural grandeur that Suryavarman II did in ancient Cambodia. Regardless, the point is that vast amounts of resources were put to use very quickly. After all, a god-king’s portal to the afterlife needed to be ready for use the moment he died. Otherwise, there would be no point in the whole thing. So, out of necessity, at a time when European cathedrals took more than a century to complete, Angkor Wat was built in less than four decades. This was because everyone in the city contributed to the community, one way or another, so major accomplishments could happen really fast.
As an example of what I mean, to lay the foundation of the temple in swampland, thousands of workers had to dig down 33 feet. Then they tamped down the wet soil and filled it in with layers of clay, gravel, and sand. This was all surrounded by a massive moat that contains tens of millions of gallons of water, symbolizing the cosmic ocean. More importantly, that marvel of medieval engineering allowed rainwater from monsoons to drain out of the foundation, thereby reinforcing the foundation at the same time. Plus, the moat was part of a complex system of waterways, which allowed big heavy shipments to be transported into Angkor, with relative ease. So, about 25 miles northeast of the capital city, tens of thousands of slave laborers excavated a few hundred blocks of gray sandstone, per day. These were then hauled by teams of people and elephants onto and off of boats. The blocks were then hoisted up with poles and ropes, one above another, to grind them together to make the pieces fit together perfectly.
Of course, back then stone buildings were only used for the gods, so even the royal palace was made of wood. Plus, Angkor Wat is technically one giant work of art. With that being said, it’s astounding to look back on the construction of the largest sculpture ever made. For one thing, the first emperor spared no expense for his gateway to the afterlife, exceeding all other spiritual monuments in both size and scope. Altogether, the most massive monument in the world took tens of thousands of construction workers 37 years to build. Angkor Wat became the biggest religious structure of all time, by land area, measuring more than a square mile in total. So, really Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex on Earth, with the longest continuous bas-relief in the world. Plus, the religious citadel has three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. Along with that, at the center of the temple stands a quincunx of four towers surrounding a central spire that rises to twice the height of the Tower of London.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough on its own, it took more than 600,000 blocks to build Angkor Wat, from the inside out, starting with the central tower. Then, the towers and lintels were all plated in gold to make them gleam in the sunlight, thereby displaying the wealth of the empire. The result was an unparalleled achievement that became the crowning jewel of their capital city. In line with that, Angkor Wat was at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture with nearly seamless joins that didn’t require any mortar. The walls and ceiling were then lavishly adorned and accentuated with gold leaf ornamentation, as well. After all, it was originally designed to represent Mount Meru, which is the home of the devas in Hindu cosmology. So, the five towers, which are shaped like lotus buds, symbolize the mythical peaks of Mount Meru. The steep steps of which symbolize the difficult climb toward enlightenment. In this way, the temple serves as a physical reminder of a number of different mystical phenomena.
In the end, after a few decades of unprecedented engineering, the construction of Angkor Wat was completed in the year 1150, only months before the death of Emperor Suryavarman II. He held out just long enough to see it all come together. Then, he was entombed in his greatest creation, just as he had always intended. So in a way, Emperor Suryavarman II sort of built his legacy in the form of Angkor Wat. Although, that all changed a few decades later in 1181 when the Cambodian King of kings, Emperor Jayavarman VII, became the monarch after leading the Khmer forces against the Chams. He quickly converted the empire to Buddhism, removing the golden statue of Vishnu from Angkor Wat, and putting up a statue of Buddha in its place. As a result of this, Angkor Wat became one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists the world over. This also led to a gradual shift away from warfare toward welfare, thereby diverting funds from the military. So, everything changed again, in 1431, when the Thai overtook the Khmer and sacked Angkor. After that, the invaders looted Angkor Wat, signifying the end of the Khmer Empire.
As a consequence of that epic defeat, Angkor Wat was gradually abandoned as fewer people found enough faith to be there. However, the temple has been in constant use, in one way or another, for almost a millennium. Still, Angkor Wat is falling apart and being reclaimed by nature as you read this. In spite of that, the medieval age monument remains the largest temple in the world even in the modern age. With that being said, Angkor Wat is so much more than just a world-famous tourist attraction or a revered sanctuary for monks and nuns. It has become the very symbol of Cambodia itself. It has even been on the nation’s flag since the late 20th century. The problem is that this iconic building is quickly becoming a featureless pile of rocks, due to both natural and man-made destruction. This makes Angkor Wat a symbol of impermanence through what Hindus call “anitya” in Sanskrit and Buddhists call “anicca” in Pali. This also deals with “anatta”, which is the absence of an abiding self. More to the point, these concepts are why the sacred site serves as a sanctuary for those who wish to contemplate the transient nature of reality.
Simply put, the concepts of things like discontinuity and impermanence are visibly manifest in the eroded carvings of Angkor Wat. The thing is that what I’m talking about is nothing less than the gradual loss of a massive medieval masterpiece, expertly carved into millions of tons of sandstone by Asian artists of the highest caliber. As a result of this, in 1992, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed Angkor Wat in the “World Heritage List in Danger”. This was done because destructive factors such as meteorologic erosion and iconoclastic desecration have resulted in the partial destruction of a priceless monument. The question is, should it lay derelict or not? After all, at Angkor Wat, the monsoon rains continue taking a huge toll on history, gradually turning it into geology. What this means is that even if people continue to clear the overgrown city and its citadel, time will still continue to erase them from existence, slowly but surely. So, in spite of the work that the international community has done in the 21st century, the 900-year old temple is still more or less vanishing right before our eyes. Such is the legacy of the largest monument on Earth, for better or worse.