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…