Few people know that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu administrative and religious centre. It was built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman II in the early 12th century at what was then Yasodharapura, present day Angkor. At the time, Yasodharapura was the capital of the Khmer Empire.
The complex known now as Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to Vishnu, and was constructed as the king’s state temple and capital city. Since there are no inscriptions anywhere referring to the temple by name, its original name is unknown. However, it was likely called “Varah Vishnu-lok”, which literally means “Holy Vishnu Location” and named so after the presiding deity, Vishnu. It appears work on the complex ended shortly after the king’s death in 1150, based on the fact some of the bas-reliefs were left unfinished.
In 1177, about 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was sacked and the Khmer empire laid waste by the Chams, a traditional enemy of the Khmer. The empire was restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII. Rather than restore the original capital, Jayavarman VII erected a new capital he called Angkor Thom, and state temple, Bayon, a few kilometres north.
It wasn’t until the late 13th century that Angkor Wat shifted from Hindu to Theravada Buddhist use, which it still is today. Angkor Wat is unique among the Angkor temples because even though it has been rather neglected since the 16th century, it has never been completely abandoned. Because of its moat, encroachment by the jungle was kept at bay, helping to preserve it while other temples were reclaimed by the jungle. Still, Angkor Wat required considerable restoration, and the removal of earth and vegetation that had accumulated over time.
Restoration work was interrupted by the civil war and the subsequent Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 70s and 80s. Fortunately little damage was done to the complex during this period other than the destruction of mostly post-Angkorian statues, which was ordered by the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. There were also thefts of artifacts during the same period. Ironically though, it was the dangers inherent with venturing into a war zone that protected the site from wholesale destruction by antiquities thieves who would have cut out the bas-reliefs and statues.
Angkor Wat is without question the most famous historical landmark in Cambodia, visited by tens of thousands of tourists annually. It is also the largest religious monument in the world.
To fully appreciate Angkor Wat a traveler has to set aside more that a few hours of their stay in Cambodia to do so. It is a massive complex. Tourists arriving in tour buses only to be herded through the ruins but guides and given barely enough time to snap a few photos to prove to family and friends they were there see little, and learn virtually nothing.
The history, myths, and legends surrounding the building of Angkor Wat and it’s long life are virtually endless. Visitors fail to discover much of the architectural details, stone work, astrological design influences, and religious symbolism incorporated into the construction Angkor Wat even when they stay for months.
It is recommended to escape the throngs of visitors by waiting for the guided tours to pass through. Then make your own way through Angkor Wat, closely examining the bas-reliefs, stone work and layout of the complex, take photos or just take in the beauty of the place. There is nowhere on Earth quite like Angkor Wat, so take your time and try to miss as little as possible.
If you’ve visited Angkor Wat already, please share your experience with other travelers by adding a review in the comment section below. Thank you!
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