5 - The Monuments


The clearing of the Angkor monuments, in revealing their planning and structure, ended the misinformed speculation by some authors that some at least of the stone structures had been palaces for the king or other high dignitaries. The quincunx of towers, while sometimes joined by dark narrow galleries and littered with undoubtedly cultural remains, do not however constitute a palace. At most, the long rooms sometimes surrounding the core of the buildings - also built of hard but less noble materials and broader since they were roofed with timber and tiles and not with stone - could perhaps be considered as having been places of rest.

The fact that, in the account of his voyage, Tcheou Ta-Kouan did not describe the royal palace as being built of stone - that he indicates for the other monuments - suggests that it was rather constructed in light-weight materials like all other dwelling structures. "The tiles of the king's private dwellings", he wrote, "are in lead, while other parts of the palace are covered with pottery tiles, yellow in colour... Long colonnades and open corridors stretch away, without grand symmetry... The dwellings of the princes and of the important officers are quite different in size and design from those of the people. The family temple and the main hall are covered with tiles... Straw thatch covers the dwellings of the commoners - they would not dare to use tiles...".

It is certain that the stone buildings we see at Angkor, with an architecture that obeys rigorous and constant rules of order and symmetry, served purely monumental ends. Satisfying only requirements of longevity and steeped with symbolism, they merely indicate the framework of the capital and suburban settlements that were otherwise built from perishable materials - and an undoubtedly religious framework, since each element represents but a blossoming of sanctuaries responding to the multiplicity of gods and divinities. Other than these saintly dwellings were not considered worthy to survive.

The stone monuments are temples in so far as they are monuments raised in honour of the divinities. Their number and size may perhaps surprise, seeming disproportionate to the area occupied by the city and its suburbs and to the density of the population - whatever the religious fervour of the Khmer. With our western mentality we are naturally inclined to see in all religious buildings the equivalent of our churches and cathedrals that respond to a need of general faith - to the pious sentiments of the masses - that were the work of a population who met there in order to pray and to practise the rituals of their religion.

The Khmer temples, however, were not places of public religion, but religious foundations - the personal work of a king or an aristocrat, destined to accumulate spiritual "merits" for their authors - that could then reflect on other participants.

These grandiose schemes, realised by a labour-force whose service was perhaps not always given voluntarily, absorbed much of the populations' energy and, in addition to the various military exploits, virtually exhausted them - precluding any other activity in order to endow each monarch with a new jewel. And yet, although it was due to this colossal effort that the cult of the god-king - and of all others who merited such deification - could continue in a setting that was worthy of it, the masses were not admitted to honour their gods, sieged as they were in the very midst of their settlement. Such honour was reserved only for the officiants. With the usual appetite for the traditional ceremonies described by the inscriptions, the faithful, crowded into the external enclosures, would prostrate themselves at the passing of idols and relics summarily offered by the priests for their adoration, or otherwise walk in procession in the ritual direction of "pradakshina", that always keeps the sacred site to the right, or in the opposite direction of "prasavya" reserved for funeral processions.

In present day Cambodia, the Buddhist monasteries or "pagodas" consist, apart from the "vihara" or temple surrounded by "sema" (sacred marker stones), of a public meeting room - which is comparatively far less monumental - and lodgings for the monks. It can be assumed that, around the stone temples in angkorian times, there were the same modest dwellings and places where monks and laymen could meet for the everyday practising of their religion. Tcheou Ta-Kouan, when describing the monks who "shave their heads, wear yellow robes and bare their right shoulder" just as today, explained that "their temples are often roofed with tiles and contain only one statue, closely resembling the Buddha Sakyamuni. Moulded from clay, it is painted in various colours and draped with red. Buddhas on the towers, however, are bronze...". This text confirms the esoteric nature of some of the stone monuments and of their religious destination.

Mr Cœdes, based on certain epigraphic evidence, stated "that the principal temples, those that were of royal origin, are funerary temples or mausolea and, in some respects, tombs, if one is to assume that the ashes were placed there under the statue representing the deceased in his divine aspect. These were not public temples or places of pilgrimage, but rather the final resting place for the Cambodian sovereign, throned in his divine aspect, as in a palace". The discovery of numerous stone tanks, similar to sarcophagi, ultimately led him to the conclusion that the Angkor monuments were at the same time both temples and mausolea - "the last resting place of a being who, during his life, enjoyed certain divine rights, and for whom death consummated his assimilation to a god - a funerary palace in which his mortal remains were laid to rest, but where his statue also stood representing him in the form of a god". (2)

In the present state of our knowledge, it seems reasonable to hold with this double function, although clearly the notion of the pantheon dominates that of the necropolis.


In each of the Angkor monuments a preoccupation with symbolic order seeks to create a representation of the universe in reduction - the tiered bases representing the Meru, the abode of the gods - the chains of mountains as their enclosure walls and the oceans as their moats - realising a kind of correctly ordered model.

Astrology determined siting which responded to magical ends. At the chosen location, the architect with the help of the high priest - or the high priest himself - would make an extensive "interpretation of space", and so construct his building with four doors facing the four cardinal points - the east remaining, and only rarely approximately, the main orientation with the diagonals of the square joining the intermediate points.

The predominance of this eastern orientation, a sort of glorification of the rising sun, could be considered as a manifestation of the sun cult so favoured in ancient civilisations - and taken when rising with its most strength at the summer solstice and following the course of its light, the ambulation ritual of pradakshina around the temple in fact becomes none other than the living translation of this trajectory. According to some archaeologists, the siting of most of the Angkor monuments corresponded to a sort of marking out of the solar path according to the solstitial alignments.

The temple type of Khmer architecture is the "temple-mountain", with terraces tiered in varying numbers following a law of constant proportional reduction that would have enclosed a pyramid. This is the Celestial Mountain or Meru, erected on the axis of the world (often marked by a deep well) serving as a pedestal for the god-king - symbolic in elevation from the base, where the faithful prostrate themselves and pray, to the summit, where the officiant addresses the gods and where the very spirit of the divine king resides.

Sometimes the pyramid is crowned with a single sanctuary, others with a quincunx of towers in evocation of the five summits of Meru. Occasionally other buildings also adorn the tiers. In every case, the square or rectangular surrounding walls enclose secondary buildings at the base - the chains of mountains surrounding the cosmic mountain and separated by the seas, represented here by moats. For the Khmer, this double principle of tiering and of successive enclosure forms the origin of all architectural realisation.

Occasionally, however, - particularly in the less important monuments of the pre-angkorian period or at the beginning of the classic art - the notion of elevation was expressed by the simple raising of the buildings on a terrace, where they were presented as if on a plateau - sometimes as an isolated sanctuary, sometimes as one or two rows of towers.

Towards the beginning of the 11th century came the appearance of covered galleries linking the corner sanctuaries or surrounding the central group - with entrance pavilions or "gopura" on the four axes - forming interior courtyards that emphasised the private nature of the religious buildings. These were often themselves complemented with other galleries on pillars, perhaps with half-vaulted side-aisles, dividing the courtyard into four sections - or else, serving to accentuate the eastern orientation, expanding into long rooms adjoining the principal building, flanked on either side by the so called "libraries" that opened to the west.

Gradually, and particularly when Buddhism became more widespread and so promoted the conventual life, the temple became a monastery - with the same system of cloisters closed by the galleries repeating in each concentric enclosure. Usually the arrangement of tiers gave way to a ground-level composition where the idea of elevation was only expressed in the succession of separating galleries and the predominance of the central sanctuary. The east-west axis became increasingly accentuated, forming a corridor virtually uninterrupted by rooms or vestibules - a sacred vista to the heart of the monument. In the last great ensembles such as Prah Khan and Ta Prohm, a profusion of annexe buildings further complicated the plan that so retained nothing of its original beautiful simplicity. Motivated by an apparent "dread of emptiness", the Khmer continued to make alterations and additions to the detriment of the grand vision.