6 - Architecture

While in Cambodia the direct descendants of the builders of Angkor, dumbfounded by the colossal effort accomplished by their ancestors, assumed the origin of the monuments to be divine and so attributed their construction to Indra and his son, the celestial architect Vishvakarman, it was customary in the West, however, following the revelations made by Mouhot on discovering Angkor Wat in 1860, to have a certain contempt for this strange art, for which the main appreciation was found in the romantic charm of the ruins being engulfed by the jungle.

For a long time the tomes of art history passed them over in silence, so that even in the second half of the nineteenth century the period was still described as one of the weakest in terms of the realisation of any architectural quality. In cultural circles it was the level of ornament and the faultless execution of the detail that were admired rather than the value of the whole. Khmer art was taken as a minor art, trailing behind that of India - and even the well known poet Paul Claudel, on viewing the towers of Angkor Wat, saw only "five stone pineapples fringed with flames".

This lack of understanding came at a time when little was known of the large Angkor monuments, and from the particularly Western desire to compare things to one's own experience. The French spirit enjoys reason, logic and truth, and is preoccupied with technique and the intrinsic value of each form - which so tends to establish a kind of hierarchy in the appreciation of art. In the East, by contrast, such perfection matters less. The architecture is the basis for a spiritual expression, and the angkorian temple, formed of conventions and symbols, is but the translation of an idea, of a force that is superior to mere aesthetic considerations.

Architecturally, supported by the test of time, we can be justified in recognising that the Khmer, in composing Angkor Wat, in arranging the royal esplanade of Angkor Thom or the admirable perspective of Prah Khan with its avenue of bornes and the lake of Neak Pean - or in digging the two barays and the Srah Srang - showed a strong understanding for the concept of the grand scheme, so realising an ensemble that stands unique. As a progression of "events" these are a prelude to the conceptions of Le Notre(3) and of the grand urban designers of modern times. Angkor Wat, comparable to the most impressive of history's architectural compositions, in responding to all the requirements of a "component" within an already established plan, attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions. It is a work of power, unity and style.

The conformity of Khmer art is undeniable - and though India may be at its source, she is so as stimulator rather than creator. India perhaps influenced direction, framework, tradition and constraint, but in following these "formulae" the Khmer put them to their own particular use and, in the execution, took control. While the builder of the Hindu temples has no respect for any architectural concept and, carried away in a frenzy of modelling, encumbers the composition which so becomes confused with the extravagance of the decoration, the Khmer sculptor on the other hand maintains a feeling for the dimension of the mass, and, working always directly on the surface of the pre-formed panels of wall, submits to the discipline imposed by the architect to enhance the main idea, to emphasise the form by the organisation of his mouldings and ornamentation rather than to detract from its purity - he never allows free rein to his fantasy and spirit except in the detail, which is usually minute.

Through India also came themes from Greece, Rome, from Egypt and from Syria, with some reminiscence of Arab or French art of the middle ages - there are also influences from China, and, by a sort of anticipation, certain elements that can be found in the Renaissance, baroque or rococo styles.

Despite being subject to such influences, Khmer art nonetheless maintained, as said, a strong individuality - which also appears in its shortcomings, failings and faults - or at least those characteristics which we so judge through our Western eyes. Yet if it would be unjust to lament the lack of any interior spaciousness, which may be upsetting but which remains nonetheless inherent in the very nature of the buildings, then perhaps we cannot help but be dismayed by the absence of any "real" buildings that - in responding to purely spiritual ideals - rarely go beyond the state of the appearance or the perceived impression.

Usually the exterior only gives but an imperfect - if not misleading - idea of the internal structure; - illusory storeys - truncated proportions - the perception of the necessity of the arch but dressed as a wall and defying the laws of gravity - flying ribs barred by wooden ceilings at the height of the cornice - lubricious stairs so steep that they have to be climbed on all fours and with the feet turned sideways - conflicts between the plan and the fašade - half vaults, false doors and walled-in windows - cuts and assemblies of stone that are only relevant to the carpenter... This lack of sincerity in the means of expression - yet the Asian cares not nor suffers for it. And we would be wrong to assume ourselves to be more demanding than he, or to let these shortcomings detract from our true appreciation of the outcome.


All Khmer architecture relies on notions of axis and symmetry, necessarily implying the repetition of its elements.


The fundamental element is the sanctuary tower, or "prasat", that sheltered the idol within its square chamber. Orientated accordingly, it opens to the exterior sometimes with two or four doors, but usually with a single opening to the east - the closed sides being walled with false doors. The plan can become cruciform by the adjoining of avant-corps forming vestibules that appear towards the end of the tenth century.

The axial stairways, generally preceded by a decorative base step in accolade form, lead to the prasat, built on a base which can itself be raised on a terrace.

The principal level, crowned with a cornice, can have its corner piers formed with a simple or double redent, perhaps with divinities sculpted in the niches. Each door is framed by colonnettes carrying lintels, themselves bordered by pilasters supporting a fronton. Above, the false storeys - almost always numbering four - follow the principle of proportional reduction of the tiered temples, with a repetition of the same elements that are found at the base, while internally the stone courses are corbelled like a sort of stepped chimney that sometimes contained a hanging velum or wooden ceiling. A crowning motif with lotus petals closes the top, into which was set a metal pole - perhaps a trident.

On each upper tier the external silhouette was animated with antefixes, often as models of the prasat, set at the corners. Thus the sanctuary tower itself becomes its own decoration, so affirming its character as a temple in reduction.

The towers with four faces of the Bayon period (late 12th century) are a simple variation of the prasat.


The galleries surrounding the prasats constitute the successive enclosures, which it is customary to number from the centre of the monument. In simple form they are bordered by two walls, one of which may be plain, and lit by openings that can be clear or decorated with an always uneven number of turned balusters. Above the cornice they are covered with a corbelled vault, sometimes shallow, and masked internally by a wooden ceiling. The exterior can have a ridge crested with a line of turned stone finials or small decorative crenellations, and often imitates the parallel undulations of a channel-tiled roof, terminating in a line of lotus petals.

Forming a cloister, the galleries can also open broadly on one side with the replacement of the wall by a line of pillars. Rarely appearing before the beginning of the 12th century, this arrangement was soon joined by a second row of pillars forming a side-aisle covered with a half vault, with beams or struts connecting the points of support. In the axial galleries all walls disappeared, and the central passage has a side-aisle to either side.


When they are not defined by galleries, the different enclosures are bounded by simple walls with a coping. There is usually an entrance pavilion or "gopura" on each axis, with a central core that is generally cruciform in plan and frequently complemented with vestibules, porticoes and lateral wings with secondary entrances. Sometimes, particularly on the side of the main entrance, the gopuras become quite developed, with the external silhouette taking the form of one or three towers - similar to those of the sanctuaries - or a crossing of naves with four gable ends treated with frontons.


Some temples have, linked to the central sanctuary by an adjoining vestibule, a vaulted long room with an avant-corps to the east and the side walls pierced with a door framed by windows - an arrangement also found in the monuments of India.

In the eastern part of the first enclosure, on either side of the main axis, two similar buildings open only to the west in inverse to the sanctuaries and are poorly lit by long, narrow, horizontal windows. These are usually referred to as "libraries". While an inscription found at Prasat Khna seems to justify this name, these buildings, while certainly ritual in siting, must rather in our view have contained - apart from the sacred books - various religious artefacts. When there is only one library it is found to the south.

While the internal plan forms a simple rectangle, the external gives the impression of a nave with a side-aisle to either side - since a false half-vault covers most of the depth of the wall - and a false upper storey. The barrel of the vault ends in frontons.

Within the last enclosure of the principal temples towards the end of the 12th century, on the east side (there is one to the north of the main axis at Prah Khan and at Ta Prohm) are buildings - wider than normal due to an audacious system of double curving vaults - that served as a "rest house with fire". For a long time called "dharmasala", they are mentioned by Tcheou Ta-Kouan; - "on the main roads there are places of rest similar to our stage posts". The inscription of Prah Khan tells of 121 rest houses lining the ancient roads of the kingdom. From Angkor to the capital of Champa (along the eastern road through Beng Mealea and Prah Khan of Kompong Svay) there were 57, corresponding to an average relay distance of 12.5 km.

Apart from these three particular types of building, one finds various other buildings within the successive enclosure walls whose utilitarian nature is confirmed by their course masonry and particularly by their tiled timber roofs - of which numerous remains have been found. These mainly surrounded the temple in the form of a line of long rooms or galleries, and were used either as places of habitation or retreat for the priests - with the throng of lay people attached to the service of the temple no doubt being lodged in wooden huts in the surrounding area - or else as warehouses, stores and shelters for the faithful.


In principle, each temple was surrounded by a moat. Representing, as described, the ocean in this microcosm, this could also have provided a means of defence. Ahead of the main axis - or even on a number of axes - the lions or "dvarapalas" armed with clubs stand as guardians. Across the moat extends a wide paved causeway, sometimes for hundreds of metres, bordered by naga-balustrades set on stone blocks - an essentially Khmer motif - punctuated by lateral stairways and sometimes terminating in a vast cruciform terrace, used for ceremonies and ritual dance, or framed by pools. Otherwise a line of decorative bornes may lead to a "baray".