"The temple city"
From the terrace itself of the Grand Hotel in Siem Reap, the southern elevation of the central group of Angkor Wat, formed of a quincunx of towers, can be seen in silhouette at the far end of a long cutting through the forest. Whether one gets there by the straight main road (six kilometres from Siem Reap) or by the original winding and shaded back road (route Commaille), one finally skirts the south-west corner of the water filled moat to gain the monument by its principal entrance - the western causeway - the end of which is shaded by a magnificent Banyan tree. A road that eventually leads to the airport continues from the causeway to the left.
This orientation to the west, in contrast to the other Angkor monuments which face the rising sun, initially gave cause for much confusion - some seeing a simple topographic necessity where others saw ritual organisation.
Angkor Wat, forming a rectangle of about 1,500 by 1,300 metres, covers an area - including its 190 metre wide moats - of nearly 200 hectares. The external enclosure wall defines an expanse of 1,025 metres by 800, or 82 hectares. It is the largest monument of the Angkor group.
Constructed to the south of the capital (Angkor Thom), Angkor Wat is sited in the south-east corner of the ancient city of Angkor - Yasodharapura - built by Yasovarman I, centred on Phnom Bakheng and which stretched between the Siem Reap river to the east and the dike of the baray to the west. The temple could therefore have been placed on either side of the main access road to Angkor Thom. In terms of topography, only the ease of transporting the stones from the quarries of Phnom Kulen by river pleads in favour of an orientation to the west. This argument seems insufficient, and so one is drawn inevitably to reasons of tradition.
It is therefore likely that it was the destination itself of the monument that determined its unusual orientation, in order to observe some particular rite. Due to research by Mssrs Finot, Cœdes, Przyluski and Dr Bosch, the Head of the Service Archéologique des Indes Néerlandaises, it seems proven that Angkor Wat is in fact a funerary temple, and the only one built during the life of the founding king - Suryavarman II - for his consecration, and probably also as a depository for his ashes.
This westward orientation is, according to Dr Bosch, typical of the Indo-Javanese funerary monuments and opposite to the orientation of sanctuaries dedicated to divinities. Furthermore, in the Brahmanic ritual, the funerary rite is performed in reverse of the normal order, just as in fact at Angkor Wat, in the gallery of the bas-reliefs depicting the parades, the ritual procession is not made according to the usual custom that follows the sun ("pradakshina") whilst keeping the monument to one's right, but in the opposite direction, the "prasavya". Finally, in making Angkor Wat a Vishnouïte foundation, and in no longer identifying with Shiva in the form of a royal linga as his predecessors, but with Vishnou - whose usual association with the west has been explained by Mr Cœdes - it was quite natural that Suryavarman II should have adopted this new orientation.
The "tomb of Lu Pan", placed by the Chinese diplomat Tcheou Ta-Kouan in the late 13th century to the south of the capital and said to have measured 10 "lï" in circumference, could also perhaps be identified with Angkor Wat, so indicating its funerary character since that time. Moreover, according to the Cambodian legend of Prah Ket, Angkor Wat was an identical palace to "the sky of the Thirty Three", built by the celestial architect Vishvakarman by order of Indra for a prince whom the god had summoned to be sent back to earth to live for a second time - this would mean, according to the interpretation of Mr Cœdes, that Angkor Wat was constructed in order to serve as a residence to a deceased prince who was posthumously deified.
Isolated from the forest by its moats, Angkor Wat was, of all the monuments of the group, the best placed to escape the invasion of the jungle and hence ruin. Moreover, following the establishment of Buddhism of the small vehicle, it has always sheltered pagodas, as a place of pilgrimage for the Khmer, within its enclosure - though at one time partially masking the main façade these had to be re-sited in order not to detract from the overall perspective. It was also necessary to undertake some important clearing work, remove large amounts of accumulated earth and, even though the buildings were in relatively good repair, effect considerable consolidation work. The main axial causeway also required restoration.
If Angkor Wat is the largest and the best preserved of the monuments, it is also the most impressive in the character of its grand architectural composition, being comparable to the finest of architectural achievements anywhere. By means of its perfectly ordered and balanced plan, by the harmony of its proportions and the purity of its lines - of a solemnity that one rarely encounters in the Khmer themselves - and by the very particular care taken in its construction, it merits being placed at the apogee of an art that can occasionally surprise in its complexity and poor craftsmanship. This temple is the one that comes closest to our latin ideas of unity and classic order, born of a symmetry responding to the emphatic axes. Angkor Wat is a work of power and reason.
In 1866 the Englishman, Thomson, already saw in Angkor Wat the symbol of Mount Meru, the centre of the Universe. According to him, we are told by Madame de Coral-Remusat, the seven circles of the central tower corresponded to the seven chains of the mountains of Mount Meru, the three terraces of the temple to the three platforms of earth, water and wind on which the cosmic mountain rests, and the water filled moat to the Ocean.
The plan is also the only one which, in adopting a combined solution, has managed to reconcile the two elements of the tiered pyramid and the temple at ground level forming cloisters, elongated in relation to the east-west axis. Angkor Wat is in effect a three tiered pyramid, with each level bounded by galleries incorporating four gopuras and corner towers - the upper terrace is square, forming a quincunx of towers, and the lower two, though concentric on three of their sides, have become rectangular by their elongation towards the west. The two esplanades so created have allowed the placing on the second level of two "library" type buildings, and of two others on the first - which are more monumental in character - in a cloister that is divided by crossing galleries.
The moats surrounding the external enclosure of the monument (the fourth from the centre) are bordered by steps ornate with a moulded sandstone perimeter, and are five and a half kilometres in their overall length. They are crossed only on two axes - to the east by a simple levee of earth that could formerly have served to bring materials to site from the river, and to the west by a 200 metre long and 12 metre wide sandstone-paved causeway, lined with columns along its sides that support its corbelled edge. A few remain visible, notably those to the right of the two lateral stairways that give access to the water level. Beside the road a cruciform terrace, raised by a few steps and embellished with lions, precedes the causeway. Both are bordered with naga-balustrades.
THE EXTERNAL ENCLOSURE
The temple enclosure, formed in a high laterite wall and separated from the moat by a thirty metre wide apron, is divided on the axis by a long colonnade of 235 metres in length composed of a three part gopura - the towers of which are cruciform in plan - and galleries that link with the two pavilions at either extremity which served as ground-level passageways for elephants.
While the extreme passageways are closed towards the galleries with richly ornate false doors and have crossing naves with gable ends, the three elements of the gopura, with open circulation, are crowned with three towers that are unfortunately truncated - most of their upper tiers having crumbled. The galleries are obscured from the monument by a plain wall simply decorated with a cornice and a low frieze of apsaras in a "tapestry" motif. Quite narrow (2m.20), they are bounded on their external side by a line of square pillars bordered with a half-vaulted side-aisle, also supported on pillars, but of which only some parts remain - its absence, depriving the composition of a strong horizontal element, considerably detracts from the proportion of the whole.
Viewed from the front, the ensemble serves as a kind of screen that masks the pilgrims' view of the monument itself - which it reproduces in the geometry of its silhouette - until the very last moment. It is an example of a theme that is developed hereafter in all of its variations - from minor to major and with no trace of discord - seeking to create a state of mind and to control the drama, which it does with complete success.
The axial western vestibule, flanked on its northern side by a superb naga, shows at once some of the exceptional ornamental sculpture to be found at Angkor Wat - the capitals of the pillars and the architrave have a precision of profile comparable to Grecian art. The pilasters and lintels - the best preserved of which can be seen above the eastern door - are also remarkably fine.
The galleries' eastern façade confirms the near perfection - false windows with turned balustrades are surmounted with a frieze of figurines mounted on a variety of animals and framed by a background decor of superbly preserved devatas, either individually or in groups of two or three, which can be counted amongst the finest in the monument.
We will but mention the gopuras of the fourth enclosure on the three secondary axes, generally little visited but nonetheless commendable; - of excellent proportion but remaining unfinished, particularly internally, they are rectangular in form with a crossing of naves with side-aisles, and are far less developed than the western. One gains access along a path cut through the undergrowth in line with the central sanctuary. The view from the north gopura across the moat towards the mound of Phnom Bakheng is particularly delightful.
Plunging into the semi-darkness of the western gopura, the visitor is presented with the incomparable looming perspective of Angkor Wat and its causeway - now universally celebrated - framed in the full light of the door ahead. Three hundred and fifty metres long and 9m.40 in overall width, the causeway is established on earth fill and forms an eight metre wide processional way that is raised above ground level by one and a half metres. Paved and faced in sandstone it is bordered by naga-balustrades on blocks which, in the sunlight, fringe it with a play of light and shadow. On either side along its length, six stairways with naga heads punctuate the monotony.
Towards the middle and on either side are two elegant buildings, elevated and lying lengthways, generally known as "libraries". Their situation in this part of the temple that is accessible to the faithful, their low proportion and the presence of their four monumental porticoes giving access to their large nave with pillars - extensively lit by windows with balusters - clearly distinguishes them from the usual style of this type of building. We can perhaps see here public reunion halls similar to those in modern pagodas. The causeway then passes between two square pools - the northern of these has retained its surrounding stone steps and is always full of water. From its north western corner is a picturesque view of the monument reflected in its entirety.
The temple itself is presented raised on a vast surrounding terrace that is graced with sugar palms and overshadowed by mango trees. Preceding the main entrance is a high, cruciform terrace, on two levels - the so-called "Grand Terrace" - where ritual dance was probably performed and which, during processions and displays, served as a tribune for the sovereign. Its overhanging cornice, carried on columns, supports a naga-balustrade.
The first level of the three tiered pyramid appears as a broad horizontal element surrounded by galleries. Stretching for 1,400 metres in total length, these form a tight succession of rigid frames for the central sanctuary - where the chamber of the deity is in fact no more than five metres in width.
The absence in a composition of this size of any dominating building is one of the characteristics of the architecture - and while the perspectives created may appear at times a little artificial, the effect remains nonetheless impressive due to a principle of unity.
The lower gallery, the celebrated gallery of the bas-reliefs, accessible to the mass of the faithful and of 187 metres by 215, is presented on its shorter side, with a three-part gopura linked to the corner pavilions - with their crossing naves and stairways - by means of a 2m.45 wide vaulted passageway. This has a plain inner wall and columns to the outside, doubled by a side-aisle with a half-vault, also carried on columns. The grey of the superposed stone roofs, channelled in imitation of tiles and floating above the play of light between the pillars, caps the string of open bays with two delicate, shimmering lines.
In silhouette above are the corner towers, though unfortunately truncated, of the second enclosure, and then those of the central group. These towers, so particular to Angkor Wat, appear like coned tiaras due to their multiple redents, and are more elongated than elsewhere due to the extreme development of their crowning motif - they have three rows of lotus petals in addition to the four reducing upper tiers of the normal prasats, with each projecting cornice lined finally with steles and antefixes.
The gallery of the second enclosure, of 100 metres by 115, adjoins the one preceding it to the west by the particularly pleasing arrangement of a crossing cloister - similar to that at Beng Mealea, a temple in the same style, - formed by covered passageways that link the two three-core gopuras with a secondary transversal passageway. The ensemble is found placed here at an intermediate height between the first and the second levels of the pyramid, and the necessity to gain the upper level under shelter has inspired the architect to raise his galleries three times just before the steps, with an accompaniment of gable ends treated with frontons. It is masterful architectural dynamism, with a lightness of touch that gives the construction an ethereal quality.
While the two galleries to the north and south - of 2m.90 in width - are closed to their exterior but have a double row of pillars towards the courtyard, the two main arms of the cross have a central 3m.15 wide nave with double side-aisles forming 7m.70 overall. The remaining area has four tanks each with richly ornamented sides and a single central stair, which could either have been pools or lower level courtyards. Given the absence of steps forming the usual pool surround and the presence of sculptures, it would seem that, if ever there was water, its level could not have been any higher than the top step corresponding to the base course, which, like the stone facing, has been left crudely finished.
The main vaults of the crossing cloister were, as elsewhere, masked by a timber panelled ceiling sculpted with rosettes in the form of lotus blossoms, some remnants of which have been found in places. This ornamentation continues on the-half vaults, which have no false ceiling but instead were enhanced with colourful painting and some gilding, also applied to the overall decoration; - the entablature with a frieze of apsaras under the cornice, the horizontal braces, the tympanums with scenes on the frontons - where one can recognise amongst others the Vishnouïte legends of the "churning of the ocean" and of the "god sleeping on the serpent Ananta" - and the pillar-base motifs of ascetics in prayer. Here the visitor can appreciate something of the style of ornamentation from the classic period of Khmer art, with its smiling devatas, the window balusters worked like timber and the delicate ornamentation cut into the surface of the stone with a discretion which, while not casting any harsh shadow, subtly animates the walls.
Proceeding through the axial passageway of the crossing cloister - while glancing south to the "Prah Pean" (the thousand Buddhas) where most of the statues have been re-established - though without much interest being not uncommon and rather later than the monument (6) - we recommend taking the north branch of the transversal gallery to exit at its extreme doorway - though not without first observing the good tourist's time-honoured rite of standing against the wall in its vestibule and beating the chest to experience the unusual resonance. One can then pay a visit to the high "library", which is more easily accessible than its symmetrical image on the southern side; - from here is a fine view to the upper tiers of the pyramid.
The large surrounding courtyard between the second and the third enclosure is quite plain, the only decoration along the length of its long façades being the false window openings and the eleven stairways of its gopuras and corner towers. Here the two "libraries" are extended. Like those in the external enclosure they have four door openings, but only two porticoes - though in contrast they are extensively lit by the balustered windows along the side-aisle of the large nave.
Returning to the north gallery of the crossing cloister, where an inscribed stele dating from later than the foundation of the temple, discovered in the undergrowth, has been set in the western part, one can, turning immediately to the left, gain the second level by a stairway with steps that are less slippery than those of the central stairway. (7) The gallery of the second enclosure is 2m.45 in width, with a plain wall towards its exterior and balustered windows to the courtyard. The poor treatment of its façades due to the lack of any lower side-aisle is relieved by the countless devatas, sculpted in bas-relief with an extraordinary variety of intricate hair styles and costumes.
From the foot of the north-west corner tower, while the sun is going down, or from the north-east corner during the morning - or by the moon-lit night - the view of the central group is unforgettable.
The enormous two-storey thirty metre high substructure - breached by the cascading stairs of which the some 70° slope ascends in a single flight to follow the rising line of the base - is square in plan, as is the 60 metre wide quincunx of towers, and ringed with galleries whose axial gopuras are preceded by porticoes. Of all the galleries in the temple, only these open to both sides, with balustered windows on one and the double row of columns of a side-aisle on the other. In the middle, the 42 metre high central tower, reinforcing the four points of its crossed plan with a double vestibule, reaches to a height of 62 metres above the main causeway in a dramatic skyward thrust.
Around the courtyard of the second level one can appreciate several well preserved frontons on the surrounding gallery, particularly those above the eastern door of the northern gallery, the central door of the southern gallery, and then - unfortunately at some distance - those on the corner towers of the central group, the best preserved of which are to the north-east, representing scenes of battle. On the west side, two small "libraries", again with four doors but with walled-in windows, flank the axis and adjoin one another on the same level by means of a raised crossed walkway supported on small pillars. Here, the access stairway to the third level is less steep than the eleven others (about 50°), though anyone suffering from vertigo might prefer to use the southern axial stairway, where additional concrete steps and a handrail make the ascent - and particularly the descent - less dangerous.
The surrounding gallery on the upper level is only 2 metres wide and divided, like the crossing cloister, into four smaller quadrants by axial galleries, with 2m.40 wide naves and side-aisles. We recommend the entire trip around, as much for the view over the rooftops below - unfortunately missing their ridge-line finials, none of which has been found intact - which plunges down to the grand entrance causeway and the surrounding countryside, as for the view up to the central tower.
The necessity to make the central tower dominate, despite its restricted plan, has inspired the architect to complement it on each of its axes with doubled porticoes. Their superstructures project like those over the stairways of the crossing cloister, while their cornices and half-vaulted side-aisles correspond to as many horizontal incisions on the corner piers of the main tower, without which the extension in height would seem quite disproportionate.
Some fine sculpture, quite large in scale, remains on the frontons, while traces of plaster in some areas suggest that the whole of the central tower was once painted or gilded.
The sanctuary was open originally to its four sides - the Buddhist monks, in taking possession of the temple, walled in the openings, having first expelled the Brahmanic idol, and sculpted the false doors with standing Buddhas. The southern entrance, re-opened by Commaille in 1908, stayed clear, so allowing George Trouvé to gain access to the central well in 1934. Plain sand was excavated to a depth of 25 metres - the level corresponding to the external ground level of the monument - but unfortunately did not yield the treasure placed under the pedestal, no doubt long since stolen. It did however enable the discovery, at a depth of 23 metres, of the sacred foundation deposit, composed of two circular gold leaves of 0m.18 in diameter and 65 grammes in weight, set in a block of laterite.
It can be seen, to finish with the upper level, that the monks have in places undertaken some regrettable repair work, in particular replacing some pillars or missing lintels with columns originating from other parts of the monument.
The bas-reliefs cover the back wall of the gallery of the third enclosure for two metres in height and a total area of more than 1,000 square metres - excluding the two corner pavilions. Limited to the zone that would have been accessible to the public, they represented legendary and historic scenes for the enlightenment of the faithful. Cut directly into the surface of the wall and having suffered minimal decay, they are more graphic than sculptural. Their inconsistent workmanship - excellent while the artist proceeds to clearly define without tending towards sculpture in the round, but only mediocre when the exaggerated contours result in a style described by Paul Claudel as "loose and flabby" - is due no doubt to the hands of differing craftsmen.
The hurried visitor will be content with a tour of the galleries to the south of the central axis, together with its western gallery up to the north-west pavilion - which are particularly remarkable. The north-east quarter, on the other hand, though showing no particular shortcoming in composition, has been hurried in execution. Mr Goloubew, by the nature of certain motifs, suspects the late intervention of Chinese artisans charged with finishing a work that had previously only been outlined.
The order of the panels reveals, apart from anything else, two different conceptions; - the first, in a single composition, represents a veritable profusion of figures in the various stages of frenzied combat - the others, perhaps slightly later in execution and more restrained in style, are arranged in registers according to the formula which was to prevail during the second half of the 12th century. Almost all have been identified by Mr Cœdes, and we follow them according to the direction imposed by the funerary rites of "prasavya" - but leaving from close to the west entrance and heading south, rather than from the east and heading north - in accordance with the learned reasoning of Dr Bosch and based on the running of events which marked the reign of the deified sovereign. All the subjects relate to the legend of Vishnou.
WEST GALLERY, SOUTHERN PART
The battle of Kuruksetra between the Kauravas (advancing from the left) and the Pandavas (from the right), depicting four divisions of the Mahabharata, one of the major Hindu epics.
The composition is in a single panel and lined along its base with a procession in which one can distinguish some musicians, some foot-soldiers leading warriors marching to combat and their chiefs carried by elephants or horse drawn chariots. It is only in the centre that the struggle turns into a furious scrum where certain details - such as the wounded horse collapsing lanced with arrows - are treated with a striking realism.
One can identify with some certainty; - to the left, Bhisma, the chief of the army of the Kauravas, dying pierced with arrows, - and Drona, no longer wearing the conical head-dress of the devas and other heroes, but with the classical chignon of the Brahmans; - to the right is Arjuna, whose four armed driver is none other than Krishna.
One will notice that in places the rubbing of the reliefs by visitors' hands or the remains of some ancient lacquer has given the stone the appearance of bronze or of polished granite, clarifying them distinctly.
SOUTH WEST CORNER PAVILION
The four branches of the cross-planned pavilion are decorated with sculpted scenes, unfortunately decayed in places by water infiltration through the loose-jointed vaults.
1. above the north door.
A scene from the Ramayana, where Rama kills the enchanted gazelle Marica, so enabling the abduction of Sita by Ravana.
2. north branch, east wall.
Krishna, accompanied by Balarama, raising mount Govardhana (conventionally represented by a pattern of small diamonds) with his right arm in order to shelter the shepherds and their flocks from the storms unleashed by the fury of Indra.
3. north branch, west wall (above the opening)
A scene from the legend of Vishnou - the churning of the Sea of Milk that extracts the elixir of immortality over which the gods and the demons dispute. On the upper part are two discs, each containing a figure, representing the sun and the moon.
4. west branch, north wall (above the opening).
Ravana, taking the form of a chameleon, enters the women's chamber in the palace of Indra.
5. above the west door.
The child Krishna dragging the large stone mortar to which he had been tied by his adoptive mother, Yasoda, felling two arjuna trees in passing.
6. west branch, south wall (above the opening).
Ravana with multiple heads and arms tries to shake the mountain on which Shiva and his wife Uma are throned.
7. south branch, west wall (above the opening).
Shiva meditating on a mountain top with Uma at his side is sighted by Kama, the god of love, who shoots him with his sugar-cane arrow. The god, furious at being troubled, strikes the fool who dies in the arms of his wife Rati.
8. above the south door.
The murder of Pralamba (?) and the extinction of a fire by Krishna.
9. south branch, east wall (above the opening).
A scene from the Ramayana. Above is a duel between the two enemy brothers, Valin and Sugriva, the king of the monkeys. Rama, intervening in the struggle assures the victory of his ally by killing Valin with an arrow. Below, Valin dies in the arms of his wife, Tara, who wears a three pointed mukuta. The panel, which adjoins the window and shows on several registers the monkeys mourning Valin, is remarkable in the variety of their attitudes and expressions.
10. east branch, south wall (above the opening)
A badly ruined and unidentified panel. One can distinguish a seated figure in the centre, conversing with many others, above figures of ascetics.
11. above the east door.
Krishna receiving offerings destined for Indra (?).
12. east branch, north wall.
The Dvaravati nautical festival where one can see two superposed junks mounted with apsaras. The vessel above carries some chess players while the lower one has some figures playing with children. To the right is a cock fight.
SOUTH GALLERY, WESTERN PART
This is the "historical gallery", where a single panel of 90 metres in length is dedicated to king Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, consecrated under the name of Paramavishnouloka.
The section to the left starts on two tiers; - above is the royal audience, just to the throne of the sovereign, installed on the mount Shivapada and recognisable by his large size and the gilding - although of a later date - which covers him. Below are women of the palace in procession.
From here is the rallying of the army; - the chiefs, descending from the upper register, rejoin their troops who pass a crowd of infantry-men at the base with the riders represented abreast in a sort of rudimentary perspective. The chiefs, whose rank is marked by the number of parasols that surround them, are all set against a verdant background and can be identified by the 28 small inscriptions engraved beside them. Standing on elephants with their trunks coiled or dressed, they encircle the king, Paramavishnouloka - the twelfth from the left - who is superior in stature, wears a conical mukuta with a diadem, and reaches the upper edge of the panel with his 15 parasols. He is armed with a sort of long-handled knife which is similar to the "coupe-coupe" still used by the Cambodians today.
A little further on, the parade losses its military character to give way to a religious pageant of Brahmins with chignons who ring small bells. This is the procession of the rajahotar or royal sacrificial priest, whom one can see carried in a palanquin behind the ark containing the sacred flame, itself preceded by musicians, standard bearers and jesters.
The parade continues, finishing at the extreme right with the Siamese - then allies of the Khmer - with their strange bell-shaped dresses and hair styles decorated with feathers, giving them the air of Oceanian warriors and for a long time mistaken for "barbarians".
SOUTH GALLERY, EASTERN PART (8)
For this panel of 60 metres in length - dedicated on three registers to the judgement of the dead by Yama and then on two registers to the representation of heaven and hell - one is further guided by 36 short inscriptions which reveal that there are 32 hells and 37 heavens - these last remaining without much appeal and of a dull monotony. They are but sky borne palaces in which the elected, surrounded by their servants, lead a life of leisure, the joys of which remain singularly earthbound.
The tortures are far more varied and are but transitory - the Hindu religions knowing nothing of eternal damnation - and it is worth noting that the executioners, generally large in stature and aided by ferocious beasts, are themselves also damned.
From the left lead the two paths, one to the heavens (above), and the other to hell (below). Yama, the supreme judge with multiple arms, mounted on a buffalo, indicates to his two assessors - the registrars Dharma and Sitragupta - those unfortunate souls who are to be thrown down to hell to suffer a refined cruelty which, at times, seems to be a little disproportionate to the severity of the crimes committed. So it is that people who have damaged others' property have their bones broken, that the glutton is cleaved in two, that rice thieves are afflicted with enormous bellies of hot iron, that those who picked the flowers in the garden of Shiva have their heads pierced with nails, and thieves are exposed to cold discomfort.
Running along the length of the composition and separating hell from the rich palaces of the elected above, with their lavish draperies and sumptuous flying apsaras, is a frieze of garudas standing "as atlantes".
EAST GALLERY, SOUTHERN PART
Taken from the Bhagavata-Pourana this shows the grand scene, known universally and often represented in Khmer art, of the churning of the Sea of Milk. The registered panel extends for nearly 50 metres and has an axial symmetry. Consequently it is far more stylised than the others - the figures all having the same attitude of concentrated exertion in their rhythmical hauling.
The churning produces an elixir of immortality, over which the gods (devas) and the demons (the asuras) are in dispute. Resting on a tortoise - one of the forms of Vishnou - the mount Mandara serves as a pivot while the cord is represented by the serpent Vasuki. The asuras hold the head and the devas the tail. On the bas-relief, the asuras, to the left, number 92 and wear a sort of helmet, while the 88 devas on the right wear the diadem with mukuta. Each are directed by three larger figures, fortunately breaking the monotony, and, to the extreme right, by the monkey Hanuman, ally of the gods.
Vishnou, represented again but this time in human form as Caturbhuja, presides over the operation which, according to the legend, lasted for more than a thousand years. Hundreds of various beings appear successively, including the white elephant Airavana, the mount of Indra, - the horse Uccaihshravas, - countless hordes of delectable apsaras (running here as a frieze along the length of the panel) - and Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty. The serpent then spits the halahala, the deadly venom which covers the waves, risking the annihilation of the gods and demons - particularly those near the head. At the demand of Brahma, Shiva sacrifices himself and drinks the scalding poison, that scars his throat.
Finally the elixir which flows is seized by the asuras - but Vishnou appears before them in bewitching beauty as Maya (the illusion), to regain the coveted cup.
On the bas-relief, where this part of the story is not in fact related, one can also see again at the base - framed by two registers of guards and servants waiting near some chariots, elephants and the horses of the drama's players - an image of the serpent Vasuki, slithering in an aquatic background before participating in the churning. Close to the pivot, various fish and maritime monsters writhe in the turbulent current.
EAST GALLERY, NORTHERN PART
One will notice on the wall, while traversing the east gopura, a large inscription - although of a later date (beginning of the 18th century) - which relates to the placing of the funerary monument or "cedei" that one can still see, half ruined, to the exterior of the gallery.
The panel of the bas-reliefs is here quite mediocre in execution and, with an axis of symmetry, represents the victory of Vishnou over the asuras. From the two sides, on two barely distinguishable registers, the army of the asuras moves towards the centre, where mounted on the shoulders of Garuda, the four-armed god - whose face is turned to the south - sends his enemies running after having wreaked carnage. All the warriors have the characteristic mask of the demons, and the same crested head-dress. One will notice, slightly to the right of the central motif, a group curiously mounted on gigantic birds.
NORTH GALLERY, EASTERN PART
Here, in a terrific scrum framed by parades of armies, is the victory of Krishna over the asura Bana. The workmanship is at its worst. One can identify, successively from left to right; - mounted on Garuda, Krishna with eight arms and tiered heads framed by two heroes, - Garuda extinguishing the defensive wall of flames which protects the enemy city and behind whom stands Agni, the god of fire, on a rhinoceros, - four replicas of the initial motif where, on the second, the god has only four arms, - the meeting with the god Bana, with multiple arms, coming from the opposite direction and mounted on a chariot pulled by grimacing lions, - once again on Garuda, Krishna and his two victorious companions, - and finally, to the extreme right, Krishna kneeling in front of Shiva who, throned on the mount Kailasa with Parvati and Ganesha, asks him to spare Bana his life.
NORTH GALLERY, WESTERN PART
Another combat scene - devas against asuras - in a single panel and with no division of registers. Here the workmanship improves.
Cœdes sees in this panel "a precious iconographic document, in which all the main gods of the Brahmanic Pantheon parade, carrying their classic attributes and riding their traditional mounts". It portrays a series of duels where each of the 21 gods is represented struggling with an asura, from whom he differs only in the style of the hair - all set on a background of fighting warriors.
One can recognise, from left to right - after the seven first groups of adversaries; - Kubera, the god of wealth, on the shoulders of a Yaksha, then, two groups further on, Skanda the god of war with multiple heads and arms mounted on his peacock, - Indra standing on the elephant Airavana with four tusks, - Vishnou with four arms on Garuda, who separates with each of his limbs the four rearing horses of two enemy chariots, - the asura Kalanemi, with four tiered heads, whirling his sword-wielding arms, - Yama, the god of the dead and supreme judge on a chariot drawn by oxen, - Shiva drawing a bow, - Brahma on the sacred goose Hamsa, - Surya, the god of the sun, standing out on his disc, - and finally Varuna, the god of the waters, standing on a five headed naga harnessed like a beast of burden.
NORTH WEST CORNER PAVILION
Entirely ornate like its symmetrical image on the south west, this pavilion has some remarkably well preserved scenes of the highest order.
1. above the eastern door.
A scene from the Ramayana shows mount Malaya and the meeting between Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, in order to settle a pact of alliance.
2. eastern branch, north wall (above the opening).
Vishnou sleeps, reclining on the serpent Ananta, his feet held by his wife, under a flight of apsaras. Above are some fine examples of sculpture showing the procession of the nine gods coming to request incarnation on earth; - Surya on his horse drawn chariot, set on his disc, - Kubera on the shoulders of a Yaksha, - Brahma on the Hamsa, - Skanda on the peacock, - an unidentified god on a horse, - Indra on an elephant, - Yama on the buffalo, - Shiva on the bull Nandin - and another unidentified god on a lion.
3. eastern branch, south wall.
Krishna regains mount Maniparvata. Mounted on Garuda with his wife Satyabhama, the god is accompanied by his army and servants carrying the spoils of the vanquished asura Naraka. The mountain, the cause of the struggle, is shown behind Krishna.
4. north branch, eastern wall (above the opening)
A conversation in a palace, where one can see, under the two talking figures, the bodies of two men lying on their bellies, and then, on a number of registers, some charming scenes from the ladies chambers.
5. above the north door.
A scene from the Ramayana - the attempted abduction of Sita by the giant Viradha, at whom Rama and Lakshmana shoot arrows, in a forest setting.
6. north branch, western wall (above the opening).
A scene from the Ramayana, badly deteriorated by water infiltration, showing the ordeal of Sita who is put to the test of fire after her deliverance in order to prove her innocence and purity. Only the stake and the silhouette of some figures - probably Rama, Lakshmana, Sugriva and Hanuman - remain, above numerous registers of monkeys treated with particular vitality. The princess has completely disappeared.
7. western branch, north wall (above the opening).
A scene from the Ramayana. Rama returns on the chariot Pushpaka that served as his transport in Ayodhya after his victory. This chariot, magnificently decorated and pulled by Hamsas (sacred geese) belonged to Kubera and was stolen by Ravana. Here again some deteriorated figures end a long vertical panel of jubilant monkeys, represented with some humour.
8. above the western door.
A scene from the Ramayana. In the middle of a group of monkeys, Rama, accompanied by Lakshmana, forms an alliance with the rakshasa Vibhisana, who betrays his brother Ravana.
9. eastern branch, south wall (above the opening)
A scene from the Ramayana. The discussion between Sita, captive of Ravana, and Hanuman in the asoka grove. The princess, with the tender hearted rakshasi Trijata at her side, gives Hanuman the ring that is to prove the success of the mission to Rama. Below are tiers of rakshasis.
10. south branch, eastern wall (above the opening).
An unidentified scene where, on the upper part, one can see Vishnou sitting with four arms receiving homage from some gracious apsaras who crowd up to him.
11. above the south door.
A scene from the Ramayana. Rama and Lakshmana fighting with Kabandha, "a rakshasa with an enormous body, a large chest and no head but with a face on his belly".
12. south branch, eastern wall.
A scene from the Ramayana. The archery contest which Rama, in the centre, wins. In the court of King Janaka, beside a richly clothed Sita, Rama, in a powerful draw, shoots his arrow at the target (represented here by a bird perched on a wheel) while below are aligned the defeated pretenders.
WEST GALLERY, NORTHERN PART
"An inextricable entanglement of monkeys and rakshasas" - Mr Cœdes tells us - "hitting and tearing at one another with tree trunks or lumps of rock. On this busy and confused background - some details of which are not without humour - a series of duels show the main chiefs of the two parties. In the centre of the panel, a large rakshasa with ten heads and ten pairs of arms is attacked by a god mounted on a large monkey - one need look no further to recognise the battle of Lanka, whose story occupies, almost entirely, the penultimate division of the Ramayana".
The battle of Lanka (Ceylon) that enables Rama, with help from his allies the monkeys, to recapture the lovely Sita, constitutes an outstanding piece of narrative sculpture which, besides some superb modelling, merits a detailed examination by the extraordinary vitality of the figures, represented in full action.
The principal adversaries can be seen towards the middle of the panel; - to one side, Rama standing on the shoulders of Hanuman surrounded by a hail of arrows, with, behind him, his brother Lakshmana and the renegade rakshasa Vibhisana. Both stand, their calm attitude in contrast to the chaos around them. On the other side is the giant Ravana with multiple arms and tiered heads, on his war chariot pulled by curiously stylised lions.
Between the two, Nila, the furious monkey, straddles two strange lions pulling chariots, presented head-on. He carries the body of his recently vanquished enemy on his shoulders. Another, Angada - the son of Valin - pulls the tusk from an elephant who is coiffed with a three pointed mukuta, somersaulting both it and the rakshasa it carries. Further to the right is a lively group with another monkey brandishing, by holding their rear legs, two enormous monsters that he has just unharnessed - as well as many other duels too numerous to mention...
An American visitor, in her enthusiasm for Angkor, made the request that her ashes be scattered on the causeway of Angkor Wat - a satisfaction granted to her at the beginning of 1936. Such a gesture symbolises the extraordinary power which these ancient ruins have on peoples' imagination.
Whatever one may think, Angkor Wat merits a number of visits - and at least two - one for the monument and another dedicated to the bas-reliefs. If these can be seen in the morning, when the light is clear, then the rest should best be seen at the end of the day as the towers become increasingly golden with the sun sinking to the horizon. Sometimes, in the twilight, the bats - the curse of the ruins which reek with their droppings - leave in their thousands, and it is a curious spectacle to see them rise like columns of smoke to be dispersed with the winds to the atmosphere. One should also not miss the nights of the full moon, nor the displays of traditional Cambodian dancing on the western esplanade, which bring the ancient legends to life by the glow of torch-light. These extraordinary dances, so discreet and controlled - where every sentiment and passion can be expressed in the merest quiver, resonating through the dancer to burst from the finger tips - they illustrate the architecture with living bas-reliefs.