Friday, February 29, 2008

Angkor Wat

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Angkor Wat, one of the most beautiful and mysterious historical sites in the world. Located over 192 miles to the North-West of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, Angkor has been "protected" from tourism, and the customs and the cultures of the people living there have not changed much. However, intense internal warfare for over fifty years has impacted on the people and to an extent on the physical structure of the temples at Angkor.

In 1991, the Khmer Rouge, the guerrilla movement, controlled the area. It was then very difficult to visit the area, and the only way to get there was by Helicopter from Phnom Penh. I will never forget when I first got out from the Helicopter, and stepped into the land of history, a land which the western civilization had forgotten. In this paper, I would like to discuss the history of the great temples of the "lost city" of Angkor Wat, but I would also like to describe some of my own observations from the summer of 1991.

For many years, Angkor Wat was totally isolated from the Western World. Large, thick jungles covers the area, and it is located in the center of Cambodia. The French colonialists were the first westerners to get exposed to Angkor. They heard rumors from the local population about "temples built by gods or by giants." Most of the colonialists referred these rumors to folk tales, but some believed that there really was a "lost city of a Cambodian empire", which had once been powerful and wealthy.

The temples were first discovered by French missionaries in 1860. Henri Mahout, a French botanist started intensive research and restoration programs. These research efforts continued until 1968, when the Vietnam war disrupted the studies. Initially, he did not believe that the temples were built by Cambodians, but by another race which had concurred and occupied Cambodia for over 2000 years ago. His theory would later be proven to be incorrect, after that researchers discovered scripts on the walls of the temples, and stone sculptures, that have made it possible for archeologists to piece together the history of Cambodia. Now it is known that Angkor, was the great capital city of the Khmer empire from the city's founding in about AD 880 until about 1225.

Angkor Wat:

The history of Angkor Wat dates back to the kingdom of Funan. This kingdom was established by an Indian Brahmin, and in AD200, the country was peacefully settled by Indian traders. Four hundred years later, the kingdom had become a prosperous trading region. As the area was located on the Pilgrim rout between China and India, Hinduism and Chinese Buddhism was adopted by the new settlers. The Indian and Chinese influence can still be felt in Cambodia, and the temples of Angkor Wat closely resembles Hindu and Buddhist temples that can be found in Northern India and in Nepal. In the end of AD600, the Funan Empire lost much of its power to the kingdom of Chenla. The capital of this new empire, Sambor, was located about 40 miles to the Southeast of Angkor. During this time, beautiful sculptures and carvings in sand-stone was popular. In AD750, a king with a reputation of being a war-like person, who was able to expand the Chenla kingdom. However, trade with India stopped, and the Indonesian Empire raised to power.

In AD800, the kingdom of Kambuja was established, and king Jayavarman I took control over the kingdom. He built several capitals near Angkor Wat, were responsible for many social changes, and was able to size land to the North and to the East. In AD889, a nephew of Jayavaram became the new emperor, and he was able to bring peace and unity to the Khmer Kingdom. In AD944, Jayavarman V established many Mahayana Buddhist temples near Angkor, and moved the court to Yasodharapura, at Angkor. Cultures prospered, and so did the Khmer empire. In AD1000, Suryavarman, a young man who may have come from the Malayan provinces of the empire, ascends the throne of Kambuja. He would become the king of Kambuja for over 50 years. He is responsible for the planning and foundations of the city of Angkor. In AD1051, Udayadityavarman II succeed Suryavarman, and continued to build the city of Angkor, and restored many of the temples. Angkor was now both a sacred temple city and the center of a vast irrigation system.

Massive expansion of the city continued throughout the next 200 years, and ambitious building programs expanded the city. Many temples were built. The temples are spread out over about 40 miles around the village of Siem Reap. Temples and similar structures to the temples that can be found in the city of Angkor are common sights in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and in China. Perhaps the most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu was built during this period.

Angkor Wat is the highest achievement of Khmer temple architecture, and is today the "flagship" of the temples at Angkor. The temple is a huge pyramid structure. The compound at Angkor Wat covers an area of 1,500 by 1,300 m (4,920 by 4,265 ft) and is surrounded by a vast moat 180 m (590 ft) wide. Along the causeway leading to the enormous entrance gate are balustrades shaped as giant serpents, which are believed to represent emblems of cosmic fertility. The temple consists of a towering complex of terraces and small buildings that are arranged in a series of three diminishing stories and surmounted by five towers. The roofed and unroofed structures are covered with bands of finely carved stone sculptures. The walls are covered with carved reliefs that illustrate Hindu mythology, principally scenes relating to the god Vishnu, to whom the temple was dedicated. The "mass of bas-relief carving is of the highest quality and the most beautifully executed in Angkor." All the temple mountains of Angkor were filled with three-dimensional images and every inch of the walls are covered by sculptures.

In the beginning of AD1200, the Angkor and the Khmer empire started to decline. When jayavarman VII died, the Thai Empire in the West emerged as a major power in the region. The Thai capital was moved to Ayudhya, near Angkor, and obviously threatened the Cambodian kingdom. In AD1389 the Thais attacked Angkor, and the city fell into the hands of the Thais. The 15th-century conquest of the Khmer kingdom by the Thais resulted (1431) in the final abandonment of Angkor. The city was deserted and the capital was moved to Eastward to the region of the present capital Phnom Penh.

Miraculously, very little damage has been made on the Angkor region as a result of the bloody civil that has terrorized the Cambodia for over 30 years. The Khmer Rouge, an extreme-left organization has actively organized guerrilla activities against Prince Sihanouk's government. In 1975, many Buddhist monks who lived in the Angkor temples were massacred along with the majority of the Buddhist population as a result of a "social reorganization". However, Angkor Wat suffered very little structural damage in that attack. Today, archeologists from all over the world are actively involved in the restoration process of the temples. Much of the history of the "Lost city" of Angkor is still a mystery, but Angkor has entered the "Coca Cola" and "Kodak" age, and as Cambodia is becoming more developed, the mystical atmosphere at Angkor will disappear.

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