Angkor Wat: Mount Meru in the Jungle

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Angkor Wat: Mount Meru in the Jungle


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Native rumors that a huge temple, engulfed by the jungle, was hidden near the ancient city of Angkor originated centuries ago, but few gave credence to this story.

So astonishment and delight must have been present in equal measure when the French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhot (1826-1861) first saw the twelfth-century Cambodian temple: Angkor Wat.

"At the sight of this temple, one feels one's spirit crushed, one's imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world? What genius this Michelangelo of the East had, that he was able to conceive such a work." Such were Mouhot's words in 1860. He became the first Westerner to see the temple, coming across it while on a zoological expedition.

Cambodia is the successor state of a once powerful empire, Khmer. Angkor Wat, located near the city that had once been the capital of the ancient Khmer empire, takes its name from its setting, "Angkor" meaning city, and "Wat" meaning temple.

Angkor Wat is not the only Hindu temple in Cambodia and it certainly wasn't the first. Temples its age or older with romantic sounding names, often buried in almost impenetrable jungles, have long fed the mystique of this fabulous land on the Mekong River. But Angkor Wat has become the best known, and for good reason--it is the most ambitious, most awe- inspiring of ancient constructions far and wide.

What made the rulers of ancient Khmer build temple after temple? Was it primarily their self-aggrandizing vision of themselves as god-kings? Probably so, at least to a great extent. And in this regard, they were the predecessors of Europe's castle-mad monarchs who also vied to outdo one another with glorious buildings.

Where did the Khmer rulers find the highly skilled designers, builders and masons, artists, artisans and sculptors to build their temples? Art historians believe that most of the talented architects and able workmen for the Khmer enterprise came from Western India. Their belief is based on the many Western Indian temples, built centuries before those in Cambodia, which have a similar design and closely resemble the Cambodian temples in their execution.

Fortunately for us today, the Khmer kings wanted to build for "all time," so wood construction was out. The architects chose instead to build the temple complex with brick, and used sandstone for lintels which framed the doors and windows. We know now, how right they were! Angkor Wat has survived for almost ten centuries of hurricanes, rain and intrusions by the jungle. Only in the 1970s did the ruthless Khmer Rouge and their dictator Pot Pol do serious damage to the edifice and its surroundings.

The history and culture of Cambodia are closely entwined with that of its ancient temples. For that reason, exploring Angkor Wat is a way to learn about the country, and about one of the world's great religions: Hinduism. By the same token, to explore Cambodia, one can't help but learn about temples like Angkor Wat.

Cambodia today

But first, let's get acquainted with contemporary Cambodia. It is a small country, bordering the Gulf of Thailand. It is nestled between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. On older maps, it appears as a region of Indochina along with Vietnam. There are almost 14 million Cambodians. They speak Khmer, the language of their ancestors going back many centuries. Today the Cambodian capital is Phnom Penh, but until around 1400 A.D. the capital city was Angkor.

Cambodia is a country of incredible beauty. Expansive tropical forests harbor varieties of deer found nowhere else in the world, a paradise of birds in a magnificent panorama of colors and flocks of ducks, pelicans, kingfishers, egrets and cormorants. There are tropical plants of every description, exotic reptiles, fascinating insect life, and more.

A grand river, the Mekong, flows through Cambodia, and its waters are vital to the country's agricultural wealth.

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