When I first contacted my guide from www.angkorphotographytours.com, I told him that I’d watched videos posted online about the sunrise at Angkor Wat. In some, there were close to 2,000 people competing to get one beautiful photograph. I was horrified and desperate to avoid this. My guide agreed to my request and chose an entrance that was devoid of visitors for our sunrise visit to Angkor Wat.
Later in the morning, as we left this UNESCO World Heritage site, I was puzzled and this feeling remained throughout my trip. Only much later I understood that it all had to do with the ‘where’ and ‘what’ of this place together with a dose of semantics.
My point of embarkation was that Angkor Wat is described as a ‘temple complex’. I referred to an article I wrote based on an interview with Mr. Rajaji (‘Worship and a way of life’ https://www.nst.com.my/news/2015/09/worship-and-way-life).
What Mr. Rajaji said was that in Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the cosmic man, Purush, when he was creating the Universe. In the process, things got a little out of hand and Purush became too large to manage. At the behest of the other Gods, Lord Brahma contained Purush by pinning him down with his head towards north-east and legs to the south-west. Unable to bring Himself to destroy Purush, Lord Brahma decided to make him immortal. Henceforth, he was known as Vashtu-Purush and all mortals needed to first worship him before any construction work began.
Ancient architects called the metaphysical chart used to create a building a Vashtu-Purush-Mandala similar to the one above. They chose the square as the fundamental form to symbolise unity, inertia and permanence. All other shapes such as the triangle, hexagon, octagon and circle were derived from this square. At its most basic, the chart is divided into 81 parts (9×9). The number 9 is very important and is derived from the human body. We have nine ‘holes’ – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, one mouth, two orifices for waste.
As for the worship proper, after all the preliminary rituals are completed, one steps into the Mahamandap (main hall) and moves forward to face the presiding deity. As the sun rises, the worshipper will witness the sun’s rays shining on the presiding deity. The layout would be similar to the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple as above.
Keeping all this in mind, it made sense that whenever I visited a temple in the morning, I went at what I call the ‘right’ time. This was usually after the temple opened and before the sun became too hot and burnt the skin on my back. It also meant that I always entered the temple from the east and faced the west.
With Angkor Wat though, it was different (as can be seen from above). Yes, because we chose to avoid the crowds, we entered the temple through the east. But this was on the other side of the main entrance. It effectively meant that if we were worshiping at this temple and stood before its presiding deity, the sun would be in our eyes and not on our backs. It was as though the architects of this temple had taken a standard Vashtu-Purusha-Mandala and rotated it 180 degrees.
Indeed, on page 64 of Andrew Booth’s book ‘The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion Guide to the Temples’, he writes as follows:
‘Why Angkor Wat was oriented to the west continues to be debated but could be determined by the temple’s dedication to Vishnu, preserver of the universe, who is sometimes associated with the west in Brahmanic tradition.’
All this made me wonder if this structure was a temple at all especially when I read Booth’s further comment that, ‘[t]he unusual orientation may also be linked to the motivation for building the temple. It was possibly designed as a tomb for King Suryavarman II, the sponsor whose death would be symbolised by the daily setting of the sun.’
A tomb? This word presupposes that a burial has taken place. But Hindus and Buddhists don’t often bury the dead. We cremate them. One possibility is that the king’s ashes are interred at Angkor Wat.
There is only one other structure I know where this West-East orientation exists. It’s one the first sites in India to be given UNESCO Heritage status – cave 16 of Ellora, known as Kailash. In the same way as Angkor Wat, we enter the main hall from the west. The thing is, there is no suggestion that Kailash has any Buddhist influence. It is a Hindu temple with a Shiva linga in its inner sanctum.
After all this reading and thinking, instead of being less puzzled, I was also confused and frustrated. No doubt, as is usually the case with anything related to Hinduism, mythology, philosophy and religion, there are many permutations and combinations to decipher. My questions remain unanswered.
Was Angkor Wat a temple?
If so, who was the presiding deity?
Was there a deity at all? Or a stupa?
If it wasn’t a temple, was it a tomb? Or a funerary?
If you have answers to any of these questions or wish to share some of your stories, please tell us in the box below.
What remains unquestionable, though, is that Angkor Wat inspires awe. It is an architectural masterpiece and I am deeply grateful I got to visit it. If only I could go back in time and ask the architects of this place to explain their rationale when designing this building.
(29 July 2017)
Aneeta Sundararaj has travelled all her life. It’s only now she’s started to write stories about her unique adventures. Read mores stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).