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Angkor Wat

The largest of the Khmer temples (fig.) and one of the seven Wonders of the World. It is located in Cambodia and was built in the early 12th century AD, during the reign of King Suryavarman II, and initially dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In early recordings it was actually called Phreah Pisnulok or Phra Phitsanulok, i.e. the ‘World of Vishnu’. The name Angkor Wat only became a popular designation later on. It is the only Angkorian temple complex that was constructed facing the uncommon direction of the West, prompting the idea that it may have been built as a mausoleum, since the West is usually associated with death, as it is the direction where the sun sets. It has a rectangular shape and is surrounded by an exterior wall measuring 1,300 by 1,500 meters and by a moat of 190 meters wide and with a length of 1,900 meters, surrounding the temple on four sides. It is a massive three-tiered construction crowned by five towers called prang of which the tallest stands at its centre and measures 65 meters high from ground level. The exterior walls on the first level are covered with bas-reliefs and carvings, the largest in the world. With the exception of the historic procession of King Suryavarman II and the theme of heaven and hell, the subject of the bas-reliefs is of Hindu origin, mainly the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. The northern section of the western gallery depicts the Battle of Langka and the northwestern corner pavilion depicts Vishnu's avatars; the southern section of the western gallery depicts the Battle of Kurukshetra and the southwestern corner pavilion depicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa; the western section of the northern gallery depicts the battle between the gods and the asuras with the eastern section of the northern gallery describing Krishna's victory over the asura Bana; the western section of the southern gallery is a historical section depicting the procession of King Suryavarman II and the eastern section of the southern gallery describes the Judgement of the Souls by Yama and their consignment to heaven or hell; the northern section of the eastern gallery illustrates Vishnu's victory over the asuras and the southern section of the eastern gallery depicts the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (fig.), a theme also found in Spean Neak, i.e. the naga-bridges (fig.) at the entrance gates to Angkor Thom (fig.). The second level has an abundance of wall carvings of Apsara, whose total is estimated at somewhere between 1,500 and 1,900 images, most of them wearing a crown-like headdress. Besides this the second level has a hall which is known as the Hall of the Thousand Buddhas and four gopuras, each one of them constructed in direction a the compass. The third or upper level features the main prang or tower which on each side enshrines a standing Buddha image. Angkor Wat is a stone quincunx replica of Khmer cosmology: its five towers symbolizing Mt. Meru's five peaks; the enclosing walls, the mountains at the edge of the world; and the surrounding moat, the oceans beyond. Remarkably, the temple is purportedly tuned to the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, thus validating the genius architecture of Angkor Wat, as the sun rises exactly behind the central tower of the temple during the vernal equinox in the month of March and the autumnal equinox in September. After the vernal equinox in March, the sun starts to move to the left side of the towers and by the month of June you can see the sun the farthest from the central tower. Then it starts to moves back into the center and by December the sun rises the farthest at the right side of the tower, before it moves back to the center in March. The movement from the farthest sides of the temple to the center, i.e. the number of days separating the solstices and equinoxes, corresponds to the then number of units of measurement used in the layout of the temple while its average number is suggested to be also symbolized in the 92 gods and 88 asuras, depicted on either side of Vishnu standing on the tortoise Kurma in the middle of the 49 meter wide bas-relief of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat's eastern gallery, with Vishu, to whom the temple was initially dedicated, being at the axis of it all. Also spelled Angkor Vat and in Thai Nakhon Wat. See MAP.