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Angkor Thom, the Buddhist Angkor

Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Angkor empire, the city was founded in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. It is famous for its "face-towers" at its city gates and at the the central Bayon temple. They became emblematic of Angkor and the ancient Khmer culture. The meaning of those slightly smiling colossal Buddhist faces is still under debate. Is it the Buddha or the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara or King Jayavarman VII himself or a combination of them?

"Angkor Thom" is not the original name of this city. The modern name was only used from the 16th century onwards, when Angkor Thom was not the Khmer capital any more. "Angkor", derived from Sanskrit "Nagara", simply means "city" or "capital". "Thom" means "big, large, grand, great". There were no contemporary cities in Europe of the sheer size of Angkor Thom, not even Byzanz. But the secular buildings in Angkor Thom were built of wood, this is why they disappeared in the course of time. Today most parts of Angkor Thom are reoccupied by the jungle.

Angkor Thom's founder King Jayavarman VII is one of the two most significant historical Khmer kings (the other one being Suryavarman II, founder of the Angkor Wat). Jayavarman VII. is famous for at least three achievements. In 1181 he managed to drive out the Cham invaders who had sacked Angkor in 1177 and ruled it for several years. Furthermore, Jayavarman VII. is the first Khmer king who chose Mahayana Buddhism as the official religion of his imperial cult. Last not least Jayavarman VII is the most prolific temple builder in the history of the Khmer empire. Half of those monuments that are Angkor's major tourist attractions now are a legacy of his era, called the "Bayon style". Angkor Thom with its central state temple Bayon was not at all Jayavarman's only, but his final and most tremendous architectural achievement. An inscription found in Angkor Thom calls Jayavarman VII the groom and the new capital his bride.

There had been previous Angkor cities covering some parts of what became the new capital. Even parts of the first capital in Angkor, Yashodharapura, which was founded in the late ninth century and was located further southwards, overlap with the the area of the new Angkor Thom. Angkor's first name "Yahodharapura" was in use even in the 14th century, when Angkor Thom already had been established for nearly two centuries.

Apart from Yashodharapura, another Angkor capital, that of Surayavarman I and Udayadityavarman II in the eleventh century, had almost the same centre as the new Angkor Thom founded by Jayavarman VII. This is why Phimeanakas and Baphuon, their former state temples dedicated to Shiva, are located close to Jayavarman's new Mahayana Buddhist state temple Bayon. The former Royal Palace from the eleventh century just north of the Baphuon and surrounding Phimeanakas was again inhabited by King Jayavarman VII, who integrated this palace perfectly well into the layout of the new Angkor Thom. Furthermore the two Khleangs from the 10th century and some of the five Preah Pithu temples from the Angkor Wat period in the first half of the twelfth century already existed when Jayavarman VII decided to build the new Buddhist capital. Interestingly another Hindu temple, called Western Prasat Top or Monument 486, was altered and now became a Buddhist sanctuary.

Leper King terrace carving and Baphuon temple in Angkor Thom
Royal Palace area

Jayavarman VII. reused and enlarged the Royal Palace of some of his predecessors. The wooden buildings are vanished. The only remains are the outer walls and the Phimeanakas temple inside them. The new 300 metres long Elephant Terrace facing the Royal palace, as many other edifices of Angkor Thom, was modified or finalized during the Hindu period of Jayavarman VIII. Its hugest relief sculptures depict elephants. In line with it there is the terrace of the Leper king at the nortwest corner of the Victory Square, also called Royal Square. People believed that the sculpture on top of this terrace depicted a king suffering from leprosy. But scientists identified it as Yama, the Hindu god of death, as this platform was used for the cremation of members of the royal family. The Yama / Leper King statue was removed to the National Museum in Phnom Penh and replaced by a copy. Most noteworthy are the decoration on the 6 metres high Leper King terrace walls, cestial beings are depicted in seven registers. Behind this outer wall, there is a hidden second one. It was accidentally discovered during excavations. In front of the palace terraces, on the opposite (eastern) side of the huge Victory square for festivals and parades, there are the twelve simple towers of Prasat Suor Prat. They were built in the Bayon-time or already that of Angkor Wat, in front of two older and longer structures called Khleangs. As already mentioned, the huge Baphuon temple just south of the Royal palace compound predates Angkor Thom, too.

Jayavarman VII probably founded or changed Preah Palilay and Tep Pranam just north to the Royal Palace. Because of the Theravada Buddhist subjects depicted on the excellent stone carvings of Preah Palilay's Gopuram, some suppose this temple to date at least one century later than Angkor Thom. The main structure of Preah Palilay is not huge, but its roof is strikingly tall. Preah Palilay is pretty picturesque because of its idyllic surrounding. The former temple Tep Pranam between the Leper king terrace and Preah Paliley is in ruins, with the exception of a wide entrance causeway. The big Buddha sculpture on the temple platform is an addition from later times.

Bayon temple with Buddha face-towers in Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom's main attraction is the Bayon temple at its centre. Apart from the Angkor Wat, it is the most visited and photographed monument of Angkor. It is famous for its face towers. Originally there were 54 Prasats, each of them with 4 giant faces, looking into the cardinal directions. On the upper platform you will feel observed by them from each and every angle. Apart from the facetowers-platform there is another major attraction the Bayon is famous for. Its outer gallery is decorated with relief bands of exceptional vividness and beauty. They are less exquisite than those of the Angkor Wat, they seem to be made wore hastily. But they are full of fine detailed scenes narrating not only the king's achievements, but depicting everyday life in the 12th century. A guide is helpful to understand the contents and meanings of those many subjects.

Remarkably the large Bayon temple has no outer enclosure wall, though this is obligatory for a temple compound. This could be explained by regarding the city walls of Angkor Thom as the Bayon temple enclosure walls at the same time. In this case the whole of Angkor Thom would be a temple, containing lodgings and markets in its premises, just like other temples such as the Angkor Wat, too. Angkor Thom then would be the second largest temple compound in the world, extending over nine square kilometres, ampler than Angkor Wat. Only Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (also called Prasat Bakan in Preah Vihear Province) is even larger.

City gates of Angkor Thom with sculptures

Angkor Thom Gates

The outer walls of Angkor, 3 kms long at each side, are surrounded by a 100 metres wide moat. They had city gates and causeways at each cardinal point and one more to the east. The fifth one is only 500 metres north to the East Gate and called Victory Gate. From here the Victory Avenue, now used by the Small Circuit road, led to the west, to the Royal Square in front of the Elephant terrace. The North and South Gate and the Victory Gate are partly restored and thus show Angkor's most impressive bridge balustrades, namely the bodies of Nagas used as ropes by rows of gods and demons.

South Gate of Angkor Thom
South Gate

The best presered bridge with this typical decoration depicting the Churning of the Milk Ocean is that in front of Angkor Thom's South Gate. The South Gate with its Buddha-face-tower and its Deva and Ashura sculptures along the balustrades is one more iconical emblem of Angkor, apart from the five towers of the Angkor Wat, the Bayon face towers, and the stone-cracking trees of Ta Prohm. The gods and demons are easily discernable because of their friendly or frightening faces. When churning the milk ocean in order to gain heavenly treasures such as the essence of immortality they had to cooperate, as they could only succeed in a joint effort. This subject from the Indian Purana scriptures narrating the deeds of Vishnu's Turtle-Avatara Kurma became a kind of state symbol of Angkor, as it symbolizes fertility and abundance in water and wealth.

South-East Prasat Chrung and  Mangalartha temple (East Prasat Top) in  Angkor Thom
Prasat Chrung and Mangalartha

The city walls of Angkor Thom are of laterite and buttressed by earth, a parapet was on the top. At the four corners of the city walls there are small temples, all of them called Prasat Chrung. These corner shrines are built of sandstone and dedicated to Avalokiteshvara. Their layout is cruciform, each central tower is orientated towards the east. Foundation steles of Prasat Chrung are important sources for research on the origins and concepts of Angkor Thom. Because of their remote location, the Prasat Chrung temples are pretty untouristed, really delightful hidden treasures in the jungle. Another rarely visited temple ruin is Mangalartha, also called East Prasat Top or Monument 487. It was dedicated 1295, it is the last temple constructed inside Angkor Thom.


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