Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, located in present day Cambodia, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. Angkor Thom was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom covers an area of 9 km², within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors. At the center of the city, Angkor Thom is Jayavarman’s state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom Bayon courtesy birkett

Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire, Angkor Thom was the center of his massive building programme. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride.

Angkor Thom seems not to be the first Khmer capital on the site, however. Yasodharapura, dating from three centuries earlier, was centred slightly further northwest, and Angkor Thom overlapped parts of it. The most notable earlier temples within the city are the former state temple of Baphuon, and Phimeanakas, which was incorporated into the Royal Palace. The Khmers did not draw any clear distinctions between Angkor Thom and Yashodharapura: even in the fourteenth century an inscription used the earlier name. The name of Angkor Thom—great city—was in use from the 16th century.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is quadrangle of defensive walls totaling 12 kilometers that once protected the Khmer capital of the same name (Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’). Angkor Thom is built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII, the walls are divided by two axes running north-south and east-west. A gateway lies at the end of each axis, four in total, facing the four cardinal directions. An additional gate, called the ‘Gate of Victory’, pierces the east wall just north of the ‘Gate of the Dead’, the east gate along the central axis. The significance of the additional gate is that it provided access to a terrace of the royal palace. As for the other gates, the two axes intersect at the center of the enclosed area where the Bayon temple sits.

The south gate of Angkor Thom:

The south gate of Angkor Thom is the best preserved. It is approached from outside via a causeway that extends about fifty meters across a moat. On each side of the causeway are railings fashioned with 54 stone figures engaged in the performance of a famous Hindu story: the myth of the Churning of the Ocean. On the left side of the moat, 54 ‘devas’ (guardian gods) pull the head of the snake ‘Shesha’ while on the right side 54 ‘asuras’ (demon gods) pull the snake’s tail in the opposite direction. In this myth, the body of the snake is wrapped around the central mountain�Mt. Meru�perhaps corresponding here to the Bayon temple at the center of the site. In any case, the myth relates that as the Devas pulled the snake in one direction and the gods pushed in the other, the ocean began to churn and precipitate the elements. By alternating back and forth, the ocean was ‘milked’, forming the earth and the cosmos anew.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom’s Gate

The central tower of the stone gate is capped by three face-towers that face the four directions (the central tower faces both out and in). Below them at the base of the gate are two sets of elephant statues that flank the entrance on both sides. Sitting on each elephant is a figure of the god Indra carrying his usual weapon�the ‘vadra’ (a lightning bolt). The gate itself is shaped like an upside-down ‘U’ and is corbelled at the top (instead of arches, the builders of Angkor preferred to use corbelling to span distances). It is still possible to see where wooden doors once fitted to the gate through openings in the stone (Angkor Thom).

There is some debate as to the functionality of Angkor Thom as a whole. If Angkor Thome was a wall intended for defense, Angkor Thom was rather poorly designed, since there is nowhere along the wall for defenders to take refuge from incoming fire or shoot back from a shielded location. This is surprising since Angkor had been sacked in 1177 by Champa invaders, and one can readily imagine that its new King, Jayavarman VII would have been concerned with defense should the invaders return.

If not intended for defense, the walls may simply have been an additional enclosure around the Bayon temple, more for ceremony than for practical use. As in Southern India, the Angkor rulers built temples surrounded by walls, but usually not with walls as thick and grand as those of Angkor Thom.

Angkor Thom

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