Angkor Wat rises from the Cambodian jungle like a city of ancient towers, and though its name means “temple city,” its only permanent residents were the gods.
Built over an 80-year period beginning in the early 12th century and never completely finished, the gargantuan site was a project of the Khmer king Suyavarman II (1112-1152), dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
The massive complex, near the up-and-coming city of Siem Reap, is surrounded by a rectangular moat about 200 yards wide and a mile long. Its outer wall encloses 203 acres, giving Angkor Wat the reputation as the largest religious building in the world.
Unlike most temples, Angkor Wat is oriented toward the West rather than the East, perhaps because the king intended for it to be his tomb, or because Vishnu was associated with the West.
The lower galleries of the main temple complex contain intricate bas reliefs on all four sides, hundreds of yards altogether. Beautifully carved, the reliefs relate victories of the king, depictions of heaven and hell, the Hindu creation myth known as the “churning of the Ocean of Milk” and scenes from familiar epics such as the Ramayana. In addition, smaller reliefs throughout the temple portray “heavenly nymphs,” women in elaborate headdresses, called “apsalas.”
The layered structure, built in successively higher levels, is intended to portray the Hindu concept of Mount Meru as the home of the gods, with the five central towers representing the mountain peaks. Originally, only priests were allowed access to the highest towers, and they were forced to climb a stairway so steep that one must cling to it with both hands and feet, thus prostrate rather than upright before the gods.
The temple is an incredible architectural and artistic wonder, impressive on every level. What might a visitor of the Christian faith gain from visiting a site so dedicated to a different understanding of God?
First, one cannot help being overwhelmed by the epic scale of the place, and the effort that would have been expended in its construction: inscriptions claim that the building required 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants! Sandstone blocks used in the construction were quarried more than 30 miles away and brought closer to the site on rafts. Although there were political ramifications to the temple as a demonstration of the king’s power, it also speaks of deep devotion to the gods. What kind of devotion is reflected in our churches?
A second notable thing about Angkor Wat is that, though the temple was built as a Hindu shrine, in the 13th century a later king transformed it into a center of Theravada Buddhism. Statues of Vishnu were relocated from the upper towers to lower galleries, and images of the Buddha were given prime position (the one at left portrays the buddha seated before the seven-headed serpent Naga, found in both Buddhist and Hindu art.
Worshipers continued to patronize both Hindu and Buddhist notions of faith and worship, however, a second-nature syncretism that continues to the present day: though officially Buddhist, modern Cambodians continue to honor the Hindu gods.
I couldn’t help but ponder ways in which Christian churches may also be converted to different understandings of the gospel. With a new pastor, a formerly moderate church, for example, can become a bastion of fundamentalism, or it can go the other way. Even when sharing a common Christian faith, members of the same church may hold to very different views of God as a harsh and judgmental deity who focuses on rewards and punishments, or a God of love who seeks the good of all, or something in between.
Likewise, many modern Christians hold to a comfortable syncretism in which our faith is so flavored by consumerist materialism that our lives are hardly distinguishable from those who don’t claim Christ at all. In some churches, American flags are as evident as crosses and there is little distinction between Christianity and patriotism.
In how many ways is our faith in Christ divided or diluted by our devotion to other things?
Local guides refer to Angkor Wat as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was built to honor gods unfamiliar to most Christians, but it offers much to ponder for any who come with open eyes and a wondering heart.
[Next: the Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom]