Angkor Thom is undeniably an expression of the highest genius. It is, in three dimensions and on a scale worthy of an entire nation, the materialization of Buddhist cosmology, representing ideas that only great painters would dare to portray…. Angkor Thom is not an architectural “miracle”… It is in reality the world of the gods springing up from the heart of ancient Cambodia . . . .
Location: 1.7 km (1.06 miles) north of Angkor Wat
Access: from Siem Reap, enter Angkor Thom by the South gopura
Date: end of the 12th century-beginning of the 13th century
King: Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1220)
Art style: Bayon
Angkor Thom, the last capital, was indeed a ‘Great City’ as its name implies, and it served as the religious and administrative centre of the vast and powerful hmer Empire. It was grander than any city in Europe at the time and must have supported a considerable population – which may have been as high as one million. Within the city walls were the residences of the king, his family and officials, military officers and priests while the rest of the people lived outside of the enclosure. The royal structures were built of wood and have all perished, but remains of stone monuments let us glimpse at the past grandeur of this once great capital. You can walk amongst the Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, the Prasat Suor Prat and others, as well as the earlier monuments of the Baphuon and Phimeanakas – all within the walls of Angkor Thom. Looking at these ruins it is easy to imagine why foreigners referred to Angkor Thom as ‘an oppulent city’.
Zhou Daguan, the Chinese emissary who provided the only first-hand account of the Khmers, described the splendour of Angkor Thom: ‘At the centre of the kingdom rises a Golden Tower [Bayon] flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers. On the eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers. North of the Golden Tower rises the Tower of Bronze [Baphuon], higher even than the Golden Tower: a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base. A quarter of a mile further north is the residence of the King Rising above his private apartments is another tower of gold. These are the monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of ‘Cambodia the rich and noble’.
A laterite wall eight metres high encloses the city of Angkor Thom, which is laid out on a square grid. Each side of the wall is about three kilometres (1.9 miles) long and it encloses an area of 145.8 hectares (360 acres). A moat with a width of 100 metres (328 feet) surrounds the outer wall. The city is accessed along five great causeways, one in each cardinal direction, plus an additional Gate of Victory on the east aligned with the Terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King. A tall gopura distinguished by a superstructure of four faces bisects the wall in the centre of each side. Four small temples, all called Prasat Chrung, stand at each corner of the wall around the city of Angkor Thom. An earth embankment 25 metres (82 feet) wide has been created along the inner side of the wall and serves as a path around the city. The five principal entrances lead to the Bayon, situated at the centre of the capital. This temple, in its present form, was the creation of Jayavarman VII and its architecture reflects the dynamism and expansiveness of his reign. Massive towers rise around a 16-sided central sanctuary, each one with four faces gazing afar, yet near.
The stone causeways across the broad moat surrounding Angkor Thom with their unique gopuras, are one of the great sights at Angkor, never ceasing to fill visitors with wonder. The south gate is the one most frequently photographed, and the lighting is best in the morning. Get out at the south side, ask your transport to wait on the north, and walk across the causeway to get a sense of the size and scale of the demons and gods protecting the entrances leading to the gopuras.
The causeways leading to the gopuras are flanked by a row of 54 stone figures on each side – gods on the left and demons on the right – to make a total of 108 mythical beings guarding each of the five approaches to the city of Angkor Thom. The demons have a grimacing expression and wear a military headdress, whereas the gods look serene with their almond-shaped eyes and conical headdresses. Some of the heads on these figures are copies; the original ones have either been stolen or removed to the Conservation Office for safekeeping. The gods and demons hold the scaly body of a naga on their knees. This composition defines the full length of the causeway. At the beginning of the causeway, the naga spreads its nine heads in the shape of a fan.
‘Through here all comers to the city had to pass, and in honour of this function it has been built in a style grandiose and elegant, forming a whole, incomparable in its strength and expression.
Each of the five sandstone gopuras rise 23 metres (75 feet) to the sky and is crowned with four heads, one facing each cardinal direction. At the base of each gate are finely modeled elephants with three heads. Their trunks are plucking lotus flowers, in theory out of the moat. The Hindu god, Indra, sits at the centre of the elephant with his consorts on each side. He holds a thunderbolt in his lower left hand. Stand in the centre of the gopura and you will see a sentry box on each side. Also remains of wooden crossbeams are still visible in some of the gopuras. Beneath the gopura you can see the corbelled arch, a hallmark of Khmer architecture.
Jayavarman VII’s capital of Angkor Thom is a microcosm of the universe divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon stands as the symbolic link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stone wall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Meru. The surrounding moat suggests the cosmic ocean. This symbolism is reinforced by the presence of the Hindu god Indra on his mount, the three-headed elephant.
What do the dramatic causeways that culminate in gopuras of such unusual form with four faces symbolise? Not everyone agrees, and the subject has been the source of considerable debate amongst scholars. The long-held and most well-known idea is that the gods and demons holding the bodies of the naga represent the myth of creation as depicted in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, the famous relief on the east gallery (south side) at Angkor Wat. The three-headed white elephant seen at the base of each gopura was born of the churning of the ocean of milk.
Another idea is that they represent the rainbow uniting the worlds of man and the gods. As you walk across the causeway you are transgressing from the earthly world to a heavenly one. A more recent theory (put forth by Boisselier) draws on a historical event from Buddhist texts and Khmer inscriptions, which suggest the causeway and gopura theme represents Indra’s miraculous victory over the demons. The stone figures, which are two families of yaksas (demon giants) not gods and demons, stand guard at the gates of the city to ward off any future surprise attack. The city itself represents lndra in Tavatimsa Heaven situated at the centre of the kingdom.
Situated at the heart of the city of Angkor Thom, the Royal Palace area is distinguished by two terraces that parallel the road. Evidence of the Royal Palace itself is illusive because only the stone substructure remains. It is difficult, therefore, to conceive its original layout or scale. An additional difficulty is that some of the parts which still remain, pre-date Jayavarman VII’s rebuilding of the original site of the Royal Palace. Like much of Angkor Thom, the residences of the king, and those who worked in the palace, were built of wood and have disintegrated, leaving no traces.
The recognisable remains of the palace complex start from the main road with two foundations now known as the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. Projections with steps evenly spaced along the terraces lead to an open area that was a Royal Plaza used by Jayavarman VII for reviewing troops, processions, hosting festivals and ceremonies. These terraces probably supported wooden pavilions from where the king and his court sat and viewed the activities and the people assembled below. Behind the terraces, a rectangular laterite wall with gopuras delineates the private areas of a former palace complex. Inside the enclosure is the temple of Phimeanakas and the king’s and the queen’s rectangular bathing pools