About Angkor Thom City

Date of Construction: Late 12th – Early 13th-century C.E.
Religious Affiliation: Buddhist
Patron or King: Jayavarman VII
Artistic/Archeo. Style: Bayon
Location: Angkor Thom
Entrance: South, North, East, and West
Position: 13d26’28N 103d51’31E

Angkor Thom (Khmer: អង្គរធំ pronounced [ʔɑːŋ.kɔː.tʰum]; literally: “Great City”), (alternative name: Nokor Thom, នគរធំ) located in present-day Cambodia, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer Empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. It 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 is Jayavarman’s state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north. It is also a very big tourist attraction, and people come from all over the world to see it.


“The Large City”

Of all the Angkor temples, it was the Bayon, at the center of Angkor Thom, which most confounded the archaeologists. In earlier chapters, when discussing the chronology of the monuments, we touched briefly on the debate that ran with respect to the dating of its construction, based, until 1923, on the false identification of the “Central Mountain” mentioned in the inscription of Sdok Kak Thom – which referred in fact to Phnom Bakheng and not to the Bayon. This latter was therefore no longer assumed to be the “temple-mountain” of Yasodharapura, the capital of king Yasovarman dating from the end of the 9th century, and was instead recognized as the official sanctuary of the last city of Angkor Thom, reconstructed by Jayavarman VII towards the end of the 12th century following its sacking by the Chams.

It may seem surprising that, contrary to its function, a temple of this size was built without any external enclosure wall or moat – until one appreciates that these were in effect formed by the ramparts of the city of Angkor Thom itself and by its moats, with the gates taking the place of gopuras.

The External Enclosure

The walls of Angkor Thom, the southern of which lies 1,700 meters north of the axial entrance to Angkor Wat, form a square of 3 kilometers each side enclosing an area of 900 hectares. Nearly 8 meters high and topped with a parapet that has no battlements, they are constructed in laterite and buttressed on their inner side by an earth embankment – the top of which forms a surrounding road. Externally they are surrounded by a one hundred meter wide moat, which is crossed at each of the city gates by a causeway. The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the “Beng Thom” – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall.

The Prasat Chrung

At the corners stand four small temples – “the Prasat Chrung” – each containing an inscribed stele mentioning the foundation by Jayavarman VII of a “Jayagiri scraping the brilliant sky at its top and of a Jayasindhu touching at its impenetrable depth the world of the serpents”. Mr. Cœdes has shown that these referred, in the emphatic manner that was usual for the Khmer, to none other than the walls and the moats of Angkor Thom in comparison to the mountains and the ocean surrounding the earth.

Each of the Prasat Chrung is in the style of the Bayon and was dedicated – as was the city itself – to the bodhisattva Lokesvara. In the form of a sanctuary tower in sandstone opening to the east, they are cruciform in plan with four vestibules and have two upper tiers crowned with a lotus. The walls are decorated with devatas set in niches and with baluster false windows partially masked by blinds. To the east is a square planned shelter for the stele, open to four sides, and vaulted with a cloistered arch. The whole arrangement is enclosed by a wall in which is a single opening.

A visit to one of the Prasat Chrung – perhaps to the one in the south-west corner – can be made on horse-back or by foot in the dry season along the wall-top track – if it has been cleared. It is a very pleasant walk (3 kilometers) under the shade of the trees were having first climbed the embankment at the foot itself of the south gate, one then descends at the west gate after having skirted a quarter of the city limits. One can see in places the remains of laterite steps discovered by Mr. Goloubew, corresponding to the moats of the 11th-century enclosure of Angkor Thom.

The Gates Of Angkor Thom

Very little is known about the organization of the city, with its light-weight dwellings. Centered on the Bayon, it was divided into four quarters by four axial roads that were probably bordered by moats. A fifth similar road was set on the axis of the Royal Palace, leading to the east.

Corresponding to these avenues are five monumental gates. From the exterior, the crossing of the moat is made, as previously described, on a causeway. At the northern entrance, this now forms a bridge for part of its length, following hydrological works in 1940.

“Lining either side of the causeway” – we are told by Tcheou Ta-Kouan – “are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent nine-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping”.

To consider the suggestion made by Mr. Cœdes and Paul Mus, this double railing in the form of naga was perhaps “one way of symbolizing a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition, is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialized here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country”.

Until now it has only been possible to reconstruct the lines of devas and asuras of the Victory Gate (the gate to the east centered on the Royal Palace) and the north gate, where the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.

The five gates are all similar and were found reasonably well preserved. Two of them, the north and the south, were restored by M. Glaize from 1944 to 1946 and can now be seen with their crowning motifs – though incomplete in terms of sculpture – in their original form. The most pleasing in the composition is the northern gate and the western side of the Gate of the Dead (to the east, centered on the Bayon, at the end of the route Dufour), while the best faces are to be seen at the west gate (route Carpeaux).

The proportion of their openings (3m.50 wide by 7 meters high) is distorted by the absence of lintels or frontons. Originally they would also have been furnished with double wooden doors, mounted on pivots, which were apparently fitted with a horizontal closing bar, the holes for which still remain visible in the walls.

Forming a group of three aligned towers, they stand over 23 meters in overall height. The main tower, with its two opposing faces, is flanked by two other smaller towers – each with a single face – that are set into it and correspond internally to reinforcing walls forming guard rooms, each with two dark back-rooms. The ensemble responds quite apparently to the same abstraction as do the four-faced towers of the Bayon – with the regal power radiating to the four cardinal points.

Finally, at the base, the four inward corners contain the superb motif of the three-headed elephant, whose vertical trunks descend to tug at lotuses, forming pillars. They represent none other than the mount of Indra, whom we can see clearly at the Victory gate, sitting between two apsaras and holding the thunderbolt or “Vajra”. The presence here of the god at the extremity of the access causeway confirms the hypothesis suggested previously, – where the naga, imitating the rainbow, simulates the bow of Indra.

SOURCE: theangkorguide.com