The period of Angkor is the period from approximately the latter half of the 8th century A.D. to the first half of the 15th century. If precise dates are required, the beginning may be set in 802 A.D., when the Khmer King Jayavarman II pronounced himself universal monarch (chakravartin) and declared independence from Java, and the end may be set in 1431 A.D., when Thai invaders from the kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor and caused the Khmer elite to migrate to Phnom Penh.
In any study of Angkorian architecture, the emphasis is necessarily on religious architecture, since the only remaining Angkorian buildings are religious in nature. During the period of Angkor, only temples and other religious buildings were constructed of stone. Non-religious buildings such as dwellings were constructed of perishable materials such as wood, and as such have not survived.
The religious architecture of Angkor has characteristic structures, elements, and motifs, which are identified in the glossary below. Since a number of different architectural styles succeeded one another during the Angkorean period, not all of these features were equally in evidence throughout the period. Indeed, scholars have recurred to the presence or absence of such features as one source of evidence for dating the remains.
Angkor's neighbor state of Champa was also the home to numerous brick temples that are similar in style to those of Angkor. The most extensive ruins are at My Son in Vietnam. A Cham story tells of the time that the two countries settled an armed conflict by means of a tower-building contest proposed by the Cham King Po Klaung Garai. While the Khmer built a standard brick tower, Po Klaung Garai directed his people to build an impressive replica of paper and wood. In the end, the Cham replica was more impressive than the real brick tower of the Khmer, and the Cham won the contest.
A gallery is a passageway running along the wall of an enclosure or along the axis of a temple, often open to one or both sides. Historically, the form of the gallery evolved during the 10th century from the increasingly long hallways which had earlier been used to surround the central sanctuary of a temple. During the period of Angkor Wat in the first half of the 12th century, additional half galleries on one side were introduced to buttress the structure of the temple.
A gopura is an entrance building. At Angkor, passage through the enclosure walls surrounding a temple compound is frequently accomplished by means of an impressive gopura, rather than just an aperture in the wall or a doorway. Enclosures surrounding a temple are often constructed with a gopura at each of the four cardinal points. In plan, gopuras are usually cross-shaped and elongated along the axis of the enclosure wall; if the wall is constructed with an accompanying gallery, the gallery is sometimes connected to the arms of the gopura. Many Angkorian gopuras have a tower at the centre of the cross. The lintels and pediments are often decorated, and guardian figures (dvarapalas) are often placed or carved on either side of the doorways.
Scholars theorize that the House of Fire functioned as a "rest house with fire" for travellers. An inscription at Preah Khan tells of 121 such rest houses lining the highways into Angkor. The Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan expressed his admiration for these rest houses when he visited Angkor in 1296 A.D. Another theory is that the House of Fire had a religious function as the repository the sacred flame used in sacred ceremonies.
The two largest reservoirs at Angkor were the West Baray and the East Baray, located on either side of Angkor Thom. The East Baray is now dry. The West Mebon is an 11th century temple standing at the center of the West Baray; the East Mebon a 10th century temple standing at the center of the East Baray. The baray associated with Preah Khan is the Jayataka, in the middle of which stands the 12th century temple of Neak Pean. Scholars have speculated that the Jayataka represents the Himalayan lake of Anavatapta, known for its miraculous healing powers.
The dominant scheme for the construction of state temples in the Angkorian period was that of the Temple Mountain, an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. The style was influenced by Indian temple architecture. Enclosures represented the mountain chains surrounding Mount Meru, while a moat represented the ocean. The temple itself took shape as a pyramid of several levels, and the home of the gods was represented by the elevated sanctuary at the center of the temple. The first great Temple Mountain was the Bakong, a five-level pyramid dedicated in 881 A.D. by King Indravarman I. Other Khmer Temple Mountains include Baphuon, Pre Rup, Ta Keo and most notably Angkor Wat.
Narrative bas-reliefs are bas-reliefs depicting stories from mythology or history. Until about the 11th century A.D., the Angkorian Khmer confined their narrative bas-reliefs to the space on the tympana above doorways. The most famous early narrative bas-reliefs are those on the tympana at the 10th century temple of Banteay Srei, depicting scenes from Hindu mythology as well as scenes from the great works of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. By the 12th century, however, the Angkorian artists were covering entire walls with narrative scenes in bas-relief. At Angkor Wat, the external gallery wall is covered with some 12,000 or 13,000 square meters of such scenes, some of them historical, some mythological. Similarly, the outer gallery at the Bayon contains extensive bas-reliefs documenting the everyday life of the medieval Khmer as well as historical events from the reign of King Jayavarman VII.
The following is a listing of the motifs illustrated in some of the more famous Angkorian narrative bas-reliefs:
Angkorian engineers tended to use the corbel arch in order to construct rooms, passageways and openings in buildings. A corbel arch is constructed by adding layers of stones to the walls on either side of an opening, with each successive layer projecting further towards the centre than the one supporting it from below, until the two sides meet in the middle. The corbel arch is structurally weaker than the true arch, of which the Angkorian engineers appear to have been ignorant. The use of corbelling prevented the Angkorian engineers from constructing large openings or spaces in buildings roofed with stone, and made such buildings particularly prone to collapse once they were no longer maintained. These difficulties did not, of course, exist for buildings constructed with stone walls surmounted by a light wooden roof. The problem of preventing the collapse of corbelled structures at Angkor remains a serious one for modern conservation.
The styles employed by Angkorean artists in the decoration of lintels evolved over time, as a result, the study of lintels has proven a useful guide to the dating of temples. Some scholars have endeavored to develop a periodization of lintel styles. The most beautiful Angkorean lintels are thought to be those of the Preah Ko style from the late 9th century.
Common motifs in the decoration of lintels include the kala, the naga and the makara, as well as various forms of vegetation. Also frequently depicted are the Hindu gods associated with the four cardinal directions, with the identity of the god depicted on a given lintel or pediment depending on the direction faced by that element. Indra, the god of the sky, is associated with East; Yama, the god of judgment and Hell, with South; Varuna, the god of the ocean, with West; and Kubera, god of wealth, with North.
Angkorean stairs are notoriously steep. Frequently, the length of the riser exceeds that of the tread, producing an angle of ascent somewhere between 45 and 70 degrees. The reasons for this peculiarity appear to be both religious and monumental. From the religious perspective, a steep stairway can be interpreted as a "stairway to heaven," the realm of the gods. "From the monumental point of view," according to Angkor-scholar Maurice Glaize, "the advantage is clear - the square of the base not having to spread in surface area, the entire building rises to its zenith with a particular thrust."
Apsaras, divine nymphs or celestial dancing girls, are characters from Indian mythology. Their origin is explained in the story of the churning of the Ocean of Milk, or samudra manthan, found in the great epic Mahabharata. Other stories in the Mahabharata detail the exploits of individual apsaras, who were often used by the gods as agents to persuade or seduce mythological demons, heroes and ascetics. The widespread use of apsaras as a motif for decorating the walls and pillars of temples and other religious buildings, however, was a Khmer innovation. In modern descriptions of Angkorian temples, the term "apsara" is sometimes used to refer not only to dancers but also to other minor female deities, though minor female deities who are depicted standing about rather than dancing are more commonly called "devatas.
Apsaras and devatas are ubiquitous at Angkor, but are most common in the foundations of the 12th century. Depictions of true (dancing) apsaras are found, for example, in the Hall of Dancers at Preah Khan, in the pillars that line the passageways through the outer gallery of the Bayon, and in the famous bas-relief of Angkor Wat depicting the churning of the Ocean of Milk. The largest population of devatas (around 2,000) is at Angkor Wat, where they appear individually and in groups.
Dvarapalas are human or demonic temple guardians, generally armed with lances and clubs. They are presented either as a stone statues or as relief carvings in the walls of temples and other buildings, generally close to entrances or passageways. Their function is to protect the temples. Dvarapalas may be seen, for example, at Preah Ko, Lolei, Banteay Srei, Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei.
The reachisey is another mythical animal, similar to the gajasimha, with the head of a lion, a short elephantine trunk, and the scaly body of a dragon. It occurs at Angkor Wat in the epic bas reliefs of the outer gallery.
Garuda is a divine being that is part man and part bird. He is the lord of birds, the mythologial enemy of nagas, and the battle steed of Vishnu. Depictions of Garuda at Angkor number in the thousands, and though Indian in inspiration exhibit a style that is uniquely Khmer. They may be classified as follows:
The kala is a ferocious monster symbolic of time in its all-devouring aspect and associated with the destructive side of the god Siva. In Khmer temple architecture, the kala serves as a common decorative element on lintels, tympana and walls, where it is depicted as a monstrous head with a large upper jaw lined by large carnivorous teeth, but with no lower jaw. Some kalas are shown disgorging vine-like plants, and some serve as the base for other figures.
Scholars have speculated that the origin of the kala as a decorative element in Khmer temple architecture may be found in an earlier period when the skulls of human victims were incorporated into buildings as a kind of protective magic. Such skulls tended to lose their lower jaws when the ligaments holding them together dried out. Thus, the kalas of Angkor may represent the Khmer civilization's adoption into its decorative iconography of elements derived from long forgotten primitive antecedents.
The linga is a phallic post or cylinder symbolic of the god Siva and of creative power. As a religious symbol, the function of the linga is primarily that of worship and ritual, and only secondarily that of decoration. In the Khmer empire, certain lingas were erected as symbols of the king himself, and were housed in royal temples in order to express the king's consubstantiality with Siva. The lingas that survive from the Angkorean period are generally made of polished stone.
The lingas of the Angkorian period are of several different types.
A makara is a mythical sea monster with the body of a serpent, the trunk of an elephant, and a head that can have features reminiscent of a lion, a crocodile, or a dragon. In Khmer temple architecture, the motif of the makara is generally part of a decorative carving on a lintel, tympanum, or wall. Often the makara is depicted with some other creature, such as a lion or serpent, emerging from its gaping maw. The makara is a central motif in the design of the famously beautiful lintels of the Roluos group of temples: Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei. At Banteay Srei, carvings of makaras disgorging other monsters may be observed on many of the corners of the buildings.
Mythical serpents, or nagas, represent an important motif in Khmer architecture as well as in free-standing sculpture. They are frequently depicted as having multiple heads, always uneven in number, arranged in a fan. Each head has a flared hood, in the manner of a cobra.
Nagas are frequently depicted in Angkorian lintels. The composition of such lintels characteristically consists in a dominant image at the center of a rectangle, from which issue swirling elements that reach to the far ends of the rectangle. These swirling elements may take shape as either vinelike vegetation or as the bodies of nagas. Some such nagas are depicted wearing crowns, and others are depicted serving as mounts for human riders.
To the Angkorian Khmer, nagas were symbols of water and figured in the myths of origin for the Khmer people, who were said to be descended from the union of an Indian Brahman and a serpent princess from Cambodia. Nagas were also characters in other well-known legends and stories depicted in Khmer art, such as the churning of the Ocean of Milk, the legend of the Leper King as depicted in the bas-reliefs of the Bayon, and the story of Mucalinda, the serpent king who protected the Buddha from the elements.
Naga bridges are causeways or true bridges lined by stone balustrades shaped as nagas.
In some Angkorian naga-bridges, as for example those located at the entrances to 12th century city of Angkor Thom, the naga-shaped balustrades are supported not by simple posts but by stone statues of gigantic warriors. These giants are the devas and asuras who used the naga king Vasuki in order to the churn the Ocean of Milk in quest of the amrita or elixir of immortality. The story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk or samudra manthan has its source in Indian mythology.
A quincunx is a spatial arrangement of five elements, with four elements placed as the corners of a square and the fifth placed in the center. The five peaks of Mount Meru were taken to exhibit this arrangement, and Khmer temples was arranged accordingly in order to convey a symbolic identification with the sacred mountain. The five brick towers of the 10th century temple known as East Mebon, for example, are arranged in the shape of a quincunx. The quincunx also appears elsewhere in designs of the Angkorian period, as in the riverbed carvings of Kbal Spean.
The nuclear family, in rural Cambodia, typically lives in a rectangular house that may vary in size from four by six meters to six by ten meters. It is constructed of a wooden frame with gabled thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. Khmer houses typically are raised on stilts as much as three meters for protection from annual floods. Two ladders or wooden staircases provide access to the house. The steep thatch roof overhanging the house walls protects the interior from rain. Typically a house contains three rooms separated by partitions of woven bamboo. The front room serves as a living room used to receive visitors, the next room is the parents' bedroom, and the third is for unmarried daughters. Sons sleep anywhere they can find space. Family members and neighbors work together to build the house, and a house-raising ceremony is held upon its completion. The houses of poorer persons may contain only a single large room. Food is prepared in a separate kitchen located near the house but usually behind it. Toilet facilities consist of simple pits in the ground, located away from the house, that are covered up when filled. Any livestock is kept below the house.
Chinese and Vietnamese houses in Cambodian town and villages typically are built directly on the ground and have earthen, cement, or tile floors, depending upon the economic status of the owner. Urban housing and commercial buildings may be of brick, masonry, or wood.