The ingenious mechanism of the human brain is capable of comprehending anything in this universe. At a time in the early Indian medieval period, when Hindu sculpture and art had reached its zenith, man created a structure so massive and archaeologically precise that parts of it are still being deciphered. An amalgamation of man’s mythological beliefs and knowledge of mathematics and science resulted in the largest religious temple of the world–Angkor Wat at Angkor in Cambodia. Built by Suryavarman II, the king of the Khmer Empire in 1113 CE, the temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and later converted into a Buddhist temple.
You’d wonder how a Southeast Asian temple located approximately 2,000 miles away from India was dedicated to a Hindu god? The answer lies in the science of nature. Indian traders from the south of India often visited Southeast Asian countries on account of trade. As the Indian tropical monsoon witnessed wind reversing every six months, their ships followed the rhythm of monsoon. Their six-monthly stays in Southeast Asia led to an assimilation of cultures and religious beliefs. The locals believe that the entire universe came together to create a majestic structure like Angkor Wat.
The influence of Hindu cosmology is evident in the symbolic meaning that the temple holds. Angkor Wat is believed to be a microcosm of the ‘Hindu’ universe. According to archaeologists, the solar axes of the temple are in perfect alignment with the sanctum sanctorum, previously devoted to Lord Vishnu. It is believed to resemble the Hindu sun god of the Vedic period.
It was Suryavarman’s desire to be called the ‘God-king’ on the lines of Indian kings, who were considered representatives of God. He created a stone replica of the home of gods–Mount Meru, believed to serve as the earth’s axis around which the universe rested. The five towers of the temple allude to the peaks of Meru surrounded by a moat that symbolises earth’s oceans. The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) represents the dark forces of the earth and a bridge for man to reach the abode of gods. The bird–an affirming principle of light–is said to encourage one to rise above the chaos of life.
Of the many stunning carvings that adorn the walls of the temple, one that has turned into a curious subject of analysis is the churning of the Ocean of Milk (Samudra Manthan) as mentioned in the Hindu mythology. It is believed that a celestial tug-of-war between the evil forces of darkness and the virtuous forces of light to churn the milky ocean produced the drink of immortality.
The carvings depict Mount Mandara in the form of Lord Vishnu serving as a pivot around which Vasuki, the serpent, was used as a rope. According to an astronomical conjecture, the wobbly rotation created by pulling of ropes suggests the spinning of the earth on its own axis leading to an intricate cycle of stars known as precession. This process is believed to allude to the yuga (four-age cycle) of the Hindu classical thought. A long walk through the causeways, endlessly long corridors and steep spiral staircases towards the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, is considered to be a metaphor for travelling to the first age of the universe.
This demanding access to the temple stresses on the mythological prerequisite of acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of the puranas (Hindu religious texts from the Vedic period ) to attain immortality. Often the priests got such an opportunity. An interface between the ground and the sky, the temple wasn’t meant to be a spiritual site for devotees, unlike its contemporaries during the era. Instead, almost everyone was barred from the final steps of the shrine–strictly meant for the priests.
The mysteriously complex and multilevel path leading to the shrine is believed to serve as a composite riddle one must solve in order to reach the next. Each individual–with a unique solution to these riddles–is believed to return with a unique perception of the temple unravelling vast gateways to wisdom.