It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura, the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal. Angkor Wat is located about six kilometers (four miles) north of Siem Reap, south of Angkor Thom. Entry and exit to Angkor Wat can only be access from its west gate.
Building the Angkor Wat Temple Complex
From the rule of Yasovarman to the 12th century design and construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex, the Khmer people blossomed into the most significant religious, military, and social civilization in Southeast Asia. Their authority blanketed all of modern-day Cambodia, reaching into Vietnam, China, and across the Bay of Bengal.
King Suryavarman II is responsible for the construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex. He dedicated the temple to Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavite Hinduism, which remained its patron deity until the Cambodian people consecrated Angkor Wat to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th or 15th Century. Under Suryavarman II, the temple complex also served as the capital of the Khmer Empire and a strategic military post. Curiously, the original name of the temple remains unknown. Historians have not been able to locate any artifacts or inscriptions that refer to the temple complex by name.
The enormity of Angkor Wat was conceived and constructed with a level of precision and intention that continues to evade the modern mind. Some scholars believe that the temple complex was built to take advantage of Angkor’s water-rich agricultural potential. Other scholars attribute the construction of Angkor Wat to the Khmer belief in earth-star harmonization. The temple’s ground plan replicates the position of the stars in the Draco constellation.
Large portions of the Angkor Wat temple complex remain unfinished. Historical theory suggests that construction ended when Suryavarman II died. Regardless of why construction ceased, the temple’s unfinished status adds to Angkor Wat’s mysterious appeal.
Angkor Wat after the Khmer Empire
Since the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th Century C.E., Angkor Wat has remained one of the most significant religious structures in the world. Even after the Thais sacked the city in 1431, people from all across Asia continued to take religious pilgrimages to the ruined city, attributing its enormity and beauty to the gods of Hinduism and Buddhism.
The history of the Khmer Empire exists in the stone of Angkor Wat alone. Written inscriptions of the temple’s history, if they ever existed, have escaped modern examination. After the Thai takeover, Buddhist monks continued to preserve and uphold the sacred status of Ankgor Wat, but they overturned the original dedication of the temple to Hindu deity Vishnu. In Vishnu’s stead, the gods and concepts of Buddhism became the ruling principles of Angkor Wat.
In 1860, the French led an expedition into the heart of Cambodia attempting, inspired by the European hunger for exploration and discovery. Since the mid-1800s Europe and the West have been spellbound by the ancient city of Angkor Wat. The French pioneered an Angkor Wat restoration project in 1908 that continues to this day.