R

Angkor Thom

Capital city of the Khmer empire built at the end of the 12th century

The South gate to Angkor Thom
South gate to Angkor Thom
Name
Angkor Thom
Date
late 12th century
King
Jayavarman VII
Location
North of Angkor Wat, between West Baray and East Baray
Nearby
Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Thom is an almost square city surrounded by 8 meter high walls a little over 12 kilometers long with five impressive gopura gates providing access to the city. The city’s name translates to “large city” or “great city”.

King Jayavarman VII made Angkor Thom the new capital of the Khmer Kingdom after driving out the Chams , who destroyed the old capital Yasodharapura. He fortified the city by building a high wall around it, in turn enclosed by a 100 meter wide moat.

Older temples already at the grounds

At the site where the new city was built, a few older monuments were already in place, most noticeably the Baphuon temple (mid 11th century) and the Phimeanakas (10th or early 11th century).

Jayavarman VII’s new Royal Palace & state temple

King Jayavarman VII built his state temple, the Bayon, at the center of the city. Just to the North he built his Royal Palace. Since it was built of perishable materials, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone. The Elephant terrace and the Leper King terrace formed the Eastern boundary of the Palace enclosure. The city was inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals.

Decline and late 19th century rediscovery

After the Khmer Kingdom went into decline, the city was at one point deserted and left to the jungle. In the 19th century, the site was rediscovered by French explorers, soon after which the EFEO (the École Française d'Extrême-Orient) began clearing works and restoration of the monuments overgrown by thick jungle.

Entrance gates to the city

The city is surrounded by high defensive walls, 3 kilometers long on each side. To the inside of the wall is an earth embankment, which allowed the Khmer good views of approaching enemy armies.

Access to the city was through five gopura gates, one at the center of each wall, an extra one (the Victory Gate) on the road from the Royal Palace to the East Baray. The gates were built between the end of the 12th century and early 13th century. The gopuras consist of a central tower, 23 meters in height, flanked by two smaller towers.

The giant faces on the towers

The towers, known as “face towers” similar to those at the Bayon, contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions. They are believed to represent Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains 2 faces looking in opposite directions; each of the smaller towers have 1 face each looking in one of the remaining two directions.

A great deal of knowledge about the history and daily life in Angkor was gained from the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297. According to him, there was a fifth head on the gopura’s top at the time, of which nothing remains today.

On the ground level of the gates on either sides of the entrance is a large sculpture of Airavata, the three headed mythological elephant with the God Indra sitting on his back. The opening of the gates are 7 meters high by 3½ meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night. Most visitors to Angkor Thom use the well preserved South gate, that was restored in the 1950’s.

Devas and asuras at the causeway crossing the moat
Pulling Vasuki on the causeway

Causeways crossing the moat

Crossing the moat to each of the city’s five gates is a causeway lined on either sides by stone figures holding a huge snake. The figures represent 54 Devas (a Hindu deity) on one side, 54 Asuras (demons battling the Devas) on the other side pulling a giant snake. This scene is associated with the storey of “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, an ancient Hindu story. The story tells that the ocean was churned by Devas and Asuras to extract from it the nectar of immortality. The snake Vasuki (King of the Nagas) served as the rope, Mount Mandara (probably represented by the Bayon temple) was used as the churning pole.

Structures of Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom contains the remains of a large number of temples and Palaces of different ages and styles.

Prasat Chrung

At each of the four corners of the walls surrounding Angkor Thom is a small temple, named Prasat Chrung. The prasats can be reached by walking on the earth embankment inside the walls, starting from one of the entrance gates. The Prasat Chrung were built between the end of the 12th century and early 13th century, and were dedicated to the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. The temples, decorated with sculpted Devatas, have a cruciform floor plan and a terrace next to it with a small pavilion. All four temples contained a stele, praising King Jayavarman VII. The four Prasat Chrung are in various states of repair.

Preah Pithu Group

To the North East of the Royal Palace is a group of five temple, known as the Preah Pithu Group. The temples found in a peaceful forest setting are mostly in a ruined state. No inscribed steles were found in any of the monuments with information about the founding of the temples, but it is assumed that they were built in the 13th century. Four of the temples are Hindu monuments, the largest one is a Buddhist temple, which was left unfinished.