by Ashley Cowie
So far in this series of articles exploring the powerful Hindu-Buddhist Angkor Empire in Southeast Asia, we have examined the cosmological, symbolic and mythical components found within temple architecture. Now we will systematically reverse-engineer the temple builders methods of archaeoastronomy, as approved by professors such as Stencel, Gifford, Moron and Eleanor Mannikka, and in seeking the extent of the cosmic relationship between sky, landscape, and dynastic power a fascinating new discovery has been made in one of the most spiritualised ancient landscapes this planet has ever hosted.
CARDINAL ALIGNMENT IS KINGSHIP
The works of Giulio Magli, Professor of Archaeoastronomy at Politecnico di Milano, establish that Khmer temples were astronomically aligned to the cardinal points and the two equinox sunrises were the most important/sacred dates in the agricultural and ritual calendars. Deep emotional purpose was given to orienting and aligning temples with the cardinal points and the act was associated directly with a kings power, representing dynastic balance, strength and their resonance with greater cosmic order. In Hindu creation myths Prajapati, who is the Year, measures the world, both in space and time, with his eye, the sun.
“The ritual of measurement performed at the time of establishment of a temple or Vedic altar is a re-enactment of creation of the world” (Malville 1992).
The deeper connections in Hindu thought between measurement and creation is evidenced by the words mother, matir and mater which come from the same Sanskrit root. Accurate cardinal alignment was achieved using ropes, posts and an ancient Vedic geometric method known as the Indian Circle, a name ascribed by the11th century Arabic scholar and astronomer Al-Biruni. To assure the continued security of this highly-valuable rope-measuring method the steps were mystified, encoded and highly-guarded by an inner-sanctum of specialist priests – the keepers of the magical-mathematical knowledge.
The earliest record of this highly efficient and effective rope measuring method is given in the Katyayana Sulba-sutra (Rope-Codes) written un Vedic India around 400 B.C.E: “Driving the gnomon into the levelled ground, and drawing a circle with the rope whose length is equal to the gnomon (length), one drives two pegs at (the intersections of) the two lines where the shadow of the tip of the gnomon falls . This is the east (-west) line.”
SACRED ANGKORIAN LATITUDES
Geodesy is an academically approved method/discipline of modern Archaeoastronomy (Ruggles 2015) with its basis in a branch of applied mathematics which studies the size and form of the Earth and the location of points upon its surface. Khmer architects converted numbers taken from elements of their cosmology and mythology into sacred building measurements/lengths and within the measurements of the central tower at Angkor Wat the buildings geographic location between the poles and the equator was encoded.
In Professor Eleanor Mannikka’s 2002 paper Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship, she observed that the north-south axis of Angkor Wat’s central tower’s chamber is 13.43 cubits long and Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north latitude. This means the Khmer astronomers were aware of the size of the earth and their place on it, to an accuracy of less that 2 arc-seconds. Mannikka also noted that;
“In the central sanctuary, Vishnu is not only placed at the latitude of Angkor Wat, he is also placed along the axis of the earth”
Expressing Earth latitude with symbolic architecture, is only the beginning of the Angkor builders expressions of the size of the Earth, and their spiritual veneration of the east – west axis. About 100Kms east of Angkor Wat is the Khan of Kompong Svay religious complex, built by the 11th century king Suryavarman I. Until 2015 it was thought to have served as a second royal residence, outside Angkor, of the king who built Angkor Wat – Suryavarman II. However, in 2015, archaeologists using lidar airborne scanning technology discovered it was surrounded by a massive, previously undocumented medieval city establishing it as the largest single religious complex ever built during the Angkorian Era, with its exterior enclosure measuring about 5 km square.
The Khan of Kompong Svay religious complex was built 100 years before Angkor Wat, but both are precisely located on the 13° 24′ latitude to an astonishing degree of accuracy – within 1 arc-second of a degree – a matter of a few meters on the ground. Struggling with the accuracy of this almost incredible alignment Professor Giulio Magli stated:
even admitting intentionality, obtaining the accuracy exhibited by the Angkor- Preah Khan alignment must have been quite a daunting task, which clearly demands for a sound historical explanation and cries out for a symbolic, rather than functional, interpretation for the site in connection with Angkor Wat.
THE HINDU AXIS MUNDI
The primary step in all measuring procedures whether astronomical, cartographic or architectural was applying the Indian Circle to create an east-west alignment. After this, a rope-masters second task was to derive a north-south alignment. Every civilisation extended a prime meridian (zero-degrees longitude) from their homeports, capital cities and highest mountains as references for measuring time and distance at sea, on land and in the night sky. Astronomical texts record the Khmer system of proportional measurements and techniques for determining true north, for example; orienting and roping out the cardinal directions at the site had to be undertaken when the sun was “above the cosmic ocean” (in the northern part of the sky.) A pillar, the gnomon, cast measured shadows which on one level represented the God Indra who “pillared apart”, separated, heaven and earth; the pillar supported heaven and steadied the earth (Kramrisch 1991).
Being situated between east and west, before the first measurement, on the event horizon of time and space, temple meridians were hyper-spiritualised and regarded as the axis mundi, cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar/tree and centre/navel of the world and prime meridians (zero-degrees longitude). Standing on an axis mundi you, the observer, are the spirit which unites and animates the four cardinal directions, enabling communication between higher and lower realms.
The axis mundi in Hindi Temple design. From the 2016 book, Evolution of Hindu Temple Architecture.
Symbolically, the axis mundi was a feminine aspect flowing with creation energy, a sort of divine umbilical cord providing spiritual nourishment to the lower realms of existence on Earth.
Male energy was symbolically inserted into the axis mundi using a lingam, linga or Shiva linga. These phallic artefacts represented the male Hindu deity Shiva, worshiped in temples and smaller shrines and also believed to self-manifest in natural objects. It was often represented with the yoni, old Sanskrit word meaning “origin” or “womb”. In Eva Jansen’s 1993 book The book of Hindu Imagery: Gods, Manifestations And Their Meaning informs us that the goddess Shakti represented “primordial female cosmic creation energy” and she was sometimes referred to as ‘The Great Divine Mother‘ in Hinduism. Together, the pair represented “the indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the passive space and active time from which all life originates.” When united on the Angkor Wat axis mundi, the city was thought to have activated, super-charging the extended sacred geographies with cosmic creation energy.
A 10th-century four-headed stone lingam (Mukhalinga) from Nepal. Lord Shiva is pictured as emerging from the Lingam – the cosmic pillar of fire – proving his superiority over the gods Brahma and Vishnu.
DYNASTIC MERIDIAN ALIGNMENTS
Long-distance alignments between sacred sites are generally ignored or de-bunked by academics because they hold no heritage, purpose or reason. Professor Magli has presented several examples of dynastic north-south meridian alignments which tick all three boxes. The first extended from the Bakong temple at the Angkor-Roluos religious complex, constructed in the final decades of the 9th century AD, as the official state temple of Indravarman I in the ancient city of Hariharalaya. It was also the first Angkorian sandstone mountain-temple located upon 5 stepped terraces, reflecting the landscape surrounding the mythological Mount Meru.
About 1.8 Kms to the north of the Bakong temple is the ‘Indrataka’ – a massive baray (reservoir), the central axis (180° azimuth) of which, is the Bakong temple meridian. Extensive irrigation and drainage systems were built to divert the excess water from the flood season into huge reservoirs, such as the East and West Baray. The water was worshiped, cleansed and fertilised before being irrigated into farmlands during the dry period which yielded a rice crop two or three times in one year. Not only did this ecological-engineering project strengthen the country’s economy, significantly, but it released large number of labourers for temple construction.
Professor Magli noted that the successor of Indravarman I (877-889), Yasovarman I (889-910 AD) , built ‘the Lolei‘ island temple at the precise centre of the existing Baray, directly upon the Bakong temple meridian. This meridian was clearly a symbolic-sacred-geographic feature with a rich associated cosmology, where the divine plan of one King was expanded upon by another in his linage.
Yasovarman I expanded his sacred geography and delineated the territory of the future Angkor Wat religious complex by building two temples (Phnom Krom and Phnom Bok) on the only two hill-tops overlooking the region. At the beginning of the 10th century he began constructing the enormous East Baray, the second-largest in the Angkor region measuring approximately 7.5Kms x 1.8 Kms and holding over 50 million cubic meters of water.
Half a century later, Rajendravarman II built Pre Rup state temple 1.3 Kms south on precisely the same meridian as the central axis of the East Baray, reflecting the same sacred geographic, dynastic, format seen in the positioning of the Loiel Island Temple, in the ‘Indrataka’, on the Bakong temple meridian.
At the centre of the East Baray is East Mebon temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and honors the parents of the king. Its location reflects Khmer architects’ obsession with orientation and cardinal directions. This temple was built on the north-south axis with Rajendravarman’s state temple, Pre Rup, located to the south just outside the baray. The East Mebon island temple also lies on an east-west axis with the palace temple Phimeanakas, another creation of Rajendravarman’s reign, located about 6,800 meters due west.
These two prime meridians united state temples with barays and both have clear ancestral heritage, where one Khmer ruler expanded a predecessors sacred geographic plans. However, long before people began building temples in stone to reflect astronomical principals, mountains and hill-tops served as meridian markers for navigating and location determination purposes, and it is in the placement of the Khmer hills that I discovered the very essential levels of Angkorian sacred geography.
In their 1976 paper Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat, professors Stencel, Gifford and Moron explained that viewers standing at the Western Gate at Angkor Wat on the June solstice observed the sun rising from behind Phnom Bok hill-top temple at an azimuth of 65.5° – 14 kilometers to the north east.
In Professor Higham’s 2001 The Civilization of Angkor we are told Phnom Bok hill-top temple was built during the reign of King Yasovarman I in the 10th century, and is one of the four hill-top temples built during his reign, the others being Phnom Bakheng, Phnom Krom and Phnom Dei. This temple was aligned to the equinoxes and the winter and summer solar solstices could be observed from inside the western entrance of the temple.
What Professor Higham and all of the subsequent professors have failed to notice is that both Phnom Bok hill and Phnom Dei hill are both situated on the same meridian. Phnom Bok temple is located on longitude 103° 58? 55? East and Phnom Dei is on 103° 59? 1? East, an accuracy of less than one-half of an arc second over the 14.5 kilometres distance between the two temples.
The accuracy of these two hill-top temples upon the same meridian is such that if you stood at one temple holding a hair at arms length along the imaginary meridian, the second temple located 14.5 Kms away, would be hidden by that hair.
Measuring outwards from this lost meridian formed by two hill-top temples, Yasovarman I set his priests to work measuring and establishing the sacred plans for future temples, monuments and shrines. Angkor Wat was located so that worshipers watched the summer solstice sun rising from behind Phnom Bok hill, more than a wink to the first Khmer prime meridian and the two ruinous hill-top temples situated directly upon it. It was at this stage in my research I formulated a question, the answer to which greatly expands what is known about Angkorian sacred geography.
Might the Phnom Dei hill-top temple also have served as a astronomical foresight for the rising June solstice sun, from another, yet unknown, temple?
It took a long time to for me to ask this specific question, but answering it was as simple as extending Angkor Wat’s meridian 14.5 Kms north. What I found there unlocked the inner-secrets of the Khmer Kings sacred topography and will be featured in a forth coming book.
Historically, the people who knew how to manipulate ropes and posts to enhance measuring, astronomy, orientation, alignment and location determination, held in their minds the magical codes of creation. Recently, archeologists in Cambodia using airborn 3D scanning technology discovered thousands of square miles of engineered landscapes and hundreds of lost temples, proving the Angkorian Empire was the largest in the world in the 12th century.
- Burges, Ebenezer: Surya-Siddhanta. A Textbook of Hindu Astronomy. India, 1858.
- Dumarcay, Jacques: Architecture and its models in South-East Asia /; translated and edited by Michael Smithies. Bangkok, 2003.
- Kramrisch, Stella: The Hindu Temple, 2 vol., University of Calcutta, 1946.
- Mannika, Eleanor: Angkor Wat, Time, Space and Kingship, Honolulu, 1996.
- Shukla, K.S. & Sen S. N (Ed.): History of Astronomy in India, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, 1985.
- Krupp, E. C. The cosmic temples of old Beijing, In World Archaeoastronomy, edited by A. F. Aveni, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.1989.
- Staal, Fritz Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, Berkeley. 1983.
Copyright 2017 by Ashley Cowie
Presented with permission
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