by Ashley Cowie
In Part 1 of this series of articles we explored the astronomical measurements underlying the Khmer Temples in Cambodia and saw how all of the architectural features frame the pilgrims progression towards the central vertical alignment at the fulcrum of the main temple, the exemplary centre.
This photograph from Angkor Thom is a great example of the architectural progression towards the exemplary centre of a temple.
Mythological themes most often convey principles of duality and polarity between the gods, goddesses, asuras and humans in both ordinary and sacred time and space. In making their way from the temple’s entrance to the sanctuary at its centre, the visitor undergoes a symbolic three-staged journey to salvation through enlightenment, learning of the creation of the universe.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk (also called Samudra manthan in Hindi or Ko Samut Teuk Dos in Khmer) is one of the most well-known legends in Hindu mythology and of the Cambodian culture. The story is depicted on a 49 meter-wide bas-relief carved on the walls of the east gallery of Angkor Wat.
IT IS SAID THAT BEFORE TIME BEGAN THE DEVAS (GODS) AND ASURAS (DEMONS) WERE FIGHTING FOR WORLD DOMINATION AND AFTER MANY YEARS OF WAR, THE DEVAS WERE ALMOST VANQUISHED.
When they approached the Supreme God Vishnu for help he ordered them to team up the Amrita, to search for the sacred Elixir of Immortality from the depths of the cosmic sea.
The Devas and Asuras pulled alternatively on the tail of Naga Vasuki, the King of snakes, using him as a churning rope and they using Mount Meru as a churning stick, to churn the Ocean of Milk. As Mount Meru began sinking God Vishnu took the form of the turtle Akûpara, to stabilize the mountain.
Many treasures came from the Ocean of Milk including the celestial creatures called Asparas who came to earth to entertain Gods and Kings. The demons, having been tricked into pulling the head of the giant snake, were weakened “after a thousand years of efforts by the Naga’s poison.” Fortunately for them, the God of health Dhanvantari emerged from the Ocean of Milk with the sacred Amrita and they seized the elixir for their own sake.
The Devas informed Vishnu of the situation and the Supreme God took into the form of Mohini, the most beautiful women on earth who charmed the Asuras and stole the Elixir of Immortality and gave it to the Devas. From this moment, the Gods would ruled the world and sent the Demons to hell.
HOW EXACTLY DID HUMANS INTERACT WITH KHMER SACRED ARCHITECTURE?
According to Dr Eleanor Mannikka of the University of Michigan,
“the design of the temple at Ankor Wat can be interpreted in three architectural units”:
- Circumferences: the ecliptic, the moon and lunar periodicity, the constellations, the planets, the celestial year, the krta yuga, the grid of the mandala, the history of King Suryavarman.
- Central sanctuary: Mount Meru, with 45 gods, the north celestial pole, the centre of the mandala, the spring equinox, the axis of the earth, Vishnu, Brahma, and King Suryavarman.
- Axes: the building blocks of time (60, 108), the yuga cycles, the solar year, the lunar year, historical dates in Suryavarman’s reign, the mandala and its transformation of time, and, finally, the solar year and lunar time cycles from the vantage point of Mount Meru.
The three primary stages of sacred progression in Hindu cosmology are defined architecturally as:
1. SQUARE MOAT – COSMIC SEA
Angkor Wat was built as a “temple mountain” or pyramids, symbolic of the cosmic Mount Meru of Hindu mythology. The five tiered mountain at the centre of the universe (the temple) was said to be the encircled by seven chains of mountains (the enclosure walls) which were surrounded in turn by the outermost boundaries of most Khmer temples the sea (the moat). These vast bodies of water were the outer squares on a designers mandalas corresponding to the Cosmic Sea, the source of creation energy and life and the starting point of ones personal journey towards enlightenment.
2. CAUSEWAY – TO THE OTHER WORLD
After crossing the Cosmic Sea visitors must then cross a 250 meter (820 ft) long by 12 meter (39 ft) wide causeway lined with serpents and guarded by a seven headed Naga. The n?ga were a reptilian race believed to have been ruled by King Kaliya and are central in both Hindu and Khmer creation myths. They inhabited a large empire somewhere in the Pacific Ocean until relocating to India where King Kaliya’s daughter married an Indian Brahmana named Kaundinya from whom the Cambodian people originated.
As a wedding dowry, Kaliya drank all the water that covered the landscape and exposed Cambodia for his daughter and son-in-law. Nagas with an odd-number of heads were associated with male energy and represented the seven races within naga society, which has a symbolic association with the “seven heavens” and “the seven colours of the rainbow”.
3. ENCLOSURE WALLS – SACRED MOUNTAIN RANGES
Continuing towards the centre of the temple, visitors then pass through a series of massive enclosure walls representing sacred mountain ranges and symbolic of the obstacles one must be overcome on the path to enlightenment. Monumental tower gateways called gopurams reveal increasingly sacred areas as worshipers become farther removed from the outside world. In 1976 Professor Stencel published Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat in which he described the sensory effects experienced by pilgrims visiting Angkor Wat when it was working at full speed.
4. FIVE SANCTUARY TOWERS – MOUNT MERU
Arriving at the centre of the temple, a square of 4 superstructures are dominated by the largest central tower, together representing the gods’ mountaintop residence and the largest corresponding with Mount Meru. Directly beneath the apex of the central tower is God’s Cave, a dark sanctuary representing the cave god descends into, from Mount Meru, becoming accessible to humans. Unlike other faiths, in Hinduism god requires no religious intermediary and god was believed to physically inhabit the sanctuary, enabling direct worshiper-to-deity interaction.
Unity with god, being a Hindus ultimate goal, was achieved where a temple’s vertical axis (mountaintop to cave) unites with a visitor’s horizontal axis (temple entrance to cave). This sacred intersection was a portal to divine realms and the place from which the entire universe was believed to have emanated from. It was in God’s Cave beneath the mythical peaks of Mount Meru that one experienced nirvana – a darkened, confined space where the polarities of the universe fused into an infinite point at the centre of space and time, an exemplary centre, ending the symbolic journey to enlightenment.
To install even deeper microcosmic layers of cosmology int their architecture, important numbers that appeared in the legends and myths were converted into lengths and implemented in temple design. This is found in the measurements of the largest architectural features at the Angkor Wat complex.
- The age of Krta Yuga lasted 1,728,000 years and the distance from the first step of the bridge to the geographic centre of the temple is 1,734.41 cubits.
- The age of Kali lasted 432,000 years and the width of the moat is 439.78 cubits.
- The age of Dva ?para lasted 864,000 years and the distance from the first step of the western entrance gateway, to the balustrade wall at the end of causeway, is 867.03 cubits.
- The age of Treta lasted 1,296,000 years and the distance from the first step of the western entrance gateway to the first step of the central tower is 1,296.07 cubits.
Dr Eleanor Mannikka noted “the very slight discrepancies in the measurements are probably due to a combination of human error and the structure sinking.”
Having learned about the measurements, alignments, orientation and mythology underlying Angkor Wat, in the next article we will examine the astronomical aspects in greater detail and explore the surrounding Khmer landscapes.
Copyright 2017 by Ashley Cowie
Presented with permission
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Exploring the world making films, writing books and blogging about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, symbols, artefacts and treasures.