by Ashley Cowie
The first article in this series demonstrated how the builders of Angkor Wat created a vast religious complex to serve a greater purpose than the worship of deities. The religious symbolism associated with mythological and cosmic order is reflected in the orientations of ancient buildings worldwide (e.g. Magli 2015), and Angkor Wat is no exception. Its structure, orientation and alignment is a perfect expression of greater cosmic order, the passage of time, the ever moving rays of the sun and their influence on agricultural. Now we will see how Angkor Wat ‘works’ in the greater landscape.
THE GEODESY OF ANGKOR WAT
According to art-historian Alice Boner, speaking of Khmer temples, “The temple must, in its space-directions, be established in relation to the motion of the heavenly bodies. But in as much as it incorporates in a single synthesis the unequal courses of the sun, the moon and the planets, it also symbolises all recurrent time sequences: the day, the month, the year and the wider cycles marked by the recurrence of a complete cycle of eclipses, when the sun and the moon are readjusted in their original positions, a new cycle of creation begins.”
Among the approved methods/disciplines of modern Archaeaostronomy (Ruggles 2015, Magli 2015) a particular form of sacred geography called geodesy has 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. In the first two articles we learned how Khmer architects converted sacred/special numbers into building lengths. Within the measurements of the architecture of the central tower at Angkor Wat, geographical information pertaining to its location between the poles and the equator has was recorded.
Eleanor Mannikka of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a scholar of Southeast Asian Studies and best-known for her 2002 work, Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship. Mannikka observed that the north-south axis of the central tower’s chamber is 13.43 cubits long and Angkor Wat is located at 13.41 degrees north latitude. This, Mannikka believes, is not an accident and supporting her observation she noted “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.”
The 13.41 cubit ‘latitudinal number’ is also found in the axial measurement of the second gallery, devoted to Brahma, who is situated in the temple so as to represent the north celestial pole. In the following articles we track ancient north-south meridians and learn of their importance within Hindu/Khmer cosmology.
THE ANGKORIAN SOLAR SPECTICLE
In 2016, Professor Giulio Magli of the School of Architecture, Urban Planning and Construction Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Italy, published a concise paper entitled Archaeoastronomy in the Khmer Heartland. Presenting Google Earth and GIS data he reconstructed the ancient Khmer sky with Stellarium; “investigating the relationships of astronomy with orientation and topography in a systematic fashion, following the methods of modern Archaeoastronomy and strictly keeping at a bay vague and/or esoteric proposals put forward by many authors in the past.”
Through clear example, Professor Magli establishes that Khmer temples were connected architecturally in that they were all oriented to the four cardinal points “a very clear pattern of cardinal orientation and alignment arises”. He noted that “almost all the Angkorian temples are orientated between 89 and 90 degrees east of north, facing the rising equinox sun in March and September.” He argued that the spring equinox is the beginning of the sun’s annual journey “which was significant to 12th-century Khmer people who depended on accurate lunar and solar calendars.”
To align temples accurately to the four cardinal points of the compass, Khmer architects applied the ancient geometrical skills of Vedic rope-measuring specialists. With a wooden staff marking the centre-point of the intended temple, the shadows caused by a gnomon on a circle “the Indian circle” were bisected. Using this method, astronomers and architects reached accuracies to less than .5° suggesting the slight deviations from 90° in the Angkorian temples were deliberate.
Unlike almost all other Khmer temple orientations the central tower at Angkor Wat faces west, a direction most often associated with death and the otherworld. It is generally assumed Suryavarman II intended for the temple to house his tomb, or that worshipers were made to face east towards Vishnu – the solar deity. However, in 1976 Professor Stencel published Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat in which he proposed a solution for this orientation, and for the .5° deviation in a perfect east-west alignment:
The azimuth of the temple is 270.5° so a person entering Angkor from the west gate walks at a 90.5° angle. “Looking from the west gate towards the temple at dawn at the equinoxes, the sun is seen to rise just above the central tower, “crowning” it almost vertically. The reason is that at the latitude of Angkor the trajectory of the sun is very steep, and therefore a small increase in azimuth leads to a strong increase in height; the “horizon height” of the central tower of Angkor Wat from the western entrance is ~5° and the centre of the sun reaches such an altitude at an azimuth of 90° 40′.”
Supporting Professor Stencel’s observation, the state temples Bakong, Phnom Bakheng and Bayon, all have an azimuth of 89.5° – “exactly” the same as Angkor Wat, but facing east. The alignments are therefore not orientated to the place on the horizon that the sun first appeared, but the builders had accounted for passing time. In the minutes just after sunrise, the structures visually integrated with the sun, so that it became a part of the architecture, a golden crown on the highest point of the temple. Thus, the Khmer temples were symbolically orientated, rather than astronomically. They were aligned to suit artistic tastes rather than to suit calendrical functions.
Watching the sun suspended in the sky above the highest-most point on a temple, just after the equinox sunrise, is a near perfect materialisation of the perceived connection between the temple and the heavens/gods. At this key moment, the sky and temple visually synchronise with the cardinal directions on earth, and most importantly, with the viewer/worshiper.
SACRED GEOGRAPHY OF THE KHMER KINGS
The term sacred geography is greatly overused and grossly misunderstood. Stripped of its pseudo-historical connotations, it refers to the situations, locations and orientations of sacred places, so that cosmological, astronomical, astrological, geodetic, mythological, symbolic and magic/shamanic factors were expressed within their displacement geometry.
The Book of Documents, or Shujing (??) composed between 550 and 200 BC records the methods of Chinese topographers who surveyed landscapes adhering to Taoist mythology and astrology as early as 2000 B.C.E. The Ming dynasty who ruled between 1368 and 1644 AD developed these ancient sacred geographies by undertaking great engineering projects which altered the shapes of rivers, mountain-tops and hills to enhance the movement of chi (flowing male and female energies).
Angkor Wat is located on latitude 13° 26′ N. From this line of latitude the sun’s rising azimuth (angle) on the June and December solstices is 65.5° and 114.5°, respectively. In their 1976 paper Astronomy and Cosmology at Angkor Wat researchers Stencel, Gifford and Moron explained how a key solstice alignment untied the temple at Angkor Wat with the 220 meter high Phnom Bok hill, 14kms to the north east.
Standing at Angkor Wat on the morning of the June solstice observers watched the sun rising from behind Phnom Bok hill.
Phnom Bok hill, is one of “three sacred hills” chosen by Yashovarman I in the 10th century around which he designed his sacred geographies. Yasovarman I was one of the great Angkorian kings of the cult of devaraja or God King – the ancient Cambodian state religion which associated kingship with the Hindu god Shiva. (Coedes, George and Walter F. Vella, (1968). On the summit of Phnom Bok hill is a temple of the same name and these three hill-top shrines held high religious value during the Angkorian rule when they formed part of an “architectural triad“.
Phnom Bok temple was aligned to the equinoxes and the winter and summer solar solstices could be observed from inside the western entrance of the temple, which was also known for the triple sanctuary dedicated to the Trimurti.
Long-distance alignments between sacred sites are generally ignored, or de-bunked, by academics because they hold no heritage, purpose or reason. This alignment however, ticks all three of these boxes. At the end of the 9th century Yasovarman I moved the ancient capital city from Hariharalaya to Yashodharapura, where all of the great and famous religious monuments were built, e.g. Angkor Wat. At the heart of this new landscape he built the Phnom Bok hill-top temple.
The temple on Phnom Bok hill existed for two and a half centuries before Angkor Wat was conceived by King Suryavarman II in the mid 12th century. It is evident that one of his fundamental considerations in locating his temple was to choose a spot where the June solstice sun was observed rising behind Phnom Bok hill, for if he had located Angkor Wat only +/- 1 kilometre north or south, this solar effect effect would not occur. This alignment not only expanded the sacred geographic plan of a previous Khmer king, but it perfectly reflected the core spiritual belief that god (the sun) resided on Mount Meru (Phnom Bok hill.)
Shiva’s divine essence was represented by the linga (or lingam), phallic idols housed in mountain temples like the Phnom Bok temple. Kings were installed in deeply mystical ceremonies controlled by high priests, in which the divine essence of kingship was conferred on the ruler through the linga. Safeguarding a linga became intricately woven with the security and prosperity of the kingdom and the great temple architecture of the Khmer period attests to the importance attached to this belief. (Britannica).
Phnom Bok hill may have been perceived as a powerful male linga, which at sunrise on the June solstice was perceived as inseminating the female waters of creation, in the great square moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Either way, this alignment is a beautiful example of sacred geography in its clearest, academically-safe, rawest form.
When considering Angkor Wat, come beyond the simplistic conclusion that “it was aligned to the sun” and question further the specifics of why and how when it was aligned to the sun. It is more than a functioning ‘calendar in stone’. The builders didn’t align to the extreme positions of the sun on the horizon’, as astronomers would, rather, they aimed to a carefully calculated place in the sky where in the minutes following the equinox sunrise, the suns blazing corona was seen perched atop the central temple and perceived as pumping powerful “creation energy” downwards, first into the temple, then the king, and outwards across the entire Khmer empire.
Albeit Angkor Wat is one of the most written about ancient buildings on our planet, little attention has been given to the underlying alignments which synthesise the temple with the surrounding landscape. In Part 5 we will use the primary solstice alignment between Angkor Wat and Phnom Bok hill-top temple as a tool to reverse engineer the Khmer sacred landscape, a revelatory project never before undertaken.
- Aveni, A. F., Hartung, H. (1988).Archaeoastronomy and dynastic history at Tikal. In Aveni, A. (ed.), New Directions in American Archaeoastronomy, BAR International Series 454, Oxford, pp. 1-11.
- Fletcher, R., Evans, D., Pottier, C, Rachna, C. Angkor Wat: an introduction. Antiquity 89 (2015): 1388–1401
- Kak, S. (1999) The solar numbers in Angkor Wat. Indian Journal of History of Science 34: 117–26..
- Magli, G. (2013) Architecture, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in Ancient Egypt Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Mannikka, Eleanor (1996) Angkor Wat – Time, Space, and Kingship, University of Hawai’i Press
Copyright 2017 by Ashley Cowie
Presented with permission
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