The history of the Angkor temples

L’histoire des temples d’Angkor

The Angkor archaeological site is one of the largest in Southeast Asia. The place is very large and contains vestiges of various capitals of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from the ninth to the fifteenth century. There are several temples with a very rich history, for example the temple of Angkor Wat and the temple of Bayon. This is the story of the Angkor temples.


A vast archaeological site

Angkor is located in the province of Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia. This archaeological site is huge, covering approximately 400 square kilometers. Several roads were laid out there and hydraulic structures were built there during the time of the Khmer Empire. But it's the temples that get the most attention. Taken together, the life and grandeur of an empire that dominated the region for several centuries is reconstructed.

The place is still inhabited, sometimes even by descendants of people who lived through the Khmer period. The local population mainly cultivates rice and other forms of agriculture.

The architectural art seen in Angkor is a testament to the great influence of that empire's culture over much of Southeast Asia. The site is essential for understanding a civilization of which it shelters the last traces. The site is well preserved as it still houses the most important architectural buildings of the time. The most important hydraulic systems are still in operation.


One of the main challenges in preserving the site is coping with pressure from the local population as well as from tourism. Much effort is being made to promote awareness of the culture of this civilization and to sensitize populations to the importance of preserving the site and its temples. Many practices from the days of the Khmer Empire still exist among the local populations.

Several plants present on the site have medicinal virtues. The local populations know their use. Before being eaten, the plants are often brought to the site of one of the temples for the gods to bless. Moreover, the temple of Preah Khan would be a former university devoted to medicine. As for him, the temple of Neak Poan is considered a former hospital.

Since 1992, the site has been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was even considered endangered until 2004.

Angkor Wat

The temple of Angkor Wat is the most famous among the monuments of Angkor. It's about largest religious monument in the world. It was built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II. It was built for the purpose of serving as a state temple and also a mausoleum.

This temple is the best preserved among all those in the archaeological site. It has always remained an important religious site, dedicated to the god Vishnu. Towards the end of the twelfth century, Angkor Wat became a temple Buddhist.

As the Angkor Wat temple sets the benchmark for Khmer architecture, it is now considered the symbol of Cambodia. The temple is even present on the national flag. The design of the temple combines two bases of the architecture of this civilization, namely the temple-mountain aspect and the temple aspect with galleries. It was designed to resemble the Mount Meru, considered the house of the gods.

The legend

Legend also attributes a divine origin to the temple of Angkor Wat, said to be a gift from Indra, the king of the gods, who sent his own architect to earth to build it. Angkor Wat would have risen from the ground and it would have been built in a single night. The original name of the temple is unknown since no inscription can be found.

As Suryavarman II honored Vishnu, this might explain why the temple faces west, which is related to this god. The other temples are oriented differently. When the king died, what remained to be built of the temple would have been abandoned.

From the end of the twelfth century, Angkor Wat gradually passed from a Hindu place of worship to Buddhist place of worship, which it always is. As it has never been completely abandoned, it is the best preserved Angkor temple. Its moat has always protected it from the expansion of the surrounding jungle. It has been documented that in the seventeenth century, Japanese pilgrims came here, considering the place to be the Jetavana garden of the Buddha.

One of the first visitors from the West to speak about the temple was Antonio da Madalena, a Portuguese monk. He says he cannot describe such splendor and such grandeur. It was, however, the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who made him most famous in the West in the nineteenth century in his travel notes. He is so dazzled that he cannot believe it was built by the Khmer Empire. He falsely believes it dates back to ancient Rome.

His testimony prompted the French government to investigate the site. Subsequent clearance and restoration work helped to piece together the history of the monument. The inscriptions found on the monuments have been copied and studied in order to discover the culture of this civilization. The value of the monuments was a factor that led France to make Cambodia one of its protectorates.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, archaeological work confirmed that the constructions were of Khmer origin. As there was no oral or written tradition around the temple, it was believed until then that it was of divine origin.

To properly restore the temple of Angkor Wat, major works were necessary. It was necessary to remove the vegetation that had accumulated as well as the soil. The civil war involving the Khmer Rouge interrupted work and vegetation began to take hold again. However, the temple did not suffer significant damage.

Since 1990, the restoration of the temple has been a priority, made necessary among other things by the influx of tourists. The bas-reliefs and devatas had degraded due to erosion and the process of degradation of the stone. It also involved repairing collapsed sections and preventing other sections from collapsing by strengthening the temple structure.



Bayon is another temple on the site with a very important history. This is a very popular Buddhist temple. He is famous for his large sculptures representing the face of Buddha. Over 200 Buddha heads are carved on the four-sided pillars. The Bayon Temple is the central structure of Angkor Thom, the ancient walled city.

The temple was built at the beginning of the thirteenth century. It is the last temple-mountain built under Jayavarman VII. Bayon has been a state temple. Around 1350, the monument became a Hindu temple, which became the official religion. Other structures were then installed to pay homage to the gods of Hinduism. Several Buddha images have been removed or destroyed.

It was not until the twentieth century that the Buddha sculptures were repaired where they could be. The central sanctuary has also been restored. In 1933, excavations uncovered the remains of a large stone statue called Mucalinda. It represents the Buddha seated on the body of the naga. The statue is in fact a representation of Jayavarman VII.

Your Prohm

The Ta Prohm temple became famous after the movie Tomb Raider.It is very well preserved. The roots of very old trees are intertwined in the stones that sit above it. The Ta Prohm temple was part of a large construction and works project started in 1186 by Jayavarman VII. The construction of Ta Prohm was dedicated to the royal family. The idol of the temple is Prajnaramita, who personifies wisdom.

The fall of the Khmer Empire in the fifteenth century led to the abandonment of Ta Prohm. It was not until the turn of the century that restoration work was undertaken on the Ta Prohm temple. The temple has not been transformed, which gives it its important historical character. Its very typical decorations reflect the culture of the Khmer civilization.

The only work carried out was to solidify the temple and especially to keep its initial appearance. Arrangements have also been made to make it easier for visitors to access the interior.

Preah Khan

The Prea Khan temple is considered the place where Khmer culture was spread. It was indeed a Buddhist university. Preah Khan is also built to recall the victory of Jayavarman VII over the Chams, traditional enemies of the Khmers. It is said that the university could accommodate a thousand professors. In total, nearly 15,000 people were busy there. The site is surrounded by a moat.

It was also an important economic center as farmers in the area were called upon to meet the needs of those associated with the temple. Among other things, it took a lot of rice to feed everyone. The return to Hinduism in the thirteenth century involved the destruction or modification of representations of the Buddha. In the twentieth century, work led to the restoration of the original temple.

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