10 Facts about Angkor Wat, the World’s Largest Religious Temple

Angkor Wat symbolized the power and influence of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century. Then, it was all but abandoned.
Angkor Wat reflected in one of its waterways.
Angkor Wat reflected in one of its waterways. / Ashit Desai/Moment/Getty Images

Rising out of the Cambodian forest, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious compound with a long history intertwined with the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire. In the 12th century, hundreds of thousands of workers built the colossal temple and carved countless intricate figures into its walls—and then, in the 15th century, it was largely abandoned. 

Today Angkor Wat is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, according to UNESCO. Here is what we know of its story.

Angkor Wat contains more than 1000 buildings.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is enormous, covering around 400 acres of land and comprising over 1000 structures as well as water systems and pathways. Its name means “temple city.” Angkor Wat was part of the city of Angkor, the center of the Khmer Empire—one of the most prosperous and successful empires in Southeast Asia, which ruled over most of what is now Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Researchers have suggested that the huge number of temples within it contain more stone than all the pyramids in Egypt combined.

The design is based on Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods.

An aerial view of Angkor Wat.
An aerial view of Angkor Wat. / Matteo Colombo/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In Hindu mythology, Mount Meru is the dwelling place of the gods, and the five central towers of Angkor Wat are thought to represent the sacred golden mountain. Myths hold that Mount Meru is the center of the universe, passing through Earth and supporting the planets and heavens above. The most important Hindu gods—Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu—are said to live at the very top of the mountain, with the many devas (demi-gods) living lower down. 

In Buddhist teaching, Mount Meru is circled by a large body of water. It is thought that this scene inspired the enormous moat that surrounds Angkor Wat. 

Building Angkor Wat required 6000 elephants.

Angkor Wat was commissioned by King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to around 1150 CE. The temple was intended to represent the center of Suryavarman II’s empire and symbolize his power and influence. The building of such a large and elaborate temple was an incredible feat of engineering: It took 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants to construct it using stone transported 31 miles along the nearby river on rafts. The project took around 30 years to build, though it was never fully finished.

Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu god of protection and preservation.

A statue of Vishnu at Angkor Wat.
A statue of Vishnu at Angkor Wat. / Boy_Anupong/Moment/Getty Images

Suryavarman II had Angkor Wat built as a Hindu temple in honor of Vishnu, one of the gods in the Hindu triumvirate, who represents the upkeep of the universe. This in itself was unusual; at the time, most Hindu temples were dedicated to Shiva, the god of destruction. The original construction was covered in carvings from Hindu mythology and dedications to Hindu gods. 

In 1177, the city of Angkor was sacked by the Cham people from modern-day Vietnam. The Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII, who was then in power, blamed the gods for his misfortune. Jayavarman VII converted to Buddhism and built a new capital at nearby Angkor Thom. As a result, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple and many new carvings and statues dedicated to Buddha were added to the building, while much of the Hindu decoration was maintained out of respect. A legend from the 16th century attests that Angkor Wat was magically built by the Buddhist god Indra for his son in just one night.

Stories from eight Hindu epics are carved in its walls.

A group of asparas carved into a wall in Angkor Wat.
A group of asparas carved into a wall in Angkor Wat. / Anders Blomqvist/Stone/Getty Images

Perhaps the most impressive aspects of Angkor Wat are the beautiful stone carvings, or bas-reliefs, decorating its walls. The carvings cover more than 1200 square meters (nearly 13,000 square feet) and feature over 2000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs), of which no two are the same. Sculptures depicting stories from eight Hindu epics, including the Ramayana and the Mahābhārata, allow visitors to follow the legends as they walk around the temples. In one celebrated scene, a bas-relief portrays the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” a Hindu creation story in which Vishnu triumphs over evil.

Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century.

Historians aren’t sure of the exact reason for the decline of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century. Growing conflicts with other regional powers, climate change involving long droughts followed by destructive storms, and religious divisions between Hindus and Buddhists may have played a part. After numerous attacks, Thai forces captured and sacked Angkor for the final time in 1431, severing trade routes, destroying farmland, and forcing the inhabitants to flee. Though the city was abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, the temple of Angkor Wat remained an important Buddhist site, and a number of monks stayed behind and maintained it. 

Angkor Wat was supposedly “rediscovered” in 1863.

A detail from a drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot.
A detail from a drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot. / Henri Mouhot, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1863, French naturalist Henri Mouhot published an account of his travels in Cambodia three years earlier,  in which he claimed he had discovered the “lost city of Angkor.” Europeans were fascinated by his account of the overgrown temples, but more recently, historians have pushed back on the idea that Angkor needed “rediscovering.” Not only was the temple of Angkor Wat never lost to the Cambodians themselves, but evidence reveals that in the 15th and 16th centuries Portuguese and Spanish missionaries visited the site. In the 17th century, Japanese explorers set up camp in Angkor and left graffiti on a pillar, along with drawing the earliest known map of the temple.

Angkor Wat faces west.

Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, unlike most temples of its time and context, which face east. Historians have debated the significance of the western orientation, noting that the bas-reliefs also follow in a counter-clockwise direction which is the opposite of standard Hindu temples. Some have suggested that this relates to traditional Brahmin funerals in which rituals take place in reverse, implying that the temple may have been built as a mausoleum for King Suryavarman II. No burial place has been discovered at the temple, however, so it is thought the king may have died and been buried elsewhere.

The sun rises over Angkor Wat on the spring equinox.

A large tree trunk growing out of a temple area in Angkor Wat
Parts of Angkor Wat have been taken over by huge trees. / Nikada/E+/Getty Images

Like many ancient temples, Angkor Wat appears to have been built so the sun rises over the central tower of the temple on the spring equinox, bathing it in a golden glow. This alignment demonstrates that its architects had a strong understanding of astronomy and possessed the advanced engineering skills required to orient the temple accordingly. Today, thousands of tourists flock to Angkor Wat to witness the sun rise on equinox.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The entire extent of the ancient city of Angkor and its numerous temples, including Angkor Wat, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site was listed in 1992 and efforts have been made to preserve and protect it. Over 3 million domestic and international tourists visit it every year, making it one of Cambodia’s most popular destinations and an important symbol for the country. Since 1863 (give or take a few years of foreign occupation), Angkor Wat has appeared in some form on the nation’s flag.

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