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Angkor Wat -- The Tale of a People

 
Few places in the world inspire a sense of awe and romance like Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The temple is always described in superlatives. Some view it as humanity's greatest expression of religious faith. Indeed, it is the world's largest religious monument, a testament to the genius of the Khmer civilization.

But Angkor Wat is more about quality than quantity. The magnificent artwork of the temple has astounded visitors since the complex was rediscovered by Henri Mahout in the mid-nineteenth century. "For where are the words to praise a work of art that may not have its equal anywhere on the globe?" wrote Mahout after exploring the ruins.

And the temple is just one of many in one of the largest historical areas in the world extending over 200 square miles. Here one will also find Angkor Thom, one of the ancient world's largest cities covering some 75 square miles and possibly hosting a population of a million people.

Let's see how some noted visitors of the past have described what they saw:

"Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivalled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jehan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal."

D H Dickason, author

"Angkor Thom is undeniably an expression of the highest genius. It is, in three dimensions and on a scale worthy of an entire nation, the materialization of Buddhist cosmology, represents ideas that only great painters would dare to portray...Angkor Thom is not an architectural "miracle"... it is in reality the worlds of the gods springing up from the heart of ancient Cambodia."

J Boisselier, author

"It is grander than anything left to us by Greece and Rome..."

Henri Mahout, explorer

"For an experience of architectural majesty and artistic refinement, Angkor Wat certainly ranks amongst the ten greatest structures of human civilization. To approach via the long causeway, to amble about the sprawling courtyards, to ascend the towering central shrine, is to step for a short while into a realm of such grandeur, such unrestrained power that one's mind and soul are intoxicated with inspiration and infinite possibility."

Martin Gray, photographer of sacred sites

"The Khmers left the world no systems of administration, education or ethics like those of the Chinese; no literatures, religions or systems of philosophy like those of India; but here oriental architecture and decoration reached its culminating point."

Lawrence Palmer Briggs, author

"Angkor ranks as the chief wonder of the world today, one of the summits of which human genius has aspired in stone."

Osbert Sitwell, author

The Khmer people were among the primary ancestors of today's Cambodians. Indeed, modern Cambodians know themselves as Khmer. The Khmer empire is usually dated between 802 AD to 1432 AD. They originally adopted the Hindu faith of India but by the peak of their glory in the thirteenth century, they had converted to Buddhism.

The largest of the Khmer temples is Angkor Wat a massive complex sprawling over 500 acres and containing 1532 columns. The volume of stones involved in building the temple is said to be equal to that of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

One of the keys to the success of the Khmer Empire was their extraordinary hydraulic engineering capabilites which allowed them to turn much of the Mekong Delta into farmable land. They were capable of producing two or even three rice crops a year. Included in this drainage is a 12-kilometer-long, 100-meter-wide main canal.

The Khmers founded an artistic style all their own. One is struck particularly by the happy, smiling faces found on Khmer sculpture. The setting always seems to be that of a grand epic Cambodian or Javanese play on stage. Life is depicted as a great dance.

Magnificent reliefs like that of the Churning of Milky Ocean spanning over 50 meters in length are of a scale and artistry hard to match anywhere.

For Cambodians, Angkor Wat is the symbol of their nationhood. The monument which survived the ravages of the jungle for centuries in many ways symbolizes the Cambodian people who survived the killing fields.

Despite the theft of many valuable artifacts from the Angkor region, Cambodian and UNESCO officials note that only one or two of the oldest Angkor temples is in danger of collapse. Imagine this in an area once overgrown with jungle, regularly inundated by monsoon rains and flooding of the Mekong for centuries, containing over 1,000 temples including some 70 major structures!

The Cambodian government centered its millennium celebration at the temple with the hope of attracting many tourists. But more so in showing off its great heritage to humanity, the wonder of Angkor Wat.