Khmer Temples & Mythology

Angkor Wat


Religious Symbolism

Bronze chariot fitting showing Garuda clutching the naga

Every surviving Khmer building had a religious purpose. The reason is simply that only temples and other religious foundations merited the use of permanent materials – brick. sandstone laterite - and all else has decomposed over the centuries. Even the palace of the king at Angkor was timber.

To appreciate fully these monuments built by the Khmers between approximately the 7th and the 13th centuries, it is important to know something of the Hindu and Buddhist cults to which they were dedicated. The buildings and their artefacts were single-mindedly designed for worship. "Most of the objects to be met are devotional in nature, created with religious and utilitarian rather then aesthetic motives; and they were fashioned by craftsmen who worked in a tradition which dictated strict canons of iconography and manufacture, and who could never have understood the meaning of the word 'artist' as it is used today" This is Roy Craven writing about Khmer artefacts, and his comments apply equally to the architecture. None of the work of this period lends itself to being judged on modern grounds of taste, even though the results may well inspire and delight.

Over the Khmer Empire as a whole, Hinduism dominated until the end of the 12th century, when it gave way to Mahayana Buddhism, although not for long Both came from India, and although the exact means are in doubt, it is likely that Indian traders were the first to introduce their religion to Cambodia Hinduism over the centuries had changed its focus, with different gods in ascendancy, but by the time it reached the Khmers there were two principal cults-that of Vishnu and that of Shiva. These two gods were part of the Hindu Trinity (the third was Brahma) which commanded a pantheon of lesser gods and had inter alia a complex relationship. They were connected in many of the same myths, acted partly in concert, partly in rivalry.

Small bronze statue of the 4 - armed Vishnu

Vishnu four-armed and holding a conch discus mace and lotus is the Protector His fundamental role in cosmology is to conserve the status qua in the universe. He takes a particular interest in human affairs, so much so that on occasions he takes on an earthly form to intervene. These various forms of Vishnu are known as avatar, and the two most famous are Rama, eponymous hero of the Ramayana epic, and Krishna. Both of these personalities embody a kind of magical ideal; they are true heroes, physically and morally. Other avatar of Vishnu include a lion, wild boar, dwarf, turtle and fish. In the range of Hindu deities, Vishnu is essentially kindly and well-disposed to man, and this accounts for a large part of the god's popularity as a cult.

Stone linga representing the essence of Shiva from Sung Noen, Nakhon Ratchasima.

Shiva contrasts with Vishnu in a number of ways.His main cosmological role is os the Destroyer he brings each kalpa, or world cycle, to an end with his dance of destruction However, Shiva's force is by no means is a negative one, as in modern physics, Hindu cosmology envisaged the universe is having a cyclic nature. The end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva's dance is also the beginning of the next. Rebirth follows destruction In the cosmological sense, Shiva's power’s are more fundamental than Vishnu’s.

The Khmers worshipped Shiva primarily in the form of a linga- a pillar, usually in stone, derived from a phallus and representing the essence of the god. The linga, mounted in a pedestal representing an equally abstract yoni, or female organ, occupied the shrine of a temple, and was the focus of rituals conducted by the priests. The other forms in which Shiva was represented were as the 10 armed god dancing the universe to destruction, as the supreme yogi, or ascetic, and riding with his consort Uma on his steed, the bull Nandin.