Cambodian architecture has become synonymous with Khmer architecture and more precisely to the iconic constructions of Angkor temples during the growth and peak of Khmer Empire. There are over a hundred major architectural sites to be visited in and around Siem Reap – the religious remains of a series of cities built by a succession of Khmer kings from the 7th to the 13th centuries.
Most temples were built in eastern orientation, a sort of glorification of the rising sun, could be considered as a manifestation of the sun cult so favoured in ancient civilisations - and taken when rising with its most strength at the summer solstice and following the course of its light, the ambulation ritual of pradakshina around the temple in fact becomes none other than the living translation of this trajectory. According to some archaeologists, the siting of most of the Angkor monuments corresponded to a sort of marking out of the solar path according to the solstitial alignments.
Many were built as “temple mountains” or pyramids, symbolic of the cosmic Mount Meru of Hindu mythology. The five tiered mountain at the centre of the universe (the temple) was said to be the encircled by seven chains of mountains (the enclosure walls) which were surrounded in turn by the sea (the moat).
Sometimes the pyramid is crowned with a single sanctuary, others with a quincunx of towers in evocation of the five summits of Meru. Occasionally other buildings also adorn the tiers. In every case, the square or rectangular surrounding walls enclose secondary buildings at the base - the chains of mountains surrounding the cosmic mountain and separated by the seas, represented here by moats. For the Khmer, this double principle of tiering and of successive enclosure forms the origin of all architectural realisation.
Occasionally, however, - particularly in the less important monuments of the pre-angkorian period or at the beginning of the classic art - the notion of elevation was expressed by the simple raising of the buildings on a terrace, where they were presented as if on a plateau - sometimes as an isolated sanctuary, sometimes as one or two rows of towers.
Towards the beginning of the 11th century came the appearance of covered galleries linking the corner sanctuaries or surrounding the central group - with entrance pavilions or “gopura” on the four axes - forming interior courtyards that emphasised the private nature of the religious buildings. These were often themselves complemented with other galleries on pillars, perhaps with half-vaulted side-aisles, dividing the courtyard into four sections - or else, serving to accentuate the eastern orientation, expanding into long rooms adjoining the principal building, flanked on either side by the so called “libraries” that opened to the west.
Architecturally, supported by the test of time, we can be justified in recognising that the Khmer, in composing Angkor Wat, in arranging the royal esplanade of Angkor Thom or the admirable perspective of Prah Khan with its avenue of bornes and the lake of Neak Pean - or in digging the two barays and the Srah Srang - showed a strong understanding for the concept of the grand scheme, so realising an ensemble that stands unique. As a progression of “events” these are a prelude to the conceptions of Le Notre3 and of the grand urban designers of modern times. Angkor Wat, comparable to the most impressive of history’s architectural compositions, in responding to all the requirements of a “component” within an already established plan, attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions. It is a work of power, unity and style.
The conformity of Khmer art is undeniable - and though India may be at its source, she is so as stimulator rather than creator. She perhaps imposed ideas of direction, framework, tradition and constraint, but in following these “formulas” the Khmer put them to their own particular use and, in the execution, took control. While the builder of the Hindu temples has no respect for any architectural concept and, carried away in a frenzy of modelling, encumbers the composition which so becomes confused with the extravagance of the decoration, the Khmer sculptor on the other hand maintains a feeling for the dimension of the mass, and, working always directly on the surface of the pre-formed panels of wall, submits to the discipline imposed by the architect to enhance the main idea, to emphasise the form by the organisation of his mouldings and ornamentation rather than to detract from its purity - he never allows free rein to his fantasy and spirit except in the detail, which is usually minute.
The temples of ancient Cambodia are constructed either in sandstone or in brick, often combined in a greater or lesser proportion with laterite, tiles and timbers. Laterite or “baï kriem” - literally ‘grilled rice’ - is a porous, reddish brown stone that has certain analogies with our mudstone. The ornamentation is the triumph of Khmer art, where the architecture, as we have seen, is but the realisation of a ritual. Far from distracting the attention from the collective composition or from the geometry of the lines and volumes, the ornamentation emphasises and enhances each form, though without domination. Through the ornamentation, the rigid framework of the profiles and masses becomes animated with the shimmering of light and shade - all are in living communion. Unified in their setting, the scenes with figures and the decoration achieve perfect harmony.
Some useful terms to understand Khmer architecture
BAS-RELIEFS: If the Khmer artist managed occasionally to free himself from the constraints that controlled him to give expression to his personality, then it would evidently be in the narrative form of the bas-reliefs.
DEVATAS, APSARAS, DVARAPALAS: These are the low reliefs of isolated figures or groups, sculpted sometimes on a plain wall or on a background of decoration, but usually sheltered within niches.
NAGA: Benevolent mythical water serpent; the naga - a stylised cobra endowed with multiple heads, always uneven in number from three to nine, arranged in a fan.
APSARA: heavenly female figure
GOPURA: crowned or covered gate entrance to a religious area
LINGA: symbol and one of the forms of Shiva. Embedded in a pedestal shaped to allow drainage of lustral water poured over it
LINTEL: a load bearing stone spanning a doorway often heavily carved.
MERU: sacred or cosmic mountain at the centre of the world in Hindu Buddhist cosmology home of the God
BRAHMA: The Creator, one of the Gods of Hindu trinity usually represented with four faces
VISHNU: The Protector, one of the gods of the Hindu trinity, generally with four arms holding a disc, ball or a club
SHIVA: the Destroyer of evil, symbolized by linga
(Exceprt from The Angkor Guide)