Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Gods of Ancient Angkor

A few days ago, Nana introduced us to Khmer temple architecture. The hope was that we could link back to that post as needed so our readers wouldn't have to hear an explanation of what laterite is every time they visit the blog. This way, we could focus in later posts on what makes each individual temple unique.

Today, I'm going to attempt something similar: a brief introduction to Khmer religion, with a short roll call of the deities most commonly found in carvings around Angkor.


The religions of ancient Angkor were Indian in origin.

Officially, the Khmer Empire was a Hindu state with the god-king at its head, and the surviving state temples were almost all dedicated to Hindu deities and built in honor of the king himself or of his ancestors. Sometimes, there's evidence that the carvings of the gods in these temples are actually likenesses of the royals in whose honor the temple was constructed. Thus the temples often doubled as mausoleums for the royal family, whose ashes would be interred there.

In addition, the largest state temple complexes were also capital cities - their huge, empty precincts, many of which are now forested, would have been packed with wooden homes and buildings. This is another way of saying that there was no separation of church and state. Essentially, the church was the state, and the state was the church.

At the same time, we don't know much about the everyday religious practices of the Khmer people. What we do know is guesswork, based on fragmentary information and the assumption that locals worshipped at smaller, wooden temples and shrines that have not survived the intervening millennium. Most scholars suppose that the Khmer people practiced a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and local traditions of animism and ancestor worship.

At the very least, we know that Khmer Buddhism was strong enough to allow for Jayavarman VII, the major exception to official establishment of Hinduism in the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman VII is widely regarded as the greatest of the Khmer kings; he was also the last great king before the empire's decline. He was a Buddhist, and sought to establish Buddhism alongside traditional Hinduism as the new dual state religion of the empire.

The many temples built during the reign of Jayavarman VII symbolize in stone his efforts to reconcile the rival  faiths. His efforts failed in the short term - his successor, Jayavarman VIII, was a reactionary Hindu who destroyed the most overt Buddhist carvings of his predecessor's reign.

In the end, Jayavarman VII has had the last laugh: even the Hindu temples of Angkor have long since been taken over by Buddhists, and some have been in continuous use as sites of Buddhist worship for almost eight centuries.

The Gods

There are three main gods in Hinduism, collectively called the Trimurti. These three gods, like all Hindu gods, are actually just manifestations of a single, unfathomable God. Thus in practice, they tend to blend together, and in a sense a temple to one is a temple to all three.


Brahma is the Hindu god of creation. He has four faces. He creates the new universe at the beginning of each cosmic era, but after that he doesn't really do anything. Hindus, practical folk that they are, don't spend much time on Brahma. There isn't a single temple at Angkor dedicated to Brahma's worship.

At Angkor, Brahma usually appears on a lotus blossom sprouting from the resting Vishnu's stomach, ready to launch the next cosmic cycle.
Sadly, after you've heard these stories a few dozen times,
they almost begin to make sense.
He's also represented by the face-towers strewn about in the reign of Jayavarman VII.

These towers have four faces, just like Brahma. However, they're not pure Brahma symbols: they also represent Jayavarman VII himself, watching over the four cardinal directions; and at the same time they represent the Buddha, which makes them the largest Buddha images to survive the reign of Jayavarman VIII.


Vishnu is the god of preservation or stasis. He's enshrined in a handful of temples around Angkor, including Angkor Wat. He is usually shown with four arms.

Often, he's riding Garuda, a god who's shaped like a man on top and like a bird on the bottom.
Chhaiy, our guide, was very careful to remind us
that Garuda does not fly.
Often, Garuda himself is used to stand in for Vishnu. It's common in Khmer art to use the god's vehicle as a symbol for the god. Garuda was also co-opted as a Buddhist symbol of intelligence and social cooperation.

Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi. She usually appears as a depiction of the real-life wife of the king (or king's father) honored by the temple.


Shiva is the Hindu god of change or destruction. One of his primary aims was the destruction of evil. He was the most popular focus of worship in the surviving temples of Angkor. Accordingly, he shows up in many forms - too many to count, really, though the most common is definitely the linga or lingam, an abstract phallic statue on a pedestal that simultaneously represents Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and female fertility.

Here's a linga without the pedestal.
Nana's looking at a pedestal without its linga.
Shiva is often represented by his vehicle, the sacred bull Nandi.
Here's Nandi, about to wish a happy birthday to Nana's dad.
Shiva's wife is Sita. Like Lakshmi, Sita usually appears as a representation of the wife of whichever royal dude honored by the temple.


Indra is the Hindu god of the sky. He controls the weather. He rarely appears in person at Angkor - instead, he's represented by his steed, a three-headed elephant named Airavata (also Erawan).

Here's Indra riding Airavata.
Indra is one of the Hindu gods later co-opted by certain Buddhist traditions, in which he serves as the guardian of heaven. Jayavarman VII used Airavata frequently to symbolize harmony between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.


Yama is the Hindu god of death and the dead. He's not common at Angkor, though you see him in a couple important bas relief carvings, and there was a statue of him on the misleadingly-named Terrace of the Leper King. (The statue there now is a replica.)


In the Cambodian tradition of Hinduism, the naga is a mythical serpent with a bunch of heads.

They're all over Angkor, and they're important both to Hinduism and to Buddhism. The naga is a key part of the Hindu creation story, as a huge naga is used by the angels and demons to churn an ocean of milk in an effort to achieve immortality (trust me, this is not the last you'll hear of this). According to some traditions, a naga also sheltered Buddha from rain and flood while he was meditating to achieve enlightenment.

Traditionally, the naga is the enemy of Garuda (above), but Jayavarman VII often depicted the two together, again symbolizing cooperation between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.


Buddha's not technically a deity, but we won't get into that here. At one time, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, there were probably as many Buddha images at Angkor as there were images of any Hindu god. Nowadays, most of them look like this:

Empty niche = former Buddha.
That's because Jayavarman VIII, who reverted to Hindiusm as the state religion, had most of the Buddha images at Angkor destroyed.

However, the famous face-towers of Jayavarman VII also represent Buddha.

It's likely Jayavarman VIII declined to destroy these images because they also represented Brahma and, at the same time, the personal power of the Khmer god-king. In fact, while all the obvious representations of Buddha have been destroyed, most of Jayavarman VII's layered Hindu-Buddhist imagery survives, giving many of the later Angkor temples a distinctly Buddhist vibe.

Note to family: Yes, we will be appearing in these photos, eventually. Stay tuned for some posts about our actual visits to the temples, once we've laid the groundwork with all this historical stuff.

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