Angkor Wat, meaning “Temple City” or “City of Temples,” was built during the reign of Khmer King Suryavarman II during the first half of the 12th century in the city of Angkor in Cambodia. It was meant to serve both as the capital of the Khmer Empire and the State Temple dedicated to Vishnu.
It is the largest religious temple complex in the world with a total area of almost 200 hectares. The temple is unique in that it combines two major features of Khmer architecture: a pyramid and concentric galleries. Pyramids had long been a symbol for Mount Meru, a representation of the cosmos and the center of the Hindu universe in Khmer architecture. Galleries only began to appear at the beginning of the 11th century. Angkor Wat combines these two features to create an innovation in Khmer architecture. In addition, Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west, an uncommon feature of most Angkorian temples.
The geography and symmetrical layout of the temple is imbued with symbolic significance.
The moat surrounding the temple represents the mythical ocean surrounding the earth. The succession of concentric galleries represents the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the gods. The towers symbolize the mountain peaks, the ascent to the central shrine embodying the rise of the soul. The ascent is structured by strict social rules, with the laity being admitted only to the lowest levels.
The galleries of Angkor Wat are decorated with many notable reliefs, the most notable being “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.”
This relief is sculpted in the southern wing of the eastern gallery and is approximately 50 meters long. At the center of the panel is an unfinished depiction of Vishnu in front of Mount Mandara, which serves as the churning pole, supported by Vishnu’s avatar, the tortoise Kurma, wearing a small crown. Vishnu is directing the devas (benevolent divine beings) and asura (demigods) who are pulling the great Vasuki (king serpent) around the post. The asura are distinguished from the devas through their crested helmets. The devas wear conical crowns.
The relief depicts an episode in which Vishnu intervenes during a thousand year battle between the devas and asuras in order to obtain amrita, an elixir that would grant immortality and incorruptibility. With Vishnu’s help, the asuras and devas begin churning the Ocean of Milk by using Mount Mandara as the pivot and the five-headed naga Vasuki as the rope. When Mount Mandara begins to sink, Vishnu incarnates as the tortoise Karma to support the sinking mountain. The turtle is an important figure in Hinduism as it represents creative power. Many other gods such as Indra also assist in the pivoting of the mountain. At the bottom of the panel, sea creatures and fish are shown being sucked into the vortex of the agitated liquid.
The Ocean of Milk is churned for another thousands years before finally producing the elixir, among other treasures. Unfortunately, another battle ensues to decide who will gain possession of the amrita.
Vishnu intervenes once again—this time as the beautiful girl Mohini. He removes the amrita to prevent its misuse. When peace is finally restored to the universe, Indra is reinstalled as the King of the Gods.