Sightseeing with Shiva: a beginner’s guide to Hindu mythology at Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

This post was written in Cambodia, 2011. 

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Vishnu disemboweling a demon, Banteay Srei

The temples of Angkor – remnants of a vast Khmer civilisation that reached its height in 11th century Cambodia – are impressive for their sheer size and architectural brilliance. However, for me the most fascinating aspect of Angkor is the Hindu mythology carved into the temple walls. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes these stories and carvings so intriguing. They are certainly well crafted – both in artistic style and in story structure – and the characters are strong and complex. However, there is another attraction that is less easily defined. There is a sense of life in the Hindu mythology at Angkor – a rich, universal, and perhaps primeval understanding of what lies at the very basis of human nature. There is something of the jungle about these stories, something humid that speaks to us on a fundamental level. The recurring themes of violence, passion and beauty are our own themes as well. And while the tales of Vishnu and Shiva may seem like something from another world, they are also very much a part of this one. Below are some of the temples I found the most interesting.

Pre Rup

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Central temple, Pre Rup

Visiting any of the temples at Angkor is best done early in the morning, in order to avoid both the heat and the crowds. It may be tough to wake up before sunrise (especially if you’ve been enjoying cheap cocktails in Siem Reap’s Pub Street the night before) but it’s well worth it. Pick up some fresh baguettes from the market and some strong, sweet Khmer coffee and hit the road. While Angkor Wat is nearly always busy some of the smaller, less popular temples are often completely deserted early in the mornings. Pre Rup is an architecturally impressive temple, and on both occasions I visited it for sunrise it was empty. Built to resemble the cosmic Mt. Meru of Hindu mythology, Pre Rup is made up of tall outer towers surrounding a central peak that represents the dwelling place of the gods. This temple-mountain design is a significant aspect of many Khmer temples, and places the gods at the centre of the universe, from which the rest of the world is laid out. Like many of the temples at Angkor, Pre Rup is dedicated to Shiva, the god of destruction, and the temple is littered with lingams – phallic representations of the Hindu god.

The East Mebon

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Elephant statue, the East Mebon

Just down the road from Pre Rup is the East Mebon, originally built on an artificial island and memorable for the numerous well-preserved elephant statues that line its walls. Also dedicated to Shiva, the East Mebon houses eight lingams representing the murti (or different aspects) of the god. Shiva’s nature is composed of the sun, moon, wind, land, water, fire, ethereal space, and atman (soul). The East Mebon is also an excellent place to discover some of the other characters of Hindu mythology carved into lintels above the temple’s doorways. There are beautifully styled depictions of Indra, the king of the gods, riding on the three-headed elephant Airavata; Skanda, the war god, on a peacock; and Shiva on the bull Nandi. There is also a carving of Ganesha – the elephant god – riding on his own trunk.

Angkor Wat

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From The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat

Unlike Pre Rup and the East Mebon, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, the god of preservation (the second in the Trimurti after Brahma – the creator – and before Shiva). Most of Angkor Wat’s incredible bas reliefs (extensive carvings on the temple walls) relate to Vishnu, and it is in these reliefs that Hindu mythology really comes to life. The Battle of Lanka tells the story of Rama’s (an incarnation of Vishnu) fight with Ravana, a thousand-headed demon, and includes a spectacular depiction of monkeys biting and terrorising demons. In the Judgement of the Dead three planes of existence – heaven, earth, and hell – are rendered, and the god of the dead oversees the torture of the damned from atop a buffalo. Perhaps the most famous bas relief, however, and arguably one of the most compelling and beautiful stories in Hindu mythology, is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. A Hindu creation myth, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk describes an ongoing battle between gods and demons that ultimately leads to the generation of many strange and beautiful creatures from the primordial ocean. This story is told in stunning pictorial detail in Angkor Wat’s east gallery, and its creative imagery and storytelling leaves a lasting impression.

Banteay Srei

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Makara, Banteay Srei

When it comes to carvings, however, Banteay Srei is perhaps the most spectacular temple, and my personal favourite. About a half hour tuk-tuk ride from the main temple route, Banteay Srei is a little out of the way, but is certainly worth it. Known as the “Citadel of the Women” because of its many carvings of beautiful devatas (female divinities), Banteay Srei is again dedicated to Shiva. It is home to some of the most fascinating creatures in Hindu mythology, including the naga (serpents with multiple heads), the makara (aquatic monsters with trunks and horns), and garuda, half-bird half-man. The doorway carvings of mythological scenes, however, are the most fascinating aspect of Banteay Srei. In one carving Ravana, the thousand-headed demon, shakes a mountain on which Shiva and his consort Uma (also known as Durga, the warrior goddess) are seated. In another, Kama, the god of love, is poised to shoot an arrow at Shiva so that he will notice Uma. The battle between the two monkey kings, Sugriva and Valin, is depicted on another lintel. There are smaller carvings of Vishnu disembowelling a demon, and Shiva and Uma riding on the bull Nandi. Banteay Srei is a smaller temple, but its extensive carvings make it worth spending a lot of time wandering around.

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Ravana shaking the mountain, Banteay Srei

Stories about the creation of the universe, tales of great battles between gods and demons, and detailed descriptions of creatures that are part human and part animal give the temples of Angkor a unique atmosphere. While the beauty of the carvings and the ancient architecture are themselves to be admired, a basic understanding of the Hindu mythology of Angkor can greatly enhance your experience. Marilia Albanese’s book The Treasures of Angkor is a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about Hindu mythology at Angkor.

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