Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

The Religious Symbolism and Architecture of Angkor Wat and Borobudur

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Built by the Khmers between 802 and 1220 AD, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat exist as the remaining relics of a historically and religiously rich city. While many other historical and religious structures in Cambodia have disappeared due in part from being constructed out of vulnerable materials like wood, Angkor Wat still remains as a symbol of the divinity of its former kings, as well as for the palace itself. Likewise, Indonesia’s Borodubur temples exist as the single remaining structures of the city.

The temples of Angkor Wat and Borodubur hold several similarities within architecture and symbolism, both being heavily based on religious belief. However, different features within both structures, architecturally and symbolically, distinguish and provide insight into the individual cultures. Significance of Hinduism, Astronomy, and Cosmology In Angkor Wat Architecture With Hinduism serving as the prevailing religion of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor Wat serve as a visual bridge between the terrestrial plane and the spiritual one.

The temples of Ankgor Wat uses architectural features in order represent various ideas of Hindu Cosmology; “The walls, moats, central sanctuary, entrances, pyramidal temples and bridges with naga balustrades, and monuments such as the Neak Pean, or Bayon,” all contribute to the re-creation of the heavenly world on Earth. By re-creating this, Earth and the heavenly world are entwined; creating a bond between the two worlds that allows humanity to flourish. In constructing Angkor Wat to represent religious beliefs, the Khmer people literally built heaven on Earth.

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By creating a tangible representation of what is believed to have happened in the past, the past becomes more real and more concrete to viewers and believers alike. In order to honor the Hindu God Vishnu, Suryavaram II built Angkor Wat during the early years of the 12th century, around 1150 B. C. Structurally, the central building of Angkor Wat is serves as a re-creation of Mount Meru, the mountain that the center of the Jambudvipa within Hindu cosmology as well as being considered the axis of the Earth by the Hindu religion.

The central mammoth of a tower represents Mount Meru, and uniquely faces west instead of east towards the sunrise, as all other temples do. Several theories explain why the temple faces west; the first theory being that the west is associated with Vishnu. In facing the temple west, the temple continues to serve as a means of honoring Vishnu. The second theory states that King Suryavarman intended Angkor Wat to serve as his funerary temple while a the third theory explains that the alignment of the central tower with the sun adds another dimension to the divinity of the temple.

Ankgor Wat’s architecture does not only exhibit its religious roots, but also displays the importance of astronomy and cosmology. It “contains calendrical, historical, and mythological data encoded into its measurements. ” Because solar movement regulates the position of the bas-reliefs, the architecture exhibits the importance of the sun to the Cambodians. The Cambodians built the structure of Angkor Wat to align directly with the sun during the spring equinox, “where the sun can be seen rising over the central tower. Although no concurrent reason exists as to why the sun is so important to the Cambodians, what can be said is that the sun was so significant to the Cambodians, that they not only based their calendar on the solar and lunar cycles, but they constructed their King’s palace, a place of great importance that connects the heavens with Earth, to align with the sun. The five central towers of Ankgor Wat that stand 77 meters tall hold religious significance as well. These five inter-nested rectangular towers represent five peaks of the mountain Meru.

Also, the moat surrounding the central temple that measures 190 meters wide symbolizes the cosmic ocean that existed before the dawn of creation, and the enclosing wall represents the rock encircling the universe. Creating a replication of “Mount Meru, enclosing walls as the wall of rock, and the moat filled with water as the ocean” serves as the essential architectures for the Cambodians to re-create and symbolize their Hindu religious beliefs. Decorative elements through out the towers and galleries present their own characteristics and fulfill specific needs within the temple.

The towers are formed into the shape of the ever-popular lotus buds, and the galleries are used to expand the many passageways of the temple. Also, the axial galleries within the temple are used to connect several enclosures. Characteristic decorative components of Angkor Wat include narrative and historical bas-reliefs, pediments, and devatas. The bas-reliefs located in the gallery of Angkor Wat holds a special signification for Angkor Wat. The gallery displays heaven and the underworld in which garudas and lions are holding the celestial palaces.

These gerudas indicate that the palaces were floating in heaven, comparing Angkor Wat to the palaces of the Gods. This display furthers the idea that Angkor Wat acts as a liason between the world of Heaven and Earth. Because the palace physically remains on earth but spiritually resides within heaven, the palace acts as communal place for believers to gather. The bas-reliefs and pictures did not only serve to decorate the palaces, or depict stories of the past. They hold the important task of transforming the palace into a “celestial dwelling” or heavenly place.

Further evidence to support this notion is the fact that many scenes are hidden to the point where they cannot even be seen by the naked eye. This highlights the spirituality of the place, that spirituality is not necessarily tangible or seen. In hiding the bas-reliefs, or making them subtler in the overall construction of the temple, furthers the idea that the palace is not meant to be just a place of beauty, but also a place of divinity. Candi Borobudur Layout Unlike Angkor Wat, Buddhism more heavily influences Borobudur.

Built in Indonesia in the 9th century as a shrine to Buddha as well as a pilgrimage site for believers, Borobudur consists of six square platforms topped with four circular platforms. Nearly 2. 700 relief panel and 500 statues of Buddha decorate the temple. Additionally, 72 Buddha statues surround the center of the top platform of the monument. As a pilgrimage site, Pilgrims climb from the bottom of the monument, ascending to the top. While on their voyages, they are said to pass two three levels of Buddhist cosmology, or three stages of Buddhist enlightenment: the Kamadhatu, Ruppadhatu, and Arupadhatu.

These levels represent the world of desire, the world of forms and the world of formlessness. Borobudur differs from Angkor Wat in that is constructed as a single, large stupa, with no inner space. It is the single remaining temple of its kind in Java, and is more than likely intended as a shrine to Buddha, instead of temple or house of worship. Typical Buddhist temples were built with rooms, intended to possess icons; Borobudur does not have the same amount of space or rooms to properly house icons, suggesting that the purpose of Borobudur differs from the other temples of Java.

Various theories exist to explain the purpose behind Burobudur and architecture. It has been said that Borobudur represents Mt. Meru, that it contains three levels of Buddhist enlightenment, that the “round upper terraces were meant to form the base for an enormous stone stupa which contained a precious relic of Gautama Buddha,” or that Borobudur was simply a stupa or for initiation rights. Religious Symbolism in Borobudur Architecture Similarly to the uniqueness of Angkor Wat facing the west, Borobudur is unique as well, for it was constructed on a bedrock hill, between two volcanoes, instead of on a flat surface like other temples.

Similarly to the Khmer temple, Borobudur also displays several variations of religious significance throughout the architecture. The lotus is prevalent in the architectural and decorative aspects of the shrine. The architecture of Borobudur is similar the appearance of a lotus and the Buddha statues within Borobudur symbolize the Lotus Sutra, which is found in several Mahayana Buddhism texts. Additionally, the four circular platforms located on the top of Borobudur are also considered to embody the leaf of a lotus.

The foundation of Borobudur measures approximately 118 meters on each side, in the form of a square. Of the ten platforms that make up the structure six are square and the remaining four are circular. The highest platform exhibits seventy-two small bell shaped and decoratively pierced stupas. Statues of Buddha reside within these pierced stupas. When Borobudur is viewed from above, the monument resembles the appearance of a tantric Buddhist mandala, furthering the representation of the Buddhist cosmology.

The division of Borobudur into three parts, the base, body, and top, symbolizing the three stages of what Buddhist cosmology considers the “ultimate goal. ” The base represents the Kamadhatu, the five square platforms the make up the body represent Rupadhatu, and the three circular platforms that compose the top represent Arupadhatu . Similarly, the paths that guide pilgrims to the “ultimate goal” were designed through sacred Buddhist knowledge, based on Buddhist cosmology. Comparable to Ankgor Wat, Borobudur possessed exact measurements that possibly indicate calendrical, astronomical and cosmological themes.

The exact ratio formula 4:6:9 has also been discovered in the Pawon and Mendhut, two other neighboring Buddhist temples. The monument further represents cosmology because it can be concluded that the 360 squares that surround the central square of the monument symbolize the 36o degrees of the “celestial circle that surrounds the Earth. ” However, details of the Buddhist system details vary from those of Hinduism origins, although the Buddhist system’s temples also focus on the idea of a central mountain that represents Meru.

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