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The Temple and Its Poem

Deciphering Angkor Wat

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

According to the poem inscribed on its walls, the temple at Angkor Wat was not built by humans, but by celestial architects commanded by Indra, chief of the gods. Indra had brought his beloved, half-human son up to heaven to live with him. The son was adored by all the celestial beings, but had one problem: being part human, he smelled terrible. The celestial beings became ill from the stench and begged Indra to send him away. Indra acquiesced, but instructed his architects to go down to earth and build a replica of the heavenly world for the son. The result was the temple complex Angkor Wat.

The Poem of Angkor Wat has never been translated into English, nor has it been the subject of academic study until now. Scholar Ashley Thompson is translating the poem, comparing four different renderings of the text with the scenes depicted in the temple’s bas reliefs. With NEH support, she will publish a study of the 550-stanza work, along with a critical introduction explaining the history and origin of the text.

Thought to be written in the sixteenth cen-tury, The Poem of Angkor Wat is the earliest original literary work in Khmer. It was probably recited and then inscribed on the walls of the temple. The poem was a key text used to promote Khmer culture and national spirit when Cambodia achieved independence after nearly one hundred years of French control.

The temple itself, which dates to the twelfth century, is a national icon, appearing on the Cambodian flag and coins. “It was the symbol of what being Khmer was for centuries before nation-states existed and before the French protectorate,” says Thompson. “When in the 1860s the French came in, Angkor Wat was the one place with an intact and living Buddhist presence.”

From the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, pilgrims came from all over Asia to visit the temple and inscribe their “vows of truth” on its walls. “Like you build a temple, like you build a statue, you build a vow,” Thompson explains.

The Queen Mother had a particular way of making an offering: her head was shaved and her hair was burned with resin, making a mixture similar to lacquer, which was then used to cover the temple statues. By refurbishing the statues in this way, she became integrated into the temple.

“The physical act of constructing monuments or houses in Cambodia gives way to all different forms of expression,” Thompson says. “Whereas in certain cultures you might think of literature and language as being the basis for other kinds of artistic expression, in Cambodia, construction and all of the accessory movements of construction -- sculpting bas reliefs, for example -- are the basis of cultural expression.”