Arts and Architecture

The majority of Khmer art and architecture dates from the Angkor period. All the surviving monuments are built of stone or brick, and all are religious buildings. During the Angkor period architecture and its decoration were governed by a series of mystical and religious beliefs.

Common motifs in Khmer sculpture are apsaras (celestial nymphs), which have become a symbol of the Khmer culture. The apsaras are carved with splendidly ornate jewellery, clothed in the latest Angkor fashion, and represent the ultimate ideal of feminine beauty at that time. Other motifs are nagas (sacred aquatic snakes), which play an important part in Hindu mythology and are possibly more characteristic of Southeast Asia than any other motif. Most of these motifs have been taken from Indian art and have been modified into what is now known as traditional Khmer art. Temples were designed to represent the cosmic Mount Meru, the home of the gods of Indian cosmology, surrounded by oceans.

Angkor literally means 'city' or 'capital', Wat means 'temple'. Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the architectural masterpieces of Cambodia and probably the largest religious building on earth. Conceived by Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took an estimated 30 years to build and is generally believed to have been a funeral temple for the king. It has been continuously occupied by monks and is well preserved. Intricate bas-reliefs surround Angkor Wat on four sides, each telling a different story. The most celebrated of these is 'The Churning of the Ocean of Milk', which is located on the east wing. Again, the central sanctuary of the temple complex represents Mt. Meru, the five towers symbolize Meru's five peaks, and the enclosing wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat, the ocean beyond. The symmetrical towers of Angkor Wat are stylised on the Cambodian flag and have become a symbol of Khmer culture.