Everywhere you look, the Angkor temples are teeming with symbolism. Thanks to the master artists who constructed and carved the temples, the vivid imagery is bound to captivate even those with little knowledge of its deeper meanings. Familiarizing yourself with the deities, mythological beings and basic concepts of Angkorian religion, however, can make exploring the temples so much more engrossing.
Unfortunately, the Angkor Archaeological Park is sorely lacking when it comes to informational signage. Without a guidebook or guide, there’s almost nothing to tell you what the carvings or sculptures are supposed to represent. But you might also not feel like reading through an entire complex book before your trip, either. The following guide, then, is meant to help fill in the gap.
Understand that this is not a guide to the various art styles of Angkor. The focus is the meaning behind the art. And as you explore the temples, remember that there was once a lot more imagery in the form of various statues. Most of these, of course, are now kept safely at museums. Therefore, this guide will only focus on what you’ll be seeing nowadays at the temples themselves.
Main Hindu Deities
As the Khmer Empire was a Hindu kingdom for most of its history, the temples are abound with depictions of major Hindu deities. In Hindu mythology, the major male deities have female consorts as well as a vahana, or animal vehicle. Therefore, there have always been number of different ways to symbolize each deity.
While not a complete list, let’s go over some of the most common gods and goddesses you’ll encounter at Angkor.
Shiva was the most prominent god worshipped during Angkor’s Hindu era. He is known as the “destroyer,” but this could also be interpreted as the destruction of ignorance. He is symbolized in some shape or form at nearly all Angkor temples – even at the later Buddhist ones.
In Angkor art, Shiva is often depicted as a bearded old man, or sometimes as a multi-armed being. More often, however, he was represented by other, more abstract symbols.
Shiva was typically worshiped in the form of a shiva linga, which is typically placed on a yoni. The linga is a phallic symbol representing masculine energy, while the yoni symbolizes the feminine. Therefore, the two together could be likened to the yin yang symbol of Taoism.
Shiva’s consort is Parvati. His vahana, or animal vehicle, is the bull Nandi. Especially at the early Angkorian temples, bull statues were a common sight, often sat facing the prasat that had a shiva linga inside.
Vishnu is nicknamed the “preserver.” However, he often carries out acts of both creation and destruction to maintain proper balance and harmony in the world. He usually does so by coming down to earth in human form. As will be detailed below, these are called his avatars and they’re the protagonists of many of the famous Hindu legends.
At Angkor, Vishnu is depicted as a four-armed being, though sometimes he has eight arms. His consort is Lakshmi and his vahana is Garuda, who’s half man, half eagle. And Vishnu is also the star of many lintel carvings in the form of Krishna.
While most Angkorian Hindu temples were primarily dedicated to Shiva, a major exception was Angkor Wat. Its builder, Suryavarman II, was a Vishnu devotee and therefore Vishnu-related imagery is everywhere.
Brahma is the four-faced “creator god.” However, as will be detailed below, he himself was actually created by Vishnu. This origin story is depicted numerous times at the mysterious river carvings of Kbal Spean.
Otherwise, depictions of Brahma are quite rare, as few Hindus worship him directly. There were a number of sculptures made of him, but you’ll no longer find these at the temples. The face towers of the Bayon were originally assumed to represent Brahma, but they likely depict a divinity from Mahayana Buddhism instead (more below).
Indra is “king of the gods” and is one of the most prominently featured deities in many myths and legends. Accordingly, he is also one of the most widely represented gods at Angkor. Indra is most easily recognized by his vahana, the three-headed elephant named Airavata.
Indra riding Airavata was especially popular in lintel carvings at pretty much all Angkorian Hindu temples. Arguably the best depictions of him can be seen at Banteay Srei.
Indra, while a benevolent god at heart, is also known for his jealousy and hubris. Therefore, in many Hindu myths, he actually takes on the role of the antagonist. However, he usually gets humbled by the more powerful Vishnu, after which he learns to change his ways.
Yama is the god of the underworld. Depictions of him at Angkor are not all that common, but he’s almost always seen riding a buffalo.
One of the most vivid depictions of him, in his multi-armed form, is at the bas-relief carvings of Angkor Wat. This section of the reliefs shows the 32 levels of hell and the 37 levels of heaven. Yama is the judge, deciding where the deceased souls will end up.
Kubera, the god of wealth, is a common character in many famous myths, but he doesn’t appear too often at Angkor. However, the famous ‘leper king’ statue at Angkor Thom may actually be of Kubera and not of a former king, as was once widely believed.
Rishis are vedic sages. In mythological stories, they are typically wise old men who can sometimes travel through different realms and even see into the future. Carvings of rishis are common at Angkor, though Shiva himself is often depicted as one. It’s not always easy to tell which is which.
Hindu Myths & Legends
At many of the major Angkor temples, mythological scenes from Hinduism are depicted in detail. While pretty to look at regardless of your background, a basic understanding of some of these stories can really enhance your experience at the temples. Let’s go over several of the most common ones.
The Ramayana is an Indian epic poem about the adventures of Rama, one of Vishnu’s avatars. Though Rama was next in line to rule the throne, the mother of one of his half-brothers convinced the king to let her son rule and send Rama into exile.
Rama left his capital city of Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his other brother Lakshmana. While in exile, they rescued a number of villages from rakshasa monsters, thus angering the king of all rakshasas, Ravana.
This evil king, who ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka), traveled north, where he tricked Rama’s family and abducted Sita. The rest of the epic details Rama trying to figure out where Sita was taken. And when he eventually does, a great war ensues at Lanka.
While Rama is a very powerful archer, he doesn’t act alone. He makes friends with the monkey king Sugriva by helping him take back the throne from his brother, Valin. Sugriva’s subordinate Hanuman then becomes one of Rama’s closest friends and allies, and he also plays a major role in bringing Sita back.
Pretty much any time you come across depictions of monkeys at Angkor, it’s very likely to symbolize scenes or characters from the Ramayana.
The Battle of Lanka
One entire section of the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs depicts the Battle of Lanka on a massive scale. In addition to the huge army of monkeys, don’t miss Ravana with his many heads and arms.
A popular scene from the Mahabharata is depicted at Banteay Srei: Krishna and Arjuna attempt to burn down the Kandhava forest, which was home to all sorts of evil creatures. But Indra, the protector of the forest, sends down heavy rains to put out the fire. Arjuna, the world’s most skilled archer, then shoots a barrage of arrows in the sky to prevent any rain from hitting the ground. Afterward, Arjuna holds his own in a battle against Indra, who, despite being a god, is actually Arjuna’s biological father!
The Mahabharata is India’s other grand epic, and is believed by some to take place a few thousand years after the Ramayana. One of the main characters of the story is another avatar of Vishnu, Krishna. However, the main focus of the epic is really the group of five Pandava brothers, who also happen to be Krishna’s maternal cousins.
The main conflict of the story is between the sons of Pandu (the Pandavas) and the sons of Pandu’s brother, the blind king Dhritarashtra. The final war that takes place between the two sides is foreshadowed from the very beginning, but there’s a lot that happens along the way. In fact, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem ever written!
While we know who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides are, everyone in the Mahabharata shows both positive and negative traits. There are elements of humor, romance, suspense and plenty of violence. Reading it today, it feels surprisingly contemporary, but it’s clear that the ancient Khmers were big fans as well.
The famous religious text known as the Baghavad Gita is actually just one small section of the Mahabharata, and it’s comprised of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) just before the great war begins.