Exact bequest of a star-struck empire

Angkor Wat
January 2, 1998

Eleanor Mannikka, a lecturer in Southeast Asian art at the University of Michigan, became fascinated by Angkor in 1972 when she examined a 1960s survey by a French architect, Guy Nafilyan. Although she had never set foot in Angkor, the drawings alerted her to the extraordinary accuracy of the metric measurements of the central galleries and she set about deciphering them. But it was only when she was inspired to change the metres to cubits, the ancient form of measurement based on the length of the forearm and inherited by the Khmers from India, that she realised that the uncanny accuracy recorded solar and lunar alignments, defined pathways into and out of sanctuaries, placed sections of the temple in exact association with rays of sunlight during the equinox and solstice days, and recorded significant data such as battles, births and deaths.

Since its rediscovery in 1861, Angkor Wat has been the subject of extensive study by archaeologists, many of them French, such as George Coed s and Henri Parmentier, although it was John Thomson, a 19th-century Scots photographer, who first suggested that the temple was a representation of the Hindu cosmos. Constructed between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II, it is one of about 100 other monuments in an area of 250 square miles, once the capital of the Khmer empire which spanned the 9th-15th centuries and stretched across Southeast Asia. Temple building started in the 9th century, not for collective worship like our cathedrals, but exclusively for funerary purposes, to house the deified remains of the deva-rajas, the self-appointed god-kings. Each deva-raja outdid his predecessor by building a more spectacular temple, culminating in Angkor Wat, whose perfection was never surpassed.

Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship elevates Angkor's perfection to even greater heights than hitherto realised: not only is it the biggest religious monument in the world, covered with the most exquisite carvings, a Hindu funerary temple dedicated to Vishnu, an earthly representation of the Hindu cosmos positioned auspiciously by soothsayers, and a sanctuary of such profound sacred and spiritual significance that even a casual visitor cannot fail to be moved by it, it is also a solar and lunar observatory and calendar, mirroring celestial movements, its every stone encoded with esoteric numerology.

This 20-year study, researching every aspect of the temple, is intended for the academic, although to demonstrate her theories Mannikka, who did not visit Angkor until 1990, takes the reader on a minutely observed journey through it. She starts at the western entrance and its long, cruciform causeway, the transition between the ordinary world and the sacred realm of the temple, and approaches the pyramidal structure with its five towers, symbolising Mount Meru, the Hindu abode of the gods.

She explains the architectural structure, the history, the motifs, the role of the king and his world, his relationship with the divine, and the significance of Hindu cosmology, and offers a detailed exegesis of the magnificent bas-relief, the longest in the world, which surrounds the temple, extending almost a kilometre. She shows that space and time, kingship and divinity were all inseparably linked.

This scholarship includes some highly technical analysis, incorporating complex mathematics, astronomy, astrology, numerology and the more recent science of archaeo-astronomy. The author demonstrates that Angkor Wat has a spectacular solar March 21 equinox alignment between the west end of the causeway and the central tower 500 metres away. The sun rises exactly over the top of the central tower on that day. There is also a solstice light bracketing of the image of Vishnu in the bas-reliefs of the third gallery of the temple. On the morning of the equinox, and only on that day, the rising sun illuminates the deity, in the same way that it does at the tombs of Abu Simbel in Egypt.

Mannikka refers to recurring numbers encoded within the temple such as 54 and its double, 108. Fifty-four sandstone columns support the bridge of the western approach. At the south entrance to Angkor Thom, the bridge is composed of 54 gods and 54 demons pulling the naga, the sacred serpent and guardian deity of Khmer mythology. Within the Bayon temple there are 54 columns, each supporting four images of the Buddha facing the cardinal points. One hundred and eight is the most auspicious number throughout Asia, occurring in astrology and astronomy, and in Hindu and Buddhist texts. It is also common to other ancient sites throughout the world, such as the pyramids in Egypt and Central America, and the temple of Baalbec in Lebanon, although the author does not refer to these, but she offers an explanation.

On the day of the winter solstice, December 22, the sun is at its southernmost position. It moves northwards with each sunrise until the summer solstice, June 21. Could 54, she asks, refer to the average degree of maximum oscillation, of 54 degrees, for both the sun and moon combined, or 108 degrees for the annual north-south, back and forth movement?

In Graham Hancock's book, Fingerprints of the Gods, he describes this same phenomenon, known as "the precession of the equinoxes", which was discovered by Hipparchus in the 2nd century bc. Hancock uses it to confirm his theories about the age of Egypt's Sphinx and the pyramids' relationship to the stars. He alludes to the coincidences of these numbers, and multiples of them, which recur "with eerie persistence" in sacred architecture throughout the world, connecting universal myths from the Vedas to Stonehenge, from Babylon to Angkor.

He believes that the Egyptians knew the earth was round, as did the Indians, whose temples were prototypes for the Khmers'. It is not surprising, therefore, that in Cambodia, where the warm nights and clear skies are illuminated with a moon and stars of astonishing intensity, the Khmers were astronomers. Mannikka shows that the configuration of Angkor's central tower illustrates that Khmer "astronomer-architects" knew the earth was a globe floating in space like a "piece of iron suspended between magnets", and she marvels at the extent of their learning. "The architects of Angkor Wat were brilliant and well educated, true sages whose knowledge ranged from architecture to Sanskrit poetry to astronomy to religious rituals. They were extraordinary human beings for any society, in any era."

The study of other sites in other eras could be enriched by her method of decoding, a hope that she expresses. "My objective was not only to explore the architectural splendour of Angkor Wat, however, but to offer new methods of architectural analysis in the process. If researchers are armed with the knowledge that astronomy, history, cosmology, and politics might partially, jointly, or wholly determine a structure's format and dimensions, then new possibilities open up for the study of other temples as well."

Her ideas, highlighting the sacred nature of the temple and its environment, are timely, for Angkor, having survived the ravages of empires, warfare, jungle encroachment and a genocidal regime, faces new threats in the shape of theft and unscrupulous development for tourism. It was made a World Heritage Site in 1993, and its welfare is protected by the International Committee for the Safeguarding of Angkor, overseen by the royal government, sponsored by Unesco and supported by the international community. Nevertheless, experts fear the damage if proposals, currently afoot, for a lavish son et lumi re, modelled on the one at Karnak, succeed. The ministry of tourism also estimates that a million tourists a year will be tramping around the site by the year 2000, although recent political turbulence within the country, following the UN-brokered elections of 1993 and a coup d'etat last July by Hun Sen, have inhibited numbers.

Mannikka makes impassioned appeals against intrusive development, reminding scholars and visitors of the religious significance of Angkor, where worship still continues, and Buddhist monks, whose pagoda is beside the temple, perform rites, funerals, ceremonies and prayers continuously. She also acknowledges the contemporary Cambodian empathy and identification with Angkor which made her "resolve to give back to those who survived the 1975-79 holocaust something of the full grandeur of their heritage."

Time, Space and Kingship makes Angkor an even more magical place than before. For those who have not seen the ruins, the book provides a wealth of informative diagrams, crucial to understanding her theories, and photographs, black and white as well as colour. Like the text, though, their academic style does not quite convey the ethereal qualities of the place so hauntingly captured by other photographers, such as Michael Freeman and Mark Standen.

For Mannikka, who has systematically analysed every stone and carving, it is only at the end that she succumbs to that awe-inspiring, other-worldly atmosphere which captured the imagination of those early travellers, and which can be experienced only by being there, at twilight, when the modern world recedes from Angkor Wat. "Silence descends," she concludes, "and in the soundless night, time seems to stand still."

Denise Heywood is a freelance journalist, photographer and lecturer.

Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship

Author - Eleanor Mannikka
ISBN - 0 8248 1720 6
Publisher - University of Hawaii
Price - $55.00
Pages - 341

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