Tuesday 10 December 2019

Angkor Wat & tourism in Cambodia

Angkor Wat in Cambodia was first a Hindu temple and then later it was gradually turned into a Buddhist temple. It is located in Angkor, north of Seim Reap and was first built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yasodharapura, the capital of the Khmer Empire. The Angkor temple Ta Prohm was used as the set for the famous movie Tomb Raider. And world was surprised to see this massive temple.

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Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and is the largest religious monument in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectars. It is at Angkor (earlier known as Yashodapura), north of a modern town Seim Reap in Cambodia. The construction was started by Khmer king, Suryavaram II and completed by Jayavaram VII. It is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (113-5 BC). The construction took over thirty years to build the massive temple at Angkor, the capital of Khmer empire.

Angkor Wat is the prime example of the classical style of Khmer architecture - the Angkor Wat style - due to which it got its name. By the 12th century Khmer architects had become skilled and confident in the use of sandstone (rather than brick or laterite) as the main building material. Most of the visible areas are of sandstone blocks, while laterite was used for the outer wall and for hidden structural parts. Traditional method was used in the construction. The binding agent used to join the blocks is yet to be identified, although natural resins or slaked lime has been suggested.

The temple has attracted attention above all for the harmony of its design. According to Maurice Glaize, a mid-20th-century conservator of Angkor - the temple attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions. It is a work of power, unity and style.

Architecturally, the elements characteristic of the style include: the ogival, towers shaped like lotus buds; half-galleries to broaden passageways; axial galleries connecting enclosures; and the cruciform terraces which appear along the main axis of the temple. Typical decorative elements are devatas, extensive garlands and narrative scenes. The statutes of Angkor Wat are considered conservative, being more static and less graceful than earlier work. Other elements of the design have been destroyed by looting and the passage of time, including gilded stucco on the towers, gilding on some figures on the bas-reliefs, and wooden ceiling panels and doors.

It is said that towards the end of 12th century, Angor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu centre of worship to Buddhism which continues to the present. Angkor Wat is unusual among the Angkor temples in that although it was largely neglected after the 16 century it was never completely abandoned. Fourteen inscriptions dated from 17th century discovered in Angkor area testify to Japanese Buddhist pilgrims who had established small settlements alongside Khmer locals. At that time, the temple was believed by the Japanese visitors as the famed Jetavana garden of the Buddha, which originally is located in the kingdom of Magadha in India. The best known inscription tells of Ukondafu Kazufusa who celebrated the Khmer New Year at Angkor Wat in 1632.

For many years, no westerner had visited this area nor stepped into the temple, until one of the first western visitors to the temple was, Antonio da Madalena, a Portuguese who visited in 1586. And he said – It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.

In the mid-19th century, the temple was effectively rediscovered by the French naturlist and explorer Henri Mouhot, who popularized the site in the west through the publication of travel notes in which he wrote – One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michel Angelo might take a honourable place beside our most honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.

Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to God Vishnu for the Khmer Empire; it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. The temple design is of classical style of Khmer architecture and has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime tourist attraction. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. And restoration work has helped in preserving this national treasure.

Angor Wat combines two basic plans of the Khmer temple architecture – the temple-mountain and the galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology within a moat more than 5 kms long and and outer wall 3.6 km long, are three rectangular galleries, each rising above the other.

At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most of Angokian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west. The temple is admired by the tourists for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture and the numerous devatas adorning the walls. The original name of temple was Vrah Vishnuloka or Parama Visnuloka in Sanskrit and Barom Visnulok in Khmer, which means the sacred dwelling of Vishnu. 

According to a legend, the construction of Angor Wat was ordered by Indra to serve as a palace for his son Precha Ket Mealea. And according the 13th century Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan, some believed that the temple was constructed in a single night by a divine architect.

A further interpretation of Angkor Wat was proposed by Eleanor Mannikka. Drawing on the temple's alignment and dimensions, and on the content and arrangement of the bas-reliefs, she argues that the structure represents a new era of peace under King Suryavarman II: as the measurements of solar and lunar time cycles were built into the sacred space of Angkor Wat, this divine mandate to rule was anchored to consecrated chambers and corridors meant to perpetuate the king's power and to honour and placate the deities manifest in the heavens above. Mannikka's suggestions have been received with a mixture of interest and skepticism in academic circles. She distances herself from the speculations of others, such as Graham Hancock, that Angkor Wat is part of a representation of the constellation Draco. The Angkor Wat temple's main tower aligns to the morning sun of the Spring Equinox.

The true history of Angkor Wat was pieced together from stylistic and epigraphic evidence accumulated during subsequent clearing and restoration work. There were no ordinary dwellings or houses or other signs of settlement, including cooking utensils, weapons, or items of clothing usually found at ancient sites. Instead there is only the evidence of the monuments themselves. An exploration commission began drawing up a list of principal monuments. Subsequent missions copied inscriptions written on Angkor buildings so scholars might translate them and learn something of Angkor's history. By 1885 they had worked up a chronology of the rulers and developed the outlines of a description of the civilization that had produced the temple complex. In 1898 the French decided to commit substantial funds to Angkor's preservation. Centuries of neglect had permitted the jungle to recapture many of the more significant structures, and unless efforts were made to free the buildings from the embrace of huge banyan and silk-cotton trees, they might soon be crushed and lost for ever.

The 20th century saw considerable restoration of Angkor Wat. Gradually teams of laborers and archeologists pushed back the jungle and exposed the expanses of stone, permitting the sun once again to illuminate the dark corners of the temple. Work was interrupted by the Cambodian Civil War and Khmer Rouge control of the country during the 1970s and 1980s, but relatively little damage was done during this period. Camping Khmer Rouge forces used whatever wood remained in the building structures for firewood, and a shoot-out between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces put bullet holes in a bas relief. However more damage was done after the wars, by art thieves working out of Thailand, which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, claimed almost every head that could be lopped off the structures, including reconstructions.

The temple is a powerful symbol of Cambodia, and is a source of great national pride that has factored into Cambodia's diplomatic relations with France, the United States and its neighbour Thailand. A depiction of Angkor Wat has been a part of Cambodian national flags since the introduction of the first version circa 1863. From a larger historical and even trans-cultural perspective, however, the temple of Angkor Wat did not become a symbol of national pride but had been inscribed into a larger politico-cultural process of French-colonial heritage production in which the original temple site was presented in French colonial and universal exhibitions in Paris and Marseille between 1889 and 1937. Angkor Wat's aesthetics were also on display in the plaster cast museum of Louis Delaporte called musée Indo-Chinois which existed in the Parisian Trocadero Palace from 1880 to the mid-1920s.

The splendid artistic legacy of Angkor Wat and other Khmer monuments in the Angkor region led directly to France adopting Cambodia as a protectorate on 11 August 1863 and invading Siam to take control of the ruins. This quickly led to Cambodia reclaiming lands in the northwestern corner of the country that had been under Siamese (Thai) control since AD 1351 (Manich Jumsai 2001), or by some accounts, AD 1431. Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953 and has controlled Angkor Wat since that time. It is safe to say that from the colonial period onwards until the nomination as UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, this specific temple of Angkor Wat was instrumental in the formation of the modern and gradually globalised concept of cultural heritage.

In December 2015, a research team from University of Sydney had found a previously unseen ensemble of buried towers built and demolished during the construction of Angkor Wat, as well as massive structure of unknown purpose on its south side and wooden fortifications. The findings also include evidence of low-density residential occupation in the region, with a road grid, ponds and mounds. These indicate that the temple precinct, bounded by moat and wall, may not have been used exclusively by the priestly elite, as was previously thought. The team used LiDar, ground-penetrating radar and targeted excavation to map Angkor Wat.

Since the 1990s, Angkor Wat has become a major tourist destination. In 1993, there were only 7,650 visitors to the site and by 2004, government figures show that 561,000 foreign visitors had arrived in Siem Reap province that year, approximately 50% of all foreign tourists in Cambodia. The number reached over a million in 2007, and over two million by 2012. Most visited Angkor Wat, which received over two million foreign tourists in 2013. The site was managed by the private SOKIMEX group between 1990 and 2016, which rented it from the Cambodian government. The influx of tourists has so far caused relatively little damage, other than some graffiti; ropes and wooden steps have been introduced to protect the bas-reliefs and floors, respectively. Tourism has also provided some additional funds for maintenance and in 2000 approximately 28% of ticket revenues across the whole Angkor site was spent on the temples, although most work is carried out by teams sponsored by foreign governments rather than by the Cambodian authorities.

Since Angkor Wat has seen significant growth in tourism and attracted visitors over the years. UNESCO and its International Co-ordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), in association with representatives from the Royal Government and APSARA, organised seminars to discuss the concept of "cultural tourism". Wanting to avoid commercial and mass tourism, the seminars emphasize the importance of providing high quality accommodation and services to benefit the Cambodian government economically, while also incorporating the richness of Cambodian culture. In 2001, this incentive resulted in the concept of the "Angkor Tourist City" which would be developed with regard to traditional Khmer architecture, contain leisure and tourist facilities, and provide luxurious hotels capable of accommodating large numbers of tourists from around the world.

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The prospect of developing such large tourist accommodation has alarmed and encountered concerns from both APSARA and the ICC, claiming that previous tourism developments in the area have neglected construction regulations and more of these projects have the potential to damage landscape features. Also, the large scale development of these projects have begun to threaten the quality of the nearby town's water, sewage, and electricity systems. It has been noted that such high frequency of tourism and growing demand for quality accommodations in the area, such as the development of a large highway, has had a direct effect on the underground water table, subsequently straining the structural stability of the temples at Angkor Wat. Locals of Siem Reap have also voiced concern that the charm and atmosphere of their town have been compromised in order to entertain tourism. Since this local atmosphere is the key component to projects like Angkor Tourist City, the local officials continue to discuss how to successfully incorporate future tourism without sacrificing local values and culture. And not affecting the environment of nearby areas and locals. However Angkor Wat continues to draw a lot of tourists from around the world.

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