Architecture of Cambodia

From Academic Kids

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Architecture of Cambodia has dated back to many centuries ago and has influenced Thai architecture.


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Apsaras (left) and a devata (right) at Banteay Kdei.
The architecture of the Angkor period used certain specific structural features and styles which (along with inscriptions) are one of the main methods used to date the temples.

Apsaras and devatas

Apsaras, or celestial dancing girls, originated in Indian mythology, but their widespread decorative use was a Khmer innovation. The term is commonly used to cover not only dancers but any heavenly nymphs, although the latter are technically devatas rather than apsaras. True apsaras are found in the Halls of Dancers and are seen in bas-reliefs flying above sacred scenes, while the largest population of devatas (around 2000) is at Angkor Wat, where they appear individually or in groups.

Blind doors and windows

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Blind door with colonettes at Banteay Srei.
Blind doors were typically used to balance true doorways. Shrines frequently opened only towards one direction: the other three sides therefore featured blind doors to maintain symmetry. Blind windows were often used along otherwise blank walls.

Central sanctuary

The central sanctuary was home to the temple's primary deity, that to whom the site was dedicated. The god or Buddha, as appropriate, was represented by a statue (or in the case of Shiva, sometimes by a linga). As the temple was not place for worship by the population at large, the sanctuary needed only to be large enough to hold this statue; it was never more than a few metres across. Its importance was instead conveyed by the height of the tower above it, by its location at the centre of the temple (both indicative of the sanctuary's representing Mount Meru) and by the greater amount of decoration on its walls.


Colonettes were used as decoration on either side of doorways.


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Corbel arch at the south gate of Angkor Thom.
Rather than a true arch, the Khmers used corbel arches. These were constructed by adding layers of stones to the walls on either side, with each layer projecting further towards the centre. This method, while adequate, made the temples particularly prone to collapse once the buildings were no longer maintained.


Khmer temples were typically enclosed by a concentric series of walls, with the central sanctuary in the middle: this arrangement represented the mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru. The enclosures are numbered from the centre outwards. Galleries frequently ran along them, while passage through them was through gopuras at the cardinal points.


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Cruciform gallery at Angkor Wat.
The gallery was a passageway running along the wall of an enclosure or along the axis of a temple, often open to one or both sides. The form evolved during the 10th century from the increasingly long hallways which had earlier been used to surround the central sanctuary. During the later Angkor Wat period, additional half galleries on one side were introduced to buttress the structure of the temple.


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Gopura at Ta Prohm.
A gopura was an entrance building. Each enclosure of a temple usually had a gopura at each of the four cardinal points. In plan they were most often cross-shaped, elongated along the axis of the enclosure wall; where the wall had a gallery, this could be connected to the arms of the gopura. Many gopuras had a tower at the centre of the cross. The lintels and pediments were often decorated, and guardian figures (dvarapalas) were often placed or carved on either side of the doorways.

Hall of Dancers

The Hall of Dancers is a structure found at Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei and Banteay Chhmar. In each case it is a rectangular building elongated along the temple's east axis; and divided into four courtyards by galleries. The roofs were made of perishable materials and have disappeared. The pillars of the galleries are decorated with dancing apsaras, hence the presumption that the buildings were used for dancing.

House of Fire

The House of Fire, found only in temples of Javarman VII's reign, is enigmatic. 121 are known, all along the highways in and out of Angkor; it seems therefore to have been a resting point of some kind, either for travellers or (as the name suggests) for the sacred flame used in religious ceremonies. It has thick walls , a tower at the west end and south-facing windows. Examples include those at Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar.

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Library at Angkor Wat; unusually, the libraries here open both east and west.


The library is one of the most common features of Khmer temple architecture, but it is still not certain what they were used for. Most likely they were shrines rather than actual libraries. Free-standing buildings, they were normally placed in pairs on either side of the entrance to an enclosure, opening to the west.

Lintels and pediments

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Lintel and pediment at Banteay Srei; the pediment shows Shiva Nataraja.
Because of their position at the point of entrance to the temple, lintels (horizontal blocks at the top of doorways) and pediments (triangular panels above the lintels) had particular significance in Khmer temple architecture. The decoration of lintels passed through a series of styles which provide a useful guide for the dating of temples: protective kalas, nagas and makaras were common motifs. Also frequently appearing were the gods associated with the direction in which the particular lintel faced.


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Demons holding the naga on a bridge entering Angkor Thom.
Mythical serpents, or nagas (often with five or seven heads), were commonly used as decorative motifs in Khmer architecture. Naga bridges were causeways or true bridges with nagas running down either side as balustrades. In some cases, as with the bridges at the entrances to Angkor Thom, the nagas were held by gods and demons as in the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The significance of the nagas may be as explained as bridges between the world of the gods and that of men, or as guardians of wealth.


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Linga in the form of a quincunx, set inside a yoni, at Kbal Spean.
The identification of the central sanctuary with Mount Meru was often emphasised by the inclusion of four towers surrounding the central prang in the form of a quincunx (Mount Meru having five peaks in this arrangement). The rectangular plan of the typical Khmer temple easily lent itself to this design. The quincunx also appears elsewhere in designs of the Angkor period, as in the riverbed carvings of Kbal Spean.

Srahs and barays

Srahs and barays were reservoirs, generally created by excavation and embankment respectively. The two largest at Angkor were the West Baray and the East Baray, located on either side of Angkor Thom. Temples were built in the middle of both of these (the West and East Mebons), while Neak Pean was built at the centre of Preah Khan's Jayatataka. It is not clear to what extent the significance of the reservoirs was religious, agricultural, or a combination of the two.

Temple mountain

Temple mountains took the form of representations of Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. The temples were built in a series of tiers, each shorter than the last to create an illusion of greater height. The first known example was Ak Yum, although very little of that structure now remains; others at Angkor were Bakheng, Bakong, Bapuon, Pre Rup, Ta Keo and most notably Angkor Wat. Each of these was in turn the state temple, and thus the religious centre of the whole empire.



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