Time, Space, and Astronomy in Angkor Wat
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-5901, USA
FAX: 225.388.5200; Email: email@example.com
August 6, 2001
Angkor Wat’s great Hindu temple has been called one of mankind’s most
impressive and enduring architectural achievements.
Khmer Emperor S¯ uryavarman II, who reigned during AD 1113-50. One
of the many temples built from AD 879 - 1191, it arose when the Khmer
civilization was at the height of its power. Although Vis.n.u is its main deity,
the temple, through its sculpture, pays homage to all the Vedic gods and
goddesses including´Siva. Figure 1 presents a plan of the temple complex
upto the moat and Figure 2 presents a plan of its inner three galleries.
The astronomy and cosmology underlying the design of this temple was
extensively researched in the 1970s.1An update of this research was recently
presented by Eleanor Mannikka.2Basically, it was found that the temple
served as a practical observatory where the rising sun was aligned on the
equinox and solstice days with the western entrance of the temple, and many
sighting lines for seasonally observing the risings of the sun and the moon
were identified, some of which are shown in Figure 3. Using a survey by
Nafilyan3and converting the figures to the Cambodian cubit or hat (0.43545
m), it was demonstrated that certain measurements of the temple record
calendric and cosmological time cycles.
It was built by the
The most impressive aspect of this representation is that it occurs both at
the level of the part as well as the whole in a recursive fashion, mirroring the
Vedic idea of the microcosm symbolizes the macrocosm at various levels of
expressions. This is done not only in the domain of numbers and directions,
but also using appropriate mythological themes, and historical incidents.
The mythological scenes skillfully use the oppositions and complementarities
between the gods, goddesses, asuras, and humans defined over ordinary and
sacred time and space.
Speaking just of numbers, the various lengths and circumferences of units
representing the motion of the moon may equal 27, 28, 29 (naks.atras or days
of the month), 354 (days of the lunar year), or 360 (tithis of the lunar year).
Other lengths represent the solar year (360, 365, or 366) or larger time cycles.
For example, the west-east axis represents the periods of the yugas. The
width of the moat is 439.78 cubit; the distance from the first step of the
western entrance gateway to balustrade wall at the end of causeway is 867.03
cubit; the distance from the first step of the western entrance gateway to the
first step of the central tower is 1,296.07 cubit; and the distance from the
first step of bridge to the geographic center of the temple is 1,734.41 cubit.
These correspond to the periods of 432,000; 864,000; 1,296,000; 1,728,000
years for the Kali, Dv¯ apara, Tret¯ a, and Kr.ta yuga, respectively. It has been
suggested that the very slight discrepancy in the equations might be due to
human error or erosion or sinking of the structure.
In the central tower, the topmost elevation has external axial dimensions
of 189.00 cubit east-west, and 176.37 cubit north-south, with the sum of
365.37. This division of the almost exact length of the solar year into unequal
halves remained a mystery for some time until it was found to be connected
with the´Satapatha Br¯ ahman.a numbers for the asymmetric motion of the
In this article, we review the main aspects of the cosmology and astron-
omy of the temple. Since the connections of this to the Pur¯ an.ic ideas have
been well described by Mannikka, our focus is on the connections to the
astronomy of the Vedic altars.
The Historical Background of Angkor Wat
The Khmer kings of Kampuchea (Cambodia) trace their ancestry to the
legendary Indian Kaun.d.in.ya and to Som¯ a, a Khmer princess, and this lineage
came to be called somavam .´ sa. In the 7th century, another legendary couple,
Kambu and Mer¯ a, established a different lineage, the s¯ uryavam.´ sa. At first
there were several warring kings. The unification of the state is seen with
King Jayavarman II, who in 802, in a ceremony on Mount Kulen, about 30
km northeast of Angkor, declared himself a “universal ruler” (cakravartin).
The kings of the Khmer empire ruled over a domain that, at its broadest,
reached from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunan, China and from
Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor
today, more than 100 temples in all, are the surviving religious remains of a
grand social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings - palaces,
public buildings, and houses - were all built of wood and are long since
decayed and gone. As in most parts of India where wood was plentiful, only
the gods had the right to live in houses of stone or brick; the sovereigns and
the common folk lived in pavilions and houses of wood.
Over the half-millenia of Khmer rule, the city of Angkor became a great
pilgrimage destination because of the notion of Devar¯ aja, that has been ex-
plained by Lokesh Chandra as a coronation icon. Jayavarman II (802-850)
was the first to use this royal icon. According to Lokesh Chandra,
Devar¯ aja means ‘King of the Gods’ and not ‘God-King’. He
is Indra and refers to the highly efficacious aindra mah¯ abhis.eka
of the R.gvedic r¯ ajas¯ uya tradition as elaborated in the Aitareya-
br¯ ahman.a. It was not a simple but a great coronation, a mah¯ abhis.eka.
It was of extraordinary significance that Jayavarman II performed
a R.gvedic rite, which lent him charismatic authority.5
The increasingly larger temples built by the Khmer kings continued to
function as the locus of the devotion to the Devar¯ aja, and were at the same
time earthly and symbolic representations of mythical Mt. Meru, the cos-
mological home of the Hindu gods and the axis of the world-system. The
symbol of the king’s divine authority was the sign (linga) of´Siva within the
temple’s inner sanctuary, which represented both the axes of the physical
and the psychological worlds. The worship of´Siva and Vis.n.u separately, and
together as Harihara, had been popular for considerable time in southeast
Asia; Jayavarman’s chief innovation was to use ancient Vedic mah¯ abhis.eka
to define the symbol of government. To quote Lokesh Chandra further, “The
icon used by Jayavarman II for his aindra mah¯ abhis.eka, his Devar¯ aja = Indra
(icon), became the symbol of the Cambodian state, as the sacred and secu-
lar sovereignty denoted by Praj¯ apat¯ ı´ svara/Brahm¯ a, as the continuity of the
vital flow of the universal (jagat) into the stability of the terrestrial kingdom
(r¯ aja = r¯ ajya). As the founder of the new Kambuja state, he contributed
a national palladium under its Cambodian appellation kamrate˙ n jagat ta
r¯ aja/r¯ ajya. Whenver the capital was transferred by his successors, it was
taken to the new nagara, for it had to be constantly in the capital.”6
Angkor Wat is the supreme masterpiece of Khmer art. The descriptions
of the temple fall far short of communicating the great size, the perfect pro-
portions, and the astoundingly beautiful sculpture that everywhere presents
itself to the viewer. Its architecture is majestic and its representation of form
and movement from Indian mythology has astonishing grace and power. The
inner galleries of the temple have depiction of the battle of Kuruks.etra, pro-
cession of King S¯ uryavarman and his ministers, scenes from heavens and
hells, churning of the sea of milk, the battle of Vis.n.u and the asuras, victory
of Kr.s.n.a over B¯ an.a, battle of the devas and asuras, R¯ avan.a shaking Kail¯ asa
with´Siva and P¯ arvat¯ ı atop, and the battle of La˙ nk¯ a between R¯ ama and
R¯ avan.a. These and other scences are drawn with great artistic beauty. No
wonder, the temple ranks amongst the greatest creations of human imagina-
As an aside, it should be mentioned that some European scholars tended
to date Angkor Wat as being after the 14th century. The principal reason
was that some decorative motifs at Angkor Wat show a striking resemblance
to certain motifs of the Italian Renaissance. This argument, which is similar
to the one used in dating Indian mathematical texts vis-a-vis Greek texts,
has been proven to be wrong. In the words of Cœd` es,7“If there is some
connexion between the twelfth-century art of the Khmers, the direct heirs
to the previous centuries, and the art of the Renaissance, it must have been
due to a reverse process, that is to the importation of oriental objects into
Mannikka proposes8that the royal priest Div¯ akarapan.d.ita was the chief
architect of the temple. He is the priest most praised in inscriptions; an
image of him is to be found at Wat Phu. Div¯ akara is estimated to have lived
Astronomy of Altars and Temples
To understand the astronomical aspects of Angkor Wat it is necessary to be-
gin with the Indian traditions of altar and temple design on which it is based.
And since the Angkor Wat ritual hearkened to the Vedic past, it stands to
reason that its astronomy was also connected to the Vedic astronomical tra-
In a series of publications I have shown that the Vedic altars had an as-
tronomical basis9related to the reconciliation of the lunar and solar years.
The fire altars symbolized the universe and there were three types of altars
representing the earth, the space and the sky. The altar for the earth was
drawn as circular whereas the sky (or heaven) altar was drawn as square.
The geometric problems of circulature of a square and that of squaring a
circle are a result of equating the earth and the sky altars.
The fire altars were surrounded by 360 enclosing stones, of these 21 were
around the earth altar, 78 around the space altar and 261 around the sky
altar. In other words, the earth, the space, and the sky are symbolically
assigned the numbers 21, 78, and 261. Considering the earth/cosmos di-
chotomy, the two numbers are 21 and 339 since cosmos includes the space
and the sky.
The main altar was built in five layers. The basic square shape was
modified to several forms, such as falcon and turtle. These altars were built
in five layers, of a thousand bricks of specified shapes. The construction of
these altars required the solution to several geometric and algebraic problems.
Two different kinds of bricks were used: the special and the ordinary.
The total number of the special bricks used was 396, explained as 360 days
of the year and the additional 36 days of the intercalary month. Two kinds
of day counts: the solar day, and tithi, whose mean value is the lunar year
divided into 360 parts. Considering the altar by layers, the first has 98, the
second has 41, the third has 71, the fourth has 47 and the fifth has 138. The
sum of the bricks in the fourth and the fifth layers equals 186 tithis of the
half-year. The number of bricks in the third and the fourth layers equals the
integer nearest to one third the number of days in the lunar year, and the
number of bricks in the third layer equals the integer nearest to one fifth of