When I first saw the Angkor Wat bas-relief gallery, I was astounded. Having seen and read only a little about it, I wasn’t prepared for the great sight.
It would not have been such a shock if the reliefs were only on some small section of the temple, but they are on all four sides of the outer walls.
From one end to the other, from top to bottom!
One of the greatest things about these reliefs is that they’re so detailed and very well preserved.
It is remarkable when you know that these were carved in the 1100s and that in this day and age, we can still see them, for the most part, very clearly!
They’re not worn out with age (not really!), and they have not faded or chipped away. They’re still there, in unbelievably great condition, for all of us to see.
The Order of Viewing The Reliefs
The reliefs are meant to be seen in a counter-clockwise direction. Each section of the bas-relief depicts a story and most of them are about battles between the gods and the demons.
Angkor Wat bas-relief map. Order of viewing.
1. The Battle of Kurukshetra
The scene is taken from the Mahabharata text where Kauravas, from the left, and Pandavas, from the right, battle each other in a fierce fight. You can see the procession at the base of the panel, where musicians, foot soldiers, and warriors on horses and elephants advance to the center of battlefield.
At the center panel where the battle is being fought the hardest, you’ll see wounded soldiers, horses, and chiefs. Some parts of the relief have been polished by visitors’ hands for many decades, leaving these parts shinier than the rest.
Angkor Wat bas-relief: Battle of Kurukshetra. Photo by S. Banerjee.
2. The Army of Suryavarman II
This Angkor Wat bas-relief gallery is dedicated to Suryavarman II, the king who built the Angkor Wat temple. This battle procession relief is carved into a single panel that is 90 meters long, and it is better artwork than the other bas-reliefs.
The king is seen riding on an elephant, wearing a royal crown and equipped with a battle axe, encircled by servants who were busy fanning and holding up umbrellas.
At the bottom part of the panel, you’ll see palace women joining the processions. Further down the panel, you’ll also see mercenary Thai warriors and Brahmin priests in the march.
Suryavarman II fanned and shaded by umbrellas. Photo by S. Banerjee.
3. Heaven and Hell
This panel is interesting. The upper part describes life in heaven, and the lower part life in hell. The panel is 60 meters long, and shows Yama, the God of the dead, sitting on a buffalo, assisted by his two assessors, Dharma and Sitragupta.
There are 36 short inscriptions which tell us that there are 37 heavens and 32 hells.
Life in heaven is shown by the rich palaces, the flying Apsara nymphs, and the lavish draperies. Life in hell is all about torture, which was rather gruesome with its breaking of bones, use of hot irons, and piercing of heads with nails.
Heaven above, hell below. Photo by Nimbul.
4. Churning of the Ocean of Milk
The most magnificent Angkor Wat relief of them all.
It shows 92 gods and 88 demons fighting for the elixir of immortality and a snake caught up in the middle. The gods hold the tail, the demons hold the head, while the snake coils itself around Mt. Mandala. Each time the gods and demons pull from their sides, the mountain turns and the ocean churns.
According to one of the stories, the demons and gods were actually working together in creating the elixir. Once the elixir was created, the gods tricked the demons and took the elixir for themselves.
Not giving up, one of the demons managed to sneak into the god’s residence and drink the elixir before Wishnu beheaded him. Because of the immortal elixir, the demon survived, but possessing only his head.
Angkor Wat bas-relief: 88 demons pulling the snake. Photo by Yabby.
5. Vishnu Conquers the Asuras (Demons)
One of the inferior carvings depicting Vishnu riding a Garuda (a mythical bird), slaying all demons. Two armies approach the middle from both sides, where Vishnu sends them running after wreaking havoc.
Garuda, the mythical bird. Photo by S. Banerjee.
6. Krishna and the Bana, the Demon King
Supposedly this is the worst of all the Angkor Wat reliefs, but you can be the judge.
The scene depicts Visnu, incarnated as Krishna with eight arms and multiple heads, riding a Garuda and confronting Bana at this palace. Krishna is assisted by Agni, the god of Fire, in putting out the defensive fire that surrounds Bana’s castle.
After capturing Bana, Krishna pleads with Shiva for Bana’s life at Mt. Kailasa, where the goddess Parvati and the elephant god Ganesha are also present.
Krishna with eight arms and many heads. Photo by S. Banerjee.
7. The Battle of the Gods and the Demons
This Angkor Wat bas-relief shows a battle scene of 21 gods fighting the asuras (demons).
Here you’ll see gods and their elements. Vishnu on his garuda; Yama, the god of the dead, on a chariot pulled by oxen; Shiva ready with his bow, Brahma on the sacred goose; Surya, the god of sun, standing on a sun disc; Indra standing on his elephants with four tusks; and Skanda, the god of war, perched on his peacock.
Angkor Wat bas-relief: Brahma and golden goose. Photo by S. Banerjee.
8. Battle of Lanka (Ceylon /Sri Lanka)
Showing scenes from Ramayana in Mahabharata, whereupon Rama tries to rescue his wife Sita from Ravana (the kidnapper).
You’ll see Rama standing on the shoulders of Hanuman, the monkey god, with Lakhsmana (Rama’s brother) and Vibishana (a giant) behind him. On the opposite side, Ravana is standing on this war chariot pulled by lions. This panel is one of the prettiest carvings of all the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs.
If you are familiar with the Ramayana story, you’ll be interested to know that there’s a Cambodian version of it.
Rama and Sita. Photo by S. Banerjee.
Is It Better To Know The Story Before Visiting?
I definitely think so.
When I first saw these bas-reliefs, I regretted not knowing the stories beforehand, because that meant I had to listen to the tour guide explain the scenes. If only I had known more about the story, I could have appreciated the reliefs better and just enjoyed them without being distracted. Then there was also the case of information overload, which was not entirely pleasant.
Thus, to ensure maximum viewing pleasure, it is much better knowing about the scenes beforehand. If I could do it over, I’d definitely read more about these reliefs before visiting.
If you can also set aside a good chunk of time for the bas-relief, that would be ideal. If you go through these carvings in a hurry, not only will you miss the pleasure of taking in the details, you also won’t remember much of it by the end of the day.
And even if you take pictures, viewing them in person is so much better!
I love these detailed tree carvings. Photo by G. Dodson
So In Short…
Take your time in enjoying the reliefs. Do not rush, because you’d want these images embedded in your mind. Why? Because they’re so pretty, of course!
Plus, it’s not everyday you get to visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Other than Angkor Wat bas-relief, there is another great place to see more wall- to- wall bas- reliefs, and that is at Bayon. If the Angkor reliefs depicts the ‘life’ of the gods, the Bayon reliefs show you the life of the common people. It’s very telling, and like a journey back to the ancient times. You’ll see fishermen fishing, women cooking, and children playing!
It’s just amazing what great things that the ancient Khmer people have left us.
Angkor Wat bas-relief hallways. Cool and shady. Photo by A. Hopkinson.
Angkor Wat History – A Brief Overview
Want to know a little bit of Angkor Wat history? Here is a condensed version of it, including the most important facts about the Kings and the temples.
The Angkor Wat Temple In Cambodia
Have you seen the inside of the Angkor Wat temple? Have you seen the detailed bas-relief and decorations that adorn almost every wall? Or the steep staircases, made even more precarious by age?
Cambodia Pictures as Wallpapers
Get a picture of one of Angkor Wat’s bas-relief carvings! Free and exclusive Cambodia pictures for desktop wallpaper! So even if you can’t be in Cambodia right now, these images will take you there!