The ancient Khmer civilization flowered in southeastern Asia for over five centuries. A number of interacting and competing kingdoms had existed in the area since the early centuries c.e., and both the Buddhist and Hindu religions had been widely adopted. But in c.e. 802, several of these kingdoms joined together to form a powerful state. The capital, Angkor, situated in modern Cambodia, became the center of an empire that, at its height, stretched over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from what is now Burma in the west across Thailand and Laos to central Vietnam in the east, and a similar distance north to south, from the Khorat plateau in northern Thailand both to the tip of southern Vietnam and down the long isthmus toward the Malay peninsula. After the early fourteenth century, the Khmer empire went into decline and Angkor collapsed. However, a new capital emerged downstream. Khmer culture endured and in many respects thrived until the arrival of the Europeans and the establishment of the French Protectorate in the mid-nineteenth century.

The word Angkor means “Holy City” in Sanskrit. The arrangement of magnificent buildings and reservoirs (barays) that survives to this day resulted from construction projects initiated by a succession of rulers, and includes both Buddhist and Hindu temples, according to the religious persuasion of the king in question. At its heart is Angkor Thom, a huge square compound—some 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) on a side—containing a royal palace surrounded by numerous public buildings, platforms, and courts, and including two temple-pyramids, the Baphuon and the Bayon. Angkor Thom is flanked both to the east and west by enormous rectangular reservoirs, each over 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) long and 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) wide. To the south is a small hill, Phnom Bakheng (Mighty Mount Ancestor), with a temple on its summit. Beyond that to the south is the most magnificent temple complex of all: Angkor Wat, arguably the largest and most impressive religious structure ever built. Although it has been a Buddhist temple (wat) for many centuries, it was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Scattered in its vicinity, but mostly found close to the western and southern sides of the East Baray, are a number of additional temple enclosures, including three that functioned as Buddhist monasteries.

Although it is Angkor Wat’s artistic and architectural splendor that so impresses the modern visitor, many of the temples built there also expressed vital principles of cosmic harmony. Some of these expressions are obvious: the large numbers of towers pointing at heaven; the cardinal orientation of the temple precincts and barays; and the westward orientation of Angkor Wat, generally supposed to express a link between death and the setting sun, but possibly symbolizing the direction associated with Vishnu. The central tower of the Bayon—at the center of Angkor Thom, which is itself at the center of Angkor—represented Mount Meru, the dwelling place of the gods, placed at the center of a symbolic model of the cosmos. Other principles and relationships may have been expressed more subtly, encoded numerically and geometrically in a variety of ways. Thus the Bakheng temple, with seven levels to represent the layers of heaven, takes the form of a stepped pyramid supporting 108 towers, symmetrically arranged. The visitor mounting the central staircase on any side, however, can only see thirty-three of the towers—the number of principal gods in the Hindu pantheon. The design of Angkor Wat incorporated alignments upon solstitial and equinoctial sunrise, and it has even been suggested that the dimensions of the central structure encoded, in Khmer units of measurement, the number of days in the year. Although many of the specific suggestions are unproven and controversial, they remain plausible, given the ways in which cosmo-logical principles are known to have been encapsulated in Hindu temples throughout history and still are today.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

The author Graham Hancock has gone further, arguing that the entire layout of temples at Angkor had another purpose. It formed a gigantic model on the ground of the constellation Draco, just as (he and others have supposed) the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt modeled Orion’s Belt. Although this may sound like a simple extension of the idea of human constructions modeling the cosmos, it is ill conceived at a number of levels. For one thing, the idea of producing literal “maps” of the stars in the sky, as opposed to symbolic models of the gods in heaven, has no known place in Hindu beliefs and practice. In other words, this is an idea totally divorced from the social context in which it is supposed to have operated. Second, the construction of successive temples would have needed to have conformed to a very specific grand plan conceived before any of the building started and strictly adhered to by one ruler after another. Third, in order to make the orientation fit the appearance of the constellation in the sky, one has to assume that the plan was conceived around the year 10,500 b.c.e. Though it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that sacred sites might have been recognized for one reason and then retained their sacredness, it is sheer fantasy to suggest that a fixed plan could have been perpetuated for more than 11,000 years. Likewise, the idea of a “lost golden age” at such an early date flies in the face of well-established archaeological evidence from all over the world.

But how, then, does one explain the apparent fit of the temple positions with the pattern of stars in Draco? The answer is that apparently impressive matches like this can easily arise fortuitously, especially if one is prepared to be selective with the data. There are many temples at Angkor, many bright stars in the sky to choose from, and one can project the curved surface of the sky onto the flat surface of the ground in various ways. Certain temples, such as the Baphuon and Bayon, do not fit stars, and certain bright stars in the relevant part of Draco, such as Eltanin (y Dra) and Altais (8 Dra), do not fit temples. Furthermore, the fit in the remainder of cases is not always impressive. It is possible to argue that there were inevitable errors in the process of identifying the correct location, multiplicities of purpose, and other difficulties in practice. But these possibilities (for which there is no direct evidence) provide no justification for selecting data arbitrarily in order to obtain more impressive fits. This is a flawed game that one plays at one’s peril.

The example of Angkor serves to show the severe dangers of seeking astronomical correlates of spatial patterns in archaeological data too keenly and taking interpretations far too far without heeding the constraint of cultural evidence. We do not need to go to such lengths to acknowledge that astronomical and cosmological symbolism was deeply engrained in this extraordinary group of monuments.

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