Angkor-period architecture dates from Jayavarman II’s establishment of the Khmer capital near Roluos in the early 9th century AD. From then until the 15th century, art historians identify five main architectural styles.
The earliest, Preah Ko, is rooted in the pre-Angkorian traditions of Sambor Prei Kuk, to Angkor’s east, and the 8th-century temple style of Kompong Preah, relics of which are found at Prasat Ak Yum by the West Baray. Khmer architecture reached its peak during the construction of Angkor Wat.
PREAH KO (AD 875–890)
The Preah Ko style was characterized by a simple temple layout, with one or more square brick towers rising from a single laterite base. The Roluos Group saw the first use of concentric enclosures entered via the gopura (gateway tower). Another innovation was the library annexe, possibly used to protect the sacred fire. The eastern causeway of Bakong runs straight from the main gopura to the high central tower. This structure is raised on a square-based pyramid, rising to a symbolic temple-mountain.
BAKHENG TO PRE RUP (AD 890–965)
The temple-mountain style, based on Mount Meru, evolved during the Bakheng period. Phnom Bakheng, Phnom Krom, and Phnom Bok all feature the classic layout of five towers arranged in a quincunx – a tower on each side, with a fifth at the centre. The Pre Rup style developed during the reign of Rajendravarman II (r.944–68). It continues the Bakheng style, but the towers are higher and steeper, with more tiers.
Phnom Bakheng impressively exemplifies the Bakheng style. It was the state temple of the first Khmer capital at Angkor and dates from the late 9th century. It rises majestically through a pyramid of square terraces to the main group of five sanctuary towers.
Pre Rup’s carved sandstone lintels are more finely detailed than in earlier styles. Distinguished by its size and the abrupt rise of its temple-mountain through several levels to the main sanctuary. It is speculated that the structure may have served as a royal crematorium – pre rup means to turn the body.
BANTEAY SREI TO BAPHUON (AD 965–1080)
Represented by the delicate and refined Banteay Srei, this eponymous style is characterized by ornate carvings of sensuous apsaras and devadas (dancers). Khmer architecture was reaching its majestic climax in the mid-11th century. By this time the style had evolved into the Baphuon style, which is distinguished by vast proportions and vaulted galleries. The sculpture of the period shows increasing realism and narrative sequence.
The five-tiered Baphuon was the state temple of Udayadityavarman II (r.1050–66). The structure was described by 13th- century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan as “a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.”
Banteay Srei, constructed between AD 967 and 1000, is known for its fine craftsmanship, obvious in the exquisite detail of the bas-reliefs and carved stone lintels.
ANGKOR WAT (AD 1080–1175)
Art historians generally agree that the style of Angkor Wat represents the apex of Khmer architectural and sculptural genius. The greatest of all temple-mountains, it also boasts the finest bas-relief narratives. The art of lintel carving at its height during this period.
Bas-reliefs of Suryavarman II in the west section of the southern gallery portray, the king seated on his throne surrounded by courtiers with fans and parasols. Below him, princesses and women of the court are carried in palanquins. In another fine bas-relief, the king is shown riding a great war elephant.
An aerial view of Angkor Wat makes the vast scale and symbolic layout of the complex very clear. Every aspect of Angkor is rich with meaning, the most apparent being the central towers rising to a peak, representing the five peaks of the sacred Mount Meru.
BAYON (AD 1175–1240)
Considered a synthesis of previous styles, Bayon – the last great Angkor architectural style – is still magnificent, but also characterized by a detectable decline in quality. There is more use of laterite and less of sandstone, as well as more Buddhist imagery and, correspondingly, fewer Hindu themes.
Bas-reliefs depicting scenes of battle at the temple of the Bayon in Angkor Thom provide a remarkable record of contemporary wars between the Khmer Empire and the Kingdom of Champa; resulting in the victory of Khmer King Jayavarman VII in 1181.
The South Gate of Angkor Thom is surmounted by a large, four-faced carving of the devaraja (god-king), Jayavarman VII. He is depicted as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, gazing somberly in the four cardinal directions for eternity.