Cambodia: HISTORY OF ANGKOR (5of6) [in English language]
Buddhism was the other important religion. Its two principal forms are Mahayana ('Greater Vehicle') and Theravada (also known as Hinayana - 'Lesser Vehicle', a term not surprisingly considered derogatory by its followers). The Buddhism practised throughout Southeast Asia today is Theravada - 'the sayings of elders', following the pure precepts of the Buddha - but at the time of the Khmer Empire, official Buddhist worship was exclusively Mahayanist. Mahayana Buddhism seems to have played a more important role in what is now Thailand than in Cambodia - or at least, it was important over a longer period. At Angkor, it made its major appearance at the end of the 12th century with the accession of Jayavarman VII, but on the Khorat Plateau it was established much earlier. The temple of Phimai. In particular, was a centre of Buddhist worship. After the 7th century, Tantric thought began to infiltrate both Buddhism and Hinduism, and makes an important appearance it Phimai. Tantra is 'the doctrine and ritual of the left hand', in which the female force, or shakti, plays a dominant role in the universe. This esoteric belief involved many magical and mystical rituals, and female divinities played an increasing part. Vajrayana Buddhism was a development of Tantric thought, and had elaborate iconography.
One of the characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism is the number of bodhisattvas. Literally Buddhas-to-be', these were beings who had voluntarily halted their progress on the path to Buddha-hood, stopping just short of Enlightenment in order to be able to assist mankind.
To gain a proper understanding of what a Khmer temple was, it should first be recalled that it was not a meeting place for the faithful but the palace of a god, who was enshrined there to allow him to bestow his beneficence, in particular on the founder and his familiars. There was thus the need to build the finest possible residence for him, to be sure, although as he was there in the form of a statue there was little need for a large space. One of the largest is the central shrine of Angkor Wat and its cella has internal dimensions of 4.6 metres by 4.7; the pedestal of the statue being approximately the width of the door, would have been 1.6 metres square. So a great temple would not be a vast palace for a single god but a grouping of multiple shrines with a main divinity at the centre. Preah Khan temple, for example, was originally conceived to house more than 400 deities, and many others were to be added subsequently. The shrines could be linked or surrounded by galleries, which usually had doors and themselves housed certain divinities.
In any case they were in no way intended to provide passage for great processions as has too often been asserted; such processions would have been greatly impeded, or rendered impossible by the doors and their disproportionately large thresholds. Some are not even accessible on foot, for example Ta Keo where it seems there was not even provision for doorways. As the residence of a god, or gods, the sacred territory in which the temple is sited is an image of the universe, where the gods sit on Mount Meru, the centre of the world, surrounded by the primordial ocean. This is the image which the sacred compound of a state temple in the Khmer country offers us, in which the prasat, the sanctuary tower, usually represents Mount Meru and can be flanked by four further prasats; the various enclosures being the mountains surrounding it, and the moat being the ocean.
This world image was to impose a rigorous order of construction on Khmer architecture, from the simplest buildings to the most complex monumental groups. The characteristic applies of course to the temple as originally conceived. In reality, as might be expected as long as a temple remained an active place of worship, the Khmers added smaller or greater numbers of extra shrines to the original coherent group - especially from the reign of Jayavarman VII onwards. This is particularly evident at Preah Khan, and the practice can result in an impression of chaos to the modern eye. It is not too difficult, however, to ascertain the original layout.