Bas-reliefs are individual figures, groups of figures, or entire scenes cut into stone walls, not as drawings but as sculpted images projecting from a background. Sculpture in bas-relief is distinguished from sculpture in haut-relief, in that the latter projects farther from the background, in some cases almost detaching itself from it.
The Angkorian Khmer preferred to work in bas-relief, while their neighbors the Cham were partial to haut-relief. Narrative bas-reliefs are bas-reliefs depicting stories from mythology or history. Until about the 11th Century A.D., the Angkorian Khmer confined their narrative bas-reliefs to the space on the tympana above doorways.
The most famous early narrative bas-reliefs are those on the tympana at the 10th-century temple of Banteay Srei, depicting scenes from Hindu mythology as well as scenes from the great works of Indian literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. By the 12th century, however, the Angkorian artists were covering entire walls with narrative scenes in bas-relief. At Angkor Wat, the external gallery wall is covered with some 12,000 or 13,000 square meters of such scenes, some of the historical, some mythological. Similarly, the outer gallery at the Bayon contains extensive bas-reliefs documenting the everyday life of the medieval Khmer as well as historical events from the reign of King Jayavarman VII.
The following is a listing of the motifs illustrated in some of the more famous Angkorian narrative bas-reliefs:
bas-reliefs in the tympana at Banteay Srei (10th century)
the duel of the monkey princes Vali and Sugriva, and the intervention of the human hero Rama on behalf of the latter
the duel of Bhima and Duryodhana at the Battle of Kurukshetra the Rakshasa king Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, upon which sit Shiva and his shakti Kama firing an arrow at Shiva as the latter sits on Mount Kailasa
the burning of Khandava Forest by Agni and Indra's attempt to extinguish the flames bas-reliefs on the walls of the outer gallery at Angkor Wat (mid-12th century A.D.)
the Battle of Lanka between the Rakshasas and the vanaras or monkeys the court and procession of King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat
the Battle of Kurukshetra between Pandavas and Kauravas the judgment of Yama, and the tortures of Hell the Churning of the Ocean of Milk
a battle between devas and asuras a battle between Vishnu and a force of asuras
the conflict between Krishna and the asura Bana
the story of the monkey princes Vali and Sugriva bas-reliefs on the walls of the outer and inner galleries at the Bayon (late 12th century A.D.)
battles on land and sea between Khmer and Cham troops
scenes from the everyday life of Angkor civil strife among the Khmer
the legend of the Leper King the worship of Shiva groups of dancing apsaras
BLIND DOOR AND WINDOW
Angkorean shrines frequently opened in only one direction, typically to the east. The other three sides featured fake or blind doors to maintain symmetry. Blind windows were often used along otherwise blank walls.
Colonettes were narrow decorative columns that served as supports for the beams and lintels above doorways or windows. Depending on the period, they were round, rectangular, or octagonal in shape. Colonettes were often circled with molded rings and decorated with carved leaves. Angkorian engineers tended to use the corbel arch in order to construct rooms, passageways, and openings in buildings.
A corbel arch is constructed by adding layers of stones to the walls on either side of an opening, with each successive layer projecting further towards the centre than the one supporting it from below until the two sides meet in the middle.
The corbel arch is structurally weaker than the true arch. The use of corbelling prevented the Angkorian engineers from constructing large openings or spaces in buildings roofed with stone and made such buildings particularly prone to collapse once they were no longer maintained. These difficulties did not, of course, exist for buildings constructed with stone walls surmounted by a light wooden roof. The problem of preventing the collapse of corbelled structures at Angkor remains a serious one for modern conservation.
LINTEL, PEDIMENT, AND TYMPANUM
A lintel is a horizontal beam connecting two vertical columns between which runs a door or passageway. Because the Angkorean Khmer lacked the ability to construct a true arch, they constructed their passageways using lintels or corbelling. A pediment is a roughly triangular structure above a lintel. A tympanum is the decorated surface of a pediment. The styles employed by Angkorean artists in the decoration of lintels evolved over time, as a result, the study of lintels has proven a useful guide to the dating of temples.
Some scholars have endeavored to develop a periodization of lintel styles. The most beautiful Angkorean lintels are thought to be those of the Preah Ko style from the late 9th century. Common motifs in the decoration of lintels include the Kala, the nāga, and the Makara, as well as various forms of vegetation. Also frequently depicted are the Hindu gods associated with the four cardinal directions, with the identity of the god depicted on a given lintel or pediment depending on the direction faced by that element. Indra, the god of the sky, is associated with East; Yama, the god of judgment and Hell, with South; Varuna, the god of the ocean, with West; and Kubera, god of wealth, with North.
LIST OF KHMER LINTEL STYLES
Sambor Prei Kuk style: Inward-facing Makaras with tapering bodies. Four arches joined by three medallions, the central once carved with Indra. The small figure on each Makara. A variation is with figures replacing the Makaras and a scene with figures below the arch.
Prei Khmeng style: Continuation of Sambor Prei Kuk but Makaras disappear, being replaced by incurving ends and figures. Arches are more rectilinear. Large figures sometimes at each end. A variation is a central scene below the arch, usually Vishnu Reclining.
Kompong Preah style: High-quality carving. Arches replaced by a garland of vegetation (like a wreath) more or less segmented. Medallions disappear, the central one sometimes replaced by a knot of leaves. Leafy pendants spray out above and below garland.
Kulen style: Great diversity, with influences from Champa and Java, including the Kala and outward-facing Makaras.
Preah Ko style: Some of the most beautiful of all Khmer lintels, rich, will-carved, and imaginative. Kala in center, issuing garland on either side. Distinct loops of vegetation curl down from the garland. Outward-facing Makaras sometimes appear at the ends. Vishnu on Garuda common. .
Bakheng style: Continuation of Preah Ko but less fanciful and tiny figures disappear. Loops of vegetation below the naga form tight circular coils. Garland begins to dip in the center.
Koh Ker style: Center occupied by a prominent scene, taking up almost the entire height of the lintel. Usually no lower border. The dress of figures shows a curved line to the sampot tucked in below the waist.
Pre Rup style: Tendency to copy earlier style, especially Preah Ko and Bakheng. Central figures. Re-appearance of the lower border. Banteay Srei style: Increase in complexity and detail. Garland sometimes makes a pronounced loop on either side with Kala at top of each loop. Central figure.
Khleang style: Less ornate than those of Banteay Srei. Central Kala with triangular tongue, its hands holding the garland which is bent at the center. Kala is sometimes surmounted by a divinity. Loops of garland on either side divided by flora stalk and pendant. Vigorous treatment of vegetation.
Baphuon style: The central Kala surmounted by divinity, usually riding a steed or a Vishnu scene, typically from the life of Krishna. Loops of garland no longer cut. Another type is a scene with many figures and little vegetation.
Angkor Wat style: Centered, framed, and linked by garlands. A second type is a narrative scene filled with figures. When nagas appear, their curls are tight and prominent. Dress mirrors that of devatas and apsaras in bas-reliefs. No empty spaces.
Bayon style: Most figures disappear, usually only a Kala at the bottom of the lintel surmounted by a small figure. Mainly Buddhist motifs. In the middle of the period, the garland is cut into four parts, while later a series of whorls of foliage replace the four divisions.
Angkorean stairs are notoriously steep. Frequently, the length of the riser exceeds that of the tread, producing an angle of ascent somewhere between 45 and 70 degrees. The reasons for this peculiarity appear to be both religious and monumental. From the religious perspective, a steep stairway can be interpreted as a "stairway to heaven," the realm of the gods. "From the monumental point of view," according to Angkor-scholar Maurice Glaize, "the advantage is clear – the square of the base not having to spread in surface area, the entire building rises to its zenith with a particular thrust."
Apsaras, divine nymphs or celestial dancing girls, are characters from Indian mythology. Their origin is explained in the story of the churning of the Ocean of Milk, or Samudra Manthan, found in the Vishnu Purana. Other stories in the Mahabharata detail the exploits of individual apsaras, who were often used by the gods as agents to persuade or seduce mythological demons, heroes and ascetics.
The widespread use of apsaras as a motif for decorating the walls and pillars of temples and other religious buildings, however, was a Khmer innovation. In modern descriptions of Angkorian temples, the term "apsara" is sometimes used to refer not only to dancers but also to other minor female deities, though minor female deities who are depicted standing rather than dancing are more commonly called "devatas".
Apsaras and devatas are ubiquitous at Angkor but are most common in the foundations of the 12th Century A.D. Depictions of true (dancing) apsaras are found, for example, in the Hall of Dancers at Preah Khan, in the pillars that line the passageways through the outer gallery of the Bayon, and in the famous bas-relief of Angkor Wat depicting the churning of the Ocean of Milk.
The largest population of devatas (around 2,000) is at Angkor Wat, where Dvarapalas are human or demonic temple guardians, generally armed with lances and clubs. They are presented either as a stone statue or as relief carvings in the walls of temples and other buildings, generally close to entrances or passageways. Their function is to protect the temples. Dvarapalas may be seen, for example, at Preah Ko, Lolei, Banteay Srei, Preah Khan, and Banteay Kdei.
GAJASIMHA AND REACHISEY
The gajasimha is a mythical animal with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. At Angkor, it is portrayed as a guardian of temples and as a mount for some warriors. The gajasimha may be found at Banteay Srei and at the temples belonging to the Roluos group. The reachisey is another mythical animal, similar to the gajasimha, with the head of a lion, a short elephantine trunk, and the scaly body of a dragon. It occurs at Angkor Wat in the epic bas reliefs of the outer gallery. Garuda is a divine being that is part man and part bird. He is the lord of birds, the mythological enemy of nāgas, and the battle steed of Vishnu.
Depictions of Garuda at Angkor number in the thousands, and though Indian in inspiration exhibit a style that is uniquely Khmer. They may be classified as follows: As part of a narrative bas relief, Garuda is shown as the battle steed of Vishnu or Krishna, bearing the god on his shoulders, and simultaneously fighting against the god's enemies.
Numerous such images of Garuda may be observed in the outer gallery of Angkor Wat. Garuda serves as an atlas supporting a superstructure, as in the bas relief at Angkor Wat that depicts heaven and hell. Garudas and stylized mythological lions are the most common atlas figures at Angkor. Garuda is depicted in the pose of a victor, often dominating a nāga, as in the gigantic relief sculptures on the outer wall of Preah Khan. In this context, Garuda symbolizes the military power of the Khmer kings and their victories over their enemies.
Not coincidentally, the city of Preah Khan was built on the site of King Jayavarman VII's victory over invaders from Champa. In free-standing nāga sculptures, such as in nāga bridges and balustrades, Garuda is often depicted in relief against the fan of nāga heads. The relationship between Garuda and the nāga heads is ambiguous in these sculptures: it may be one of cooperation, or it may again be one of domination of the nāga by Garuda.