Designing and building places of prayer or reflection, such as churches, mosques, stupas, synagogues, and temples, is known as sacred architecture. Significant resources have been devoted to building these consecrated areas across a variety of cultures throughout human history. They are frequently distinguished by their grandeur and lasting influence in the world of monolithic constructions, standing as permanent testaments to human invention and commitment. These locations, set aside for spiritual or sanctified purposes, serve as deep representations of cultural and spiritual value and are the result of meticulous planning and extraordinarily creative human ability. Sacred architecture is intrinsically characterized by sacred geometry, iconography, and the use of complex semiotics including signs, symbols, and religious motifs. From ancient history to baroque times in all cultures, all round the world, sacred or religious architecture has been the most notable and grand structures before skyscrapers. The first structures built by humans were meant to serve as shelter—an improvement above caves. However, since the dawn of civilization, some buildings have served a higher function, namely to sate people’s seemingly insatiable need to enter a spiritual dimension of existence. The 10,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, the Pantheon in Rome, the Pyramids in Egypt, and the Chartres Cathedral in France, as well as more modern examples like the Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India, have produced some of the most beautiful architecture in the entire world.

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Göbekli Tepe,Turkey_©wikipedia.com

The Sacred Link between Architecture and the Divine

The creator is portrayed by a striking number of historical traditions, ranging from Indian Vedic literature to the Greek Homeric tradition as someone who molds the world or the universe with purpose and meaning, just as an architect shapes and builds structures with a specific plan in mind. Egyptian temples served as a miniature representation of creation. The ceiling, which was frequently painted blue and adorned with stars—sometimes with extremely fine astronomical detail—represented the night sky, while the floor, as one might think, symbolized the ground beneath one’s feet. The chamber’s columns and corners represented the four pillars or four corners of the earth, and where they met the earth, their bottoms were decorated with flowers and grasses. Egyptian temples were, in the fullest sense, reflections of the cosmos even in the earliest periods. King Nebuchadnezzar referred to his renovated Babylonian ‘ziggurat’ at Borsippa as “the temple of the seven spheres of the world,” a reference to the seven planets known to Babylonian astronomy. The seven colorful strata of the temple, a characteristic of previous ziggurats, symbolized a progressive ascent through the celestial realms, generating a color gradient like a sunset that appeared to merge with the sky at the structure’s summit, where it became a meeting place for gods and humans. From the royal Persian tent canopies to the Hellenistic Roman and later Byzantine temples, the dome emerged across the ancient world and into the Middle Ages as a depiction of the heavenly sphere.

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Symbol of unity and sacred geometry in Lotus Temple,New Delhi_©pinterest.com

The building’s layout, which is based on a conversation between circles and squares, sums up the basic bond between God and man. The circle represents Heaven, the sacred, and the afterlife. Contrarily, the square stands for the cosmos, tangible things, and the state of the earth. Several medieval paintings serve as examples of the idea of the Word becoming flesh, upon which the entire iconography of the Christian temple is based. A square drawn in a circle can be seen beneath Christ’s feet on a throne in the Evangelist of Saint Omero. This is a divine symbol, signifying the descent of God into flesh as the circle becomes a square. The Byzantine church was constructed on a cube and had a dome on top for many years. The model is Santa Sofia in Constantinople. In Romanesque architecture, the nave, which is intended for the people, is rectangular while the apse and cupola, and those dedicated to God are circular.

Architecture and Folklore: Case study of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia occupies a space that is 162.6 hectares, making it the greatest place of worship in the entire world. Built initially as a Hindu temple. King Suryavarman II dedicated it to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire during the 12th century; as a result, it is also known as a “Hindu-Buddhist” temple. Toward the end of the century, it progressively became a Buddhist temple. It was also meant to act as the king’s final resting place. The temple mountain and the subsequent galleried temple are the two fundamental designs of the Khmer temple building that are combined in Angkor Wat. Three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next, are contained within a moat that is more than 5 kilometers long and an exterior wall that is 3.6 kilometers long. This structure is meant to depict Mount Meru, the home of the devas in Hindu mythology. A quincunx of towers is located in the middle of the temple. The temple is praised for its elaborate bas-reliefs, harmonious design, and the countless devatas that adorn its walls. Since Angkor Wat was largely constructed of stone, 

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Main complex of Angkor Wat, Cambodia_©wikipedia.com

it took more than 30 years to build. Paths to this complex were specifically built in the bush because King Suryavarman II only wanted people to approach from the west, which is linked with Vishnu and the land of the dead. Shiva is the primary deity worshipped in Hindu temples, and as Shiva rules over the eastern quadrant of the compass, these temples typically face east.  The two most destructive yugas, Kali Yuga and Dvapara Yuga, are situated far from the center temple, while the two most revered yugas, Krita Yuga and Treta Yuga, are situated closer to the central sanctuary. The fact that Angkor Wat’s central tower depicts Mount Meru effectively establishes King Suryavarman II as a deity in his own right. Many of the principal components of the temple itself featured galleries leading to tunnels, “cruciform terraces,” and enclosures covering regions other than the main halls.

At Angkor Wat, there are 1,200 square meters of carved basreliefs that depict eight distinct Hindu myths. the bas-reliefs include Ramayana and Mahabharat, also capturing scenes of daily life, providing a fascinating glimpse into the Khmer Empire’s societal structure. These representations marketplaces, royal residences, conflicts, and even contests involving fighting cocks. There’s also a significant emphasis on celestial beings such as apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and devatas (minor deities), who are depicted in graceful postures and ornate jewelry, embodying the Khmer ideals of beauty and femininity. The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, portraying the genesis of time and the universe’s formationis one of  the Angkor Wat’s most significant narratives. Furthermore, it conveys a message of virtue triumphing over malevolence. In the narrative, the devas (gods) are engaged in battle with the asuras (demons) to restore power and order to the gods who had lost it. The elixir of life (amrita), which must be freed from the soil to recover peace and order, can only be done through cooperation between gods and demons. The five stone towers are designed to mirror the five mountain ranges of Mount Meru, which hold mythological significance as the abodes of gods in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The galleries and the spaces between them and the moat symbolize the encompassing mountain ranges and seas that surround Mount Meru.

Churnng of Ocean of the Milk bas relief_©worldhistory.org

This interior sanctuary, which symbolized the peaks of Mount Meru, a holy mountain in Hindu mythology, was reached via arduous staircases, signifying the challenge of reaching the gods’ dwelling place. The gods reside on Mount Meru, although it is also regarded as an axis mundi. A cosmic or global axis that links the heavens and the earth is known as an axis-mundi. To show the Angkor Kingdom’s and the king’s pivotal position in the cosmos, an axis mundi was created. The building of the temple serves as both a historical record of the temple’s patron and a representation of the universe (mandala).

REFERENCES

templetonreligiontrust.org. (n.d.). Deconstructing the Spiritual Experience of Architecture | Julio Bermudez. [online] Available at: https://templetonreligiontrust.org/explore/deconstructing-the-spiritual-experience-of-architecture/

Wikipedia. (2023). Sacral architecture. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacral_architecture

Smith, M. (n.d.). The Grand Architect: The Sacred Link Between Architecture and the Divine Across Ancient Cultures. [online] www.ancient-origins.net. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/grand-architect-0012238.

Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Angkor Wat. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

Bhagentsang, D., Caperchione, K., Gusain, I., Hobart, A., Inayat, Z., MacDonald, C., Park, J., Tam, B., Wang, J., Zhang, S.C. (Sam), Carson, K. and Mardon, A.A. (2021). Angkor Wat – Exploring the Art, Science, and History Behind one of the World’s Greatest Religious Sites. Golden Meteorite Press.

Rod-ari, Dr.M. (2017). Angkor Wat. [online] Khan Academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/south-east-se-asia/cambodia-art/a/angkor-wat

History Skills. (n.d.). Angkor Wat: the astonishing architectural marvel of the Khmer Empire. [online] Available at: https://www.historyskills.com/classroom/year-8/angkor-wat/

Author

Nishi is an inquisitive architect based in Nepal who sees architecture as a powerful means of storytelling. With a genuine belief that just like every person, every building has a unique story to tell, she is passionate about unraveling these narratives and expressing them through her words.