Archaeologists and art historians have always praised Angkor Wat for its perfect proportions—its meticulous design, its exact measurements.
But the medieval complex—the famous central temple, with its five lotus-shaped towers, surrounded by an immense rectangle of walls—is not symmetrical.
The temple in the middle is slightly off-center—its east-west axis is 1 1/2 meters north of the walls’ east-west line.
This slight difference is practically imperceptible, but to Takeshi Nakagawa, an Angkor expert and professor at Japan’s Waseda University, it is one of the site’s most intriguing mysteries.
“Things that look like a mistake can actually convey the philosophy of the ancient Khmer world,” he said Monday at a seminar at the Japanese Embassy.
Nakagawa said the 1.5-meter gap has been known since the first French researchers measured Angkor Wat, but was always thought to be a measuring mistake.
So instead of noting that the temple is slightly askew, every description of Angkor Wat heaps praise upon its carefully planned, perfectly executed symmetry.
The descriptions remind us that Angkor Wat’s builders left nothing to chance. They calculated what the view would be from every doorway and causeway, constructing not only an impressive monument but also an experience for the viewer.
So why didn’t the architects build the temple in line with the walls around it? Did they make a mistake?
Careful measurements revealed that the gap is not a mistake at all, Nakagawa said.
Nakagawa measured ancient Khmer temples in northern Thailand and found that “almost all of Khmer architecture has this gap,” he said.
He noted that Indian temples from the same period, from which the Khmers drew their primary inspiration, also featured such an asymmetrical alignment. But in the Indian temples, the gap is large and clearly visible, and may even be highlighted by smaller towers.
Why would the Khmers copy this feature, but reduce it to the point where it is nearly impossible to discern?
Nakagawa doesn’t have an answer to this, but he noted that many Indian architectural traditions were modified by the Khmers as they tried to reconcile Hindu ideas with the vestigial animism in their culture.
“They have accepted the Indian [ways], but they harmonize them with their own environment,” he said.
Still, the symbolic significance of placing temples off-center is not clear, Nakagawa said. Instead, it is one of the great temple’s many mysteries.
“We must preserve [Angkor] so that the next generation can make these mysteries clear,” he said.