At the heart of symbolism

The flag of Cambodia

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Flag of Cambodia

The colours of the flag

The flag represents the Angkor Wat temple in a white stylized form on a red background, bordered by two blue stripes.

Red and blue are two “extreme” colours of the visible light spectrum depicted by the rainbow. As the rainbow “higher” colour, red is associated with the top of the temporal power, the king, whereas the “lower” colour blue corresponds to the people subjected to his power.

White characterizes the visible light gathering all colours in a unified state; it symbolizes the “Great Unity” containing all things in a potential state. Therefore, white refers to the celestial Principle at the source of the terrestrial manifestation and handed down to the spiritual authority. This is probably why the Angkor Wat temple is coloured in white.

The spiritual and temporal characters of the flag colours are only reinforcing the strong impregnation of Angkor Wat's origins. Before becoming Buddhist, the temple was Hinduist and the influence of the Hindu tradition prevailed throughout its construction.

A brief insight into the Hindu tradition

In the Hindu tradition, the being is usually facing the rising sun, i.e. east. Now, the orbit of the apparent move of the sun (ecliptic) glides daily towards north between winter and summer solstices and south between summer and winter solstices. It follows that the orbit intersects the horizon at two points associated with sunrise and sunset.

At winter solstice, the sun rises towards southeast and sets southwest. At summer solstice, it rises northeast and sets northwest. In other words, the sunrise moves between southeast and northeast during its ascending phase. Conversely, it goes from northeast to southeast alongside its descending phase.

Facing eastWhile facing east, the being may give preference to right or left, south or north, light or darkness:

  • Favouring right or south signifies to look at sunrise between summer and winter solstices or incline towards the descending phase starting with summer solstice. It is destined to people who will have to go through other being's states as long as they will not have reached to become full human beings centred in themselves. This is the “way of the ancestors” (pitriyâna), the way memorizing former states;
  • Giving preference to the left or north means to observe sunrise between winter and summer solstices or choosing the ascending phase inaugurated by the winter solstice. It leads the being beyond the human states, towards the supra-human states where the human being centre identifies itself with the total being Centre, residence of the Supreme Principle, Brahma. This is the “way of the Gods” (devayâna).

This shows that the way to total liberation goes through darkness. This important point will help us to understand the Angkor Wat structure.

The Angkor Wat structure

Angkor Wat was built under the reign of the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century. Shaped as a rectangle and covering about 500 acres, it was surrounded by a 656 feet wide moat. Oriented according to the compass points, the site is accessible by a sandstone causeway to the west and an earth bank to the east.

Using the eastern entrance means facing west, twilight, sunset, darkness and, according to a common opinion, encountering death. Consequently, Angkor Wat should have previously been a tomb. In fact, if the site refers to death, it is not in a common sense. Following the Hindu tradition, it symbolically signifies that the being has to go through darkness to die to the human states in order to be reborn in the supra-human ones. Therefore, Angkor Wat temple was more likely an initiation place opening the way to Knowledge and spiritual realization.

Facing westLet us mention that facing west rather than east reinforces the being's quest. While facing west, the being may give preference to right or left, darkness or light. As before, he will have to go through darkness to be liberated from all the limitations linked to his human conditioning. Moreover, he will have to go all the way through darkness while successively following west and north directions. This shows that the builders of the Angkor Wat temple intended to emphasize the realization of the total being.

The Angkor Wat temple stands on a terrace above the surrounding city. It is made of three rectangular galleries, each higher than the preceding one. In the centre of the last gallery stands a tower topped by a very symbolic lotus-bud dome. At the corners of the second and third levels are also towers topped with lotus-bud domes.

The three levels of the temple refer to the three worlds of the Hindu tradition surrounding the Mount Meru, i.e. the sacred Mountain symbolizing the “Pole”, the “World Axis” linking Heaven and Earth and represented by the central tower.

These three worlds (“Tribhuvana”) are associated with three types of power:

  • The terrestrial world ruled by the royal power;
  • The intermediate world under the sacerdotal authority;
  • The celestial world representing the common Principle to both powers.

This three level correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm can be found in any tradition. It is naturally part of the initiation process which reflects the cosmogonic process. They respectively concern the Kshatriyas, the Brahmins and the Priest-king 1.

As a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, one of the three Gods of the Trimurti. Besides Brahmâ (the creator) and Shiva (the transformer), Vishnu symbolized the preserver and protector of the Supreme Principle beyond any distinction, Brahma. Once, the central tower contained a statue of Vishnu. As the preserver of the tradition, he was probably glorified by a seven-headed serpent (nâga) symbolizing the rainbow, the bridge between Earth and Heaven.

Ground plan of the Angkor Wat templeThere is a strong relationship between the temple centre and its western side. The two directions radiating from the centre and going through both lateral western gates are oriented towards the winter and summer solstice sunsets. Moreover, the north-west and south-west corner towers are also aligned according to the same directions. This underlines the key role of the temple centre in the initiation process.

There is no similar relationship between the centre and the eastern side of the temple. The being using the western entrance had to face east and go left or north to reach higher states (see the second picture above). In other words, he had to circumambulate in a counterclockwise direction to view the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple. This is in complete alignement with the Hindu tradition.

More relationships between the Hindu tradition and temple structure could be put forward. They would confirm its role regarding initiation. The function of a building is often inscribed in its structure. In the case of Angkor Wat, it shows a clear distinction between both entrances:

  • The back or eastern entrance related to white, the colour of the Brahmins. White symbolizes the spiritual or sacerdotal authority holding the knowledge of principles and responsible for their transmission to initiates;
  • The front or western entrance linked to red, the colour of the Kshatriyas. Red represents the temporal or royal power in charge of the application of the principles.

This distinction between the entrances stemmed from their relation to the centre, the effective or symbolic place of the Priest-king, the guardian of the tradition. The harmonious temple structure does nothing but reflect the deep coherence of the Hindu tradition.


  • René Guénon:
  • “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
  • Notably, chapters 10 on “the Druidic triple enclosure” and 35 on “the solstitial gates”.

1 back The different steps of the temple symbolize the various levels of spirituality to be achieved. The steps to the upper level are extremely steep for they correspond to the access to the ultimate initiation state, the supra-human state characterizing the total being. Having reached this spiritual state, the being does not have, in principle, to go back to its human state, i.e. to climb down the temple steps.