Below are just a few of the mythological scenes - both Hindu and Buddhist - most commonly featured on lintels, pediments and friezes. Narrative reliefs were intended to illustrate part of a story, scene or event and became popular on temple sites from the early 10th-century onwards. Prior to this, simple heraldic reliefs, depicting a god or mythological figure were the norm.
Frequently seen Buddhist scenes are from the life of Buddha or Jataka tales while most Hindu narratives originate in the Ramayana or Mahabharata epics. Note many of these myths are long, complicated stories and below we offer only very brief, edited highlights.
Churning of the Ocean (or Sea) of Milk
The Hindu/Buddhist creation myth, Samudra Manthana, is one of the most frequently seen events depicted on Angkor temples as well as featuring on both one of the earliest, and what was possibly the latest, narrative reliefs. The late 10th-century, double register lintel at Prasat Preah Enkosei is one of the oldest recognized narrative lintels while the huge east gallery frieze at Prasat Angkor Wat dates from the post-Angkor, 16th-century, era.
There are numerous variations on the scene but a classic representation features demons and gods (asuras and devas) tugging on the body of the naga Vasuki, in turn wrapped around Mount Mandara. The mountain (frequently only symbolized by a pole or pillar) is supported on the back of Kurma - the tortoise avatar of Vishnu. The subsequent churning process, directed by Vishnu and lasting 1000 years, resulted in the creation of amrita, the elixir of immortality, from which all life emerged.
According to convention, the relief should be aligned north-south with the asuras ideally on the south side, but errors were occasionally made.
Vishnu on Ananta
Also known as the 'birth of Brahma' or simply 'sleeping Vishnu', (in Sanskrit Anantashayin), this frequently seen Hindu myth depicts Vishnu sleeping on the mythical snake Ananta who was drifting on the Ocean of Milk. A lotus stem emerges from his navel revealing Brahma hidden among the petals of the flower.
The symbolism of Vishnu's navel as the female sexual organ and the lotus stem as the male one lacks subtlety but this scene proved to be a very popular subject for reliefs across most style ranges.
Krishna Subduing the Naga Kaliya
As something of a super-hero figure, Krishna's action-packed exploits were also popular subjects of Angkorian reliefs. Suryavarman I, in particular, seems to have been fond of such tales and Krishna reliefs such as the 'killing of the naga Kaliya' are seen above numerous doorways at sites such as Chisor, Wat Phu, Ek Phnom and Preah Vihear for example.
Krishna came to the aid of villagers and cowherds, plagued by poisonous snakes and jumped up and down on the most dangerous culprit's head. The mythical snake Kaliya, thus subdued, fled the scene with his companions to leave the villagers in peace. The scene is commonly depicted and easily recognized.
(Krishna was the 8th avatar of Vishnu although also worshiped as a deity in his own right.)
Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhana
Another very popular episode for reliefs - across all styles and periods - is Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana. This refers to an episode when Krishna held the mountain above his head to shelter the local cowherds from a storm of torrential rain created by Indra. (There is actually a sacred Mount Govardhan in India's modern-day Uttar Pradesh State - standing at an unimpressive 30m in height!)
The scene isn't always easy to recognize as in reliefs the mount is often represented merely symbolically and can be depicted as a triangular rock, occasionally a tree and sometimes even the top frame of a pediment. (Cowherds aren't easily depicted either - especially when no cows are present - but generic figures are often seen cowering (no pun intended) at the foot of Krishna.) Look out for a central lintel figure with armed raised - often seen standing on one leg.
The Great Departure
Buddhist scenes, for obvious reasons, only really feature widely from the late 12th-century onwards and many of these consist of relatively obscure passages from the Buddhist Jataka tales. (There are an estimated 550 of these tales, from the previous lives of Buddha, so a wide choice for sculptors!)
One regularly featured scene from the life of Buddha though is the 'Great Departure' where Prince Guatama left the palace in the middle of the night against the will of his father. He fled on his horse Kanthaka, whose hooves were muffled to avoid waking the king. The relief can be confusing but keep your eye out for the depiction of a rider and horse - often seen being supported by followers to facilitate a quiet get-away.
The below section includes a few examples of the more commonly seen deities you'll come across in heraldic reliefs. There are no specific events or scenes depicted in these reliefs but all are frequently encountered figures on lintels, pediments and even columns at Angkor-period monuments.
Shiva and Uma on Nandi
As Shiva is generally represented by a linga he isn't as frequently depicted in reliefs as for example Vishnu or Krishna but a common scene nonetheless is the god, accompanied by his consort Uma, seated astride the mythological bull Nandi. This is a common lintel and pediment subject across the style range and an easily identified one. (So a good one for impressing your friends with your esoteric knowledge!) A word of warning though; a single male figure without a consort and riding a bovine is more likely to be Yama on his sacred buffalo.
Indra on Airavata
One of the most popular images from all time periods and styles is the god Indra astride Airavata. (A mythical white elephant who emerged from the Churning of the Sea of Milk.) The elephant is usually, though not always, represented with 3 heads. As god of the east was one of Indra's many roles this relief is always featured on east-facing lintels - to the extent that it makes an excellent navigational marker should you lose your direction in one of the larger temples! While there may be an exception or 2 among the thousands of temple sites, generally speaking, if you see Indra and Airavata facing in any other direction then it's due to an error in restoration.
This is an heraldic lintel subject - a single deity amid a decorative relief - and very rarely appears as an element in a narrative carving. Indra may often be a rather generic figure but the elephant is an instant give-away.
Although often a visually unremarkable relief, Vishvakarma is generally considered to be the small deity figure - often seated above a kala - featured in the centre of myriad temple lintels. While the figure lacks identifiable attributes, as the 'Architect of the Gods', or 'Supreme Architect', he is a logical candidate for so many otherwise anonymous reliefs and provides a natural 'default lintel' where perhaps time, inspiration or master-craftsmen were in short supply. To our minds, this makes more sense than the often-cited 'generic god' although, often seated and holding a club, there may be some possible confusion with Yama on occasions?
He's particularly common at 11th-century, Suryavarman I sites, who frankly, did have a huge quantity of lintels to decorate!
Of the many gods in the Hindu pantheon (33 is the generally accepted number of major deities) Yama - god of death and the underworld - is another of the most frequently seen at Angkor. In his human incarnation, he is said to have been the first man to die and subsequently sat in judgment, despatching souls to heaven or hell depending upon their record on earth. (An identical role to St Peter!)
In Angkorian temples he is usually seen seated on his vahana - an unnamed buffalo or bullock - holding a club. he is therefore easily confused with Shiva on Uma (although Yama is consort-less) or the seated club-wielding deity often associated with Vishvakarma. As he's riding alone he is commonly seen from a frontal view on lintels and pediments and is therefore easily recognizable.
The best-known image of Yama is certainly the so-called Leper King sculpture in Angkor Thom, if an inscription on the statue's base is to be believed.
The dancing Shiva pose, Shiva Nataraja, is one of the most striking images of the god to be found on reliefs and, along with Shiva and Uma on Nandi, also one of the most frequently seen. Shiva's wild, drunken dance even involved crushing a demon and is considered to symbolize the destruction of the world - an essential stage if it is to be recreated.
The figure can be easily confused with Lokeshvara - also often depicted with multiple-arms - so the relief's date needs to be taken into account. Representations of Shiva are not unknown in Bayon-period Mahayana Buddhist temples, although Lokeshavra was a far more popular subject, while the Boddhisatva is only rarely seen in pre-Jayavarman VII reliefs.
Lokeshvara, Lokesvara or Avalokeshvara to give him his full name, was the most important Boddhisatva in Angkorian Mahayana Buddhism and so features on numerous reliefs at late-12th and early-13th-century temple sites. A Boddhisatva is a highly complex concept but crudely refers to a figure on the road to enlightenment, but who has deferred attaining nirvana in order to rest on earth to help fellow man. Lokeshavara is then considered the 'Compassionate One'.
Representations vary considerably and on occasions - the Bayon 'faces' being a prime example' - arguments still reign over his identification, but there's a good chance that a single, central figure carved onto a Jayavarman VII period lintel, frieze or pediment was intended to represent Lokeshvara. He often features multiple arms and while so do certain Hindu deities, dating of the relief is usually indicative of the character represented.
Our final section includes a brief description and examples of commonly seen mythological figures and creatures - rather than deities as such - that are either featured on heraldic lintels and reliefs or included as decorative elements within a narrative scene. (e.g. apsara figures in a Churning of the Sea of Milk depiction.) Please note that while you will find broader definitions of all of the below, we are referring to them in the context of Angkorian and pre-Angkorian architecture and art.
Apsaras are one of the best-known decorative features at Angkor temples yet possibly one of the most misunderstood. The word apsara can be translated in many ways; heavenly dancers, nymphs, water nymphs, cloud nymphs, fairies and so-on while in Hindu mythology they are considered to be supernatural female spirits who excel in the art of dance. They are therefore depicted in dancing poses, while the myriad standing female images - famous at Angkor Wat for example - are strictly speaking devatas or minor female deities, angels, spirits. (An apsara can be a devata but a devata is not necessarily an apsara!) Either way, it's a safe bet both were put forward as heavenly rewards for Khmer soldiers risking slaughter at the hands of the Cham or Dai Viet, protecting king and empire!
Apsaras generally feature in flight above the Churning of the Sea of Milk scene while several Jayavarman VII temples include pavilions lined with apsara reliefs - commonly known as 'Halls of the Dancers'.
Broadly speaking a devata refers to a minor deity or spirit often connected to a specific location. The Sanskrit term could extend to Buddhist mythology and can be used for both male and female spirits. The location could be a rock, stream, significant tree etc and so provided a convenient method of syncretism between preexisting animist beliefs and introduced religious ideas from the Indian subcontinent.
In Angkorian architecture devata is most commonly used to refer to the ubiquitous female deities sculpted singly, in pairs or groups on temple walls. They are often confused with, and are to some extent synonymous with, the celestial dancers known as apsaras. However, iconography experts point to the, often abstract, flame carvings found above the figures' head which implies a godlike status while a true apsara figure should be in dancing rather than standing pose.
In classic Hindu mythology, the complex figure of Kala was an avatar of Yama, the god of death and the underworld, however, its contemporary use, in respect to Angkorian architecture, refers to the ubiquitous demon's head featured on myriad lintel reliefs. The ferocious teeth-baring, bulging-eyed head was a key design feature of lintels from the 9th-century onwards. It generally figures in a lower, central position with a separating garland issuing from each side of its mouth. The vegetal garland may sometimes be replaced by a naga body and in certain reliefs is clutched in the hands of the Kala. Occasionally the garland or snake emerges from the mouths of makaras which in turn issue from the kala.
The head could also be considered to specifically represent the demon Rahu who stole the Amrit, or elixir of immortality, from the gods. Vishnu consequently beheaded Rahu however, as he had already taken a sip of the elixir, his head was already immortal. As further punishment (beheading not being sufficient) he was then condemned to guard temples for evermore - hence his regular appearance above the doorways of shrines.
Please note the above does not correspond to strict Hindu tradition but refers to the use of the name kala as a generic demon guardian figure in Angkor iconography.
(An interesting theory is that the body-less head - often lacking a lower jaw - harks back to earlier times when heads of enemies were hung above doorways as protection. As the flesh decayed the lower mandible would detach, leaving the skull and upper jaw above the doorway.)
In Hindu mythology, a makara is a form of water monster as well as the vehicle of Varuna, god of the sea. In Angkor iconography, it is represented in various forms combing elements of dragons, lions, crocodiles and assorted beasts. (Indeed it's the origin of the Hindi word for crocodile, magar, in turn, Anglicised to 'mugger'.)
Traditionally the role of a makara involved protecting temples and sacred sites and so it is also a regularly seen feature of lintel reliefs. They appear in pairs - either on the 2 extremities of the lintel or either side of a central kala head - and were a highly popular design feature from the earliest times onwards. Some of the most spectacular examples appearing on the 6th-7th-century Thala Borivet lintels.
As with kalas, nagas etc it's debatable as to what extent the creature was seen as a genuinely effective protective symbol
The mythical, multi-headed snakes known as nagas are regularly encountered in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology and form a highly important decorative and architectural feature in temples of most periods. They are particularly significant in Khmer history as the legendary king Kaudinya is said to have married the naga princess Soma to create the first dynasty of Kambuja.
In their decorative role, nagas are essential characters in narrative scenes such as the Churning of the Sea of Milk, (the naga Vasuki), Ananta the naga on whom Vishnu reclines for the birth of Brahma and Mucalinda who coiled up to protect Buddha from the mud and rain while he was meditating in the forest. Generic naga figures are also commonly seen on lintels, alongside makaras and kala. (These are just a few of the best-known examples of the hundreds of nagas and naga legends.)
As an architectural feature - apart from featuring in aforementioned carvings - naga bodies function as balustrades on naga terraces and causeways as well as bridges such as Spean Kampong Kdei and of course the entrance gates at Angkor Thom. Multi-headed naga heads also form cornerstones on towers with their bodies often creating frames for pediments.
Perhaps because they are such common features they clearly weren't as sought after by looters as other carvings and in remote sites, a naga head or fragment of, will frequently be the last sculpture remaining in situ.
Unlike the myriad different nagas, the mythical half-man, half-bird figure of Garuda is a single character - the King of the Birds. However, as with his sometime friend and sometimes foe, the nagas, he also features in numerous Hindu and Buddhist myths and appears extensively on both Angkor temples and contemporary Buddhist monuments. He was also the vahana or vehicle of Vishnu.
Lacking the long body of a naga, Garuda isn't so convenient as an architectural feature but he is often seen supporting roofs or towers and famously 68 Garuda images protect the outer walls of Prasat Preah Khan (Siem Reap).