Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities, is worshiped as the protector and preserver of the world and restorer of dharma (moral order). Vishnu, like Shiva (the other major god of Hinduism), is a syncretic personality who combines many lesser cult figures and local heroes. He is known chiefly through his avatars (incarnations), particularly Rama and Krishna. Temple images of Vishnu depict him either sitting, standing holding various implements, or reclining on the coils of the serpent Naga. The standing Vishnu is traditionally dressed in royal garments and holds in his four hands the shankha (conch), cakra (discus), gada (club), or padma (lotus).
The Khmer civilization, today embodied by the temples and ruins of Angkor, one of mankind's most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements and the largest religious monument in the world, flourished from 802-1431 A.D. From the great citadel of Angkor, the kings of the Khmer empire ruled over a vast domain that reached from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunan, China and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal. The original city was built around the Phnom Bakeng, a temple on a hill symbolizing the mountain that stands in the center of the world according to Hindu cosmology. Successive kings enlarged the city, building other temples devoted to various Hindu deities and large reservoirs used for irrigation, which also symbolized the ocean surrounding the holy central mountain. The greatest of the Ângkôr temple complexes is Angkor Wat, constructed under King Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150) to celebrate the king as the incarnation of the god Vishnu.
The artistic glory of the Khmer civilization is perfectly preserved in this sculpture of Vishnu. Stylistically, the idealized forms of the figure are characteristic of Angkor. The smooth polish of the surface, the hourglass-shape of the torso, and the facial structure of this statue are typically Khmer. The floral diadem tied into a knot at the back of his head and the pleated sarong with overhanging fabric carved in the shape of a fishtale are also both indicative of Khmer sculpture of this period. The idealization of the figure is the direct result of his divine nature as well as his indirect association with the king. Gazing upon this masterpiece, we are in the presence of not only a god and a king, but also a relic of one of history’s great civilizations. Like all great art, this sculpture memorializes an entire culture and era, not just a specific ruler. The art and architecture of the Khmer is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. Basking in the glory of this sculpture is reveling in the beauty of life and creation itself. It’s no wonder that early legends surrounding Angkor, before it was properly excavated and documented, purported it to be a city created by the gods when they still resided on earth. Somehow this sculpture of Vishnu seems like a divine self-portrait.