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Angkor Wat bas-relief carvingsBookmark

Learning area: The Arts
Year level: Year 7, Year 8
Country: Cambodia
General capability: Intercultural understanding

This learning sequence explores bas-relief carvings at Cambodia's Angkor Wat and associated architectural structures. Students will gain insight into aspects of the Khmer Civilisation and have opportunities to express their understandings through the design, production and utilisation of a layered cardboard print block.

Key inquiry questions

  • What aspects of human endeavour are depicted in bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat and associated architectural structures?
  • What common characteristics are identifiable in these carvings?
  • How can detailed subject matter be visually represented using layered cardboard printing techniques?

Close-up of a bas-relief of an Angkor dancer wearing an ornate headdress and jewellryaClose-up of a bas-relief of an Angkor dancer wearing an ornate headdress and jewellery


Images: Lynn Dennison

Related resources

Activity 1: Angkor Wat bas-reliefs

In this activity, you will examine and illustrate the aspects of human endeavour depicted in bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat by creating a poster.

Key inquiry question: What aspects of human endeavour are depicted in bas-relief carvings at Angkor Wat and associated architectural structures?

Examples of human endeavour

  1. Discuss as a class where Cambodia is on a map of Asia and what you know about the Khmer Civilisation. Make a list of the key points.
  2. Watch the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) video Khmer Smile: Angkor that introduces the Khmer Civilisation and its capital Angkor Wat.
  3. Then view the timeline found on the bottom left-hand corner of the interactive site the Khmer Civilisation.
  4. Add notes to your list of key information about the Khmer Civilisation.
  5. View the Bayon video clip and then examine the photographs of bas-relief sculptures of Angkor dancers. 
  6. View the video clips and images to identify and list what the Khmers are doing.
  7. Read the information below about Angkor Wat and female dancers.
  8. Compare your list with those of other students. Refer to the photographs to point out examples.
  9. Create a class list identifying the range of activities depicted in the images.
  10. Re-view the virtual reality sequences and add any missing information to your list.
  11. Explore the items listed and categorise them under some key headings, such as, Environment, Buildings, People and Warfare.

Create a poster

  1. Create a poster either individually or in pairs using a web 2.0 tool such as Wordle.
  2. Open the 'Create' tab and type in word list.
  3. The more times you type a word, the larger it is in the final poster.
  4. Tip: to link two or more words (e.g. Angkor Wat) type ~ in between words.
  5. Select 'Go' and the program will create the poster.
  6. Edit the font, layout and colour using the various tabs.

About Angkor Wat

The Angkor Wat temple complex was built to signify and replicate the five peaks of Mt Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Conceived in 1113 by the great Khmer King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was designed by 5000 architects and astronomers, and took 50 000 skilled labourers four years to build.

One group of artisans employed in the construction of this enormous complex were the sculptors entrusted with the task of creating a multitude of intricate female figures into its sandstone walls.

Throughout the temple complex, close to 1800 of these figures can be found; standing individually, in pairs or congregated in distinct groups.

Female dancers

Whilst represented in a variety of poses, facial features, hand positions, clothing, hairstyle, jewellery, and accoutrements, the women of Angkor Wat have many characteristics in common.

Ranging in height from approximately half life-size to that of a small woman, they are invariably shown standing in full frontal view, with both feet in profile resting firmly on the ground. They are perfectly proportioned and stylised with slim waists and curvaceous hips.

Legs are usually rendered in static dignified poses, with only a few assuming positions associated with movement. Arms are rendered in numerous configurations, usually with elbows bent and hands in front of or to the side of the body. Some figures have arms extending towards or over the head, holding objects or placing flowers in the hair.

Many stand in pairs or groups with arms intertwined. Hand positions, mudras, are distinctive. Delicately curved fingers lightly hold objects between thumb and ring or middle finger, whilst the index and small fingers remain extended.

Many faces appear in calm repose with gentle, secretive smiles. Occasionally pure personality shines through, with one unique individual smiling and teeth exposed and another with her tongue poking out.

Hair styles are many and varied. Hair is often scooped away from the face and knotted into one or more elaborate chignons. On other figures the hair is held back by an elaborate diadem encircling the forehead and topped with an exquisite multi-tiered headpiece.

Considered a sign of beauty and wealth, earlobes are always elongated and adorned with an extravagant variety of ear ornaments. Necks are often adorned with highly decorated collars or gorgets, generally tapering to a point between the breasts and bordered with small motifs.

Sometimes body chains are looped between the breasts and around the upper torso. An ornate clasp can be found on each upper arm, invariably in the form of a flared-out motif which appears to be a stylised lotus flower. Sometimes a pendant or two dangles from the upper arm band, and a thick bangle is often found on each wrist and ankle.

Stunning diaphanous wraps encircle the lower body and legs, held in place with decorative knots, belts, and luxurious girdles slung low around the hips.


Images: Lynn Dennison

Activity 2: Sculptural detail in carvings

In this activity, you will:

  • investigate the common characteristics in these carvings
  • create an articulated Khmer dancer mannequin.

Key inquiry question: What common characteristics are identifiable in these carvings of the figures and how can these be depicted as an artwork?

  1. View a selection of images to explore the various postures expressed by figures involved in a variety of activities.
  2. In pairs, physically mimic a range of poses focusing on body position and the movement of joints.
  3. Examine the layout of the body parts of an articulated mannequin. Select either the front-facing or the profile mannequin for your Khmer dancer.
  4. Create an articulated mannequin using your selected body parts template.
  5. Manipulate your articulated mannequin as shown in the various poses of images in Activity 1.
  6. Read information about Angkor Wat dancers (in Activity 1) to assist you with decoration ideas.
  7. Select a personally appealing photograph and examine it for detail. Decide how you can display these details on your articulated mannequin, such as:
    • the pose – the figure is standing, sitting or kneeling
    • the positions of various body parts – particularly focus on the depictions of hands and feet (typically, standing figures have both feet pointing in the same direction, whilst dancers have their toes pointing outwards)
    • the clothing – accessories and decorative elements.


Images: Lynn Dennison

Activity 3: Create an Angkor dancer

In this activity, you will:

  • design and create an Angkor Wat dancer
  • print a range of artworks.

Key inquiry question: How can detailed subject matter be visually represented using layered cardboard printing techniques?

Create a cardboard print block

  1. View the images of the cardboard print block-making process and read about the adornments worn by the Angkor Wat dancers in Activity 1.
  2. You will need:
    • paper for paper patterns
    • cardboard and strong glue such as PVA or Super Tac
    • 51 x 32 gsm pasteboard.
  3. Manipulate your articulated figure to create a desired pose.
  4. Trace your articulated figure onto the piece of pasteboard.
  5. Cut out your figure after making minor adjustments to streamline the body.
  6. Trace the figure onto a large piece of paper and sketch in your selected clothing and accessory details.
  7. Revisit your photograph to identify detailed layering of features. For example: the back of the skirt, the sampot, is behind the legs, while the flaps at the front overlap and the extra waist piece has several layers.
  8. Using the cut-out figure as a template, create paper patterns for layered features, such as clothing. Make sure you include extra tabs where pieces overlap.
  9. Retrace the separated pieces of the body onto a piece of cardboard and cut them out.
  10. Please note that to create a chin line, the head needs to be a separate layer. A forearm in front of the body also needs to be a separate layer. Facial features are all tiny pieces of card.
  11. Glue all layered elements onto your cardboard figure. Note that some elements such as the legs will be glued behind the figure.
  12. Allow your layered cardboard print block to dry thoroughly.

Make a print

  1. Break into groups of four to six students and create a 'printing station'. Half of the group can print whilst the others watch and wait for their turn. It is important to note that after more than four prints, parts of the print block tend to disintegrate.
  2. Follow these instructions to make your prints. You will need:
    • hard rollers and foam rollers
    • multiple layers of newspaper
    • trays of black and bronze Chromocryl paint. Other colours and printing ink are acceptable alternatives
    • a set of paper which may include a sequence cartridge, black paper, parchment and rice paper.
  3. Lay your print block face up on newspaper.
  4. Using the foam roller, roll with black paint.
  5. Discard the layer of messy paper below the block.
  6. Place the cartridge paper over the paint-covered block and firmly roll using the hard roller. Avoid excessive rolling.
  7. Remove the print promptly to avoid the paint drying and sticking paper to the block.
  8. Place the wet print onto the drying rack.
  9. Reroll your print block with black paint and repeat the steps with parchment and rice paper. Note that due to greater porosity of the rice paper, an additional layer of newspaper is needed between the rice paper and the roller.
  10. On fresh newspaper, roll your print block with bronze paint and remove the messy newspaper from underneath.
  11. Place the black paper over the parchment and rice paper and press firmly with the hard roller.
  12. Remove the print carefully and place it on the drying rack.
  13. Place your print block on the rack to dry.
  14. For an effective look, when it is dry, carefully tear the edges of the rice paper and mount it on a black background.


Images: Lynn Dennison

Activity 4: Reflection

To conclude this learning sequence, you will reflect on the process of your art-making and what you have learned.

Before starting, select your most successful and appealing print to mount and contribute to a class display.

  1. What is the most interesting fact you've learnt about the Khmer Civilisation?
  2. What did you learn about human activity in Angkor at the height of the Khmer Civilisation?
  3. What intrigued you about the carvings and the civilisation?
  4. Why did you select the particular aspect of life at Angkor Wat depicted in your print?
  5. Which paper and paint combination did you find the most effective or appealing?
  6. What impact does artwork have on your understanding of the past?

This learning sequence provides teachers with stimulus resources to guide students' exploration of carvings at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The activities include detailed instructions for the creation and printing of mannequins and a layered cardboard print block.

Activity 1: Angkor Wat bas-reliefs

Prior to discussing the ruins at Angkor Wat, it would be beneficial to utilise and build upon student's background knowledge about the location of Cambodia in relation to neighbouring South-East Asian countries, and the rest of the world.

Provide students with background information about the Khmer Civilisation using film clips. Allow computer time for exploration of virtual reality animations of the Khmer Civilisation that depict landscapes and daily life at Angkor Wat in the 13th century.

Have students view relevant links to develop an understanding about the Khmer Civilisation and the extent of information that can be sourced via the structures found at Angkor and Bayon.

About Ancient Angkor

The Angkorean period epitomised the height of the Khmer Civilisation and extended from the 9th—15th Century CE. The Khmer Civilisation initially comprised of independent states existing under control of powerful overlords, which were placed over much of Cambodia and Central and Northeast Thailand. Vassals controlled areas of land ranging from family and village settings through to organised provincial centres and larger capital settlements.

In 802 CE, King Jayavarman II unified two major warring states and appointed himself Universal Sovereign, or God-King. The King thus heralded a period of rapid expansion and prosperity for the Khmer Civilisation. This era centred on the sprawling capital of Angkor in the rich lowlands of Cambodia. Dominating the landscape was the enormous stone edifice of Angkor Wat, surrounded by innumerable temples, palaces, pavilions, citadels, towers; walled cities; and an impressive array of reservoirs and hydraulic works.

Buildings of a non-religious nature were built of timber and have subsequently perished over a long period of time in humid tropical conditions. However, religious structures were constructed of stone to ensure permanency and longevity. These edifices were invariably decorated with highly detailed bas-relief carvings depicting a diverse range of activities. Many of these carvings are still in evidence today on the walls of ruins throughout the Angkor complex. 

Students examine photographs of carved images to identify depicted examples of human endeavour. Their findings are then used to create a word poster using the online Wordle software that generates word clouds.

Activity 2: Sculptural detail in carvings

Guide students' exploration of the various depicted postures using their own body and an articulated mannequin to help them to design and make a cardboard print block that models one of the Angkor Wat dancers.

Activity 3: Create an Angkor Wat dancer

Students create their cardboard print block and create a number of prints using their block print and a selection of paint and paper combinations.

Activity 4: Reflection

Finally, provide students the opportunity to reflect on what they learned about the Khmer Civilisation, what intrigued them and the impact their artwork had on their understanding of the past.

Useful websites

  • The Khmer Empire: Cambodia's medieval splendour – eight short animations from National Geographic about landscapes and daily life at Angkor Wat in the 13th century.
  • City of the Gods: Angkor, Cambodia – a 45-minute video in six segments which covers the history of the Khmer Civilisation and the kings that built Angkor Wat
  • Khmer Smile: Angkor – a short two and a half minute video introduction of Angkor Wat, produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
  • Angkor Wat – a quick two-minute video of Angor Wat, produced by UNESCO. Includes a musical soundtrack
  • Angkor Wat: Bayon ruins – a short two-minute video of the Bayon ruins, produced by UNESCO, including a musical soundtrack
  • Map of Cambodia – maps, images, and a description of Cambodia, from World Atlas
  • Wordle – a website which allows students to create their own word clouds

It is recommended that teachers preview websites to ensure they are suitable for their students prior to use in class. Content accessed via these links is not owned or controlled by the Asia Education Foundation and is subject to the terms of use of the associated website.

The full resource can not be displayed on a mobile device.

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