Sacred Angkor

2004 Melbourne, Australia

Collaborator: Paul Doornbusch (sound), Peter Murphy

Sacred Angkor is an immersive work commissioned for The Virtual Room at Museum Victoria. The Virtual Room is an 8-sided rear projected stereographic project system.

Sacred Angkor represents the world’s first stereographic spherical panoramic capture of a world heritage site. The experience used pioneering techniques in real-world spherical stereographic panoramas of the UNESCO world heritage listed site Angkor, Cambodia. This archaeological park is the largest low-density preindustrial city in the world, containing the single largest temple, Angkor Wat. The sacred nature of Angkor can be read in its architectural symbolism and through the meaning of the narrative reliefs. As with all sacred places, Angkor is invested with elements which involve both the supernatural sphere and the power of worldly ambitions. This journey, through a series of stereographic panoramas, travels the ritual centres of the largest and most powerful preindustrial civilisation ever: the Khmer empire. 

Visitors to Sacred Angkor circumambulate The Virtual Room as nine four-minute stereographic panoramic images sequentially rotate around the eight-screen octant. The images shot at seven of the temple’s precincts are displayed at real-world scale, mapped to the architecture of the physical site so that visitors can recreate the act of circumambulation central to temple design that connects visitors to Angkor with spiritual meaning. For example, Angkor Wat, includes a temple-mountain design representative of the sacred Mount Meru and therefore does not represent a profane geometric space, but a place charged with sacred meaning. Mount Meru was the idealised centre of the Khmer empire and the residence of the god with whom the king had
an intimate affinity. The ritual function of an architectural and spiritual centre imposed an accurate orientation of the temple. Through the application of formulas in place at the time (cosmological, astrological, neurological, architectural, and iconographic formulas, and so on), space was charged with meaning and physically given form. The rite of deciphering or decoding the pattern space was enacted by walking around the temple. This would have brought the visitor to discover certain truths of his or her own centre. Sacred Angkor invokes these acts of circular walking through the temple precincts. 

Water is also central to the history of Angkor. Any manifestation of Mount Meru in the earthly plain must be floating in the primordial ocean. At Angkor, this sea is symbolically represented by moats and reservoirs known as barays. The barays are fed through a huge irrigation complex that supported the rice-based agriculture of this vast pre-industrial civilisation. To acknowledge this importance of water, panoramas in Sacred Angkor are augmented with computer-generated animations such as that of ‘water’ refilling the ritual pools that are no longer visible today. 

Further strategies of virtual augmentation in this work include overlays of maps, plans, radar images, and archaeological information such as the re-coloured sections of bas relief sculpture produced in accordance with archaeological information. These components in the work combine to hints at past features of the site and it archaeological significance. Archaeological estimates as to the extent of Angkor have ranged from 200 km2 to 5000 km2. Analysis of radar images recorded during the 1995 NASA Space Shuttle mission indicates that the inter-linked route network of the urban complex extended across more than 1000 km2. Sacred Angkor commences with a flyover of the terrain model with the NASA images overlain, marking out the location of the temple and panoramas contained in the work. 

In addition to the panoramic imaging, linear sequences of relief sculptures at Angkor Wat and Bayon were also captured to help with interpretation of narrative function of the temples. The proliferation of narrative reliefs suggests that they were popular devices for communicating religious beliefs and historic events through the medium of stone writing. In the sacred galleries, the challenge was to sustain a visual interest in the narrative over exceptionally long panels. The extensive panels of low reliefs in the third enclosure of Angkor Wat are of such great beauty and rich narrative content that they have astonished visitors to Angkor for centuries. This sculptural relief, known as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, is just over 48 metres long. Sacred Angkor shows the central section of the panel laid out across the eight-screen exterior of the octagonal The Virtual Room. In this section, the figure of Vishnu is supported by his avatara (the Tortoise Kurma, who wears a small crown) in front of Mount Mandara, which serves at the churning pole. 

Sections of Bayon temple reliefs are also included in Sacred Angkor. These images come from a 66-metre-long relief sculpture commonly referred to as ‘Heaven and Hell’. The top two tiers represent the heavens and the bottom tier represents hell. In Heaven, knights, lords, and ladies protected by parasols occupy the two-way central path leading towards the skies. They  converse amongst themselves and wait for the palanquins (or covered floats) that will transport them. The ladies savour fruits that the servants are offering. This privileged queue terminates where it meets the waiting empty palanquins, which are accompanied by their porters kneeling on the ground. It is in the bottom tier that the sinners converge. Sanskrit inscriptions record the victims’ sins, their appropriate torture, and the name of the hell in which the torture will take place. For example, twelve different hells are reserved just for thieves. Another hell is reserved for those who steal flowers from Shiva’s garden. Visitors to Sacred Angkor walked these bas relief at real-world scale, able to focus in 3D on their complex imagery. 

The spatialised soundscapes in Sacred Angkor were combinations of in situ recordings of ambient sounds found throughout Angkor; high-fidelity musical compositions reflecting sounds of temple life; and voiceover narration in discrete sections. The contemplative nature of this 50-minute, nine-panorama installation is crafted through close engagement with full-scale, high-resolution details generated through advanced stereoscopic imaging techniques and the circumambulatory design of The Virtual Room.


technical specifications

Fieldwork for the Angkor project was undertaken over a five-day period in January 2004, in accordance with the contract specified by the APSARA Authority and by the invitation of the Greater Angkor Project, University of Sydney. Eight temple sites were identified and panoramas were shot at desirable locations within these complexes (at Baphuon, Bayon, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Phnom Bakeng, and the West Mebon.

Panoramic stereoscopic image pairs were captured using a single medium quality digital SLR camera with an ultra-wide-angle lens (185-degree fisheye). The camera was mounted on a 360-degree notched rotating platform mounted on a tripod. Up to 180 image slices make up each of the left-right stereo pairs. To effectively display the panoramas, a virtual camera was placed in the centre of each scene for the left and right eyes in 3D Studio MaxTM. The virtual reality software, Virtools TM, was configured to take advantage of the PC-cluster arrangement used in The Virtual Room. The Angkor scene components are distributed and synchronised across each of the PCs in the cluster. These distributed components allow the scene to be rendered across all eight screens in stereo, where each host PC renders a different field of view to form a single 360-degree image.

The significance of this project is the way in which real-world (as opposed to computer-generated) stereographic panoramic scenes may be used in conjunction with augmented narratives, high fidelity sound, and circumambulation to enhance attributes of ‘presence’.

The work provided a re-formulation of photographic narrative (from static to cinematic). Through its immersive strategies of real-world scale, high fidelity visual and aural information, augmentation with computer graphics and kinaesthetic circumambulation, Sacred Angkor provided the visitor with an unparalleled sense of ‘being there’. The narrative of the scenography coupled with the archaeological information (visually augmenting the photographic scenes) prevented the work from being merely spectacular. As the definitions of the spectacular in the post-modern imply distraction, Sacred Angkor is notable for its duration (50 minutes for 9 panoramas). The work was also significant for the Cambodian community and was visited by many family and religious groups, and often by senior members who have been trained as Buddhist priests from an early age but who had not had any opportunity to return to Cambodia.



Sarah Kenderdine, ‘Stereographic panoramas of Angkor, Cambodia’, in Proceedings 10th International Society for Virtual Systems and Multimedia, Gifu, Japan (2004), 612–21. 

Sarah Kenderdine, ‘Avatars at the Flying Palace: Stereographic panoramas of Angkor Cambodia’, in Proceedings of International Committee
on Hypermedia and Interactivity, Pittsburgh: Museum Archives & Informatics, 2004), CDROM.

Sarah Kenderdine and Paul Doornbusch, ‘Presence and sound: Identifying sonic means to “be there”’, in Consciousness Reframed (Beijing, November 2004), 67–70.

reviews | media

Maria T. Rizzo, ‘Virtual Angkor: Visualizing the past in 3D’, Screen Education 38 (2004): 10–16.

Exhibition Record
2004/01/01 - 2009/12/31
The Virtual Room, Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, Australia
2006/11/16 - 11/19
ArcheoVirtual, Centro Espositivo Ariston di Paestum, Paestum, Italy. Sponsored by Institute of Technologies Applied to Cultural Heritage, National Research Council, Italy and BARCO Systems Pty Ltd.