This post was long in the making. I visited Siem Reap and Angkor in early 2013, and like many, was amazed by the magnificence of its temples. Such sites don’t require much background information and understanding, just move along and awe the architecture and opulence they represent. Later when living in Thailand, Khmer history popped up here and there because much of the region was once part of Khmer empire (see my previous post about Khmer Provincial). Finally now second visit to Cambodia and somewhat better informed. Here’s my take from this fascinating place and the role it once played in the region.
Elephants and riders in historic park.
Traditional costumes worn by group of young Cambodians.
Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and me 🙂
Rise of Khmers was centuries long process. Heyday of empire was around eleventh and twelfth centuries but many sources cite of trading and diplomatic relations with them a lot earlier. Chinese, Indians and seaborne Javanese are known to be connected with pre-Angkorian kingdom known as Funan (name given them by Chinese). Khmers are said to have 9 great kings that ruled with wisdom and success for their country. They were Jayavarman II (802-850 AD); the founder of “Khmer proper”, Indravarman I (887-889 AD), Yasovarman I (889-910 AD), Jayavarman IV (921-941 AD), Rajendravarman (944-968 AD), Suryavarman I (1002-1050 AD), Udayadityavarman (1050-1066 AD), Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD), Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 AD). As can be seen from gap periods, there were not so great times in between.
Reigns of the last two of the list are periods when empire has been considered of reaching its zenith. It had occupied or vasallized much of Southeast Asia, with borders reaching from Burma to the Dai Viet and Champa (both in modern day Vietnam) and China in the north. In south Khmers bordered with Malay peninsula Hindu kingdoms, as spread of Islam would reach there when Khmer empire was already in decline in 13th century. As empire expanded, it gathered number of enemies who weren’t happy to pay tributes, send men to its military and participate endeavours of further expansion. Especially Champa and Dai Viet were often in war footing against Khmers, and some historians believe that even the capital Angkor was sacked by the marauding armies from the west (To see map of the empire, click link to Wikipedia here).
Miniature model of Angkor Wat, in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.
During Suryavarman II, construction of largest temple complex of Angkor Wat was begun. Completion of this massive project is debated, it might have been after the death of its founder.
Angkor Wat is said to be largest religious monument in the world. Temple has unusual orientation towards west, opposing direction to most Khmer Hindu temples. One possible explanation is that it’s dedicated to Vishnu, God of the west, instead of Shiva. West is also direction of death. Stories in bas-reliefs in the temple are organized same manner as religious ceremonies for tombs in Hinduism.
Large pool inside Angkor Wat. Complex has several of these within.
Building spree during Jayavarman VII was even more intense, Angkor Thom with Bayon Temple in its center and numerous other temple complexes of similar proportions were erected. Every one of the temples housed community of thousands of members, with monks/priests being at the top of hierarchy. Jayavarman also greatly improved the road system mentioned in previous post (link), and is said to have been concerned of the well being of his citizens, building shelters and hospitals for them. Over 100 rest houses, also known as fire houses, were built every fifteen or so kilometers along road, to help with the chores of long travels.
Statue of Jayavarman VII in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.
Except the temples, city of Angkor was largely made of wood. On the surface, little of it remains today. Modern lidar (technology of emitting laser rays, bit like old radio wave based radar) has helped scientist and historians to study the real dimensions of the remains of Khmer civilizations buried in jungle. Angkor is estimated to have had million citizens, largest city on earth in its time.
When tolerant religions become less tolerant. Jayavarman VII was famous for his building projects, but he was also devout Buddhist, which was unusual in traditionally Hindu country. During his reign many large Buddhist temple complexes were built, which much have seen as sacrilegious or least a challenge, by the establishment of Hindu clergy. Clock was attempted to reset couple decades after Jayavarman’s death, by one of his successors who was Shiivaite. Buddhist artworks were vandalized and images of Buddha were chiseled of, large Buddha statues were converted into Linga.
Inside Preah Pkhan, one of many temples built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Linga in center might be one of Buddha statues converted by Shiivaites.
Buddhist monks visiting Bayon Temple, at the center of Angkor Thom, the capital of Jayavarman VII.
One of entrance gates to Angkor Thom. City had four main gates pointing to four cardinal directions.
Young Cambodians. Khmer influence is very visible still today, and not only in Cambodia. Khmer’s influenced traditions, customs, and set norms and examples for coming kingdoms to copy and further. For instance Thai numerals in use today are a copy from Khmer’s. In many ways life in Southeast Asia is living history of Khmer’s, people just don’t stop and think about it.
This old sign has since disappeared, but serves here a purpose: Welcome, I might find my way back there also some day!