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Angkor - 802-1431

The Khmer empire was a powerful kingdom based in what is now Cambodia. The empire, which seceded from the kingdom of Chenla, at times ruled over and/or vassalised parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The empire's official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, until Theravada Buddhism prevailed after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, which was the capital during the empire's zenith. Angkor bears testimony to the Khmer empire's immense power and wealth, as well as the variety of belief systems that it patronized over time. The history of Angkor as the central area of settlement of the historical kingdom of Kambuja is also the history of the Khmer from the 9th - 15th centuries.

From Kambuja itself and so also from the Angkor region no written records have survived other than stone inscriptions. Therefore the current knowledge of the historical Khmer civilization is derived primarily from:

  • archaeological excavation, reconstruction and investigation;
  • inscriptions on stele and on stones in the temples, which report on the political and religious deeds of the kings;
  • reliefs in a series of temple walls with depictions of military marches, life in the palace, market scenes and also the everyday lives of the population;
  • reports and chronicles of Chinese diplomats, traders and travelers.

From the last decade of the 13th century there dates a valuable description of Tchin-la written by a member of a Chinese embassy to Angkor. The royal chronicles of Cambodia, the historical veracity of which has often to be questioned, begin about the middle of the 14th century, at which period the Thais assumed the offensive and were able repeatedly to capture and pillage Angkor-Thorn. These aggressions were continued in the 15th.century, in the course of which the capital was finally abandoned by the Khmer kings.

Ângkôr, c. 890-1432
Jayavarman II802-850
Jayavarman III850-877
Indravarman I877-889
Yasovarman I889-900
Harshavarman I900-c.922
Isanavarman IIc.922-928
Jayavarman IV928-942
Harshavarman II942-944
Rajendravarman II944-968
Jayavarman V968-1001
Udayadityavarman I1001-1002
Suryavarman I1002-1050
Udayadityavarman II1050-1066
Harshavarman III1066-1090
Jayavarman VI1090-1107
Dharanindravarman I1107-1113
Suryavarman II1113-1150
Dharanindravarman II1150-1160
Yasovarman II1160-1166
vacant, 1177-1181
Jayavarman VII1181-c.1219
Indravarman IIc.1219-1243
Jayavarman VIII1243-1295
Indravarman III1295-1308
Jayavarman Paramesvara1327-1353
vacant, 1353-1362
Nippean Bat1362-1369
to Thailand, 1369-1375
Kambujadhitaja14th cent.
Dharmasokaraja14th cent.
to Thailand, ?-1389
Ponthea Yat1389-1404
Narayana Ramadhipati1404-1429
Sri Bodhya1429-1444
The Angkorian period lasted from the early ninth century to the early fifteenth century AD. The beginning of the era of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor is conventionally dated to 802. In this year, king Jayavarman II had himself declared "Chakravartim" (king of the world). Jayavarman II lived as a prince at the court of Java, whether as a prisoner or for his education (or both) has not yet been established. After he eventually returned to his home, the former kingdom of Chenla, he quickly built up his influence, conquered a series of competing kings, and in 790 became king of a kingdom called "Kambuja" by the Khmer.

In the following years he extended his territory and moved his capitals several times. Possibly to put distance between himself and the seaborne Javanese, Jayavarman II settled north of the Tonle Sap. He built several capitals before establishing one, Hariharalaya, near the modern Cambodian town of Roluos, and near the site where the Angkorian complexes were built. He thereby laid the foundation of Angkor, which was to arise some 15 km to the northwest.

In a huge ceremony in Kulen mountain in 802 King Jayavarman II declared himself Chakravartim - Universal Ruler, in a ritual taken from the Indian-Hindu tradition. Upgrading his power as Cakravartina, he established the cult of Devaraja-Supreme God=ivalinga as a central worshiping god, constituting the Brahman family for maintaining sacred statues and celebrating religious ceremony of Khmer King. Thereby he not only became the divinely appointed and therefore uncontested ruler, but also simultaneously declared the independence of his kingdom from Java. Jayavarman II died in the year 834.

Jayavarman II's successors continually extended the territory of Kambuja. Indravarman I (reigned 877 - 889) managed to expand the kingdom without wars, and he began extensive building projects, thanks to the wealth gained through trade and agriculture. Foremost were the temple of Preah Ko and irrigation works. He was followed by his son Yasovarman.

In terms of cultural accomplishments and political power, this was the golden age of Khmer civilization. The great temple cities of the Angkorian region, located near the modern town of Siemreab, are a lasting monument to the greatness of Jayavarman II's successors. (Even the Khmer Rouge, who looked on most of their country's past history and traditions with hostility, adopted a stylized Angkorian temple for the flag of Democratic Kampuchea. A similar motif is found in the flag of the PRK). The kingdom founded by Jayavarman II also gave modern-day Cambodia, or Kampuchea, its name. During the early ninth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, it was known as Kambuja, originally the name of an early north Indian state, from which the current forms of the name have been derived.

Indravarman I (AD 877-89) extended Khmer control as far west as the Korat Plateau in Thailand, and he ordered the construction of a huge reservoir north of the capital to provide irrigation for wet rice cultivation. His son, Yasovarman I (A.D. 889-900), built the Eastern Baray (reservoir or tank), evidence of which remains to the present time. Its dikes, which may be seen today, are more than 6 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. Yasovarman established a new capital, Yasodharapura - the first city of Angkor. The city's central temple was built on Phnom Bakheng, a hill which rises around 70m above the plain on which Angkor sits.

At the beginning of the 10th century the kingdom split. Jayavarman IV established a new capital at Koh Ker, some 100 km northeast of Angkor. Only with Rajendravarman II (reigned 944 - 968) was the royal palace returned to Yasodharapura. He took up again the extensive building schemes of the earlier kings and established a series of temples in the Angkor area; not the least being the East Mebon, on an island in the middle of the Eastern Baray, and several Buddhist temples and monasteries. In 950 the first war took place between Kambuja and the kingdom of Champa to the east (in the modern entral Vietnam).

From 968 to 1001 reined the son of Rajendravarman II, Jayavarman V. After he had established himself as the new king over the other princes, his rule was a largely peaceful period, marked by prosperity and a cultural flowering. He established a new capital near Yasodharapura, Jayenanagari. At the court of Jayavarman V lived philosophers, scholars and artists. New temples were also established: the most important of these are Banteay Srei, considered one of the most beautiful and artistic of Angkor, and Ta Keo, the first temple of Angkor built completely of sandstone.

After the death of Jayavarman V a decade of conflict followed. Kings reigned only for a few years, and were successively and violently replaced by their successors until eventually Suryavarman I (reigned 1010 - 1050) gained the throne. His rule was marked by repeated attempts by his opponents to overthrow him and by military conquests.In the west he extended the kingdom to the modern Lopburi in Thailand, in the south to the Kra Isthmus. At Angkor, construction of the Western Baray began under Suryavarman I, the second and even larger (8 by 2.2 km) water reservoir after the Eastern Baray.

The elaborate system of canals and reservoirs built under Indravarman I and his successors were the key to Kambuja's prosperity for half a millennium. By freeing cultivators from dependence on unreliable seasonal monsoons, they made possible an early "green revolution" that provided the country with large surpluses of rice. Kambuja's decline during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries probably was hastened by the deterioration of the irrigation system. Attacks by Thai and other foreign peoples and the internal discord caused by dynastic rivalries diverted human resources from the system's upkeep, and it gradually fell into disrepair.

Map Angkor - 1100 AD The 11th century was a time of conflict and brutal power struggles. Only with Suryavarman II (reigned 1110?/1113 - 1150) was the kingdom united internally and extended externally. Suryavarman II, one of the greatest Angkorian monarchs, expanded his kingdom's territory in a series of successful wars against the kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam, the kingdom of Nam Viet in northern Vietnam, and the small Mon polities as far west as the Irrawaddy River of Burma. Suryavarman II conquered the Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya to the west (in today's central Thailand), and the area further west to the border with the kingdom of Bagan (modern Burma) and the countries in the north as far as the southern border of modern Laos. He reduced to vassalage the Thai peoples who had migrated into Southeast Asia from the Yunnan region of southern China and established his suzerainty in the south further parts of the Malay peninsula down to the kingdom of Grahi (corresponding roughly to the modern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat).

His greatest achievement was the construction in a period of 37 years of the temple city complex of Angkor Wat, dedicated to the god Vishnu. The largest religious edifice in the world, Angkor Wat is considered the greatest single architectural work in Southeast Asia.

Suryavarman II's end is unclear. The last inscription, which mentions his name in connection with a planned invasion of Vietnam, is from the year 1145. He probably died during a military expedition between 1145 and 1150. Suryavarman II's reign was followed by thirty years of dynastic upheaval, a period in which kings reigned briefly and were violently overthrown by their successors. Finally in 1177 Kambuja was defeated in a naval battle on the Tonle Sap Lake by the army of the Chams, and was incorporated as a province of Champa.

The future king Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219) was already a military leader as prince under previous kings. After the Cham had conquered Angkor, he gathered an army and regained the capital. The Cham ultimately were driven out and conquered by Jayavarman VII, whose reign (1181-ca. 1218) marked the apogee of Kambuja's power. In 1181 he ascended the throne and continued the war against the neighboring eastern kingdom for a further 22 years, until the Khmer defeated Champa in 1203 and conquered large parts of its territory.

Unlike his predecessors, who had adopted the cult of the Hindu god-king, Jayavarman VII was a fervent patron of Mahayana Buddhism. Jayavarman VII stands as the last of the great kings of Angkor, not only because of the successful war against the Cham, but also because he was no tyrannical ruler in the manner of his immediate predecessors, because he unified the empire, and above all because of the building projects carried out under his rule.

Casting himself as a bodhisattva, he embarked on a frenzy of building activity that included the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a remarkable temple whose stone towers depict 216 faces of buddhas, gods, and kings. He also built over 200 rest houses and hospitals throughout his kingdom. Like the Roman emperors, he maintained a system of roads between his capital and provincial towns.

The new capital was called Angkor Thom (literally: "Great City"). In the center, the king (himself a follower of Mahayana Buddhism) had constructed as the state temple the Bayon, with its towers bearing faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, each several meters high, carved out of stone. Further important temples built under Jayavarman VII were Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean, as well as the reservoir of Srah Srang. Alongside, an extensive network of streets was laid down, which connected every town of the empire. Beside these streets 121 rest-houses were built for traders, officials and travelers. Not least of all, he established 102 hospitals.

According to historian George Coeds, "No other Cambodian king can claim to have moved so much stone." Often, quality suffered for the sake of size and rapid construction, as is revealed in the intriguing but poorly constructed Bayon.

Carvings show that everyday Angkorian buildings were wooden structures not much different from those found in Cambodia today. The impressive stone buildings were not used as residences by members of the royal family. Rather, they were the focus of Hindu or Buddhist cults that celebrated the divinity, or buddhahood, of the monarch and his family. Coeds suggests that they had the dual function of both temple and tomb. Typically, their dimensions reflected the structure of the Hindu mythological universe. For example, five towers at the center of the Angkor Wat complex represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe; an outer wall represents the mountains that ring the world's edge; and a moat depicts the cosmic ocean. Like many other ancient edifices, the monuments of the Angkorian region absorbed vast reserves of resources and human labor and their purpose remains shrouded in mystery.

Angkorian society was strictly hierarchical. The king, regarded as divine, owned both the land and his subjects. Immediately below the monarch and the royal family were the Brahman priesthood and a small class of officials, who numbered about 4,000 in the tenth century. Next were the commoners, who were burdened with heavy corve (forced labor) duties. There was also a large slave class that, like the nameless multitudes of ancient Egypt, built the enduring monuments.

After Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja entered a long period of decline that led to its eventual disintegration. The Thai were a growing menace on the empire's western borders. The spread of Theravada Buddhism, which came to Kambuja from Sri Lanka by way of the Mon kingdoms, challenged the royal Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist cults. Preaching austerity and the salvation of the individual through his or own her efforts, Theravada Buddhism did not lend doctrinal support to a society ruled by an opulent royal establishment maintained through the virtual slavery of the masses.

In 1353 a Thai army captured Angkor. It was recaptured by the Khmer, but wars continued and the capital was looted several times. During the same period, Khmer territory north of the present Laotian border was lost to the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In 1431 the Thai captured Angkor Thom. Thereafter, the Angkorian region did not again encompass a royal capital, except for a brief period in the third quarter of the sixteenth century.

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