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Angkor Empire

History of Cambodia : Angkor Empire

Cambodia is the temple hub of the world and Angkor is its heart and soul. The glorious Angkor civilization began around 800AD under Jayavarman II who drove the Javanese out and proclaimed himself the god-king, marking the birth of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor. It is said that he had lived in the Javanese kingdom as a youth and on his return, through strategic alliances and conquests, cobbled together a unified land.

Era of the God-King

This ushered in a span of history from the 9th century to the 13th century which saw the construction and expansion of the Angkor temples by several god-kings, each striving to outdo his predecessor by building a bigger and better temple. During this same period, the Khmer empire emerged as one of the strongest powers in Southeast Asia but was also troubled by a rise and fall of power and pesky incursions by aggressive neighbors in Thailand and Vietnam.

Athough a large number of kings ruled the Khmer empire, the most important among them are Jayavarman II, Indravarman, Suryavarman I and II, and Jayavarman VII. The word “varman’ means “protector”.
Gate to Angkor Wat – by Kent

The First Angkor God-King

Jayavarman II, the first of the god-kings of the Khmer empire starting from 802 AD, built a “temple-mountain” at Phnom Kulen, to depict the dwelling place of the Hindu god, Shiva at his home in Mt, Meru, the holy mountain at the center of the Universe. This design of the temple-mountain became the dominant feature of architecture in Angkor. The Khmers adopted both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and in some cases, combined them. The Angkor complexes were really temples, built by each ruler to a patron saint to bring on the rain and prosperity to the kingdom. It is no surprise that religious shrines dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha are scattered all over Cambodia.

Water, Water Everywhere

Water power was main reason for the prosperity and longevity of the Khmer kingdom. Through a sophisticated irrigation and drainage system, the Khmers could store flood water from the Mekong in the huge reservoirs such as the East and West Baray (reservoir). Water was then used to irrigate the farmlands during the dry period, allowing rice harvesting two or three times a year. At peak, this extensive irrigation system supported a population of around a million in Angkor.

The Angkor kings thus had a massive pool of people to draw on to construct the vast complex of megalithic temples and to man a large army. Indravarman I was thought to have built the first baray in Angkor, and fostered the blossoming of Angkorian art. It was under his rule that the Roulous temples, the most well known of which is Bakong, was built.

Suryavarman I reunited the Khmer kingdom, after a period of civil strife, expanded the kingdom into much of Laos and Thailand and stepped up trade with the outside world. Two kings later saw the rise to the throne of Suryavarman II, who once again unified Cambodia, and stretched the long arm of the Khmer kingdom to the then Malaya and Myanmar. He is best known for commissioning the majestic temple of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor means city in Sanskrit, Angkor Wat means temple city and Angkor Thom refers to great city.

Angkor’s Greatest Ruler

Jayavarman II, who came to power in 1181, is considered to be the greatest ruler of the ancient Khmer civilization. He had temples and structures built at a dizzying pace, numbering far more than that of any other ruler, and most of the temples in Angkor today were constructed during his reign. He was a follower of Mahayana Buddhism and surrounded his new city, Angkor Thom, with walls and moats.

The centerpiece of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple with its iconic and enigmatic giant stone faces in meditative repose. Other important temples during his reign were Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) and Preah Khan. Jayavarman VII also constructed major roads, schools and hospitals across the land, the remains of which can still be seen today, and abolished the caste system. After his death around 1219, the kingdom declined, a process accelerated by religious conflict as kings swayed between Hinduism and Buddhism, often defacing the temples of their predecessors.