One of the most celebrated architectural achievements of the ancient world is Angkor Wat. This temple complex from the 12th century covers over 400 square kilometers. There is more stone in Angkor Wat than in all of the pyramids of Egypt combined. It is the largest temple in the world. This magnificent structure is located in Cambodia and features prominently on the country's flag. In popular culture, Angkor Wat is the subject of numerous books, documentaries and was the backdrop for 2001's blockbuster film Tomb Raider.
The construction of Angkor Wat began in 1113 and completed in just 37 years. By comparison, Europeans began building the Notre Dame Cathedral around the same time and took over 100 years to complete the project. Angkor Wat represents a society with power, wealth, and engineering skills that far surpassed most civilizations of the ancient world.
While you may be familiar with Angkor Wat due to its popularity, you may not know much about the mighty empire that built the structure. The Khmer Empire existed from the 9th century to the 15th century in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
As we journey through the Khmer Empire's history, we are fortunate to have an expert in the field, Dr. CHEN Chanratana. He is the Founder/President of Kerdomnel Khmer Group. The group focuses on preserving Cambodia's history through the publication of their culture-themed magazine, Kerdomnel Khmer. Dr. Chanratana received his post-graduate degree in Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia from the University of Sorbonne Paris III in 2011. His thesis on Koh Ker Temple and Jayavarman IV, a Khmer god-king, is published online and in print worldwide. He is often the chosen subject matter expert for all things related to the Khmer Empire. He has worked with the BBC, National Geographic, and recently with The Walt Disney Company on their new animated film Raya and The Last Dragon.
The Khmer Empire:
The Jungle Empire of the God-Kings
By David Daly
We begin our journey into the Khmer Empire's history by discussing some of the reasons that led to its rise. As Dr. Chanratana says, "When we talk about Angkor, we must first talk about why Angkor was able to rise." The Khmer Empire's rise begins with the Funan and Chenla Kingdoms' collapse, who ruled the area before the Khmer. As the power of Funan started to diminish as a result of changing trade routes, Funan and Chenla united through marriage. Despite the two kingdoms coming together, the decline of their rule was inevitable.
During this period, the Khmer people lived in a collection of smaller kingdoms throughout the areas controlled by the Funan and Chenla. It is worth noting that while most of the region practiced Hinduism, Chenla practiced a sect of Hinduism where Shiva was their main god of worship. The Khmer people also practiced Hinduism but saw Vishnu as their main deity. This division helped set the stage for the first Khmer King, Jayavarman II, to take control.
Jayavarman II was the first king of the Khmer Empire. After overthrowing the Shailendra Dynasty ruler in Java, Jayavarman II set his sights on the Indochina Peninsula. Two factors aided him in the unification of the numerous smaller kingdoms of the Khmer people. To gain the approval of the ordinary people, he established himself as a god-king. In doing so, the people saw him as more than a man and worshiped him. The second factor involved the ruling class of kings and influential families already in place. "When Jayavarman II came to power, he didn't destroy ever system and cast at the local level," says Dr. Chanratana. Rather than trying to conquer and dismantle each of the smaller kingdoms, he allowed them to keep the hierarchical system they had, as long as they supported him through a system of taxation.
The smaller kingdoms quickly came together, and the Khmer Empire began. With power solidified, Jayavarman II focused his attention on building a great empire. There was no better way to strengthen the empire than through military expansion. Warefare would need to wait until Jayavarman II solved another problem, creating a reliable supply of food. Dr. Chanratana explains why the king required food to conquer neighboring kingdoms. "In order to fight, in order to get men to go to the battlefield and fight, and in order to grow the territory you need food. If the country were to become strong, Jayavarman II needed rice production. And for that, he needed irrigation."
Khmer engineers were masters of irrigation technology. Monsoons caused mass flooding and created a condition where much of the country essentially became a lake for half of the year. The monsoons dominated the Khmer's life until, under the guidance of their god-king, they would harness the power of water and start to grow the empire. "During the rainy season, Cambodia looks like a great lake." Continuing, Dr. Chanratana says, "When we talk about the monsoon season, we must talk about the irrigation system. A lot of people came together here and joined with the king.
The Khmer built intricate canals, reservoirs, dams, and channels that reshaped the region. Agricultural production soared. The landscape became dominated by endless rice fields, and the Khmer soon had an abundance of food. With food production at a high, military conquest began, and the empire grew. After Jayavarman II, a series of successive god-kings continued to expand their reach through conquest. At the height of its golden age, the Khmer Empire controlled modern-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Even as the empire grew, from time to time, civil wars would break out. Internal conflict often occurred as one king died and another took the throne. Just before the building of Angkor Wat, the empire united under a new king, Suryavarman II.
Suryavarman II failed as a military leader but still wielded considerable political and economic strength. He could never have built Angkor Wat had that not been the case. The temple was a symbol of the god-king's power and wealth, and it showed everyone political stability. But looks can be deceiving. A series of violent overthrows of the reigning kings after Suryavarman II and military defeats abroad caused more infighting and instability. By 1177 the capital was raided and looted. Fighting continued until the reign of Jayavarman VII, which began in 1181. His reign would bring prosperity to the region but also help to cause the empire's downfall.
The god-kings of the Khmer Empire had always practiced Hinduism until this point. Jayavarman VII was a devout Buddhist. By this time, most ordinary people practiced Buddhism and welcomed the new king. However, the ruling class still followed Hinduism and felt isolated by their new king's religious preference. There was a period of stability and economic growth, but it would not last past the king's death. His son, Jayavarman VIII, succeeded Jayavarman VII. It was after this time that the empire started to decline. Dr. Chanratana notes, "When we talk about the collapse, there are a lot of factors. Human resources, the political system, kingship, and also the religion factor."
The isolation felt by the ruling class who followed Hinduism would now start to bear bitter fruit for the Khmer Empire. Religion would play a significant role in the decline of the Khmer. Dr. Chanratana expands on this idea and states, "When we think of the impact of religion, we must think of the concept of the religion. What is Hinduism? What is Buddhism? In Buddhism, when you do good, good things happen to you. In Hinduism, everything you do is a sacrifice for the god."
This distinction meant that the ordinary person, as a Buddhist, was now less likely to follow a god-king, especially as the gap between the king's riches and their poverty became more extreme. Following a god-king was not the path to enlightenment. The system began to crumble. Also, some of the empire's most outstanding achievements became part of its undoing at this time. The system or extensive roads and endless rice fields made it easy for rival armies to attack the Khmer Empire; this was especially true from the West from Siam.
The massive irrigation systems quickly filled with silt and required enormous human resources to maintain. When the people followed god-kings, they dedicated the tremendous human resources needed to keep the irrigation system operational because they felt they had no choice. When the king was just a king, rebellions became more common. As the ability to keep ordinary people in check diminished, the irrigation system promptly fell apart. Floods and droughts became an annual occurrence.
Plagues, ecological disasters, and continued infighting were additional factors that aided in the collapse. By the 15th century, the Khmer Empire was no more. Unfortunately, there are few written records of the Khmer. Their temple inscriptions provide us with some information, but there are hundreds of years with no recorded history. Much of their writings on palm leaves, the Khmer's primary media for recording history, deteriorated over time and were lost forever.
"The architecture remains but how the Khmer people developed the country and how the Khmer people learned from the past...we have nothing to study of that," says Dr. Chanratana. The lack of historical records means we tend to focus on the ruins of temples and miss out on the bigger picture. Dr. Chanratana, who often visits Cambodia, remarks, "When we talk about culture, nowadays, what people talk about is civilization. People forget that the rich culture of the Khmer Empire remains until today."
Dr. Chanratana believes Angkor Wat is a fitting symbol for people to think of when reflecting on the Khmer Empire. "When we talk about Angkor Wat, we are talking about the civilization of Angkor." Elaborating further, he says, "Angkor could be strong because of the local people. It could be strong because of many factors: kingship, leadership, philosophy, engineers, architects, intellectuals, and economics. When we look at Angkor Wat, we see the megastructure of the country. It represents all those things."
For anyone looking to learn more about this fascinating civilization, Dr. Chanratana has the following advice, "If you want to understand the temple of Angkor Wat, don't just read a document. Don't just look at a picture. You need to go there and study it on your own."
With a smile and a passion for learning, he continues, "Reading a book is one thing, but being at a place is another. By going there, you will see the local system and the everyday life of the people. The local people still practice the beliefs and traditions of the Khmer Empire." As the global pandemic begins to come under control, perhaps your next vacation should be to Cambodia, where the Khmer Empire's power still resonates in the people to this very day.