Khmer Empire

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Khmer Empire

Type of Government

The Khmer Empire was one of the first organized political states in Southeast Asia. From its enormous capital at Angkor Thom, the kingdom held sway over territory that includes present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and southern Vietnam for nearly five hundred years. Its rulers referred to themselves as god-kings, but succession was not hereditary; instead male members of the family competed to succeed to the throne upon an emperor’s death. Khmer kings built massive stone temples to serve as their resting place on Earth, and which survive as testament to their power a millennium later.


The name of the Khmer Empire is taken from the Mon-Khmer, a large ethnic and linguistic group in Southeast Asia that migrated from the north around 1000 BC. Within a millennium, they had established a thriving trade with both India and China and adopted religious beliefs from both cultures—first Hindu, in the period known as the Funan era, which lasted roughly from around AD 60 to 540, and later Buddhism. After the Funan period came the Chenla era, which disintegrated amid civil war. The Khmer Empire was founded in 802 by Jayavarman II (c. 770–850), who proclaimed himself chakravartin (universal monarch). After a series of military conquests, he organized a federation of conquered areas and their former chiefs and ascended Kulen Mountain for a ceremony in which he identified himself with Shiva, the Hindu god.

Government Structure

Despite the monumental temples the Khmer Empire left behind, few details about their system of government survive. Its royal and priestly classes were highly literate, but they used palm leaves as paper, which disintegrated over time. The relief carvings found on the temples provide some details, as do accounts of Chinese travelers who came through the area.

The Khmer kings were absolute rulers, meaning that they possessed total power and authority over their people. After taking office, each king reenacted the Kulen Mountain ritual first conducted by Jayavarman II. The king was considered divine, and his role was to placate the gods who, according to Khmer religious beliefs, occasionally fought one another in the heavens, which could result in dire consequences for the inhabitants on Earth. The Khmer believed that they owed their survival to the beneficial intervention undertaken by their dead ancestors, and both the king and the Khmer priests conducted ceremonies to honor the dead and remain in their good graces. When a king died, he was buried in the large temple-mountains erected from stone; this elevated tomb would enable him to join the ranks of ancestor-spirits and continue to intervene on their behalf with the gods. During his reign the king also took part in ceremonies and other official events that were believed crucial to the regulation of the seasons and bring a judicious annual rainfall.

Because the king was considered the gods’ representative on Earth, when he appeared in public astride an elephant he wore a dazzling display of gemstones, and his subjects were required to kneel as the procession passed, touching their foreheads to the ground to demonstrate their respect. The Khmer Empire was divided into provinces ruled by brothers, uncles, and other male relatives of the king, who were required to swear an oath of allegiance to him after taking office. Outside the royal household, Khmer society was intricately stratified: there were priestly clans and then trade guilds formed by artisans. Everyone else, whether rural or urban, was considered a serf. Involuntary servitude also seemed to play a role in the formation of a corps of laborers who dug the canals or built the massive stone monuments. The ancestors of the Khmer were believed to have been a matrilineal society, and during the time of the empire a few royal women enjoyed positions of power within the palace, and others took part in military campaigns. Women also conducted the majority of retail business in the empire.

Political Parties and Factions

The royal dynasty founded by Jayavarman II ruled the Khmer Empire until it was overrun by the Viet and the Mongols. Kings usually took several wives—and many more royal concubines—which resulted in immense royal families, and these often emerged as competing factions with one another. Grown sons were given influential positions in the palace, while daughters were married off in matches designed to build stronger alliances with other families. Often, these allies united to influence the royal succession following the death of a king; few of the actual royal sons went on to inherit the throne from their fathers. Instead, competing factions worked behind the scenes to place their candidates—usually a member of the royal household or bloodline—in power, and at times these succession struggles erupted into outright civil war. This was the case with Suryavarman I (d. c. 1050), who ascended the throne in 1002 after a nine-year war.

Major Events

Starting from 802, when Jayavarman II declared himself a god-king, the Khmer Empire expanded its reach in Southeast Asia while occasionally erupting into internal war. In spite of this turmoil, the Khmer developed a flourishing artistic culture that was the most advanced civilization in Asia after the Chinese. In 889 Yasovarman I (d. 910) moved the capital to the site of the present-day Angkor Wat and began building an immense temple on a hill called Phnom Bakheng (Mount Mighty Ancestor). Suryavarman I, whose rule began in 1002, consolidated political and religious power in the capital by creating official provinces in what had been a federation of loosely ruled minor kingdoms; he also initiated a major temple building program throughout the empire. Another period of expansion came under his namesake Suryavarman II (d. 1150) beginning in 1113: under him, construction began on the Angkor Wat site, which nine hundred years later remains the largest religious building in the world. In 1177 a conflict began with the Champa state in Vietnam. It ended with a decisive victory in 1190 by Jayavarman VII (c. 1120–c. 1219), who added the Champa lands to the Khmer Empire. For this and his patronage of the arts, Jayavarman VII is revered as one of the most able Khmer leaders. He also redesigned the capital, constructed an enormous new temple called Bayon, and built or improved more than one hundred hospitals throughout the kingdom. Archaeologists note that temple building and inscriptions dwindled considerably after Jayavarman VII died and posit that his immense building projects may have depleted resources as well as the goodwill of the people. During the fourteenth century the capital at Angkor was sacked on several occasions and finally abandoned in 1431.


Historians disagree on why the Khmer Empire disappeared. Some surmise that it was caught between two emerging new powers, the Vietnamese and Thai, whereas others cite that the lavish temples that were built at great cost and by forced labor brought such hardship that the kings lost the authority and respect of the people. The migration of Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka around 1250 introduced new religious ideas, the most important of which were the concept of nonviolence and a less-adulatory attitude toward the kings who styled themselves as divine.

Angkor Wat’s massive temples and other stone structures were overtaken by vegetation and were unknown to the Western world until 1863, when a French explorer discovered them. Henri Mouhot (1826–1861) wrote about Angkor Wat, noting that the area was inhabited by poor farmers who told them they did not know who had built it, but thought perhaps the gods had left it behind. The distinctive towers became a symbol of Cambodian pride, and their image has adorned the national flag since 1863. The term Khmer was later adopted by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which called itself the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer). This Marxist extremist group seized power in 1975, and its sweeping social reforms were enforced by a reign of terror for the next four years in which an estimated one in seven Cambodians died. The Angkor Wat site was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1992, and modern-day researchers still puzzle over the science used by the Khmer to ensure that on June 21, the annual summer equinox, the sun rises precisely behind Angkor Wat’s main tower.

Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia . 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2007.

Higham, Charles. The Civilization of Angkor . London: Phoenix, 2003.

Mabbett, Ian, and David Chandler. The Khmers . Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995.

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