c. 1120-c. 1215
Jayavarman VII was in his sixties when he took the throne of the Khmer or Angkor Empire, as Cambodia was known in ancient times, yet he reigned for three decades. During that time, he rebuilt the temple cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and undertook the building of other temples, as well as hospitals and roads. He also expanded the boundaries of the Khmer Empire, which reached its greatest extent under his leadership.
An earlier ruler of the same name, Jayavarman II (r. c. 790-850), had founded the Khmer Empire and established Hinduism as its state religion, and some time after 900, the Khmers had carved the Hindu temple city Angkor Thom out of the jungle. Angkor Thom covered 5 square miles (12.8 square kilometers), and included a moat, high walls, temples, palaces, and a tower, all carved with detailed images of Hindu deities. Suryavarman II (r. 1113-50) began the building of Angkor Wat, the more famous—though actually the smaller—of the two temple cities. He also conquered a number of surrounding kingdoms, but after his death the empire went into a period of decline.
Jayavarman, whose reign harkened back to that of Suryavarman both in its building projects and in its territorial expansion, was the son of Dharanindravarman II (r. 1150-60), and the brother—or possibly the cousin—of Yasovarman II (r. 1160-66). His first wife, Jayarajadevi, was a devout Buddhist, and under her influence Jayavarman adopted that religion. After her death, he married her older sister, also a strong Buddhist.
The empire weakened under Yasovarman's rule, and in 1166 the rebel Tribhuvanadityavarman (r. 1166-77) seized power. Jayavarman chose to remain in the country, lying low and biding his time. Then in 1177 neighboring Champa (now part of Vietnam) invaded the Khmer Empire, ravaging the land and destroying much of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. As a result, Jayavarman was able to gain Khmer support, leading a revolt of his own that ousted the Chams and led to his installation on the throne in 1181.
By this time Jayavarman was about 60 years old, and as though to make up for lost time, in the years that followed he undertook vigorous building programs and campaigns of expansion. Khmer builders under his orders constructed a Buddhist pyramid temple called the Bayon, which contained his mausoleum. They also built funerary temples dedicated to his parents, as well as numerous provincial temples. Just as Suryavarman had populated the earlier version of Angkor Wat with statues representing him as Vishnu, now temples throughout the empire bristled with representations of Jayavarman as the Buddha.
The boundaries of that empire expanded greatly under the reign of Jayavarman, who regained all the territory held by Suryavarman and went on to conquer additional areas in what is now Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia. He also restored and expanded an earlier system of imperial highways. Along these roads, which radiated from the Bayon and palace buildings throughout Khmer lands, his workers built more than 100 rest houses, as well as some 100 hospitals.
Impressive as these undertakings were, however, the greatest of Jayavarman's building efforts took place at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The versions of these that survive are largely the product of reconstruction, repair, and expansion undertaken by Jayavarman, under whose auspices the formerly Hindu temple of Angkor Wat became a monument to the Buddha—and to himself. A single tower at Angkor Thom might have as many as six dozen representations of his face, glowering down at the viewer from every possible angle.
Like the Gothic cathedrals built in France around the same time, Angkor Wat was a gigantic "sermon in stone." Carvings illustrated aspects of both the Buddhist and Hindu religions—Buddhism had risen out of Hinduism, much as Christianity and Islam did from Judaism—as well as the Khmer culture and daily life. This, however, was a world utterly foreign to the European mind. For one thing, Angkor Wat was not a place where the common people were invited to enter and worship, as they were at Notre Dame or Chartres; it was set aside purely for the royal house. Furthermore, one can only imagine a European priest's reaction to the many sculptures showing bare-chested beauties—yet this was an everyday sight in the humid jungles of Southeast Asia, where Khmer women wore wraparound skirts with nothing covering their breasts.
The pace of Jayavarman's building projects was extremely quick, and in some cases the workmanship shows this fact. It is likely that he felt a sense of urgency due to his advanced age. It is also possible that he suffered from leprosy, a dreaded disease involving gradual wasting of muscles, deformity, and paralysis that was relatively common until modern times.
When he died, Jayavarman left behind considerable physical evidence that he had once ruled a great and mighty empire—an empire that was doomed to be overtaken by outside invaders. Jayavarman's building projects and foreign conquests exhausted the energies and resources of his people, and in the years that followed his reign, Cambodia gradually went into terminal decline. By 1431 the Thais had completed their conquest of the Angkor Empire.
Despite his many efforts to preserve his memory, Jayavarman's name disappeared from later Cambodian histories, no doubt because the Thai conquerors did not want their Khmer subjects to know the former greatness of their land. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom themselves, having been vacated by the Thais, succumbed to the surrounding jungles, their towers choked by vines and their inner courts the home of snakes and spiders. Only in the 1860s were these temple cities rediscovered—ironically, by another group of conquerors, the French colonists. Subsequent archaeological investigation revealed the record of Jayavarman and his highly advanced realm, and in later years he became a national hero.
His development of a Khmer welfare state gained Jayavarman admirers in modern times, but the Communists of the Khmer Rouge used his name as partial justification for a campaign of genocide following their seizure of power in 1975. Believing that the moats at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom had been part of a massive irrigation system, the Khmer Rouge concluded that Jayavarman had turned his empire into a vast "rice factory," and sought to do the same through a vast network of slave-labor camps. In fact the Khmer Rouge, who killed more than 20% of the nation's people before losing power to Vietnamese invaders in 1978, were incorrect: Jayavarman and Suryavarman had not built the moats for practical purposes, but to symbolize aspects of Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.