The Khmer Capital at Angkor

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The Khmer Capital at Angkor


The famous ruins at Angkor Wat in northwestern Cambodia are remnants of the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, which at its height ruled much of Southeast Asia. The Angkor complex, which covered approximately 77 square miles (199 sq km), was the cultural center of the empire from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries.


About 2,000 years ago, the people of Southeast Asia lived in simple settlements along the coast and in valleys suitable for farming. Their way of life involved growing rice and root crops, and raising pigs and water buffalo. Their religion was animistic; that is, they believed that spirits were associated with land, trees, rivers, mountains, and other natural objects. They also practiced ancestor worship.

Over the next few hundred years, Indian merchants began seeking sea routes for trade with China. Southeast Asia became a convenient way station. Groups of Indian settlers established themselves near the ports, and brought new religious and cultural ideas to the Khmers in Cambodia as well as to other people of the region.

The Indian contributions to Southeast Asian civilizations during this period included the Sanskrit writing system, astronomy, laws, literature, and the idea of a centralized government with a powerful king. They also introduced both Hinduism and Buddhism. The two religions were combined to some degree in their Southeast Asian manifestations, and superimposed upon the animistic beliefs that are still common in the region today.

In the eighth century, Cambodia consisted of a number of principalities, which were consolidated into the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II. (The suffix -varman was always added to the names of Khmer kings, and means protector.) Beginning in the year 790, Jayavarman II began a series of military campaigns to extend his territory, moving his capital several times. In 802, he proclaimed himself universal king and ruled from an area near the present-day Roluos until his death in 850.

Yasovarman I, who reigned from 889 to 900, moved the capital to Yasodharapura, which would eventually grow to include the temple complex known as Angkor. Except for a brief period during which a usurper ruled from a rival capital, Angkor was to be the political and cultural center of the Khmer Empire for the next 500 years.


In about 1113, Suyavarman II seized the Khmer throne by murdering his great-uncle and ruled until 1150, when he may have been murdered in turn. Suyavarman II built the great temple at Angkor Wat, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, who was thought to be a protector of the world and would bring back moral order. Khmer temples were designed in accordance with a consistent geometric plan and aligned with the east-west axis. They had a central tower in an open courtyard, surrounded by a high wall with one or more entry gates. Some temples elaborated upon these essential elements, and might include long galleries, pavilions, bathing pools, and additional towers as well. Angkor Wat is an enormous structure with five large towers symbolizing the mountains where the Hindu deities were said to dwell.

Besides temples, another favorite construction project of the Khmer kings were huge reservoirs, or barays, each covering up to 20 square miles (52 sq. km) and accompanied by a network of canals and moats. The barays served as a large-scale irrigation system, to store rainwater and divert the water of the Great Lake, or Tonle Sap, as it retreated after the monsoon season. The water was channeled to rice fields, allowing three crops each year. The food surplus encouraged rampant population growth. Angkor is believed to have housed one million people in the twelfth century, when only 30,000 lived in Paris. The reservoirs may also have provided for urban needs, including transportation, drinking water, and bathing.

In 1177, the Champa state in Vietnam launched a surprise attack by sea, sailed up the Mekong River to the Khmer capital, and set fire to it. They ruled Cambodia for the next four years. Jayavarman VII headed a successful rebellion to regain the capital in 1181, and became king at the age of 55. He reigned for about 40 years, until he died in his 90s.

Jayavarman VII enjoyed a vigorous and productive old age, and the Khmer Empire reaped the fruits of his labors, although some of his subjects rebelled against his free-spending ways. His construction program included a walled city north of Angkor Wat, called Angkor Thom, Great City. He also built large numbers of monuments and guest houses. However, many of these deteriorated faster than earlier buildings like Angkor Wat, because of the poor quality of the building stone available by Jayavarman VII's time. He was especially interested in the transportation infrastructure, and built more roads and bridges than all the previous Khmer kings put together.

In 1190, Jayavarman VII took revenge upon the Champa, imprisoning the Champa king and annexing his territory. Although the Khmer ruler was a devout Buddhist mystic, he was also a skilled military leader, and greatly expanded the borders of his empire. At its height, it included parts of modern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and much of the Malay Peninsula as well as Cambodia.

Some of the later temples at Angkor included images from Mahayana Buddhism. This type of Buddhism peaked during the reign of Jayavarman VII and is now centered in the Himalayas. It uses the Sanskrit language and stresses the veneration of images of Bodhisattvas, or "Enlightenment Beings", who had declined to enter Nirvana in order to return to Earth and ease the suffering of humanity. Bodhisattva images appeared in several forms at Angkor, along with Hindu deities.

In the thirteenth century, a short-lived Hindu religious revival led to the destruction of the Buddhist images at Angkor, but Theraveda Buddhism, a conservative form of the religion originating in Ceylon and expressed in the Pali language, was soon declared Cambodia's state religion. This school of Buddhism is now practiced throughout Southeast Asia. Angkor's last stone temple was built in about 1290. The Khmers maintained their capital at Angkor until 1432, and then began shifting southward in response to Thai invasions. Eventually they settled in Phnom Penh, which was less vulnerable to attacks from the north and better situated for maritime trade. It remains the Cambodian capital today.

Despite the loss of its status as the imperial capital in the fifteenth century, the ancient city was not immediately abandoned. Monks remained to serve at Angkor Wat. The royal court returned a few times for brief periods. But the empire itself was crumbling as its overextended central control began to weaken. Historians speculate that environmental factors such as depleted forests or drought may have contributed to its end. By the 1700s, when European traders and missionaries began traveling to Cambodia, they described Angkor as mysterious ruins hidden in the jungle, but as well known to local people as Rome was in the West.

Many of the stone temples and other buildings at Angkor have collapsed. The wooden palaces and houses of the ancient Khmer cities rotted away centuries ago. In poverty-stricken Cambodia, looting is a constant threat to the remaining architectural treasures. Parts of the Angkor site are inaccessible because of land mines, grim reminders of twentieth century hostilities. Although the stone structures that survived into modern times were largely undamaged by the decades of conflict, their caretakers were not as lucky. Many were executed by the Khmer Rouge during the civil war, which began in the 1970s and resulted in the deaths of about one million Cambodians.

In 1991, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began assisting the new Royal Cambodian Government in establishing international efforts to preserve the remains of Angkor. The next year, Angkor was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, which recognized it as one of humanity's most important cultural sites.


Further Reading

Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983.

Dagens, Bruno. Angkor: Heart of an Asian Empire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

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

MacDonald, Malcolm. Angkor and the Khmers. London: Oxford University Press, 1987.