Suryavarman II

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Suryavarman II

r. 1113-1150

Khmer Emperor

Ruler of the Khmer or Angkor Empire in what is today Cambodia, Suryavarman II spent much of his reign battling for control of Southeast Asia. Despite his preoccupation with war, however, he managed to direct the building of the world's largest religious structure, the temple city called Angkor Wat.

Suryavarman's birth year is unknown, and for all practical purposes his biography begins with his ascension to the Khmer throne in 1113. Long before, the Buddhist emperor Suryavarman I (d. 1050) had ruled a powerful, united realm. Despite his many wars to subdue neighboring lands, this earlier Suryavarman had found time to plan numerous public works projects, including irrigation systems, monasteries, and several temples. But in the years since, Cambodia had fallen into disunity, and by the time Suryavarman II assumed the throne, the turmoil had lasted for half a century.

Consolidating his power in part through foreign conquest, Suryavarman marched his troops to the east, west, and south. He did not venture northward: to that direction lay China, with which the Khmer Empire had not had diplomatic relations for more than two centuries. He re-established contact with China in 1116, and soon obtained for his nation a highly beneficial position as vassal to the much larger empire. This in turn gave him a free hand to deal with his neighbors, and during his reign Cambodia grew to include much of what is today Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.

Whereas earlier monarchs were Buddhists, Suryavarman embraced Hinduism. Both religions came from India, though Buddhism had been transmitted through the Chinese, who had begun adopting the religion in the early centuries a.d. Hinduism, by contrast, had entered Cambodia directly, brought by merchants who traded with the Khmers. Firmly entrenched in Hindu practices, Suryavarman had his own personal guru, a priest named Divakarapandita, and he resolved to build a temple to Vishnu.

That temple, begun early in his reign and still not completed at the time of his death, was Angkor Wat. In fact Angkor Wat is more like a city than a "mere" temple: the surrounding moat alone, an engineering feat in itself, is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long and 600 feet (180 meters) wide. Inside its walls is an enormous temple complex of towers guarding a central enclosure, an architectural symbol of Hindu beliefs concerning the outer and inner worlds. Thousands of statues and relief sculptures, depicting everything from lotus rosettes to asparas (heavenly nymphs) to prancing animals, decorate the inner courts. Others showed Suryavarman in a variety of guises both as king and as a god, the incarnation of Vishnu.

Conflict with the Dai Viet and Champa kingdoms in Vietnam occupied much of Suryavarman's attention from 1123 onward, and those conflicts would ultimately endanger Angkor Wat itself. Suryavarman himself died while still at war with Champa, and in the years that followed, the Chams swept into Khmer lands and ravaged much of Angkor Wat. Only with the ascension to power of medieval Cambodia's other great ruler, Jayavarman VII (c. 1120-1219), in 1181, were the Chams driven out and Angkor Wat restored.