Cambodia Table of Contents

The Angkorian period lasted from the early ninth century to the early fifteenth century A.D. In terms of cultural accomplishments and political power, this was the golden age of Khmer civilization. The great temple cities of the Angkorian region, located near the modern town of Siemreab, are a lasting monument to the greatness of Jayavarman II's successors. (Even the Khmer Rouge, who looked on most of their country's past history and traditions with hostility, adopted a stylized Angkorian temple for the flag of Democratic Kampuchea. A similar motif is found in the flag of the PRK). The kingdom founded by Jayavarman II also gave modern-day Cambodia, or Kampuchea, its name. During the early ninth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, it was known as Kambuja, originally the name of an early north Indian state, from which the current forms of the name have been derived.

Possibly to put distance between himself and the seaborne Javanese, Jayavarman II settled north of the Tonle Sap. He built several capitals before establishing one, Hariharalaya, near the site where the Angkorian complexes were built. Indravarman I (A.D. 877-89) extended Khmer control as far west as the Korat Plateau in Thailand, and he ordered the construction of a huge reservoir north of the capital to provide irrigation for wet rice cultivation. His son, Yasovarman I (A.D. 889-900), built the Eastern Baray (reservoir or tank), evidence of which remains to the present time. Its dikes, which may be seen today, are more than 6 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. The elaborate system of canals and reservoirs built under Indravarman I and his successors were the key to Kambuja's prosperity for half a millennium. By freeing cultivators from dependence on unreliable seasonal monsoons, they made possible an early "green revolution" that provided the country with large surpluses of rice. Kambuja's decline during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries probably was hastened by the deterioration of the irrigation system. Attacks by Thai and other foreign peoples and the internal discord caused by dynastic rivalries diverted human resources from the system's upkeep, and it gradually fell into disrepair.

Suryavarman II (1113-50), one of the greatest Angkorian monarchs, expanded his kingdom's territory in a series of successful wars against the kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam, the kingdom of Nam Viet in northern Vietnam, and the small Mon polities as far west as the Irrawaddy River of Burma. He reduced to vassalage the Thai peoples who had migrated into Southeast Asia from the Yunnan region of southern China and established his suzerainty over the northern part of the Malay Peninsula. His greatest achievement was the construction of the temple city complex of Angkor Wat. The largest religious edifice in the world, Angkor Wat is considered the greatest single architectural work in Southeast Asia. Suryavarman II's reign was followed, however, by thirty years of dynastic upheaval and an invasion by the neighboring Cham, who destroyed the city of Angkor in 1177.

The Cham ultimately were driven out and conquered by Jayavarman VII, whose reign (1181-ca. 1218) marked the apogee of Kambuja's power. Unlike his predecessors, who had adopted the cult of the Hindu god-king, Jayavarman VII was a fervent patron of Mahayana Buddhism. Casting himself as a bodhisattva, he embarked on a frenzy of building activity that included the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a remarkable temple whose stone towers depict 216 faces of buddhas, gods, and kings. He also built over 200 rest houses and hospitals throughout his kingdom. Like the Roman emperors, he maintained a system of roads between his capital and provincial towns. According to historian George Coedès, "No other Cambodian king can claim to have moved so much stone." Often, quality suffered for the sake of size and rapid construction, as is revealed in the intriguing but poorly constructed Bayon.

Carvings show that everyday Angkorian buildings were wooden structures not much different from those found in Cambodia today. The impressive stone buildings were not used as residences by members of the royal family. Rather, they were the focus of Hindu or Buddhist cults that celebrated the divinity, or buddhahood, of the monarch and his family. Coedès suggests that they had the dual function of both temple and tomb. Typically, their dimensions reflected the structure of the Hindu mythological universe. For example, five towers at the center of the Angkor Wat complex represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe; an outer wall represents the mountains that ring the world's edge; and a moat depicts the cosmic ocean. Like many other ancient edifices, the monuments of the Angkorian region absorbed vast reserves of resources and human labor and their purpose remains shrouded in mystery.

Angkorian society was strictly hierarchical. The king, regarded as divine, owned both the land and his subjects. Immediately below the monarch and the royal family were the Brahman priesthood and a small class of officials, who numbered about 4,000 in the tenth century. Next were the commoners, who were burdened with heavy corvée (forced labor) duties. There was also a large slave class that, like the nameless multitudes of ancient Egypt, built the enduring monuments.

After Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja entered a long period of decline that led to its eventual disintegration. The Thai were a growing menace on the empire's western borders. The spread of Theravada Buddhism, which came to Kambuja from Sri Lanka by way of the Mon kingdoms, challenged the royal Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist cults. Preaching austerity and the salvation of the individual through his or own her efforts, Theravada Buddhism did not lend doctrinal support to a society ruled by an opulent royal establishment maintained through the virtual slavery of the masses.

In 1353 a Thai army captured Angkor. It was recaptured by the Khmer, but wars continued and the capital was looted several times. During the same period, Khmer territory north of the present Laotian border was lost to the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In 1431 the Thai captured Angkor Thom. Thereafter, the Angkorian region did not again encompass a royal capital, except for a brief period in the third quarter of the sixteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress