Hidden among the temples and sites of Angkor are clues as to how these places and civilizations came to be. Angkor is said to be described as an image that has been erased and overwritten repeatedly. The capitols of the Khmer Empire were established here one after another, one on top of the other, almost continuously for over seven centuries, profoundly shaping the entire landscape. These grand structures of brick and sandstone have survived over time and the remaining skeleton of the Angkor civilization is extremely impressive.
Regardless of how tragic or wonderful a past can be, it shapes the future into what it is today. That’s why I think it is important to include a small historical blog on the history of Angkor and special points on Cambodian temple architecture in order to fully understand and appreciate these treasured sites.
PIECES OF ANGKOR HISTORY
Inhabitants of Cambodia were one of the first peoples of Southeast Asia, although scholars continue to debate whether they migrated principally from southern China or India. By the first few centuries A.D., the growth in maritime trade between China and India had drawn Southeast Asia into a global trading network and catalyzed a series of profound transformations within Khmer culture and society.
One civilization, named Funan, was suggested to be a powerful trading state. Other archaeological discoveries, such as a large canal system linking various settlements within the kingdom, revealed it to be a highly organized society with a relatively high population density and advance technology. The Funan kingdom was strongly influenced by Indian culture and adopted many elements of the Indian tradition such as the use of the Sanskrit language in the high courts, the Buddhist and Hindu religions, astronomy, the legal system, and literature.
According to evidence from inscriptions, the Angkor Empire originated with an 8th century king named Jayavarman II (790-835), who ruled his own kingdom in the territory around present day Siem Reap. In 802, following a unique and elaborate ceremony, he was installed as the ruler of a unified new empire. This ceremony also integrated one of the new empire’s fundamental features, a cult of the devaraja (“god king” or “king of the gods”), through which power was invested in the king. Jayavarman II’s successors gradually annexed territories and major building projects of the classical Angkor period had begun, including the first of Angkor’s huge reservoirs or “barays.” His son established the first capitol of Angkor.
Evidence that Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Cambodia starts to appear in the early centuries of the Christian era. Hinduism was the religion of most Khmer kings, but Buddhism enjoyed royal protection. King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion during his reign. Sometime afterwards, however, there seems to have been a violent backlash and many of the Buddhist images that he created were defaced or destroyed during a period of “Hindu reaction” or “iconoclasm,” though it is still unclear as to when or by whom. The destruction was large-scale. Some images did survive the systematic destruction and can be found, for example, at Bayon and Banteay Kdei. Less than 100 years after Jayavarman’s reign, Indravarman III (1295-1307), established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion of Cambodia, which still holds true today.
From the 9th to 15th centuries, Khmer kings constantly established their capitols in the Angkor area. The period that followed Javayarman V’s ascendence to the throne was a succession of short reigns and internal struggles for power until King Suryavarman I (1010-1050 A.D.) gained the throne. Under this monarch, the Khmer empire achieved its greatest territorial extent so far, covering much of Southeast Asia.
Sixty years later Suryavarman II (1113-1115), who built Angkor Wat, provided a period of stability. He further extended the influence of the empire across Laos and Thailand, taking in parts of modern day Malaysia, sent emissaries to China, and also launched at least 3 military campaigns against the Dai Viet in the northern part of what is now Vietnam. These efforts were largely unsuccessful. However, an attack on the city of Vijaya, the capitol of the Cham civilization in what is now central Vietnam, brought him victory in 1145 after his armies first sacked and then occupied the city. In 1149 the Chams expelled the Khmer from Vijaya. In 1177, seizing an opportunity against a weakening Khmer Empire, the Cham launched a devastating naval campaign via the Tonle Sap and claimed the royal capitol at Angkor. This was the worst defeat the Khmers had known until that time. Graphic scenes from that battle are carved into the reliefs at Bayon and Banteay Chhmar.
The last great king of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 A.D.) decisively defeated the Chams and reclaimed Angkor. He set about the largest program of construction in Khmer history, building not only Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Preh Khan, Banteay Chhmar, and Banteay Kdei, but also roads, bridges, rest-houses, and other monuments across the Empire!
For two centuries after the death of Jayavarman VII until the 15th century, the classical Khmer Empire seemed to undergo a period of decline, producing very few new works of engineering, architecture, art, or literature to rival the achievements of centuries past. Conventional histories end the Khmer Empire with a Thai invasion and sacking of Angkor in 1431.
Angkorian temple design ranges from simple cells (ashrams) to complex multi-form structures that linked ritual spaces, covered galleries, and open areas for dances and assembly. Intricate mandala temples were created, rising in stepped pyramidal structures (e.g. Bakong), while others were designed as a series of pavilions linked by walkways at ground level, (e.g. Preah Vihear).
‘Mountain-temples,’ which embodied grandeur and power, are a defining characteristic of Khmer architecture. They are modeled on Mount Meru, the center of all the physical, spiritual, and meta-physical universes and home to the 33 Gods of Brahmanic (Hindu) religious belief. Ancient Khmer kings also used planetary sightings, solstice alignments, cardinal directions, axial alignment, geometry, and refined proportions for numerous state shrines.
- Angkorian architects employ a corbelling approach to spanning and covering spaces. This involved placing successive blocks around one quarter to one third of their length projecting inward until the two sides met above a space. Corbel arches are heavy and can only be used for relatively short spans giving rise to the characteristically narrow passageways of many Angkorian galleries. The resulting roof is heavy and prone to collapse.
- Enclosure and structural walls were often built from laterite, a reddish-brown mudstone with a high content of iron oxide that is soft and easily cut when in the ground but hardens through a natural oxidation process in the open air. Poor construction techniques- piling stones on top of one another with no attempt at interlocking- often results in vertical cracks and incursions of tropical vegetation.
- Hardwoods were used for external light-weight structures in combination with brick or stone. Timber beams supported roofs. As they decayed over time the roofs became prone to collapse.
- The stucco employed to cover and decorate the temples is a mix of lime, sand, and natural vegetal binding agents. It was modeled to provide an outer surface of fine decorative features covering the brickwork.
- Temples were designed to look grander through proportional reduction architecture; stairs narrow towards the top, carvings reduce in scale and successive tiers of “temple-mountains” are less tall as one ascends.
- Human factors threaten the structure of the temples. Especially during Cambodia’s troubled times, policing was absent and looting took a heavy toll. More recently, falling groundwater levels caused by the rapid growth of Siem Reap town, are now threatening to destabilize the fabric of the temples.
–Historical information and a great read!: “The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples” by Andrew Booth–
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!