Ancient Cambodia

The city of Ankgor Wat is one of the worlds great cultural archeological sites and was once the pinnacle of the great Khmer Empire.

Cambodiam Dancers via Vintage Cruise Ad (1946)
The Ancient Khmer Civilization

Bust of Hevajra, Angkor period, late 12th–early 13th century

Perhaps no other ruins symbolize the breath taking beauty of the Ancient World more the the Temples of Angkor Wat, in modern day Cambodia. These ruins form the center of what was once a very powerful Khmer empire that covered much of South East Asia. In the 19th century, when French explores first saw they many sided temples with the faces of gods staring back to them from the roots of fig trees, they left a lasting impression of what was then an unknown culture. These evocative images stared back at them across several centuries, being described as cities created by gods. Current excavation are only now revealing to us the immensity and architectural sophistication in one of the first Hindu Empires ever established. The Khmer people are in many ways the ancestors of today’s Cambodian people, and it is with great pride that after years of neglect that there is a renewed interest in preserving one of the grates architectural legacies left to us from the ancient world before they once again succumb to the ravages of nature and time.

Khmer Civilization & Empire

A View of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most famous of South East Asian Ruins

A View of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most famous of South East Asian Ruins

The country which is today called Cambodia is only a small fraction of the vast Khmer Empire that controlled much of Indo-China from the ninth to the 13th century AD. At its height, the Khmer Empire consisted of today’s Cambodia, Laos, most of southern Vietnam and Thailand, as well as some of the Malay peninsula. From the time of Jayavarman II (c. AD 800 – AD 850) to the mid-15th century, the Khmer Empire was known as the Kingdom of Kambuja, after the legendary first-century founder of the first Cambodian kingdom of Funan, the Indian Brahmin Kambu. It is in this earliest Cambodian kingdom that Cambodian people see their real roots. The English word `Cambodia’ is derived from this name

From around AD 550 to AD 800, the Kingdom of Chenla ruled some of the lands that would become the Khmer Empire. In this text the lands in question will be referred to as Funan and Chenla up to the reign of Jayavarman II. From then on, they will generally be referred to as the Khmer Empire or Kambuja. Cambodia will also be used, referring both to the Khmer empire, and to the smaller kingdom which the French dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The beginning of the Khmer or Angkor civilization takes place during the period from 802 to 1431 A.D. It stretched at its apogee, up to the Thailand-Burma border in the West and Wat Phou of Laos in the North. It appeared that owing to the ancient Khmer rulers, that they strengthened unity between peoples with a good political doctrine and the development of an intelligent irrigation system, which allowed the control water of the Mekong River for agriculture and so began an age of prosperity. This Empire slowly deteriorated during five centuries. But still, the Khmer Civilization left some fabulous and exceptional monuments (like Angkor Wat and Bayon Khmers temples), as well as a numerous sculptures and carvings in stone.

Map Showing the Khmer Empire at its height in the 13th Century

Map Showing the Khmer Empire at its height in the 13th Century

The ancient Khmers were great masters of stone carving and we can see the evidences of this in various Angkor temples that extended on the large plain of Siem Reap up to outside of Cambodian border to the Preah Vihear at Dangrek mountain, Phnomrung and Phimai in Thailand and Wat Phu in Laos. These temples were made up patiently during centuries by Khmer artisans, and the effort to realize such efforts required a tremendous workforce. This was in sharp contradiction with the normal and easy life of the Khmer people and villagers of their time.

For historians and archaeologists, it is not easy to do a detailed study of Khmer civilization. Most of the writing, found after the excavation of Angkor, was carved in the stones, which have deteriorated over centuries. They are important evidence to understanding the basic constituency of Khmer society and its chronology. They relate principally to religious rituals, king’s praises and literature of such Indian epics as the ” Ramayana ” and ” Mahabharata “. There is not much written on the subject of the ordinary life of the local people who made up the bulk of Khmer society.

It is owing to a Chinese Ambassador Zhou Daguan, who lived in the middle of 13th century during the Yuan dynasty , that we have our best accounts of the Khmer Empire. He traveled to Angkor, lived with people and explored the empire during one year. He wrote vividly about the people living in the empire, and his formal accounts do shed some knowledge of this period.

Angkor Wat represented the center of Khmer civilization. It is situated on the plain of Siem Reap province north of the Great Lake of Tonle Sap. All along Khmer history, the throne were often desired by neighboring states, which often resulted in some violent bloodshed. Different successive kings built a different capital, as in the Angkor Wat and Ruolos sector, with some names like Hariharata, Yasodharapura, Jayendanagari, Angkor Thom and a lot of other unknown names among the list of kings.

In the Khmer society, hierarchy was peaked by the God-King, surrounded by Brahmans tutors and the members of his royal family. The priests who lived in the temples were also powerful and controlled their own lands and paddy fields. Often times royal patrons would help the building projects, and many of the names of donors were written in the stones in each temple. Here is where we learn that they were noblemen or high dignitaries responsible for the administrative and judiciary tasks. These writings shed some light on the history of Khmer civilization, but for historians it is still difficult to know a complete list of the Angkor Empire society hierarchy.

The Khmer Civilization economy was based principally on agriculture, the majority of people was farmers or peasants and some of the less wealthy of them was fastened to large landowners or of the temples.

The lowest hierarchy of the Khmer Civilization was reserved for the slaves who belonged at temples. Interestingly their names are the majority of the names inscribed on the stones. Being that their names were kept in a holy place, this has led some historians to think they could not have been the low class slaves as the word ” slave ” implies. It is possible that temples servants and priests were ” Gods slaves ” and not meant to be owned by any human being. Slaves were mostly captured in the neighboring countries, but Khmer people themselves could fall in the lowest status and being a ” slave ” if they failed to pay their rents or loans to the upper ruling class.

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Ankgor Wat Temples

One of the many faced temples in Angkor Wat, depicting the Hindu God Vishnu

One of the many faced temples in Angkor Wat, depicting the Hindu God Vishnu


The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings – palaces, public buildings, and houses – were built of wood and are long since decayed and gone.

Conventional theories presume the lands where Angkor stands were chosen as a settlement site because of their strategic military position and agricultural potential. Alternative scholars, however, believe the geographical location of the Angkor complex and the arrangement of its temples was based on a planet-spanning sacred geography from archaic times. Using computer simulations it has been shown that the ground plan of the Angkor complex – the terrestrial placement of its principal temples – mirrors the stars in the constellation of Draco at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BC. While the date of this astronomical alignment is far earlier than any known construction at Angkor, it appears that its purpose was to architecturally mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonization of the earth and the stars. Both the layout of the Angkor temples and iconographic nature of much its sculpture, particularly the asuras (‘demons’) and devas (‘deities’) are also intended to indicate the celestial phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes and the slow transition from one astrological age to another.

The temples were obscured by dense jungles until rediscovered by Europeans in the 19th Century

The temples were obscured by dense jungles until rediscovered by Europeans in the 19th Century

Angkor Wat, built during the early years of the 12th century by Suryavaram II, honors the Hindu god Vishnu and is a symbolic representation of Hindu cosmology. Consisting of an enormous temple symbolizing the mythic Mt. Meru, its five inter-nested rectangular walls and moats represent chains of mountains and the cosmic ocean. The short dimensions of the vast compound are precisely aligned along a north-south axis, while the east-west axis has been deliberately diverted 0.75 degrees south of east and north of west, seemingly in order to give observers a three day anticipation of the spring equinox.

Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found, preserved as an example of what a tropical forest will do to an architectural monument when the protective hands of humans are withdrawn. Ta Prohm’s walls, roofs, chambers and courtyards have been sufficiently repaired to stop further deterioration, and the inner sanctuary has been cleared of bushes and thick undergrowth, but the temple has been left in the stranglehold of trees. Having planted themselves centuries ago, the tree’s serpentine roots pry apart the ancient stones and their immense trunks straddle the once bustling Buddhist temple. Built in the later part of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm is the terrestrial counterpart of the star Eta Draconis the Draco constellation.

During half-millennia of Khmer occupation, the city of Angkor became a pilgrimage destination of importance throughout Southeastern Asia. Sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned in 1432, Angkor was forgotten for a few centuries. Wandering Buddhist monks, passing through the dense jungles, occasionally came upon the awesome ruins. Recognizing the sacred nature of the temples but ignorant of their origins, they invented fables about the mysterious sanctuaries, saying they had been built by the gods in a far ancient time. Centuries passed, these fables became legends, and pilgrims from the distant reaches of Asia sought out the mystic city of the gods. A few adventurous European travelers knew of the ruins and stories circulated in antiquarian circles of a strange city lost in the jungles. Most people believed the stories to be nothing more than legend however, until the French explorer Henri Mouhot brought Angkor to the world’s attention in 1860. The French people were enchanted with the ancient city and beginning in 1908 funded and superbly managed an extensive restoration project. The restoration has continued to the present day, excepting periods in the 70’s and 80’s when military fighting prevented archaeologists from living near the ruins.

Angkor Thom is a smaller sister complex to Angkor Wat and as only been partly excavated

Angkor Thom is a smaller sister complex to Angkor Wat and as only been partly excavated

Orthodox archaeologists sometimes interpret the temples of the Angkor complex as tombs of megalomaniacal kings yet in reality those kings designed and constructed the temples as a form of service to both god and their own subjects. The temples were places not for the worship of the kings but rather for the worship of god. Precisely aligned with the stars, constructed as vast three dimensional yantras and adorned with stunningly beautiful religious art, the Angkor temples were instruments for assisting humans in their realization of the divine.

Jayavaram VII, spoke of his intentions in erecting temples as being:

“full of deep sympathy for the good of the world, so as to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality….By virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence.”

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Cambodian Religion

Since the ancient time, the Khmers had accepted the two great religions from India, i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism, by which the former one was more popular. Hinduism had played an important role in Khmer civilization as the Angkor monarchs adopted its concept of deva-raja, or “god-king”, by which the king was revered as an incarnation of the god Shiva, a supreme Hindu deity who was regarded as a protector.

Most temples in the Angkor Empire were dedicated to either god Shiva or god Vishnu. Believed to be the holy house of the supreme gods, the temples were carefully built with fine arts, and the materials used are those of everlasting stones. Many impressive sculptures of great craftsmanship were enshrined.

The second religion being revered by the Khmers was Buddhism of Mahayana sect which came into the region quite at same time as Hinduism, however, Buddhism was less prominent.

Both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism played an important role as the political, religious and philosophical pillars of Khmer Civilization by which the king was revered as the god-king or deva-raja. This ideology enabled the king to rule over the country as an absolute monarch with sovereign spirituality over his people, and thus enhanced the unity of the kingdom. Successive kings were able to mobilize large manpower to serve the army, to maintain extensive irrigation system and to build numerous massive temples.

Not until the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism was introduced to the Khmer from Sri Lanka and became more prominent in the royal court as well as in the local people. The teaching of Theravada Buddhism directly crashed with the original belief of the Khmer people as it taught the people to seek self enlightenment and abandoned the worldly things. With this teaching, the attitudes of the people towards its Hindu gods as well as the god-king changed, and thus led to the gradual weakening of the empire which eventually collapsed in the first half of 15th century.

The Khmer people seem to be the obedient students, as they did not raise doubts about the religious teaching of the original doctrines. We can see in Khmer history that the religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism were not divided into the different sub-sects in the land of Khmer, as they were so in some other civilizations.

In addition to Hinduism and Buddhism, the Khmer people also had their own indigenous beliefs such as the local deities, ancestral spirits, as well as the evil spirits. There are no inscriptions or manuscripts to describe these beliefs, however, it can be found to be prevalent in modern Cambodia, especially in the remote villages. These beliefs are passed on from one generation to another through the words of mouth.

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Ancient Khmer Art

This image shows how the carvings were not one stone, but multiple stones pieced carefully together by Khmer artisans

This image shows how the carvings were not one stone, but multiple stones pieced carefully together by Khmer artisans

The idealized faces the sculptors of ancient Cambodia so skilfully managed to draw forth from stone represent strikingly realistic portraits that capture the majesty and impassivity of gods, as well as the compassion of divinities imbued with a gentle inner smile. In their bas-reliefs, these artists devoted their talent not only to depicting the deities, but to realistically reproducing the secular world as well: the temple gallery walls are lined with military processions, raging battles, or simple everyday scenes carved with an amazing sense of movement and composition.

Starting with the first Preangkorean masterpieces – which can be traced from as early as the 6th century AD – and continuing during the Angkorean period from the 9th to the 15th centuries as well as during the Postangkorean period, Khmer stone sculptors looked to religion for inspiration. It is in glorification of their gods or deified kings that the artists, forever condemned to anonymity, created their temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Indeed, their works represent genuine professions of faith and honor with respect to India’s two main religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, introduced to Cambodia during the first centuries of the Christian era.

In the sanctuaries, the statues were sculpted in a contemplative sitting pose or standing upright, and were represented holding out in their hands the attributes by which they could be identified. They were expected to be inhabited by a deity (mainly Shiva and Vishnu, but Buddha too), from whose protection and blessing believers hoped to benefit.

It is the Brahmanist belief that Shiva, god of both regeneration and destruction, incarnates the cosmic order of things. The images of this god – dancing, with one head and two arms, with five heads and ten arms, in the form of a lingam, etc… – translate his complexity. Shivaism remained the most steadfast of Cambodia’s religions during the Preangkorean and Angkorean periods.

Vishnu, the god of preservation, also inspired a major religious movement. Iconographically, he is most often represented as a four-armed god, with at first a cylindrical mitre as headdress and, later, a sort of stone diadem. The discus, conch, mace, and sphere (symbolizing the world) are this god’s emblematic attributes.

In Khmer tradition, Buddha is often depicted in a meditative pose, seated on a base in the form of either a spread out lotus or a serpent whose seven heads fan out above him to afford protection.

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