Sunday, September 2, 2007

Khmer Empire

The Khmer Empire was the largest continuous empire of South East Asia, based in what is now Cambodia. The empire, which seceded from the kingdom of Chenla, at times ruled over or vassalised parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. During the formation of the empire, the empire had intensive cultural, political, and trade relations with Java, and later with the Srivijaya empire that lay beyond the Khmer state's southern border. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, which was the capital during the empire's zenith. Angkor bears testimony to the Khmer empire's immense power and wealth, and the variety of belief systems that it patronised over time. The empire's official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, until Theravada Buddhism prevailed after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. Satellite imaging reveals Angkor to have been the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world, larger than modern-day New York.
The history of Angkor as the central area of settlement of the historical kingdom of Kambuja is also the history of the Khmer people from the 9th to the 15th centuries.
From Kambuja itself - and so also from the Angkor region - no written records have survived other than stone inscriptions. Therefore the current knowledge of the historical Khmer civilization is derived primarily from:
archaeological excavation, reconstruction and investigation
inscriptions on stela and on stones in the temples, which report on the political and religious deeds of the kings
reliefs in a series of temple walls with depictions of military marches, life in the palace, market scenes and the everyday lives of the population
reports and chronicles of Chinese diplomats, traders and travellers.
The era of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor started around 800 A. D., when King Jayavarman II married into a local ruling family of that place.


Jayavarman II - the founder of Khmer Empire
Jayavarman II (reigned AD 802 to 850), lived as a prince at the court of Sailendra dynasty in Java (Indonesia), whether he lived there as a prisoner or for his education (or both) has not yet been established. He was probably influenced by the refined art and culture of Javan Sailendra, including adoption of the concept of divine Dewa-Raja (God-King) which was prominent during the Sailendra dynasty. In 802 he returned to Cambodia and declared himself the God-King Jayavarman II and declared full independence from Java. This record has given rise to speculation that Cambodia might have been the dependent vassal of Java for some years before the reign of Jayavarman II.
There is speculation that
Jayavarman II was probably linked to a legendary king called Jayavarman Ibis, known from the inscriptions K. 103 (dated 20th April 770) and K. 134 (dated 781) who finally settled in the Angkor region, marrying into a local ruling family, what can be corroborated by the inscriptions of Preah Ko (K. 713, dated Monday, 25th January 880), Bakong (K. 826, dated 881/82) and Lolei (K. 324, dated Sunday, 8th July 893). All other information about this king, including the date of his accession, is late and legendary, taken mainly from the Sdok Kak Thom inscription (K. 235, dated 8th February 1053.

Yasodharapura - the first city of Khmer Empire
Jayavarman II's first three successors were also only known from the inscriptions.
Indravarman I (reigned A.D. 877 - 889) managed to expand the kingdom without wars, and he began extensive building projects, thanks to the wealth gained through trade and agriculture. Foremost were the temple of Preah Ko, dedicated on Monday, 25th January 880 and irrigation works. He was followed by his son Yasovarman I (reigned A.D. 889 - c. 910), who established a new capital, Yasodharapura - the first city of Angkor.
The city's central temple was built on
Phnom Bakheng (Sanskrit: Hemadri), a hill which rises around 60 m above the plain on which Angkor sits. Under Yasovarman I the East Baray was also created, a massive water reservoir measuring roughly 7.5 by 1.8 km.

A 12 or 13th century relief at the Bayon temple in Angkor depicts the Khmer army going to war against the Cham.
At the beginning of the 10th century the kingdom split. Jayavarman IV established a new capital at
Koh Ker, some 100 km northeast of Angkor. Only with Rajendravarman II (reigned A.D. 944 - 968) was the royal palace returned to Yasodharapura. He took up again the extensive building schemes of the earlier kings and established a series of temples in the Angkor area, notably Pre Rup and the East Mebon, on an island in the middle of the East Baray (dedicated on the 28th January 953), and several Buddhist temples and monasteries. In 950 the first war took place between Kambuja and the kingdom of Champa to the east (in the modern central Vietnam).
From A.D. 968 to c. 1001 the son of Rajendravarman II,
Jayavarman V, reigned. After he had established himself as the new king over the other princes, his rule was a largely peaceful period, marked by prosperity and cultural flowering. He established a new capital near Yashodharapura, Jayenanagari. At the court of Jayavarman V lived philosophers, scholars and artists. New temples were also established: the most important of these are Banteay Srei, considered one of the most beautiful and artistic of Angkor, and Ta Keo, the first temple of Angkor built completely of sandstone.
After the death of Jayavarman V, a decade of conflict followed. Kings reigned only for a few years, and were successively violently replaced by their successors until eventually
Suryavarman I (reigned A.D. 1002 - 1049) gained the throne after a long war against his rival king Jayaviravarman (A.D. 1002 - c. 1017). His rule was marked by repeated attempts by his opponents to overthrow him and by military conquests. In the west he extended the kingdom to the modern city of Lopburi in Thailand, in the south to the Kra Isthmus. At Angkor, construction of the West Baray began under Suryavarman I, the second and even larger {8 by 2.2 km) water reservoir after the Eastern Baray.

Suryavarman II
11th century was a time of conflict and brutal power struggles. Only with Suryavarman II (reigned 1113 - after 1145) was the kingdom united internally and extended externally. As this king was a staunch Saivite, it seems impossible that he was the builder of the temple of Angkor Wat (Sanskrit: Vishnuloka) because it was dedicated to the god Vishnu. Suryavarman II conquered the Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya to the west (in today's central Thailand), and the area further west to the border with the kingdom of Bagan (modern Burma), in the south further parts of the Malay peninsula down to the kingdom of Grahi (corresponding roughly to the modern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, in the east several provinces of Champa and the countries in the north as far as the southern border of modern Laos. Suryavarman II's end is unclear. The last inscription, which mentions his name in connection with a planned invasion of Vietnam, is dated Wednesday, 17th October 1145. He probably died during a military expedition between 1145 and 1150, which weakened the kingdom considerably.
There followed another period of disturbances in which kings reigned briefly and were violently overthrown by rebellions or wars. Finally in 1177 Kambuja was defeated in a naval battle on the Tonle Sap lake by the army of the Chams, and was incorporated as a province of Champa.

Jayavarman VII - Angkor Thom

French map of Cambodia under Jayavarman VII.
The future king
Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-after 1206) was already a military leader as prince under previous kings. After the Cham had conquered Angkor, he gathered an army and regained the capital, Yasodharapura. In 1181 he ascended the throne and continued the war against the neighbouring eastern kingdom for a further 22 years, until the Khmer defeated Champa in 1203 and conquered large parts of its territory. Jayavarman VII stands as the last of the great kings of Angkor, not only because of the successful war against the Cham, but also because he was no tyrannical ruler in the manner of his immediate predecessors, because he unified the empire, and above all because of the building projects carried out under his rule. The new capital now called Angkor Thom (literally: "Great City") was built. In the centre, the king (himself a follower of Mahayana Buddhism) had constructed as the state temple the Bayon, with its towers bearing faces which very often wrongly were identified with those of the boddhisattva Lokeshvara (Avalokiteshvara); They are each several metres high, carved out of stone. Further important temples built under Jayavarman VII were Ta Prohm (Rājavihāra), Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean, and the reservoir of Srah Srang. Alongside, an extensive network of streets was laid down, which connected every town of the empire. Beside these streets 121 rest-houses were built for traders, officials and travellers. Not least of all, he established 102 hospitals.

Zhou Daguan - the last blooming
The history of the kingdom after Jayavarman VII is very unclear. In the year 1220 the Khmer withdrew from many of the provinces previously conquered from
Champa. One of the successors of Jayavarman VII, Indravarman II, died in 1243. In the west, his Thai subjects rebelled, established the first Thai kingdom at Sukhothai and pushed back the Khmer. In the following 200 years, the Thais would become the chief rivals of Kambuja. Indravarman II was probably succeeded by Jayavarman VIII (reigned 1243 or 1267 - 1295). During the dark 13th century also most of the Buddha statues in the empire (archaeologists estimate the number at over 10,000, of which few traces remain) were destroyed and converted Buddhist temples to Hindu temples. In the same period the construction of the Angkor Wat probably took place, built by a king of whom only his posthumous name Paramavishnuloka is known. From the outside, the empire was threatened in 1283 by the Mongols under Kublai Khan's general Sagatu. The king avoided war with his powerful opponent, who at this time ruled over all China, by paying annual tribute to him. Jayavarman VIII's rule ended in 1295 when he was deposed by his son-in-law Srindravarman (reigned 1295-1308). The new king was a follower of Theravada Buddhism, a school of Buddhism which had arrived in southeast Asia from Sri Lanka and subsequently spread through most of the region.
In August of
1296, the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan arrived at Angkor, and remained at the court of King Srindravarman until July 1297. He was neither the first nor the last Chinese representative to visit Kambuja. However, his stay is notable because Zhou Daguan later wrote a detailed report on life in Angkor. His portrayal is today one of the most important sources of understanding of historical Angkor. Alongside descriptions of several great temples (the Bayon, the Baphuon, Angkor Wat), for which we have him to thank for the knowledge that the towers of the Bayon were once covered in gold), the text also offers valuable information on the everyday life and the habits of the inhabitants of Angkor.

Decline and the end of the Angkorean Empire
There are few historical records from the time following Srindravarman's reign. There is only an inscription on a pillar which mentioned the accession of a king in the year
1327 or 1267. No further large temples were established. Historians suspect a connection with the kings' adoption of Theravada Buddhism: there was no need to erect huge temples to them, or rather to the gods under whose protection they stood. The western neighbour of the Empire, the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, was conquered by another Thai kingdom, Ayutthaya, in 1350. After 1352 there were several assaults on Kambuja, although these were repelled. In 1431, however, the superiority of Ayutthaya was too great, and, according the Thai chronicles, the Thai army conquered Angkor.
The centre of the residual Khmer kingdom was in the south, in the region of today's
Phnom Penh. However, there are indications that Angkor was not completely abandoned. One line of Khmer kings would have remained there, while a second moved to Phnom Penh to establish a parallel kingdom. The final fall of Angkor would then be due to the transfer of economic - and therewith political - significance, as Phnom Penh became an important trade centre on the Mekong. Costly construction projects and conflicts over power between the royal family sealed the end of the Khmer empire.
The nature of the massive water reservoirs or
baray surrounding the temples at Angkor has been a major issue of controversy for decades among scholars. Some believe that the baray were central to the Angkorean economy because they were used to store water to secure a steady supply of water to irrigate rice fields. Thus the baray were vital to sustaining the population of Angkor. When the baray became full of silt due to poor maintenance, the population at Angkor could no longer be sustained which eventually led to the abandonment of the temple site at Angkor in favour of Phnom Penh and the decline of the Angkorean Empire. This theory is known as the hydraulic paradigm. However, recent research by W. J. Van Liere and Robert Acker suggests that the baray could not have been used for large scale irrigation. Some researchers, including Milton Osborne, has suggested that the baray may have been symbolic in nature, representing the ocean surrounding Mount Meru thus fulfilling the Hindu mythological cosmos which the Khmer God Kings attempted to recreate on earth as a sign of their relationship with the Hindu gods.
Research continues in favour of confirming and rejecting the
hydraulic paradigm. One such research project is The Greater Angkor Project [1]. Researchers working on this project believe that the Khmer had an elaborate system of reservoirs and canals used for trade, travel and irrigation. The canals were used for the harvesting of rice. As the population grew there was more strain on the water system. Failures include water shortage and flooding. To adapt to the growing population, trees were cut down from the Kulen hills and cleared out for more rice fields. That created rain runoff carrying sediment to the canal network. Any damage to the water system would have enormous consequences. 1
In any event, there is evidence for a further period of use for Angkor Wat. King Ang Chand (reigned 1530-1566 ordered the covering of two hitherto unfilled galleries of that temple with scenes from the Ramayana. Under the rule of king Barom Reachea I (reigned 1566 - 1576), who temporarily succeeded in driving back the Thai, the royal court was briefly returned to Angkor. From the 17th century there are inscriptions which testify to Japanese settlements alongside those of the remaining Khmer. The best-known tells of Ukondafu Kazufusa, who celebrated the Khmer New Year there in 1632.

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