To the southeast of the original capital a new temple complex, Angkor Wat [Angkor temple], was created under Suryavarman II (r. 1113-50). Planned as a sepulcher and a monument to the divinity of the monarch and measuring about 1 sq mi (2.6 sq km), it is probably the largest religious structure in the world. Surrounded by a vast moat, the carved gray sandstone temple is approached by means of an extensive causeway bordered on either side by balustrades in the form of giant Nagas (divine serpents). This avenue leads to a magnificent entrance gate. The temple proper is reached through three series of galleries separated by paved courts. The middle series has four corner towers; above it, the highest series also has four corner towers and is joined to the central sanctuary by colonnades. Angkor Wat's rising series of towers and courtyards culminate in a 213-ft (65-m) lotus blossom-shaped central tower. The whole mass has been interpreted as representing the Hindu cosmos.
The architecture of Angkor Wat, derived from the stupa form, is enormously impressive, but the most remarkable feature of the temple compound is its sculptural ornament, covering thousands of feet of wall space. The decoration is in the form of low relief of impeccable craftsmanship, illustrating scenes from the legends of Vishnu and Krishna, with some historical events from the life of the king. More delicate in proportions than their Indian prototypes, many of the figures bear a resemblance to modern Cambodian dancers in their elegance of gesture and stateliness of pose. In 1177 Angkor was sacked by the Chams, and Angkor Wat fell into ruins.
Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-c.1218) established a new capital, Angkor Thom [the great Angkor], north of Phnom Bak Kheng. The buildings of an already existing city were used as residential palaces and governmental buildings; an excellent system of moats and canals was constructed. At the four entrances of the capital, there are gateways; they open onto four avenues that meet at the Bayon, the temple in the center of the city. Before each gateway is a bridge decorated with a balustrade in the shape of a giant Naga, supported on each side by 27 carved figures. Above the gates are carved imposing stone faces, generally thought to symbolize the Bodhisattva Lokesvara.
Jayavarman VII erected the Bayon as a Buddhist sanctuary, but it underwent alterations during a later Hindu period. The central tower bears a giant image of Buddha, which has been interpreted as the incarnation of Jayavarman VII. Surrounding the main structure is a forest of more than 50 smaller towers studded with multiple heads of the king as a Buddhist god. The buildings are covered with elaborate decoration, more spontaneously and realistically rendered than that at Angkor Wat and again illustrating historical episodes from the king's life.
Angkor was raided in the 14th and 15th cent. by the Thai, and was abandoned for Phnom Penh in 1434. Overgrown by the jungle, the ruins were discovered by the French in 1861. Many of the monuments were subsequently restored to their former glory; restoration has been ongoing. The Indian government embarked on a restoration program in 1986, and in 1992 the complex was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nonethless, many of the structures at Angkor remain in jungle-choked ruins, and some are inaccessible due to unexploded land mines left over from the fighting of the late 20th cent.
See M. Giteau, Khmer Sculpture and the Angkor Civilization (1966); B. Groslier and J. Arthaud, The Arts and Civilization of Angkor (rev. ed. 1966); J. Myrdal and G. Kessle, Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism (1971); J. Audric, Angkor and the Khmer Empire (1972); E. F. Gardner, ed., Angkor (1986); E. Mannikka, Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship (1996); H. I. Jessup and T. Zephir, ed., Sculpture of Ankor and Ancient Cambodia (1997); D. Rooney, Angkor: An Introduction to the Temples (1998); C. Jacques, Angkor: Cities and Temples (1998) and Angkor (1999).
Angkor is a name conventionally applied to the region of Cambodia serving as the seat of the Khmer empire that flourished from approximately the 9th century to the 15th century A.D. (The word "Angkor" itself is derived from the Sanskrit "nagara," meaning "city.") More precisely, the Angkorian period may be defined as the period from 802 A.D., when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman II declared himself the "universal monarch" and "god-king" of Cambodia, until 1431 A.D., when Thai invaders sacked the Khmer capital, causing its population to migrate south to the area of Phnom Penh.
The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills, near modern day Siem Reap (13°24'N, 103°51'E), and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.
In 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world with an urban sprawl of 3000 square kilometres. The closest rival to Angkor, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala, was between 100 and 150 square kilometres in total size. Angkor could have supported a population of up to one million people.
The Angkorian period may be said to have begun shortly after 800 A.D., when the Khmer King Jayavarman II announced the independence of Kambujadesa (Cambodia) from Java and established his capital of Hariharalaya (now known as "Roluos") at the northern end of Tonle Sap. Through a program of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, he achieved a unification of the country bordered by China (to the north), Champa (now Central Vietnam, to the east), the ocean (to the south) and a place identified by a stone inscription as "the land of cardamoms and mangoes" (to the west). In 802 Jayavarman articulated his new status by declaring himself "universal monarch" (chakravartin), and, in a move that was to be imitated by his successors and that linked him to the cult of Siva, taking on the epithet of "god-king" (devaraja). Before Jayavarman's tour de force, Cambodia had consisted in a number of politically independent principalities collectively known to the Chinese by the names Funan and Chenla.
In 889 CE, Yasovarman I ascended to the throne. A great king and an accomplished builder, he was celebrated by one inscription as "a lion-man; he tore the enemy with the claws of his grandeur; his teeth were his policies; his eyes were the Veda. Near the old capital of Hariharalaya, Yasovarman constructed a new city called Yasodharapura. In the tradition of his predecessors, he constructed also a massive reservoir called a baray. The significance of such reservoirs has been debated by modern scholars, some of whom have seen in them a means of irrigating rice fields, and others of whom have regarded them as religiously charged symbols of the great mythological oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. The mountain, in turn, was represented by an elevated temple, in which the "god-king" was represented by a lingam. In accordance with this cosmic symbolism, Yasovarman built his central temple on a low hill known as Phnom Bakheng, surrounding it with a moat fed from the baray. He also built numerous other Hindu temples and ashramas, or retreats for ascetics.
Over the next 300 years, between 900 and 1200 CE, the Khmer empire produced some of the world's most magnificent architectural masterpieces in the area known as Angkor. Most are concentrated in an area approximately 15 miles east to west and 5 miles north to south, although the Angkor Archaeological Park which administers the area includes sites as far away as Kbal Spean, about 30 miles to the north. Some 72 major temples or other buildings dot the area. The medieval settlement around the temple complex was approximately 3,000 km² (1,150 square miles), roughly the size of modern Los Angeles. This makes it the largest pre-industrial complex of its type, easily surpassing the nearest claim, that of the Maya city of Tikal.
The principal temple of the Angkorian region, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. Suryavarman ascended to the throne after prevailing in a battle with a rival prince. An inscription says that in the course of combat, Suryavarman lept onto his rival's war elephant and killed him, just as the mythical bird-man Garuda slays a serpent.
After consolidating his political position through military campaigns, diplomacy, and a firm domestic administration, Suryavarman launched into the construction of Angkor Wat as his personal temple mausoleum. Breaking with the tradition of the Khmer kings, and influenced perhaps by the concurrent rise of Vaisnavism in India, he dedicated the temple to Vishnu rather than to Siva. With walls nearly one-half mile long on each side, Angkor Wat grandly portrays the Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond. The traditional theme of identifying the Cambodian devaraja with the gods, and his residence with that of the celestials, is very much in evidence. The measurements themselves of the temple and its parts in relation to one another have cosmological significance. Suryavarman had the walls of the temple decorated with bas reliefs depicting not only scenes from mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. In one of the scenes, the king himself is portrayed as larger in size than his subjects, sitting cross legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while a bevy of attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasols and fans.
Following the death of Suryavarman around 1150 A.D., the kingdom fell into a period of internal strife. Its neighbors to the east, the Cham of what is now southern Vietnam, took advantage of the situation in 1177 to launch a seaborne invasion up the Mekong River and across Tonle Sap. The Cham forces were successful in sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and in killing the reigning king. However, a Khmer prince who was to become King Jayavarman VII rallied his people and defeated the Cham in battles on the lake and on the land. In 1181, Jayavarman assumed the throne. He was to be the greatest of the Angkorian kings. Over the ruins of Yasodharapura, Jayavarman constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom, as well as its geographic and spiritual center, the temple known as the Bayon. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict not only the king's battles with the Cham, but also scenes from the life of Khmer villagers and courtiers. In addition, Jayavarman constructed the well-known temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, dedicating them to his parents. This massive program of construction coincided with a transition in the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, since Jayavarman himself had adopted the latter as his personal faith. During Jayavarman's reign, Hindu temples were altered to display images of the Buddha, and Angkor Wat briefly became a Buddhist shrine. Following his death, a Hindu revival included a large-scale campaign of desecrating Buddhist images, until Theravada Buddhism became established as the land's dominant religion from the 14th century.
The year 1296 marked the arrival at Angkor of the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan. Zhou's one-year sojourn in the Khmer capital during the reign of King Indravarman III is historically significant, because he penned a still-surviving account of approximately 40 pages detailing his observations of Khmer society. Some of the topics he addressed in the account were those of religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, clothing, tools, draft animals, and commerce. In one passage, he described a royal procession consisting of soldiers, numerous servant women and concubines, ministers and princes, and finally "the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand." Together with the inscriptions that have been found on Angkorian stelas, temples and other monuments, and together with the bas-reliefs at the Bayon and Angkor Wat, Zhou's journal is our most significant source of information about everyday life at Angkor. Filled as it is with vivid anecdotes and sometimes incredulous observations of a civilization that struck Zhou as colorful and exotic, it is an entertaining travel memoire as well.
The end of the Angkorian period is generally set at 1431 A.D., the year Angkor was sacked and looted by Thai invaders, though the civilization already had been in decline in the 13th and 14th centuries. In the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine. Several theories have been advanced to account for the decline and abandonment of Angkor.
The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began a long restoration process. From 1907 to 1970 work was under the direction of the École française d'Extrême-Orient, which cleared away the forest, repaired foundations, and installed drains to protect the buildings from water damage. In addition, scholars associated with the school and including George Coedès, Maurice Glaize, Paul Mus, Philippe Stern and others initiated a program of historical scholarship and interpretation that is fundamental to the current understanding of Angkor.
Work resumed after the end of the Cambodia civil war, and since 1993 has been jointly co-ordinated by the French and Japanese and UNESCO through the International Co-ordinating Committee on the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), while Cambodian work is carried out by the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), created in 1995. Some temples have been carefully taken apart stone by stone and reassembled on concrete foundations, in accordance with the method of anastylosis. World Monuments Fund has aided Preah Khan, the Churning of the Sea of Milk (a 49-meter-long bas-relief frieze in Angkor Wat), Ta Som, and Phnom Bakheng. International tourism to Angkor has increased significantly in recent years, with visitor numbers reaching 900,000 in 2006; this poses additional conservation problems but has also provided financial assistance to restoration.
Historical Angkor was more than a site for religious art and architecture. It was the site of vast cities that responded to all the needs of a people, not only to specifically religious needs. Aside from a few old bridges, however, all of the remaining monuments are religious edifices. In Angkorian times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king himself, were constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, "because only the gods had a right to residences made of stone. Similarly, the vast majority of the surviving stone inscriptions are about the religious foundations of kings and other potentates. As a result, it is easier to write the history of Angkorian state religion than it is to write that of just about any other aspect of Angkorian society.
Several religious movements contributed to the historical development of religion at Angkor:
The religion of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, known to the Chinese as Funan (first century A.D. to ca. 550) and Chenla (ca. 550 - ca.800 A.D.), included elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous ancestor cults.
Temples from the period of Chenla bear stone inscriptions, in both Sanskrit and Khmer, naming both Hindu and local ancestral deities, with Shiva supreme among the former. The cult of Harihara was prominent; Buddhism was not, because, as reported by the Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing, a "wicked king" had destroyed it. Characteristic of the religion of Chenla also was the cult of the lingam, or stone phallus that patronized and guaranteed fertility to the community in which it was located.
The Khmer king Jayavarman II, whose assumption of power around 800 A.D. marks the beginning of the Angkorian period, established his capital at a place called Hariharalaya (today known as Roluos), at the northern end of the great lake, Tonle Sap. Harihara is the name of a deity that combines the essence of Vishnu (Hari) with that of Shiva (Hara) and that was much favored by the Khmer kings. Jayavarman II’s adoption of the epithet "devaraja" (god-king) signified the monarch's special connection with Shiva.
The beginning of the Angkorian period was also marked by changes in religious architecture. During the reign of Jayavarman II, the single-chambered sanctuaries typical of Chenla gave way to temples constructed as a series of raised platforms bearing multiple towers. Increasingly impressive temple pyramids came to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the moats surrounding the temples representing the mythological oceans.
Typically, a lingam served as the central religious image of the Angkorian temple-mountain. The temple-mountain was the center of the city, and the lingam in the main sanctuary was the focus of the temple. The name of the central lingam was the name of the king himself, combined with the suffix "-esvara" which designated Shiva. Through the worship of the lingam, the king was identified with Shiva, and Shaivism became the state religion. Thus, an inscription dated 881 A.D. indicates that king Indravarman I erected a lingam named "Indresvara. Another inscription tells us that Indravarman erected eight lingams in his courts, and that they were named for the "eight elements of Shiva. Similarly, Rajendravarman, whose reign began in 944 A.D., constructed the temple of Pre Rup, the central tower of which housed the royal lingam called "Rajendrabhadresvara.
In the early days of Angkor, the worship of Vishnu was secondary to that of Shiva. The relationship seems to have changed with the construction of Angkor Wat by King Suryavarman II as his personal mausoluem at the beginning of the 12th century A.D. The central religious image of Angkor Wat was an image of Vishnu, and an inscription identifies Suryavarman as "Paramavishnuloka," or "he who enters the heavenly world of Vishnu. Religious syncretism, however, remained thoroughgoing in Khmer society: the state religion of Shaivism was not necessarily abrogated by Suryavarman's turn to Vishnu, and the temple may well have housed a royal lingam. Furthermore, the turn to Vaishnavism did not abrogate the royal personality cult of Angkor by which the reigning king was identified with the deity. According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, "Angkor Wat is, if you like, a vaishnavite sanctuary, but the Vishnu venerated there was not the ancient Hindu deity nor even one of the deity's traditional incarnations, but the king Suryavarman II posthumously identified with Vishnu, consubstantial with him, residing in a mausoleum decorated with the graceful figures of apsaras just like Vishnu in his celestial palace. Suryavarman proclaimed his identity with Vishnu, just as his predecessors had claimed consubstantiality with Shiva.
In the last quarter of the 12th century, King Jayavarman VII departed radically from the tradition of his predecessors when he adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. Jayavarman also made Buddhism the state religion of his kingdom when he constructed the Buddhist temple known as the Bayon at the heart of his new capital city of Angkor Thom. In the famous face towers of the Bayon, the king represented himself as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara moved by compassion for his subjects. Thus, Jayavarman was able to perpetuate the royal personality cult of Angkor, while identifying the divine component of the cult with the bodhisattva rather than with Shiva.
The Hindu restoration began around 1243 A.D., with the death of Jayavarman VII’s successor Indravarman II. The next king Jayavarman VIII was a Shaivite iconoclast who specialized in destroying Buddhist images and in reestablishing the Hindu shrines that his illustrious predecessor had converted to Buddhism. During the restoration, the Bayon was made a temple to Shiva, and its image of the Buddha was cast to the bottom of a well. Everywhere, cultic statues of the Buddha were replaced by lingams.
When Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan came to Angkor in A.D. 1296, he found what he took to be three separate religious groups. The dominant religion was that of Theravada Buddhism. Zhou observed that the monks had shaven heads and wore yellow robes. The Buddhist temples impressed Zhou with their simplicity. He noted that the images of Buddha were made of gilded plaster. The other two groups identified by Zhou appear to have been those of the Brahmans and of the Shaivites (lingam worshippers). About the Brahmans Zhou had little to say, except that they were often employed as high officials. Of the Shaivites, whom he called "Taoists," Zhou wrote, "the only image which they revere is a block of stone analogous to the stone found in shrines of the god of the soil in China.
In the course of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism coming from Siam (Thailand) made its appearance at Angkor. Gradually it became the dominant religion of Cambodia, displacing both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivism. The practice of Theravada Buddhism at Angkor continues until this day.