Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

8.5: Khmer Empire (802 CE – 1431 CE)

  • Page ID
    220002
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Introduction

    At its height, the Khmer Empire (8.5.1) held power over much of Southeast Asia, spanning present-day Cambodia, Laos, southern Vietnam, and Thailand along the mighty Mekong River, which ranks as the seventh longest river globally. The Khmer civilization flourished from 802 CE to 1431 CE, with Hinduism and Buddhism as the principal faiths. Angkor Thom, the Khmer Empire's capital, is believed to have been among the world's most populous cities, with a staggering one million inhabitants. The country was partitioned into roughly twenty-three provinces, and its government system was complex, featuring various levels of local administration. The Khmer employed Angkor as a strategic base to invade neighboring lands and quell rebellious nobles who sought to overthrow the regime.

    Map of South East Asia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Khmer Civilization Map (CC0)

    The Khmer people were known for their exceptional architectural skills, which allowed them to build massive and awe-inspiring temples, reservoirs, canals, and roadways throughout the region. They even constructed large bridges to span the rivers, which helped facilitate trade and commerce. One of their most grand and impressive structures was the Angkor Wat, a religious complex built by Suryavarman II in 1122 CE. This magnificent temple took a remarkable 30 years to complete and is considered one of the most significant religious monuments in the world. Jayavarman VII, another famous Khmer king, was highly regarded for his many contributions to the kingdom. He built the Angkor Thom complex, which served as the capital city of the Khmer Empire. Additionally, he developed an extensive network of roads that connected all the towns, making it easier for people to travel and move about. To further facilitate travel, he added housing for travelers and traders to stay in when they moved about the empire. Jayavarman VII also made significant contributions to the healthcare system of the kingdom. He developed 102 hospitals throughout the region, staffed by well-trained medical professionals who provided free medical care to all those in need.[1] His commitment to public health and welfare earned him the nickname "the king with a golden heart." Overall, the Khmer people left a lasting legacy of impressive engineering and architectural feats that continue to inspire and amaze people around the world to this day.

    Angkor Thom

    Angkor Thom is not solely a temple dedicated to a Hindu deity like Angkor Wat. Rather, it is the title given to one of the most remarkable royal cities of the Angkor Period (9th-15th centuries), known for its exceptional urban planning. At its zenith, the Angkor Empire (also referred to as the Khmer Empire) had dominion over a substantial area of present-day mainland Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the epicenter of its influence remained in Angkor, which is currently located in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

    Angkor Wat is a magnificent temple complex (8.5.2) that was meticulously designed to reflect both Hindu cosmology and Khmer architectural principles. The massive rectangular moat surrounding the complex, which measures approximately 1.5 kilometers by 1.3 kilometers, represents the cosmic ocean that surrounds Mount Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods.

    "The summit of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point of the earth's; it is also the earth's navel, the point of which the Creation began."[2]

    There are four causeways on each side of the outer enclosure leading to the main entrance pavilion of the temple, which faces west, an uncommon direction for Hindu temples. This is because it aligns with the westward-facing entrance of the earlier temple complex on which Angkor Wat was built. The central sanctuary, towering at the heart of Angkor Wat, symbolizes Mount Meru and is surrounded by concentric galleries and enclosures, each with its own symbolic significance. The temple's pyramid-like structure is formed by three rectangular galleries rising above each other, adorned with intricate bas-reliefs that depict various Hindu mythological scenes, including those from the Mahabharata and Ramayana.[3]

    The highest point of Angkor Wat is its central tower, rising to about 65 meters and surrounded by four smaller towers, creating a quincunx pattern. It is believed to represent Mount Meru's peak, the abode of the gods. Beyond the central sanctuary, there are several smaller structures, libraries, pavilions, and courtyards within the temple complex, which served varying ceremonial and administrative functions during the temple's active use. Angkor Wat's grand scale, precise orientation, and intricate symbolic features make it one of the most remarkable examples of ancient temple architecture worldwide, reflecting Khmer architectural and religious ideals.

    Mao of Angkor Tom and buildings
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Angkor Wat Map (Public Domain)

    Angkor Wat, a testament to the Khmer's architectural prowess, was meticulously designed to embody Hindu cosmology and Khmer architectural principles. The expansive rectangular moat, spanning approximately 1.5 kilometers by 1.3 kilometers, mirrors the cosmic ocean enveloping Mount Meru, the mythical abode of Hindu deities. Four causeways, each on one side of the outer enclosure, lead to the temple's main entrance pavilion, facing west, a unique feature among Hindu temples. This alignment is a nod to the westward-facing entrance of the earlier temple complex, on which Angkor Wat was built, showcasing the Khmer's reverence for their architectural heritage.

    The central sanctuary, towering at the heart of Angkor Wat 98.5.3), symbolizes Mount Meru and is surrounded by concentric galleries and enclosures, each with its own symbolic significance. The temple's pyramid-like structure is formed by three rectangular galleries rising above each other, adorned with intricate bas-reliefs that depict various Hindu mythological scenes, including those from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The highest point of Angkor Wat is its central tower, rising to about 65 meters and surrounded by four smaller towers, creating a quincunx pattern. It is believed to represent Mount Meru's peak, the abode of the gods. Beyond the central sanctuary, there are several smaller structures, libraries, pavilions, and courtyards within the temple complex, which served varying ceremonial and administrative functions during the temple's active use. Angkor Wat's grand scale, precise orientation, and intricate symbolic features make it one of the most remarkable examples of ancient temple architecture worldwide, reflecting Khmer architectural and religious ideals.

    large stone temple with a mot in front
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Angkor Wat (stoicvikingCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The Khmer civilization was renowned for its exceptional reverence of women. The temples erected by the Khmers were adorned with depictions of respected women, referred to as devata (8.5.4), apsara, or Khmer goddesses, who symbolized the feminine energies of the cosmos. While the practice of utilizing women and goddesses as icons is widespread across several ancient and contemporary societies, the Khmers set themselves apart by endowing these venerated women a significant role in their state temples, more prominently and consistently than any other civilization. Adorned with intricate headdresses and ornate costumes, the pair of bas-relief carved devatas offer a captivating insight into the lavish appearance of female dancers and other members of the classic royal court. The headdresses, crafted with meticulous attention to detail, feature an array of precious stones, intricate patterns, and delicate embellishments. The costumes, adorned with intricate embroidery and intricate designs, demonstrate the opulence and grandeur of the royal court. 

    two stone carve women on a wall
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Siem Reap K - Angkor wat relief 02 (Daniel MennerichCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Angkor Wat

    Workers strive to save the temples of the Angkor World Heritage site.

     

    Bayon Temple  

    Bayon Temple (8.5.5) was built in the 13th century and is located in the heart of the walled city of Angkor Thom. The temple's structure appears to rise like a mountain from the ground behind the city walls, and the design was intended to mirror the shape of the Buddhist cosmic mountain, Mt. Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The Temple was erected as a tribute to the many gods of the Khmer Empire and was the final state temple built in Angkor Thom. Its construction was a crucial component of a vast building initiative that included walls, bridges, and other structures to support the city.

    The temple is known for its exquisite bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Khmer history and mythology and the smiling faces adorning the towers. In total, there are 54 towers at Bayon Temple, with each tower featuring four faces believed to represent the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or the king who commissioned the temple, Jayavarman VII. 

    large temple with carve pillars and faces
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Temple ruins of the Bayon ( UweBKKCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The Bayon is a stunning sanctuary that boasts towers and pavilions adorned with sculptures of smiling faces. These face-towers (8.5.6), positioned at varying heights, form a majestic mountain-like structure that serves as a reminder of the Bayon's representation of Mt. Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe. Presently, only 37 face-towers remain in the third level, although it is believed that there were originally 49. However, some experts like Olivier Cunin argue that the number was actually 59.[4] Even though the exact number of face-towers remains a mystery, the identity of the enigmatic smiling faces has puzzled scholars for more than a century.

    Numerous theories have been put forth by scholars regarding the identities of the imposing stone faces that greet visitors at the entryways of Angkor Thom and Bayon. Some posit that they portray the Mahayana bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, while others suggest that they depict the Tantric Buddha Vajrasattva or the Hindu deities Brahma and Shiva. Nevertheless, the lack of definitive iconography and our limited comprehension of the distinctive Buddhist customs of King Jayavarman VII render it challenging to ascertain the genuine identity of these enigmatic countenances.

    The architectural structures known as face-towers typically possess four sides, each facing a different cardinal direction; however, a few of the towers situated in Bayon are constructed with only three faces. The faces themselves are uniform in appearance, featuring wide smiles and open eyes. The figure portrayed wears a crown with an intricate filigree design and elongated earlobes bedecked with inverted lotus jeweled earrings. Because there is no distinct iconography, such as the Buddha's cranial protuberance or Shiva's third eye, scholars have examined the multiple faces for clues to the figure's identity. Initially, the figure was associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a deity in Mahayana Buddhism known for having many faces.[5]However, the faces have also been linked to Brahma, the multi-faced Hindu deity who is considered to be the Creator of the Universe and who rules over Mt. Meru.

    stacked stone carved faces
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Angkor Wat Bayon faces (Ramon BoersbroekCC BY-NC 2.0)

    The elongated temple faces east along an east-west axis in a square, and the city and temple combination covers an area of nine square kilometers, more significant than the Angkor Wat temple. The temple itself does not have walls because the city was enclosed like a fortress, along the roadway into the temple, faces of the gods stand guard. There are three enclosures or galleries in the lower and upper terraces. The outer walls of the galleries have extensive bas-reliefs illustrating musicians, horsemen, elephants, battles, and processions. The temple contains two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, a combination of mythological, ordinary, and historical scenes relating stories of businesspeople, friends drinking and dancing, elephants pulling carts, people picking fruit from trees or farming, scenes of everyday life. 

    The central tower was first made in the cruciform but later converted to a circular design. At the heart of the central tower is a 3.6-meter statue of Buddha, the flared hood of the serpent king guarding the statue of Buddha. At some point, the statue was removed and later found at the bottom of a well.  When it was recovered and pieced back together, it has been restored to its proper location. The temple has undergone many changes based on the government in charge and their current religious beliefs. The faces can also be seen from the interior walkways (8.5.8) of the temple. 

    The decorating the thirty-seven massive towers, the temple is known for its vast sculptures of faces, gazing outward in four directions on every tower. Wet and humid weather allowed lichen to grow on the rock, causing deterioration. The large stone faces resemble other sculptures of Jayavarman VII (8.5.6), in Cambodia, characterizing him as a bodhisattva. Fifty-four enormous pillars have a face carved on each side, appearing to look out to the cardinal points. Today, over 200 giant faces still intact. 

    stacked stone carved face
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Bayon Temple's Face Towers of Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (PiktourUKCC BY 2.0)
    stone walkway inside the temple corridor
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Interior walkways (anhgemusCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    The art of stone carving has long been a celebrated tradition in Cambodia, with its impressive display in the temples of Angkor remaining a testament to its magnificence. These sculptures are renowned for their grandeur, opulence, and meticulous craftsmanship. The Bayon Temple is a true masterpiece that showcases an impressive array of intricate reliefs depicting the intense naval and land battles (8.5.9) that took place between the Khmers and Chams. The level of detail in these reliefs is truly remarkable, as they depict the full extent of the royal army's support staff (8.5.10), including the camp followers who provided essential services to the troops. The king himself is portrayed as a fearless warrior, seated atop an imposing elephant, holding weapons and leading his army into battle against a backdrop of lush green trees. These reliefs demonstrate the incredible artistic skills of the Khmer civilization and offer a fascinating glimpse into the military strategies and tactics employed by the ancient Khmer warriors.

    bas relief stone carved with an army
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Bas Relief Carvings  (David PirmannCC BY 2.0)
    bas relief of an army marching
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Bas Relief Carvings (hobgadlngCC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 
    Bayon Temple

    The Bayon is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman's death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences. Because the temple sits at the exact centre of Angkor Thom, roads lead to it directly from the gates at each of the city's cardinal points. The temple itself has no wall or moats, these being replaced by those of the city itself: the city-temple arrangement, with an area of 9 square kilometres, is much larger than that of Angkor Wat to the south.

    Additional text/introduction.

    Textiles 

    Cambodia boasts a rich heritage of traditional textile techniques, one of which is ikat weaving. This intricate process involves resist-dyeing threads prior to weaving them into fabric, resulting in beautiful patterns and designs. The Cham people, in particular, have a long-standing weaving tradition, utilizing ikat as a means of creating stunning textiles. The technique involves tying sections of the threads with bindings before dyeing them, which creates areas of the thread that remain undyed, forming the desired pattern. The threads are then deftly arranged on a loom and woven into fabric.

    Textiles played a crucial role in the economy of Angkor Thom as they traded extensively with other regions, and their popularity was evident in the prosperous trade of raw silk at Angkor Wat. The raw silk industry was booming, and mulberry trees were cultivated to feed the silkworms, which were then used to produce silk. The wooden looms were employed to transform the raw silk into high-quality fabric that was dispatched via the Silk Road trade route. The silk weavers were highly skilled in their craft and employed the ikat technique, a dyeing technique where the threads are dyed before they are woven, to create intricate and beautifully patterned fabrics. The result was a textile industry that produced some of the most exquisite fabrics of its time.

    Textiles were an essential part of the economy and traded extensively with other civilizations. At Angkor Wat, raw silk was one of the large thriving trades in Southeast Asia. Mulberry trees were grown specifically to feed the silkworms, and wooden looms were busy weaving the raw silk into fabric to send out on the Silk Road trade route. The silk weavers used the ikat technique (8.5.11) to produce a patterned fabric. 

    Incorporating cultural symbols, religious beliefs, and nature elements, Cambodian ikat weaving is a beautiful art form that showcases intricate motifs such as flowers, animals, geometric patterns, and everyday objects. This traditional craft has been passed down for generations, but it is now experiencing a renewed interest. Thanks to the efforts of artisans and organizations, Cambodian textiles, including ikat weaving, are being preserved and promoted both locally and internationally. This resurgence is not only helping to safeguard the country's cultural heritage but is also providing valuable economic opportunities for the local communities involved in textile production.

    silk weaving of two elephantsFigure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Ikat Elephant Weaving (CC BY-NC 4.0)
    Traditional Cambodian Silk

    A handmade pictorial Cambodian silk ikat that uses all-natural silk and dyes takes nearly a year to produce and can sell for thousands.

     

     The downfall of the empire was initiated by a rebellion that erupted in the region of Thailand, leading to the establishment of several kingdoms. Concurrently, the Mongols were expanding their reign by invading various territories, further weakening the empire. The Khmer, on the other hand, encountered difficulties with their water system due to the clearing of trees for the purpose of cultivating rice fields. This caused the system to be clogged with silt, and flood control was severely impacted. Ultimately, in the year 1431, a Thai kingdom conquered Angkor, effectively signaling the end of the once-great Khmer empire.

     

     


    [1] Coe, M. & Evans, D. (2003). Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames & Hudson. London. (p. 153).

    [2] Mabber, I. (1983). The Symbolism of Mount Meru. History of Religions (23) (1).

    [3] Coe, M. & Evans, D. (2003). Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames & Hudson. London. (p. 153).

    [4] Rod-ari, M. (2022). The Bayon: A temple with many faces. Smarthistory

    [5] Ibid.

     


    • Was this article helpful?