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8.5: Khmer Empire (802 CE – 1431 CE)

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    Khmer Empire (802 CE – 1431 CE)


    Khmer Empire (802 CE – 1431 CE)

    Angkor Wat

    Bayon Temple

     Banteay Chhmar temple



    At its peak, the Khmer Empire controlled most of Southeast Asia, including the current areas of Cambodia, Laos, southern Vietnam, and Thailand along the Mekong River, the world’s seventh longest river. The Khmer civilization existed from 802 CE to 1431 CE, practicing Hinduism and Buddhism as the main religions. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and believed to have been one of the largest cities in the world at the time, with a population of one million. The country was divided into approximately 23 provinces with a sophisticated form of government, including at the local levels. The Khmer used Angkor as a base to invade other countries as well as to control the rebellious nobility, ambitious nobles looking to overthrow the current leader. 


    The Khmer were master builders erecting enormous temples, massive reservoirs, canals, and roadways throughout the area, spanning the rivers with large bridges. Angkor Wat (6.50), a grand religious complex (6.51) constructed by Suryavarman II in 1122 CE, took 30 years to complete. Jayavarman VII was considered one of the greatest kings and built the Angkor Thom (6.52) complex along with an extensive network of roads connecting all of the towns, adding 121 houses for travelers and traders to stay when they moved about the empire and developed 102 hospitals throughout the empire. 


    Angkor Wat layout

    6.50 Angkor Wat                           



     Angkor Wat                       

    6.51 Angkor Wat front


    The Khmer Empire produced many temples and monuments supporting and celebrating the God-given authority to the kings. The temples were the home of the Hindu gods and constructed with stepped pyramid structures to reflect the holy mountain of the gods. Low-relief carvings (6.53) found everywhere depicted stories about nobility, military conquests, and the lives of ordinary people in the marketplace or fishing.  


     Angkor Thom                        Bas relief

    6.52 Angkor Thom                                                      6.53 Bas-relief


    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 (6.54) to produce a patterned fabric. 




    A picture containing text, furniture, rug

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    6.54 Ikat weaving                                                            6.55 Lotus shaped bowl


    The Khmer were master producers of lacquerware, a process using clay pots and coloring them black by burning wood and using the ashes in the mixture. To the Khmers, black color represented the underworld, red made from mercury representing the earth, and yellow from arsenic representing the heavens. Ceramics were generally used for domestic purposes and not generally traded. Ceramics were also made in the shape of animals or the lotus pattern (6.55). 


    The empire’s decline started with the revolt from the area of Thailand who started forming their kingdoms and the Mongols, who were invading multiple arenas. The Khmer also had problems with their water system when it became filled with silt as trees were cut down to make rice fields and flood control was compromised.  By 1431 a Thai kingdom took control of Angkor and ended the Khmer empire. 




    Bayon Temple  


    Bayon Temple (7.47) built in the center of the walled city Angkor Thom, the capital of the Khmer Empire in the 13th century. The temple appears as a mountain rising from the ground behind the walls of the city. Constructed to evoke the form of the Buddhist cosmic mountain of Mt. Meru, the structure honors the many gods from the Khmer empire. The temple was the last of the state temples built at Angkor Thom and was a centerpiece of a massive building program that included bridges, walls, and supplementary buildings to support the city. 


    Bayon Temple complex   

    7.47 Bayon Temple complex


    The decorating the thirty-seven massive towers, the temple is known for its vast sculptures of faces (7.48), gazing outward in four directions on every tower. Wet and humid weather allowed lichen to grow on the rock (7.49), causing deterioration. The large stone faces resemble other sculptures of Jayavarman VII (7.50), 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. 


    Facial sculptures at gateway           

    7.48 Facial sculptures at the gateway       


    Deteriorated face                             Temple faces                       

    7.49 Deteriorated face                                                     7.50 Temple faces                 



    Bodhisattva is someone motivated by compassion and has a wish to become Buddha like.



    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 (7.51). 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 (7.52). 


    Entrance faces                            

    7.51 Entrance faces                        



    7.52 Bas-reliefs


    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. 





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