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The Angkor Period of the Khmer Empire flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries in the country of Southeast Asia now known as Cambodia. It was during this time of centralized royal power that Angkor remained the capital of the empire (with the exception of but one king) and civilization flourished (Jessup and Zephir 13). One paramount concept found among other well-known ancient civilizations (i.e. India, China, Rome, and Egypt) that the Khmer state also implemented was that of divine kingship. Through what outside cultural influences and under what political-religious context were the god-kings of Angkor able to rise and justify their divinity? More specifically,what role did the Angkorian state play in the construction of its monumental sacred city’s temples and the implementation of religious symbolism found in its art and architecture in order to help propagate the king's divinity, and for what purpose? Here a similar idea is described as Imperial explores the functional role of art within the context of Ancient Egypt's political, religious, and social atmospheres.

external image Siem-Reap-Angkor-Wat-Overview-Map.jpg
Greater Angkor

Pre-Angkor (Second to eighth century A.D.)
Much of what is known about Khmer identity comes from both foreign (primarily Chinese) records and mythology. Khmer royalty trace their ancestry back to an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya who arrived by boat and married Nagi Soma, a local Khmer serpent princess; together, they founded a dynasty (Mannikka 1996). Her father, whose land was called Kambujadesa (from which the name "Cambodia" is derived), drank the waters from the swampy land, thus making agriculture possible (Jessup 9). "Extrapolating meaning from myth could lead to describing the tale of the nagini, or naga princess, as a symbol of the merging of Indic culture with autochthonous elements. The story of the naga king's drainage of the land (presumably the delta of the Mekong) can similarly be inferred to show how the importance of hydraulic control is even enshrined in the Khmer myth of origin" (Jessup 10). Khmer’s “politico-religious infrastructure” owes much of its style to Indian culture (through the implementation of Brahmanic priests and texts, deities, cosmology, as well as the Sanskrit written language).

The Chinese ascribed the name Funan to the area of today's southern Cambodia and Vietnam, and it is written about in the dynastic annals on behalf of the envoys sent to the region. One of them, known as Kang Tai, describes ship building practices, walled palaces and villages, taxes paid in the form of gold, silver utensils, an Indian-derived script, and statues of deities with multiple heads and arms (which is in agreement with the idea that Indian travelers brought religion and trade) (Jessup 11). In Funan's putative capital, Angkor Borei, "support for its sophistication can be found in a study of its hydraulic engineering skills" through aerial surveys that were conducted in the 1930s that showed a complex network of canals connecting the capital to its port as well as to many other settlements" (Jessup 39).

Archaeological excursions on behalf of Louis Malleret, Vietnamese researchers and others at the port of Oc Eo (in present-day southern Vietnam) have unearthed Indian gold jewelry, Roman coins from 200 A.D., Chinese bronze mirrors and many other foreign goods--all clear evidence of maritime international trade. It is likely that early polities were probably not kingdoms, but rather trading and agricultural centers that came to exert influence on nearby centers through expansion, "gradually achieving hegemony of trade though not necessarily central administration organization" (Jessup 12). For more information on Southeast Asian warfare as a possible "catalyst for complexity," please visit this page.

In the seventh century, the improvement of ship-building practices brought new maritime trade routes which began to bypass the southern ports of Funan, thereby causing a decline in power. As maritime activity was faltering, Funan residents may have sought resources inland, "and since the rulers of the separate states mostly belonged to related families, the shift in power [to the north--Angkor] was gradual and not hostile" (Jessup 40). This also helps explains how a state in decline could have produced such an abundant amount of art from both the north and south that showed high levels of continuity between style and iconography.


Note the naturalistic, swayed-hip posture (as well as the "cylindrical mitre" worn by the two male figures that is characteristic of Pre-Angkor Vishnu images, although the latter is of Harihara) between these 7th cent. statues found in various parts of the region (Jessup 26, 40, 41).

The Rise of the Angkor State and the Cult of the “God-kings”
Jayavarman II - Founder of Angkor's First Dynasty
In the eighth century, the construction of a temple such as Prasat Vat Kompong Preah (pictured below) "exemplifies an increasing sophistication and scale that belie social unrest" (Jessup 61). Thus, this construction is evidence of power within the region becoming stronger and more centralized. Constructed from brick and sandstone, with four false stories, the "treatment of pilasters, colonettes, and lintels is typical of the growing complexity of decoration in Khmer temples" (Jessup 57). As was noted earlier, India had a profound influence on Khmer culture and architecture (click here for examples and descriptions of common architectural elements of Hindu temples).
(Jessup 57)
Please visit this link in order to view an animated map (created by the University of Kyoto and ECAI Southeast Asia at Berkeley) depicting the political geography of Southeast Asia from 100 C.E. - 1550 C.E. which led to the establishment, expansion and downfall of the Khmer Empire.

Footage showcasing some Angkor temples in their present state.
Although Jayavarman I was the first ruler to exert power "beyond a family horizon," several chiefdoms with control over smaller areas continued. For decades, territory further north was gradually accumulated (Jessup 61). Then, circa 802 A.D. Jayavarman II was the first king to successfully unite the smaller, Khmer 'mandalas' into a unified state that peaked between A.D. 900 and 1200, thus starting a civilization whose “whole society flourished on notions of conformity--on the belief that by giving to the temple, and therefore to the royal elite, people earned merit for themselves” (Scarre and Fagan 365). Former mandalas were overcome and became 'visayas' under Angkor; in turn, their old ruling families and lords became indebted to the king (Higman 353). When Jayavarman II came to power, he presented himself as a “Supreme King”—the literal reincarnation of Shiva on earth (an element “deeply embedded” within Indian political philosophy which asserts the king’s divine association with Shiva). “He was to reign for sixty years and to establish the Khmer Empire firmly in the capital and territories, constitution and religion which it continued to enjoy for the next six centuries” (MacDonald 44). Jayavarman II sought to find a place where he could “develop a strong administration without interference” from foreigners. He built a city near present-day Angkor Thom, then one near present-day West Baray, and finally a fortress-capital north of Phnom Kulen (MacDonald 44). He then had a Brahman priest perform a unique ceremony that established his capital’s independence and not only his divine kingship, but his actual deification.

"He was the 'varman', the protector and his priests were the instruments of practical political power...[presiding] over a highly disciplined hierarchy of religious functionaries. The state's bureaucracy of nobles included generals and administrators who settled land disputes. The bureaucracy supervised every aspect of Khmer life, from agriculture to warfare, tax collection, and the rituals of the state religion. As always with preindustrial civilizations, there was a close link between food surpluses and the control of the enormous labor forces needed to construct temples, reservoirs, and other public works...The custom of building a new majestic and holy temple to house the royal linga of each king was the most important of all the religious rituals" (Scarre and Fagan 365). As Voss discusses here in regards to Indian social relations, the construction of religious temples also enabled interaction between different social classes (i.e. artists and construction workers with priests and nobility).

After Jayavarman II's death in 850 A.D., five kings succeeded him over the course of a century. His nephew, Indravarman I began an architectural tradition that was utilized for almost four hundred years by Khmer kings--that of the 'temple mountain' (later constructions following this style include Bakong and Angkor Wat, among others). "He built a large Hariharalaya; then he built a raised temple platform, which housed images of the deified royal ancestors; and finally a temple mausoleum for himself, which was usually associated with the linga that bore the name of the preferred god. The water in the reservoir served practical irrigation and residential requirements but was also a symbolic lake at the foot of the royal mausoleum, itself a representation of Mount Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods north of the Himalayas...Hariharalaya became the first Angkor, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning 'holy city'" (Scarre and Fagan 396).

All that survives today of the old capital of Hariharalaya are the temples of Preah Ko, the Bakong and Lolei.

The fives stories of the "Temple Mountain", as the style is known in Khmer architecture, represents the five levels of Meru, the home of the gods. The temple was devoted to the cult of the king--Shiva. "The religious-architectonic expression of centralized authority" (Myrdal and Gun Kessle 16).
Plan of the Bakong. First Enclosure (Jessup and Zephir 105).

Preah Ko

Suryavarman II and Angkor Wat
The cult of the king reached its apex in the twelfth century during the reign of Suryavarman II with the construction of the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, which began four years after he came into power in 1113 A.D. The monument was built in dedication to the Hindu gods Shiva (the creator), to Vishnu (the preserver of the universe), and to Brahma (who raised the earth) (Scarre and Fagan 368). Angkor Wat served as the sacred and protected place where the divine king was to communicate with the gods while he lived. His remains were placed in the central tower after his death, so that his soul "entered his divine image and was able to make contact with the royal ancestors. Here the immortal ruler became as one with Vishnu, master of the universe" (Scarre and Fagan 369).

"Angkor Wat was a temple and mausoleum, as well as a giant astronomical observatory. At the western entrance, the sun rises over the central lotus tower on the day of the spring equinox. As the sun moves during the seasons, its rays illuminate the bas-reliefs on the walls on the third gallery. It shines on the creation in summer, on a bloody battle in autumn, and then leaves the north wall of the gallery in darkness during the dry season; then it illuminates the kingdom of death. Everything about Angkor Wat had profound cosmic and religious symbolism" (Scarre and Fagan 366).

The cosmological world of the Khmer was comprised of a central continent, Jambudvipa, with the cosmic mountain, Meru, rising from its center. The highest tower of Angkor Wat represents the summit of Meru, where the gods lived. The four surrounding towers represent Meru's smaller peaks; the outer wall represents Meru at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat is the far-reaching ocean (Scarre and Fagan 368).

Angkor Wat
Aerial view from Google Earth
Plan and Main Temple (Mannikka Cover Inset)

3D virtual tour of Angkor Wat, including narration on the symbolism and meaning of the temple's layout and a few of its bas-reliefs.
Reliefs of Angkor Wat
(Poncar and Maxwell 10)
(Poncar and Maxwell 11)
Among the monument's many bas-reliefs are depictions of Suryavarman seated on his throne, receiving declarations of loyalty from his top officials. Then, he is shown progressing down a hillside atop an elephant, accompanied by his generals and the high priest. Heavily-armed soldiers are shown protecting he and his court (Scarre and Fagan 369). Depictions of war elephants were significant because they were both an impressive and important means of maintaining power on land--given their height which was useful for approaching enemy walls, as well as their adaptability to the terrain and ability to cross moats. Thus, a ruler who possessed and controlled war elephants was viewed as extremely powerful (Higham 347).

More pictures of Angkor Wat's architecture and reliefs can be found here.

Reliefs such as these are neither decoration, mere visualizations of scriptural stories, nor are they even just parts of the temple's ritual processional 'system'; rather, by depicting the glorification of both Vishnu and himself as one of Vishnu's transformations, they are bringing to light Suryavarman's desire and concern with establishing his place in the cosmic scheme. Essentially, they are "politically interpretative versions of mythology intended to change and unify the existing worldview to conform with the strategic programme that Survayarman set in motion for himself and for his subjects" (Poncar and Maxwell 171).

With Jayavarman II's establishment of the first dynasty of the Khmer Empire came the inclusion of the cult of the god-king. This concept of divine kingship, along with Hinduism, was adopted from India through maritime trade and Indian merchants that had been visiting mainland Southeast Asia for hundreds of years. Jayavarman II's association with the god Shiva legitimized and reinforced his power and divinity, thus earning from his subjects their worship, admiration, and very importantly, their funding for state projects such as temples. Later Angkorian kings continued this tradition and it was during this time that the Khmer Empire flourished. Grand mausoleum-temples such as Angkor Wat were not just centers for ritual performances and worship, but also centers for displays of wealth and magnificence that advertised and procured the king's heavenly status through the reliance on religious symbolism taken from the Hindu (and later Buddhist) religion that were then embedded into the artwork and architecture. Without these tenets of control, Khmer kings likely would have lacked the cooperation and support from the people needed in order to sustain their well-being. Cross-cultural comparisons reveal that the same can be said of other ancient states that enforced the precept of divine kingship.

Works Cited/Sources

1. Higham, Charles. The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: From 10,000 B.C. to the Fall of Angkor. England: Cambridge University Press.1989. Print.

2. Jessup, Helen. Art and Architecture of Cambodia. Thames & Hudson: London. 2004. Print.

3. Jessup, Helen and Thierry Zephir. Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory. Thames & Hudson: National Gallery of Art, Washington. 1997. Print.

4. MacDonald, Malcolm. Angkor. New York, NY: Praeger. 1959. Print.

5. Mannikka, Eleanor. Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship. Honolulu, HI: Univ. of Hawai'i Press. 1996. Print.

6. Myrdal, Jan and Gun Kessle. Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism. Random House: New York. 1970. Print.

7. Poncar, Jaroslav and Thomas S. Maxwell. Of Gods, Kings, and Men: The Reliefs of Angkor Wat. Germany: Silkworm Books. 2006. Print.

8. Raymond, Chad. "Regional Geographic Influence on Two Khmer Polities." Journal of Third World Studies. 22.1 (2005): 135-146. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov 2010.

9. Scarre, Cristopher and Brian M. Fagan. Ancient Civilizations. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2008. Print.

10. Stone, Richard. "Diving Angkor." National Geographic 216.1 (2009): 26-55. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov 2010.