14. The Khmer Empire at Angkor: A Brief History

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After the decline of the Khmer empire/kingdoms centered around first Funan and then Chenla, an invigorated king moved the capitol to Angkor. This move initiated the beginning of the Khmer’s classical period. The classic period, when the Khmer's hill capitols were centered around Angkor, near present day Siem Riep, is considered the Golden Age of the Khmer. It lasted from 802 CE -> 1432 CE - over 600 years - nearly 3 times longer than the USA has been around.

Jayavarman II is considered the founder of the Khmer Empire based at Angkor. In 790 CE he returned from the Sailendra court in Java with some big plans. He claimed heritage from the ancient royal family of Funan. In 802 he founded a capital on a hill called Phnom Kulen, the first of many hill capitols. He even built a brick pyramid to support a temple-shrine. He called in artists from Champa and Java to give new impetus to local traditions.

Jayavarman was followed by a series of strong rulers. Indravarman I (877-889) laid the foundation of the temple complex known as Angkor. It is 1700 yards by 1500 yards. Its well thought out plan was based upon a rectangular grid of reservoirs, canals, and irrigation channels to control flooding and provide water for the growing empire. This well developed irrigation system was one of the foundations of the Khmer empire.

After dealing with the water for his new capital, Indravarman I built Bakong, a second mountain top temple. The succeeding kings elaborated on this theme - further enhancing the Angkor complex by building their own temple mountains in 893, 961, 1000, 1066 - each more elaborate and grandiose than the preceding. This temple building spree culminated in 1100 with the construction of Angkor Wat by Suryavarman II.

Following this efflorescence of art, the Khmer culture under Jayavarman VII suffered an embarrassing loss to the Cham culture of South Vietnam. Marshaling his forces, he eventually defeated them and extended the boundaries of the empire further than they had ever been before - to Chang Mai in the north - to South Vietnam in the east - to southern Thailand in the west.

With this renewal of energy, he then supervised the construction of Angkor Thom in 1200 - perhaps the most ambitious of all the temples in size and scope. The temple was notable for its four sided Buddha heads. These heads represented the all-seeing power of the Buddhist Lokesvara - Lord of this world - and his representative - the king.

This was the last of the temple building. The high standards of Khmer craftsmanship were maintained; but there were no more huge works of art.

After Jayavarman VII, the culture at Angkor lasted about 200 more years. At this time, the Mongol invasions of China created huge population pressures that pushed the Thai out of Southern China and the Cham out of North Vietnam. As a result, the Khmer civilization was attacked by the Thai from the west and the Cham from the east.

The Khmer's cultural momentum had petered out and they were dissipated internally. There was no more temple building to revitalize and give meaning to the people. Perhaps more importantly, the irrigation system that they had used to support their inland empire was crumbling and in need of repair. During its peak, the fertile land provided 3 crops of rice per year. The abundance of rice fed the temple population. By now, the once fertile soil was spent and over-farmed. Like the vitality of the  Khmer culture, the vitality of the land was severely diminished.

In contrast, the Thai cultural momentum was rising. They invaded and conquered the Khmer kingdom, reducing it to the status of a vassal state. Simultaneously, the Thai stripped all of the temples at Angkor of their gold and gems. The once proud Khmer Empire had been reduced to ruins in a generation. The cultural energy had played itself out. It disappeared. For the next 400 years, the Khmer were vassals of Vietnam or Thailand. They came under Western rule when they became a French protectorate in 1864.

The jungle took over at Angkor. The local Buddhists and tribes used these temples as a place of worship. But the magnificent temple complex disappeared from history until the French rediscovered them in the late 1800s. It was at about this time that archaeologists began the long process of simultaneously restoring our temples and protecting them from looters.

Southeast Asia: “Such was the wave of the Khmer civilization at Angkor. We saw the wave build, grow into maturity, and then crash upon the beach of humanity, leaving an indelible mark. Then we saw this cultural tidal wave fragment and dissolve back into Void. Such a brief stay upon our planet. But what an impact. Like a glacier, etching my ground for human eternity.

This is just one more example of the Indian postulate that the external world of manifestation is transitory. No matter how great or small, all things pass. When it is happening it seems like it will last forever. But when it is over, it just seems like the blink of an eye. I’ve seen so many come and go.

Entire human lives can be devoted to the recollection of these flowerings - recalling the grandeur of these great civilizations, which have left their sand castles upon the shores of time. With just minuscule glimpses into these ancient cultures, entire universes are created. Then the historian implies reality to his fantasy - believing it to be real. Instead it is just one more illusion - reflecting his world-view - and perhaps of those around him. But what a great story. Allow my Author to bounce off the trampoline of facts to soar high into the air. Hopefully our Reader realizes that it is really just a tale to amuse, educate, inspire, and transform, but that it has no reality whatsoever - just the foam of the waves, seeming so dramatic, but without substance.”

 

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