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Cambodia experienced its most glorious days during the Angkor Empire. With its capital at Angkor in Siem Reap, the emperor once reigned over most of Indochina, including today’s Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
As you visit Angkor Wat, and other relics from the Angkor period, you will catch some glimpses of Cambodia’s past glories and struggles.
The Angkor Empire, also known as the Khmer Empire, began in 802 AD when Jayavarman II wrested the land from Javanese control. At that time, there were no united kingdoms in Cambodia.
After expelling the Javanese, Jayavarman II celebrated independence by conducting an elaborate consecration ritual in Phnom Kulen, proclaimed himself king, and adopted the Devaraja cult of Hinduism as the state religion.
Devaraja is a term in Sanskrit meaning “god-king”. True to its name, the Devaraja cult taught that the king was a universal ruler, a manifestation of the Hindu god, often known as Shiva or Vishnu.
According to Devaraja teaching, kings were revered like gods and had ultimate control over the kingdom. This belief was the basis for Khmer kings to embark on massive architectural projects such as Angkor Wat and Bayon, to celebrate the king’s divine rule on earth.
The Empire also adopted the Hindu caste system, whereby commoners such as rice farmers and fishermen formed the majority of the population. The minority higher castes were Kshatriyas, such as royalty, nobles, warlords, soldiers, and warriors; and Brahmins such as priests.
Aside from those there were also traders and artisans. Slaves made up the lowest social caste, and they were probably the laborers who worked on the many building projects of the empire.
Within a few centuries, the Angkor Empire grew to be the greatest ever in mainland Southeast Asia. Jayavarman II was followed by a succession of kings who contributed to the growth of the empire through alliances with neighboring kingdoms and conquests, building projects, establishment of new cities, and development of hydraulic and irrigation systems.
Ancient Khmers were a traditional agriculture community and were dependent on massive and complex hydraulics systems, including networks of canals and barays, or giant water reservoirs. These facilities enabled more intense rice cultivation, which increased food security, supported the growth of the Khmer economy, and increased wealth.
The Angkor royal court was famous for grand ceremonies, festivals, and rituals. The king was surrounded by ministers, state officials, nobles, royalty, palace women, and servants, and protected by guards and troops.
Dress was elaborate and there were large free standing armies. To extend their territories, they frequently conducted military campaigns against the neighboring Cham, Dai Viet, and Thai warlords. Power struggles over succession were common in the royal court.
In the 12th Century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex of Angkor, measuring 162 hectares. Angkor Wat was built as the king’s state temple and capital city and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Construction started when King Suryavarman II came to power and ended shortly after his death, leaving some bas-relief decorations unfinished.
In 1177, around 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor was overtaken by the Chams, who killed the then Khmer king, but a couple of years later, it was retaken by the Khmers, led by Jayavarman VII, who defeated the Chams and conquered large parts of their territory.
Jayavarman VII ascended the throne after his victory over the Chams. Unlike his predecessors, Jayavarman VII was a strong adherent of Mahayana Buddhism. Under his reign, Angkor Wat gradually changed from being a Hindu to a Buddhist center of worship, which it still is to the present day.
Jayavarman VII is generally regarded as Cambodia’s greatest king. He built a new walled capital city, now called Angkor Thom, which literally means “Great City”. He constructed the Bayon as the state temple at its center, dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism.
Jayavarman VII also carried out many other temple and reservoir building projects and established an extensive network of roads to connect every town of the empire with rest-houses and hospitals.
By the 14th century, the empire was already in a state of decline. Many factors contributed to the decline, including internal conflict, changes in state religion, plagues, and environmental degradation due to intense cultivation and rapid progress in civilization.
Ecological failure and breakdown of water-management infrastructure played their part. As cultivation intensified and population increased, deforestation became rampant and runoffs caused sedimentation of the canal network.
Without a functional irrigation system, rice cultivation was hindered and harvests were reduced. Floods and droughts also worsened the situation.
There is also some evidence that the Black Death plague which appeared in China in 1330 was introduced to the area through seaports, and also affected the empire gravely.
In 1295, the throne was seized by Indravarman III, who was a follower of Theravada Buddhism, a new school of Buddhism that was spreading in Southeast Asia. He converted the empire to this religion. Conflicting Buddhist ideas disturbed the state order built under the predominant Hinduism.
As the empire converted to Theravada Buddhism, the kings were no longer regarded as god-kings. This may have led to a loss of royal authority and thereby to a lack of slaves to work on building projects. Construction ceased and there was a lack of Khmer historical inscription between the 1300s and 1600s.
The change of religion also affected the social and political systems, and caused intense internal power struggle among Khmer princes. Foreign invasion from neighboring kingdoms, frequent civil wars, and vassal revolts also caused further harm.
In the 15th century, Angkor was besieged by the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which then abandoned it because of ecological failure and breakdown of infrastructure.The kingdom continued in a weak state under pressure from its Vietnamese and Siamese neighbors until 1863, when King Norodom signed a treaty with the French, which began the era of French colonization in Cambodia.
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