Hi guys! As some of you already know, Malin and I (Malen) come from Cambodia; therefore, it is only appropriate for us to share our knowledge of Cambodia and dig deeper into its wonderful history! The Khmer Empire was the largest and most powerful state in Southeast Asia, based in what is now Cambodia. The empire could be traced all the way from 802 CE to 1431 CE. At its apex, it encompassed of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Southern Vietnam. The Khmer’s art and culture were significantly influenced by India because of the long established sea trading networks with that subcontinent. This brings us to the topic of this blog post, which is architecture and religion. The Khmer people were amazing architects and builders, and one of their legacies was the Angkor Wat, which I am sure many of you have heard or seen somewhere as it is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Throughout the capital city of Angkor, there were more than 100 stone temples, enormous reservoirs (baray) and canals, and setting up of an extensive road network with all sorts of bridges. In fact, satellite imaging showed that during its time, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban center ever in the world and apparently, even larger than today’s New York!
Angkor Wat represents the miniature version of the Hindu universe and is in fact the world’s largest religious monument, encompassing an area of about 200 hectares. It was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Vishnu, but in the 14th century, it was converted into a Buddhist temple, and Buddha statues were added to its existing lavishing artwork. The construction took place around 1122 CE and lasted for over 30 years. It was initiated by one of the greatest kings of the empire during that time, Suryavarman II.
Suryavarman II was a usurper that came into power after killing his great uncle, Dharanindravarman I, while he was riding an elephant. He honored the god Vishnu, a deity often represented as a protector, and this is reflected in the central tower of Angkor Wat as we shall see later. His devotion to Hinduism can also be seen in one of the most astounding reliefs (the carved stones) in Angkor Wat, located in the southeast of the temple. The relief depicts a chapter in the Hindu story of creation called the “Churning of the Sea of Milk”.
Angkor Wat’s main entrance faced the west, a direction that is deeply linked to the god Vishnu. The heart of the temple was the central tower, accessible by a (very!) steep staircase with a statue of Vishnu at the top. The central tower is estimated at about 65 meters tall and is also surrounded by four other smaller towers with a series of enclosed walls. The influence of Hinduism on Angkor Wat is also reflected through the geometrical shape of the temple. In fact, Angkor Wat mirrors the Hindu cosmos. The five towers of the central shrine are the peaks of the mythical Mount Meru, a legendary and sacred place in Hindu mythology that is said to lie beyond the Himalayas and where the home of the gods is.
The Angkor capital of Khmer Empire was later on replaced by Angkor Thom, which is a city built within a city of Angkor. The greatest king of the empire, Jayavarman VII, who reigned from 1181 CE to 1215 CE, administered a large scale construction programme, building many temples, monuments, highways, hospitals, and the magnificent Angkor Thom complex. He was also the one who extended the empire’s territorial claim the furthest. His construction program concurred with the conversion of the empire religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism as King Jayavarman VII himself, adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. The reign of Jayavarman saw many alterations of Hindu temples to display images of Buddha and Angkor Wat did for a short period of time became a Buddhist shrine.
The following list describes a few other well-known temples that were built during the King’s reign:
- Ta Prohm (AKA ‘Royal Vihara’) - built 1186 as a Buddhist temple, contained statue of Jayavarman VII’s mother, Srirajacudamuni, represented as Prajnaparamita (the Mother of All Buddhas).
- Preah Khan - contained his father’s statue, Dharanindravarman II, represented as Lokesvara (the Bodhisattva (“buddha-to-be”) of infinite compassion and mercy).
- Neak Pean - contained statue of the Buddha called Bhaisajya-guru, who is the healer and protector against sickness.
- Bayon temple - official state temple of the King, a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated solely to the Buddha.
- Banteay Kdei & Banteay Chmar - dedicated to his son, Srindrakumara.
After the King’s death, there was a huge campaign to revive Hinduism through means of vandalizing and defacing of Buddhist images, until finally, Theravada Buddhism became established as the land’s dominant religion starting from the 14th century.
The movies Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie and Transformers 3 had many breathtaking scenes that were shot at the various temples of Angkor showing its magnificence after all this time.
TOMB RAIDER Scene
TRANSFORMER 3 Scene
Check out these cool interactive websites for more information!