Angkor The Hindu Temple City: The Rise & Fall Of The Ancient Khmer Empire

The city containing the largest religious building in the world lies crumbling in the jungles of southeast Asia. Who lived there? Why was it built on waterways? Why did the Khmer Empire collapse and the city's inhabitants flee?

The largest religious building of the ancient world lies in Angkor
The largest religious building of the ancient world lies in Angkor

Until French naturalist Henri Mouhot ventured deep into the heart of the Cambodian jungle in 1860, the history of its people stretched back no further than the 15th century. What Mouhot was seeking was confirmation of rumours that a ruined city lay hidden in the green tyranny of the forest.

The rumours were probably started by Mouhot's fellow countryman, Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, who had visited the same jungle in 1850. The missionary had written: "'I discovered some immense ruins which I was told was the site of the royal palace. On the walls which were carved from top to bottom, I saw combats between elephants, men fighting with clubs and spears, and others firing three arrows at the time from their bows". However, it was Mouhot's own description and survey of the crumbling metropolis of Angkor that opened up the Cambodian past and posed many questions about its builders and inhabitants.

The city of Angkor covered almost 100sq km (38sq mi) and was full of temples, shrines, houses, causeways, reservoirs, irrigation canals, and terraces. Angkor's sprawling conurbation of squares and straight lines could possibly have accommodated half a million people. Everywhere there are statues, reliefs, and carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, bare-breasted dancing girls, a king mounted on an elephant and carrying a fly-whisk and a parasol, and an emperor leading his army into battle.

The people who inhabited Angkor were the Khmers, and their religion was obviously a form of Hinduism. It is thought that much Indian blood is mixed with Khmer, since Indian traders, travellers, and missionaries came by sea in the first centuries after Christ to colonize Southeast Asia - close to the southern tip of Vietnam, for instance, there was an Indian-based civilization in a kingdom the Chinese called Fu Nan.

The Beginnings Of Angkor's Supremacy

Despite the fact that in 1000 BC, southeast Asia was well-populated and technologically advanced, towns and cities did not develop until the 7th century AD. At this time, for some reason that archaeologists cannot fathom, civilization flowered in this part of the world. Monumental art and architecture appeared in many places, Angkor having the greatest influence.

Khmer documents were written on animal skins and palm leaves so have not survived the test of time. Information about Angkor comes instead from more than 1,000 inscriptions, in both Sanskrit and Khmer, as well as Chinese, Muslim, and Indian histories. These show that the founder of the Angkorian period of Cambodian history was Jayavarman II, who freed his people from the Javanese at the beginning of the 9th century. He worshipped the Hindu god Shiva and established a cult of the god-king, which meant that he was endowed with the creative energy of Shiva. Each king after him had a special temple built to house his linga, the phallic symbol of his authority. The temples were also symbolic representations of Mount Meru, the Hindu place of gods and the centre of the universe.


The finest building in the whole Khmer metropolis is Angkor Wat. This is the funerary temple of Suryavarnam II who built it in the early 12th century. He dedicated it to Vishnu rather than Shiva and, unlike all the other temples in the area, its main entrance faced west, toward the land of the dead. Possibly the largest religious edifice ever built, Angkor Wat has a labyrinth of corridors lined with elaborate sculptures and carvings. Covering an area of nearly 2.6sq km (1sq mi) it features a number of towers - the tallest and most central is over 61m (200ft) high - built in the form of lotus buds.

This cosmic Hindu shrine is laid out on a plan of five rectangular and concentric enclosures. To reach the centre of the temple beneath the tallest tower, worshippers had to walk along a 305m (1,000ft) causeway whose carvings symbolized the sacred history of the Hindus. Angkor Wat was also designed and arranged to enable it to function as an astronomical observatory. For example, the temple of Prasat Kuk Bangro, 5.6km (3.5mi) away to the southeast, makes a midwinter solstice alignment with the temple of Angkor Wat.

The City Built On Waterways

The location of Angkor has several natural advances which contributed to the city's success. First, the land was fertile and, if kept well irrigated, would yield three or even four crops of rice each year. Second, Tonle Sap, the huge, shallow lily-covered lake nearby, was reputed to contain one of the world's largest stocks of fish. Third, the rich forests supplied all the building needs, especially the thick teak for the floors of the temples and galleries. Fourth, the geology of the area offered a plentiful supply of sandstone, iron ore, gold, silver, copper, and tin.

The people of Angkor built long stretches of irrigation canals and two huge reservoirs, the East and West Baray, each of which could store more than two billion gallons of water used in the six-month dry season to irrigate agricultural land. At such times, Tonle Sap would cover an area similar to the Great Salt Lake in the United States, but in the monsoon season would swell to the size of Lake Ontario.

One of the enduring mysteries of Angkor is why it was abandoned. Some authorities suggest that the doctrine of renunciation taught by the new Hinayana Buddhism at the end of the 13th century weakened the military ambitions of the Khmers. Instead, they became pacifists, non-materialists, and altruists. So when, in 1431, the Thai armies descended on Angkor, they sacked it after a seven-month siege, meeting resistance only from the ruling classes. When the Thais left, the Khmers were unable to restore Angkor to its former glory.

Weak leadership, rebellious slaves, and malaria all contributed to this loss of national vigour. In addition, a drought or an excessive monsoon may have also crippled the agricultural economy. A Buddhist legend tells of a king who had the son of a priest drowned in the Tonle Sap because he offended the royal family. The angry snake god caused the lake to overflow, destroying Angkor. Even Today. Tonle Sap floods dramatically when immense volumes of water flow along the Mekong River. In the 15th century, the lake is thought to have been much closer to the doomed city of waterways, so it would not be surprising if the legend is based on truth.

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