HISTORY Of KHMER TEMPLES
of King Jayavaraman VIII, Nation Museum, Bangkok
The history of the Khmer Empire, and in particular the Angkorean
period from 802 to c. 1431, has traditionally been seen from the
standpoint of lowland Cambodia. for an overall perspective, there
is considerable justification for this, given what we know of its
From George Coeds: “The whole political organization of the
country was centered on the king, who, in theory, was the source
and sum of all authority, the custodian of the established order,
the fina1 judge of disputes between his subjects, the defender of
the faith and the protector of the religious foundations entrusted
to his care.”
Power flowed out outwards from the Capital which for most of the
lime was at Angkor - administered by a hierarchy of officials and
priests, and maintained by the army. Lands and fiefdoms were dispensed
to favored priests and princes, who kept allegiance to the king.
The centralization of the empire went further than just its administration.
The temple mountain that almost every new king built represented
Mount Meru, the home of the gods, in Hindu cosmology and so the
capital itself was in effect a microcosm or the centre of the universe
By the time of Jayavarman VII (1181c. 220), the entire capital at
Angkor was rebuilt to symbolize this. even the entrance causeways
to the city were conceived as part of a gigantic model.
Nevertheless, communications were slow over, what became a very
large empire, reaching west to Burma, north as far as present-day
Vientiane, and east to the delta of the Mekong, and the amount of
real control exercised over the provinces is incompletely known.
The evidence of certain inscriptions, such as at Phnom Rung, and
above all, differences in the architecture and decorative carvings,
suggest that the further Khmer provinces had some significant independence.
The majority of these further provinces are in what is now Thailand,
and the most important temple remains lie on Ihe Khorat Plateau
in the countries Northeast. Seen from Angkor and lowland Cambodia,
these provincial centers lie beyond a real physical barrier - the
range of mountains running west-east a little over 100 km north
of Angkor, known as the Dongrek range, This natural frontier, which
forms such a decisive break in the landscape That today it defines,
part of the border between Cambodia and Thailand, separates the
lowland plains from the Khorat Plateau. From the Thai side, which
el ready lies at an average elevation of about 200 meters, the 500-
to 700-metre peaks of the Dongles appear quite low, but from the
Cambodian plain they rise as a steep wall, abrupt and sheer in some
To the west, access to the lower and middle Chao Phraya valley
was a relatively easy, if long journey, via routes passing close
to the modern border town of Aranyaprathet, To the north, only a
few passes cross the Dongreks, and this physical restriction must
have had some effect on the way in which Khmer civilization developed
on the plateau Local records are sparse, and mainly in the form
of later local chronicles, such as the Chamadevivamsa written in
the early 15th century. The earliest Khmer inscription is from Ayutthaya,
dated 937, and refers to a succession of princes whose names are
unknown from Cambodian records, There is even less evidence for
what happened on the Khorat Plateau, even though it is here that
the major temples of Phimai, Phnom Rung and Preah vihear were built.
An inscription from Bung Ke, near Ubon, dates to 886 and shows that
the Khmers were well established in the Mun valley by this time.
The scarcity of written history in the Khmer provinces is compounded
by the progress of Khmer archaeology. The French colonization of
Cambodia provided the opportunity for an illustrious line of French
scholars to excavate, reconstruct and study the temples and inscriptions
of the Khmer heartland When the art historians of the Ecole Francaise
d'Extreme orient to work on the chronology of the stiles of architecture
and sculpture, the models they used were, naturally enough, in lowland
Cambodia and, for the most part, from the Angkor, area. In Thailand,
which remained an independent kingdom, there was no such concerted
effort to investigate its Khmer past until fairly recently.