Khmer Temples & Mythology

Angkor Wat



Statue 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 government.

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 places.

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.