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UNESCO World Heritage Site

The main
 complex at Angkor Wat
State Party  Cambodia
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
Reference 668
Region** Asia-Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription 1992  (16th Session)
Endangered 1992-2004
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Angkor (Khmer: អង្គរ) is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer empire, which flourished from approximately the ninth century to the thirteenth century. The word Angkor is derived from the Sanskrit nagara (नगर), meaning "city".[1] The Angkorian period began in AD 802, when the Khmer Hindu monarch Jayavarman II declared himself a "universal monarch" and "god-king", until 1431, when Ayutthayan (Thai) invaders sacked the Khmer capital, causing its population to migrate south to the area of Phnom Penh.
The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) and south of the Kulen Hills, near modern-day Siem Reap (13°24′N, 103°51′E), and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together, they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually.
In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1000 square kilometres to the well-known temples at its core.[2] The closest rival to Angkor, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala, was between 100 and 150 square kilometres in total size.[3] Although its population remains a topic of research and debate, newly identified agricultural systems in the Angkor area may have supported up to one million people.[4]

Historical overview

Seat of the Khmer Empire

The Angkorian period may be said to have begun shortly after 800 A.D., when the Khmer King Jayavarman II announced the independence of Kambujadesa (Cambodia) from Java and established his capital of Hariharalaya (now known as Roluos) at the northern end of Tonle Sap. Through a program of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, he achieved a unification of the country bordered by China (to the north), Champa (now Central Vietnam, to the east), the ocean (to the south) and a place identified by a stone inscription as "the land of cardamoms and mangoes" (to the west). In 802, Jayavarman articulated his new status by declaring himself "universal monarch" (chakravartin) and, in a move that was to be imitated by his successors and that linked him to the cult of Siva, taking on the epithet of "god-king" (devaraja).[5] Before Jayavarman, Cambodia had consisted of a number of politically independent principalities collectively known to the Chinese by the names Funan and Chenla.[6]
In 889 CE, Yasovarman I ascended to the throne.[7] A great king and an accomplished builder, he was celebrated by one inscription as "a lion-man; he tore the enemy with the claws of his grandeur; his teeth were his policies; his eyes were the Veda."[8] Near the old capital of Hariharalaya, Yasovarman constructed a new city, called Yasodharapura. In the tradition of his predecessors, he also constructed a massive reservoir called a baray. The significance of such reservoirs has been debated by modern scholars, some of whom have seen in them a means of irrigating rice fields, and others of whom have regarded them as religiously charged symbols of the great mythological oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. The mountain, in turn, was represented by an elevated temple, in which the "god-king" was represented by a lingam.[9] In accordance with this cosmic symbolism, Yasovarman built his central temple on a low hill known as Phnom Bakheng, surrounding it with a moat fed from the baray. He also built numerous other Hindu temples and ashramas, or retreats for ascetics.[10]
Over the next 300 years, between 900 and 1200, the Khmer empire produced some of the world's most magnificent architectural masterpieces in the area known as Angkor. Most are concentrated in an area approximately 15 miles east to west and 5 miles north to south, although the Angkor Archaeological Park, which administers the area, includes sites as far away as Kbal Spean, about 30 miles to the north. Some 72 major temples or other buildings are found within this area, and the remains of several hundred additional minor temple sites are scattered throughout the landscape beyond. Because of the dispersed, low-density nature of the medieval Khmer settlement pattern, Angkor lacks a formal boundary, and its extent is therefore difficult to determine. However, a specific area of at least 1,000 km² (386 square miles) beyond the major temples is defined by a complex system of infrastructure, including roads and canals that indicate a high degree of connectivity and functional integration with the urban core. In terms of spatial extent (although not in terms of population), this makes it the largest urban agglomeration in human history prior to the Industrial Revolution, easily surpassing the nearest claim, that of the Mayan city of Tikal.[2] In fact, in terms of its urban sprawl, medieval Angkor even approaches the size of modern Los Angeles.

Construction of Angkor Wat

The principal temple of the Angkorian region, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. Suryavarman ascended to the throne after prevailing in a battle with a rival prince. An inscription says that, in the course of combat, Suryavarman lept onto his rival's war elephant and killed him, just as the mythical bird-man Garuda slays a serpent.[11]
After consolidating his political position through military campaigns, diplomacy, and a firm domestic administration, Suryavarman launched into the construction of Angkor Wat as his personal temple mausoleum. Breaking with the tradition of the Khmer kings, and influenced perhaps by the concurrent rise of Vaisnavism in India, he dedicated the temple to Vishnu rather than to Siva. With walls nearly one-half mile long on each side, Angkor Wat grandly portrays the Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond. The traditional theme of identifying the Cambodian devaraja with the gods, and his residence with that of the celestials, is very much in evidence. The measurements themselves of the temple and its parts in relation to one another have cosmological significance.[12] Suryavarman had the walls of the temple decorated with bas reliefs depicting not only scenes from mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. In one of the scenes, the king himself is portrayed as larger in size than his subjects, sitting cross-legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while a bevy of attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasols and fans.

Jayavarman VII

Portrait of Jayavarman VII on display at Musee Guimet, Paris
Following the death of Suryavarman around 1150 A.D., the kingdom fell into a period of internal strife. Its neighbors to the east, the Cham of what is now southern Vietnam, took advantage of the situation in 1177 to launch a seaborne invasion up the Mekong River and across Tonle Sap. The Cham forces were successful in sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and in killing the reigning king. However, a Khmer prince who was to become King Jayavarman VII rallied his people and defeated the Cham in battles on the lake and on the land. In 1181, Jayavarman assumed the throne. He was to be the greatest of the Angkorian kings.[13] Over the ruins of Yasodharapura, Jayavarman constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom, as well as its geographic and spiritual center, the temple known as the Bayon. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict not only the king's battles with the Cham, but also scenes from the life of Khmer villagers and courtiers. In addition, Jayavarman constructed the well-known temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, dedicating them to his parents. This massive program of construction coincided with a transition in the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, since Jayavarman himself had adopted the latter as his personal faith. During Jayavarman's reign, Hindu temples were altered to display images of the Buddha, and Angkor Wat briefly became a Buddhist shrine. Following his death, a Hindu revival included a large-scale campaign of desecrating Buddhist images, until Theravada Buddhism became established as the land's dominant religion from the 14th century.[14]

Zhou Daguan

The year 1296 marked the arrival at Angkor of the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan. Zhou's one-year sojourn in the Khmer capital during the reign of King Indravarman III is historically significant, because he penned a still-surviving account of approximately 40 pages detailing his observations of Khmer society. Some of the topics he addressed in the account were those of religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, clothing, tools, draft animals, and commerce. In one passage, he described a royal procession consisting of soldiers, numerous servant women and concubines, ministers and princes, and finally, "the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand." Together with the inscriptions that have been found on Angkorian stelas, temples and other monuments, and with the bas-reliefs at the Bayon and Angkor Wat, Zhou's journal is the most important source of information about everyday life at Angkor. Filled with vivid anecdotes and sometimes incredulous observations of a civilization that struck Zhou as colorful and exotic, it is an entertaining travel memoir as well.[15]

end of the Angkorian period

The end of the Angkorian period is generally set at 1431 A.D., the year Angkor was sacked and looted by Thai invaders, though the civilization already had been in decline in the 13th and 14th centuries. During the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine. Several theories have been advanced to account for the decline and abandonment of Angkor:

War with the Thai

It is widely believed that the abandonment of the Khmer capital occurred as a result of Siamese invasions. Ongoing wars with the Siamese were already sapping the strength of Angkor at the time of Zhou Daguan toward the end of the 13th century. In his memoirs, Zhou reported that the country had been completely devastated by such a war, in which the entire population had been obligated to participate.[16] After the collapse of Angkor in 1431, many persons, texts and institutions were taken to the Thai capital of Ayutthaya in the west, while others departed for the new center of Khmer society at Longvek further south, though the official capital later moved, first to Oudong (around 45 km from Phnom Penh, in Ponhea Leu District), and then to the present site of Phnom Penh.

Erosion of the state religion

Some scholars have connected the decline of Angkor with the conversion of Cambodia to Theravada Buddhism following the reign of Jayavarman VII, arguing that this religious transition eroded the Hindu conception of kingship that undergirded the Angkorian civilization.[17] According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, Theravada Buddhism's denial of the ultimate reality of the individual served to sap the vitality of the royal personality cult which had provided the inspiration for the grand monuments of Angkor.[18]

Neglect of public works

According to George Coedès, the weakening of Angkor's royal government by ongoing war and the erosion of the cult of the devaraja undermined the government's ability to engage in important public works, such as the construction and maintenance of the waterways essential for irrigation of the rice fields upon which Angkor's large population depended for its sustenance. As a result, Angkorian civilization suffered from a reduced economic base, and the population was forced to scatter.[19]

Natural disaster

Other scholars attempting to account for the rapid decline and abandonment of Angkor have hypothesized natural disasters such as earthquakes, inundations, or drastic climate changes as the relevant agents of destruction.[19] Recent research by Australian archaeologists suggests that the decline may have been due to a shortage of water caused by the transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age.[20] LDEO dendrochronological research has established tree-ring chronologies indicating severe periods of drought across mainland Southeast Asia in the early 1400s, raising the possibility that Angkor's canals and reservoirs ran dry and ended expansion of available farmland.[21]

Restoration, preservation, and threats

The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest until the late 19th century, when French archaeologists began a long restoration process. From 1907 to 1970, work was under the direction of the École française d'Extrême-Orient, which cleared away the forest, repaired foundations, and installed drains to protect the buildings from water damage. In addition, scholars associated with the school and including George Coedès, Maurice Glaize, Paul Mus, Philippe Stern and others initiated a program of historical scholarship and interpretation that is fundamental to the current understanding of Angkor.
Work resumed after the end of the Cambodian civil war and, since 1993, has been jointly co-ordinated by the French, Japanese and UNESCO through the International Co-ordinating Committee on the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), while Cambodian work is carried out by the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), created in 1995. Some temples have been carefully taken apart stone by stone and reassembled on concrete foundations, in accordance with the method of anastylosis. World Monuments Fund has aided Preah Khan, the Churning of the Sea of Milk (a 49-meter-long bas-relief frieze in Angkor Wat), Ta Som, and Phnom Bakheng. International tourism to Angkor has increased significantly in recent years, with visitor numbers reaching 900,000 in 2006; this poses additional conservation problems but has also provided financial assistance to the restoration effort.[22]
Water-table dropping
With the increased growth in tourism at Angkor, new hotels and restaurants are being built to accommodate such growth. Each new construction project drills underground to reach the water table, which has a limited storage capacity. This demand on the water table could undermine the stability of the sandy soils under the monuments at Angkor, leading to cracks, fissures and collapses.[23]
Looting has been an ever-growing threat to the Angkor archaeological landscape. According to APSARA, the official Cambodian agency charged with overseeing the management of Angkor, "vandalism has multiplied at a phenomenal rate, employing local populations to carry out the actual thefts, heavily armed intermediaries transport objects, often in tanks or armored personnel carriers, often for sale across the Thai border."[24]
Unsustainable tourism
The increasing number of tourists, which the Cambodian government hopes will reach three million by 2010, exerts pressure on the archaeological sites at Angkor by walking and climbing on the (mostly) sandstone monuments at Angkor. This direct pressure created by unchecked tourism is expected to cause significant damage to the monuments in the future.[25]

Religious history

Historical Angkor was more than a site for religious art and architecture. It was the site of vast cities that served all the needs of the Khmer people. Aside from a few old bridges, however, all of the remaining monuments are religious edifices. In Angkorian times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king himself, were constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, "because only the gods had a right to residences made of stone."[26] Similarly, the vast majority of the surviving stone inscriptions are about the religious foundations of kings and other potentates.[27] As a result, it is easier to write the history of Angkorian state religion than it is to write that of just about any other aspect of Angkorian society.
Several religious movements contributed to the historical development of religion at Angkor:
  • Indigenous religious cults, including those centered on worship of the ancestors and of the lingam;
  • A royal cult of personality, identifying the king with the deity, characteristic not only of Angkor, but of other Indic civilizations in southeast Asia, such as Champa and Java;
  • Hinduism, especially Shaivism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Shiva and the lingam as the symbol of Shiva, but also Vaishnavism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Vishnu;
  • Buddhism, in both its Mahayana and Theravada varieties.

Pre-Angkorian religion

The religion of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, known to the Chinese as Funan (first century A.D. to ca. 550) and Chenla (ca. 550 - ca. 800 A.D.), included elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous ancestor cults.[28]
Temples from the period of Chenla bear stone inscriptions, in both Sanskrit and Khmer, naming both Hindu and local ancestral deities, with Shiva supreme among the former.[29] The cult of Harihara was prominent; Buddhism was not, because, as reported by the Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing, a "wicked king" had destroyed it.[30] Characteristic of the religion of Chenla also was the cult of the lingam, or stone phallus that patronized and guaranteed fertility to the community in which it was located.[31]

Shiva and the lingam

The Khmer king Jayavarman II, whose assumption of power around 800 A.D. marks the beginning of the Angkorian period, established his capital at a place called Hariharalaya (today known as Roluos), at the northern end of the great lake, Tonle Sap.[32] Harihara is the name of a deity that combines the essence of Vishnu (Hari) with that of Shiva (Hara) and that was much favored by the Khmer kings.[31] Jayavarman II's adoption of the epithet "devaraja" (god-king) signified the monarch's special connection with Shiva.[33]
Dedicated by Rajendravarman in 948 A.D., Baksei Chamkrong is a temple-pyramid that housed a statue of Shiva.
The beginning of the Angkorian period was also marked by changes in religious architecture. During the reign of Jayavarman II, the single-chambered sanctuaries typical of Chenla gave way to temples constructed as a series of raised platforms bearing multiple towers.[32] Increasingly impressive temple pyramids came to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the moats surrounding the temples representing the mythological oceans.[34]
Typically, a lingam served as the central religious image of the Angkorian temple-mountain. The temple-mountain was the center of the city, and the lingam in the main sanctuary was the focus of the temple.[35] The name of the central lingam was the name of the king himself, combined with the suffix -esvara, which designated Shiva.[36] Through the worship of the lingam, the king was identified with Shiva, and Shaivism became the state religion.[37] Thus, an inscription dated 881 A.D. indicates that king Indravarman I erected a lingam named Indresvara.[38] Another inscription tells us that Indravarman erected eight lingams in his courts and that they were named for the "eight elements of Shiva".[38] Similarly, Rajendravarman, whose reign began in 944 A.D., constructed the temple of Pre Rup, the central tower of which housed the royal lingam called Rajendrabhadresvara.[39]


In the early days of Angkor, the worship of Vishnu was secondary to that of Shiva. The relationship seems to have changed with the construction of Angkor Wat by King Suryavarman II as his personal mausoleum at the beginning of the 12th century A.D. The central religious image of Angkor Wat was an image of Vishnu, and an inscription identifies Suryavarman as "Paramavishnuloka," or "he who enters the heavenly world of Vishnu."[40] Religious syncretism, however, remained thoroughgoing in Khmer society: the state religion of Shaivism was not necessarily abrogated by Suryavarman's turn to Vishnu, and the temple may well have housed a royal lingam.[37] Furthermore, the turn to Vaishnavism did not abrogate the royal personality cult of Angkor. by which the reigning king was identified with the deity. According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, "Angkor Wat is, if you like, a vaishnavite sanctuary, but the Vishnu venerated there was not the ancient Hindu deity nor even one of the deity's traditional incarnations, but the king Suryavarman II posthumously identified with Vishnu, consubstantial with him, residing in a mausoleum decorated with the graceful figures of apsaras just like Vishnu in his celestial palace."[41] Suryavarman proclaimed his identity with Vishnu, just as his predecessors had claimed consubstantiation with Shiva.

Mahayana Buddhism

In the last quarter of the 12th century, King Jayavarman VII departed radically from the tradition of his predecessors when he adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. Jayavarman also made Buddhism the state religion of his kingdom when he constructed the Buddhist temple known as the Bayon at the heart of his new capital city of Angkor Thom. In the famous face towers of the Bayon, the king represented himself as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara moved by compassion for his subjects.[42] Thus, Jayavarman was able to perpetuate the royal personality cult of Angkor, while identifying the divine component of the cult with the bodhisattva rather than with Shiva.[43]

Hindu restoration

The Hindu restoration began around 1243 A.D., with the death of Jayavarman VII's successor, Indravarman II. The next king, Jayavarman VIII, was a Shaivite iconoclast who specialized in destroying Buddhist images and in reestablishing the Hindu shrines that his illustrious predecessor had converted to Buddhism. During the restoration, the Bayon was made a temple to Shiva, and its central 3.6 meter tall statue of the Buddha was cast to the bottom of a nearby well. Everywhere, cultist statues of the Buddha were replaced by lingams.[44]

Religious pluralism

When Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan came to Angkor in A.D. 1296, he found what he took to be three separate religious groups. The dominant religion was that of Theravada Buddhism. Zhou observed that the monks had shaven heads and wore yellow robes.[45] The Buddhist temples impressed Zhou with their simplicity. He noted that the images of Buddha were made of gilded plaster.[46] The other two groups identified by Zhou appear to have been those of the Brahmans and of the Shaivites (lingam worshippers). About the Brahmans, Zhou had little to say, except that they were often employed as high officials.[46] Of the Shaivites, whom he called "Taoists", Zhou wrote, "the only image which they revere is a block of stone analogous to the stone found in shrines of the god of the soil in China."[46]

Theravada Buddhism

During the course of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism coming from Siam (Thailand) made its appearance at Angkor. Gradually, it became the dominant religion of Cambodia, displacing both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivism.[47] The practice of Theravada Buddhism at Angkor continues until this day.

Terms and phrases

  • Angkor is a Khmer term meaning "city". It comes from the Sanskrit nagara.
  • Banteay is a Khmer term meaning "citadel" or "fortress" that is also applied to walled temples.
  • Baray means "reservoir".
  • Esvara, or Isvara, is a suffix referring to the god Shiva.
  • Gopura is a Sanskrit term meaning "entrance pavilion" or "gateway".
  • Jaya is a prefix meaning "victory".
  • Phnom is a Khmer term meaning "mountain".
  • Prasat is a Khmer term meaning "tower". It comes from the Sanskrit prasada.
  • Preah is a Khmer term meaning "God" or "King" it can also be a prefix meaning "sacred" or "holy". (Preah Khan means "sacred sword".)
  • Srei is a Khmer term meaning "woman". (Banteay Srei means "citadel of women".)
  • Ta is a Khmer term meaning "grandfather," or under some circumstances "ancestor." (Ta Prohm means "Ancestor Brahma". Neak ta means "ancestors" or "ancestral spirits".)
  • Thom is a Khmer term meaning "large". (Angkor Thom means "large city".)
  • Varman is a suffix meaning "shield" or "protector". (Suryavarman means "protected by Surya, the sun-god".)
  • Wat is a Khmer term, derived from the Sanskrit vattaram, meaning (Buddhist) "temple". (Angkor Wat means "temple city".)

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