The Angkorian Period: The Classical Age

Over the course of the tenth century, the brilliance of the court is suggested by the numerous temples founded by court dignitaries across the plain. Prasat Kravan and Banteay Srei are among the most remarkable of these.

It is in the tenth century that the first known mythical history of Cambodia appears. A Sanskrit inscription at Baksei Chamkrong recounts how the Khmer race was founded by the marriage of Kamvu, a self-born ascetic, and Mera, the primordial Apsara, or female divinity. This suggests that the unity of the civilization was already well established, inspiring speculation into its semi-divine origins.

Domestic peace was interrupted in the early eleventh century with the rise to power of Jayaviravarman, but also when the future Suryavarman I waged war against the reigning king (for perhaps as long as nine years). Once again, the continued evolving efficacy, and the renown, of the Angkorian system is made clear. The victorious usurper did not choose to assert his power by founding a new palace. Instead, falsifying the date of his ascension to the throne, and obliging the court officials to concur, with the proclamation of a solemn oath of loyalty, the new ruler established his court at the very same royal site. This specific geographic choice placed him literally in the continuity of Angkor and symbolically supported his claim to legitimacy through the maternal line.

Indeed, it is undoubtedly with his reign that the notion of "Angkor" exceeded its own spatial limits to take on the larger dimensions of an entire civilization. This king expanded the area of cultivated land on the Angkor plain by beginning construction of the largest baray to date, measuring 8 by 2.1 kilometers. Indeed, it is undoubtedly with his reign that the notion of "Angkor" exceeded its own spatial limits to take on the larger dimensions of an entire civilization. This king expanded the area of cultivated land on the Angkor plain by beginning construction of the largest baray to date, measuring 8 by 2.1 kilometers. Founding temples in near and distant provinces, Suryavarman I both asserted central power over existent communities, and created new spheres of influence.

The art of the following reign, that of Udayadityavarman II who rose to the throne in 1050, would seem to reflect the consolidation of a civilization, allowing for the liberty of a certain self expression.In addition to the usual mythological scenes and floral or animal decor of lintels and pediments, temple walls are decorated with small panels framing animal or human figures sculpted according to nature. Animals never before seen in temple reliefs appear here for the first time: goats, peacocks, tigers, deer. This originality of expression can be seen at the Baphuon, and at the Western Mebon temple complex built by Udayadityavarman on an island in the Western Baray.

Toward the end of the eleventh century Jayavarman VI continued in Suryavarman's steps, erecting several temples beyond the Angkor region proper. In their architecture and decor these constructions prefigure the remarkable achievements embodied in the mountain-temple built by the next great king, Suryavarman II, who came to power in 1113: Angkor Wat. The construction of this temple, because of its sheer size, as well as its architectural and artistic perfection, has surely required tremendous means and exceedingly sophisticated technique.

After the middle of the twelfth century, Dharanindravarman II is thought to have been the first Buddhist king to rule over Angkor. His reign is notable in that some thirty years later his son, Jayavarman VII, was to institute Buddhism as the official religion of the Empire. However during the interval between the reigns of father and son, Angkor - as both a capital city and a civilization - was to suffer what would prove to be irreparable damage : falling to the Cham in 1177, the capital was virtually destroyed. The Angkorian urban network, in all its complex dimensions, soon came to a standstill.

The fall of the capital undoubtedly brought into question the efficacy and durability of the system, perhaps most specifically in its intimate relationship to the Brahmanic religion.

It may indeed be for this very reason that in 1181, carrying victory over the Chams, the new King, Jayavarman VII, established Mahayana Buddhism as the official religion of the reclaimed Empire. Each of Jayavarman VII's monuments expressed faith in the compassionate savior Lokesvara.


Jayavarman VII

The iconography of these temples gives primacy to Lokesvara, known for his healing powers. This religious engagement even dictated the construction of numerous social works such as hospitals and rest houses along the principal roads of the kingdom. Certain religious constructions moreover translate this expression of faith into three dimen-sional space. Neak Pean, for example, was not simply a place of religious worship but simultaneously a sort of curative spa.

Following in the line of his predecessors, maximizing the use of natural and manmade features to create a new and harmonious social environment, Jayavarman VII proved a truly innovative urban planner. Immediately after ascension to the throne, this last great Angkorian king began to redesign the layout of the capital. Utilizing the remaining religious and urban structures, and complementing this existent framework with rationally conceived new constructions, Jayavarman VII put the ravaged city back into working order. Choosing a strategic location between the two great barays and just north of the Bakheng, the king circumscribed a large area, known today as Angkor Thom including the Royal Palace and the Baphuon, with an imposing laterite wall and outer moat.

At the city center stands the Bayon, Jayavarman VII's mountain-temple. With towers theoretically numbering fifty-four, a symbolic number in Indian tradition, each in the form of an enormous four-faced head looking serenely out in the cardinal directions, the Bayon is indisputably Angkor's most unique expression of this traditional type of religious complex dedicated to the royal cult. With the Bayon as the central mountain pivot, the whole of Angkor Thom illustrates in three dimensions the Indian creation myth of the churning of the sea of milk in a cosmogonic tug of war between gods and demons. Attested to in diverse artistic forms throughout the Angkor period, this myth of eternal regeneration found here its most concrete and dramatic expression.

Before completing the Bayon for his personal cult, Jayavarman VII consecrated Ta Prohm temple in memory of his mother, followed by Preah Khan dedicated to his father. He moreover constructed a new baray, the Jayatataka with Neak Pean at its center. Another type of waterwork was to proliferate during the reign of Jayavarman VII: a stone structure consisting of a series of narrow covered water passageways arranged side by side to span a stream or canal, it served at once as a bridge and as a variable dam. The construction of these relatively small-scale and locally manageable waterworks, implying a dispersion of infrastructural energies and encouraging a decentralization of authority, is seen by many as a sign and perhaps cause of Angkorian decline. The reign of Jayavarman VII is also marked by an important innovation in statuary art. Throughout the entire tradition of Khmer religious iconography up to this point, historical figures had been sculpted to bear the ideal traits of their chosen god; under Jayavarman VII, true portraits of the king and his wife are sculpted for the first time. The innovation of the statue-portrait is taken one step further when the god Lokesvara is himself sculpted in the image of Jayavarman VII. This can be seen as the culminating stage in the evolution of a political, religious and aesthetic tradition in which the association of the gods with their royal followers, adopted as the cornerstone of the Khmer monarchy at the inception of the Angkorian period by Jayavarman II, is taken to its logical limit: it is now the god who takes on the form of the king and not the other way around.

In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, after the death of Jayavarman VII, the heritage left by four hundred years of glorious Angkorian rule provided the framework and means for prosperity throughout the thirteenth century. A Chinese emissary named Tcheou Ta Kouan, visiting Cambodia in 1296 lauded the continued splendor of the capital city, recording many of its aspects in detailed descriptions. Yet the lack of evident activity would seem rather to reflect a period of stagnation foreboding definitive decline.The court was maintained within the city realized by Jayavarman VII, with successive monarchs largely only repairing or making minor additions and modifications to existent structures. Defacing, and often resculpting Buddha figures into lingas, Jayavarman VII's Shivaist successors transformed his many Buddhist monuments into Brahmanic places of worship. Images of Lokesvara were transformed to represent the Brahmanic god Shiva. It was undoubtedly during this period that Buddhist reliefs of Brahmanic temples built prior to the reign of Jayavarman VII were also disfigured. Iconographic transformation was not however systematic. While the thirteenth century was marked by an official return to Brahmanism, all evidence suggests that Buddhism increasingly spread within the ordinary population, harmoniously co-existing with Brahmanic sects. The earliest known full Pali inscription at Angkor was written in the early fourteenth century, indicating not only the existence of Buddhism, but more specifically that of the Theravada faith. Over this first quarter of the fourteenth century Theravada Buddhism was to definitively replace Brahmanism as the religion not only of the people but moreover of the monarchy. In cultural terms, the Angkorian Empire was coming to an end.

At this time, the first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, soon became the dominant force in the region, drawing on the achievements of the peninsula's most brilliant civilization. Socio-cultural exchange between the Angkorian Empire and this nascent Buddhist kingdom was not limited to religion : it also involved linguistic, artistic and institutional practices, and functioned in both directions, depending largely on the changing balance of power. But the rise of the one kingdom was eventually to contribute to the decline of the other.

Over the course of the fourteenth century the efficiency of the Angkorian social management and belief systems rapidly diminished. Reasons contributing to the fall of Angkor are however complex and interdependent. With the adoption of Theravada Buddhism, the monarchy lost the ideological base on which it had constructed the Empire. The gods were no longer omnipotent, and in any case the monarchy was linked more weakly to the divine world. What is more, the common people no longer served collectively in the marked Brahmanic hierarchy to ensure the continuation of the royal cult. The efficacy of the monumental Angkorian waterworks itself depended on the intensive collective labor encouraged by Brahmanic ideology.

While this interplay of cause and effect can not be disentangled to determine a primary source of the Empire's decline, one major factor is nevertheless of singular importance. Throughout the fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries the increasingly powerful Siamese army waged repeated attacks on the capital city. With this intense new pressure, the united forces of ideology and labor, necessary for the maintenance of the ponderous Angkorian infrastructure, were progressively dismantled. Large-scale system failure ultimately contributed to complete military defeat. In leaving Angkor in 1432 following the final Siamese siege, the Khmer monarchy left behind an agrarian city which had lost its internal coherence of meaning. The waning of the unique civilization of Angkor was marked in strong symbolic terms by the abandonment of Angkor as a capital city.

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