The episode you have been waiting for has arrived! This time we look at Cambodia from 550 to 1431, the golden age of the Khmers. This was Southeast Asia’s most impressive civilization before the modern era. The Khmers built Angkor, a city that was home to a million people, and Angkor Wat, the largest temple of all time. That is the same temple shown in the picture above. Then suddenly in 1431 they abandoned it all to the jungle, and the world outside Cambodia forgot about the place, until a French explorer stumbled upon the ruins in 1860. Listen and download this episode to hear all about it!
(Transcript, added 11/3/2019)
Episode 7: The Khmers
Greetings, dear listeners! This is it, the big one! If you have listened to any of the other episodes in this podcast, then here is the episode you’ve been waiting for. You probably know already that an ancient civilization lived in Cambodia hundreds of years ago, it built a spectacular city, and after that civilization fell, the city’s ruins were abandoned to the jungle, until 1860, when a French explorer alerted the outside world to the ruins. Since then the jungle has been cleared away, and the ruins of this city are Cambodia’s foremost tourist attraction. Today we call the ruins Angkor, which is Cambodian for “city,” or Angkor Wat, meaning “temple city,” and chances are you’ve seen pictures of the five pinecone-shaped towers in the middle of the whole thing. Indeed, the first picture I chose to use as artwork with this podcast is a picture of those towers; you can see it on the Blubrry.com page that hosts the episodes, on my WordPress.com blog, and it is embedded as cover art into the MP3 files you are downloading. Chances are that when you saw that picture, you didn’t need to be told what it was.
At its height, Angkor was home to an estimated 1 million people. This makes it one of the largest cities of the Middle Ages, competitive with Baghdad, Constantinople, Teotihuacan, and Chinese cities like Changan. And Angkor was the only city in Southeast Asia to grow that big, before the twentieth century. Now we are going to look at Southeast Asia’s greatest civilization before the modern era, the builders of Angkor, the ancestors of today’s Cambodians, the Khmers. Today I don’t have any preliminary announcements, so let’s get into the story of the Khmers right away.
First of all, if you haven’t yet listened to Episode 3, I strongly recommend that you do so. There we looked at Funan, the oldest known state in Cambodia. For this narrative we will be picking up from where we left off in that episode. In Episode 3 we also learned about the Mandala system that characterized most Southeast Asian governments in ancient and medieval times, and I will be mentioning Mandalas again in this episode.
Now when we last saw Cambodia, Funan was on its last legs, and remember, I said that the rulers of Funan were Malays, relatives of the people that live on Southeast Asia’s islands. The ancestors of the Khmers migrated out of China back in Episode 2, and then lived for several centuries on the middle to upper part of the Mekong River valley, in what is now Laos. They had to stay there while Funan was running the show to the south, and it looks like the Khmers were vassals of Funan during that kingdom’s peak years. However, in the middle of the sixth century, Funan started to decline, so the Khmers regained their independence and started moving into northern Cambodia. The first Khmer king whose name has come down to us is Bhavavarman I, and his reign began around the year 550. Those of you who listened to Episode 3 will remember I threw several names at you ending in “varman,” and in this episode I will be doing it again. You have been warned! Bhavavarman’s name tells us that the Khmers had already adopted the culture of Funan for themselves, and the Funan culture was in turn heavily influenced by Indian culture, hence the Sanskrit names. It also tells us that like on Java and in Champa, the Khmer kings at this stage practiced Hinduism.
For the first Khmer kingdom, we have two sources of information, inscriptions found by archaeologists in various parts of Cambodia and Laos, and Chinese records dated to the seventh and eighth centuries. The inscriptions, like those we have from Funan, were written in the Sanskrit language, and are either religious texts, or messages praising the king, like this one. Quote: “He is like the sun in the sky, radiating an intolerable majesty, the issue of the revered kings of earth. He was annointed with sacred water, provided blessings, and was foremost among the virtuous.” End quote. As time went on, we never hear from the inscriptions about the kings having any problems, though we know they must have had some. And because of the official religion, which taught that the king was an avatar of the Hindu god Shiva, the messages grew bolder in that affirmation, until by 800 they were calling the king things like quote, “an incarnate portion of the god.” End quote.
Records from Chinese travelers give the name Zhenla to the Khmer state; it is spelled with a CH at the beginning of the name in older history texts, and with a ZH nowadays. Whichever you prefer, we use the Chinese name because we don’t know what the Khmers called their realm. Later on, after 800, we will hear the Khmers call their country Kambuja or Kambujadesa, from which we get the name we use now, Cambodia, but we don’t know if they used those names this early.
Bhavavarman was succeeded by a close relative named Chitrasena, who changed his name to Mahendravarman. He was in turn followed by his son Isanavarman, who ruled from 611 to 635, and expanded the kingdom both to the west and to the south. In 613 he established a new capital for Zhenla at Isanpura. This was located in the middle of Cambodia, in modern Kompong Thom province; the site is now called Sambor Prei Kuk. Then in 627, Isanavarman finished off Funan by conquering the rest of Cambodia. Finally, we hear of expansion on the west bank of the Mekong River, so it looks like he conquered at least part of the Khorat plateau, in what is now eastern Thailand; no other kingdom ruled this area yet, anyway. After Isanavarman, we hear of kings named Bhavavarman II and Jayavarman I, and then near the end of the seventh century, Jayavarman’s widow, Queen Jayadevi, took charge.
If anyone had drawn a map of Southeast Asia in the late seventh century, it would have shown Zhenla as the largest state in the region, so far. Zhenla was larger than Funan, Champa, the Pyu confederation in Burma, and the Mon states in Thailand and southern Burma. It may have even been larger at Srivijaya at this stage, because that Indonesian state had just gotten its act together. The area Zhenla ruled included modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and part of eastern Thailand. Veteran listeners will remember that in previous episodes I mentioned that the Mekong delta used to be considered part of Cambodia, until the Vietnamese moved in around 1700, so the southernmost part of present-day Vietnam would have belonged to Zhenla, too. And it looks like Zhenla made a good living from trade, rice agriculture, or both. Later on, the Chinese had a proverb describing someone or something as “rich as Zhenla.”
Both the Chinese and the royal sources give the impression that in the seventh century, Zhenla was a coherent, unified state. If that was the case, then Zhenla would have been the second unified state in Southeast Asia; the Vietnamese established the first one. However, today most scholars don’t trust that impression. First, Zhenla doesn’t seem to have had the infrastructure needed, to maintain a state that was both large and tightly knit. All their cities were near the Mekong River, so the Mekong would have acted as the country’s only highway, just as centuries later, Rudyard Kipling would call the Irrawaddy River “the Road to Mandalay.” Away from the Mekong, the land would have been covered by jungle, as it usually is today. The Khmers may have claimed this land as part of their property, but the people living there would have come from other ethnic groups, what we call hill tribes. Second, as we saw in previous episodes, the typical early Southeast Asian state was loosely organized, where it was not always clear which rulers outranked others — we called this system a Mandala. At best, there was a family of monarchs in the capital, but when one looks at their actual power over the minor kings of the other cities, and the chiefs of the hill tribes, “first among equals” might be the best way to describe the official king’s status. So when Zhenla broke up in the eighth century, the cause may have been a case of the central government coming apart, rather than because the leaders of cities and provinces rose up in revolt.
This happened when Javadevi, the queen mentioned a few minutes ago, was the one in charge. In 706 Zhenla split in two. Again, we have to depend on Chinese records for names. The Chinese called the northern half of the kingdom “Land Zhenla,” and the southern half “Water Zhenla.” Because the previous capital was now in Water Zhenla, Land Zhenla built itself a new capital somewhere in Champassak province; this is in the southwest corner of modern Laos. Meanwhile to the south, the rulers of Water Zhenla moved their capital to the Lower Mekong, between modern Phnom Penh and the delta; this was the area where Funan had its capital. Land Zhenla managed to stay in one piece, and even sent embassies to the Chinese emperor, but constant intrigues for the throne shattered Water Zhenla into no less than five smaller states. Water Zhenla was also exposed to pirate raids on its coast. There was an especially bad invasion in 795, from Mataram, the kingdom based on Java.
The Khmer Empire
The raid from Java in 795 dealt Water Zhenla a crushing blow, but it was also the first step in the creation of the Khmer Empire. The story of how this happened was written around the year 916 by an Arab traveler, Abu Zaid Hassan. It tells of a rash young Khmer king, his prime minister, and the king of Java. No names are given in the story, but Lawrence Palmer Briggs, a scholar from the mid-twentieth century, proposed that the unlucky king was Mahipativarman, the last recorded king of Water Zhenla. As for the name of the king of Java, in the last episode I suggested that Dharanindra of the Sailendra dynasty was the king who started construction on the great Borobudur temple, so if I have my dates right, he is the same king who led this raid.
According to the story, one day the young king and his prime minister were discussing what to do about Java, then the strongest naval power in Southeast Asia. The king said, “I have one desire I would like to satisfy.”
“What is this desire, O King?” his minister asked.
“I want to see before me on a plate the head of the Maharaja of Zabag.” (“Maharaja of Zabag” is old Arabic for “king of Java”)
The Khmer monarch’s wish was passed by word of mouth until it reached the Javanese monarch.
(insert Bugs Bunny quote here.)
Whether or not the king of Java really said that, he led a fleet of a thousand ships up the Mekong River, launched a surprise attack on the Khmer king’s capital, and routed the Khmers defending it. Capturing the young king, he said, “You have manifested the desire to see before you my head on a plate. If you had also wished to seize my country or only ravage part of it, I would have done the same thing to Khmer. As you have expressed only the first of these desires, I am going to apply to you the treatment you wished to apply to me, and I will then return to my country without taking anything belonging to the Khmers . . . My victory will serve as a lesson to your successors.” He then chopped off the Khmer king’s head. So it was the king of Java who got a head that day.
Yeah, bad joke, sorry. Now the Javanese king said to the Khmer prime minister, “Look now for someone who will make a good king after this fool, and put him in the place of the latter.”
I should mention before we go on that I just told you the conventional version of the story. It was good enough for twentieth century historians, and it’s good enough for me, but nowadays some scholars don’t take it at face value. They insist that Java is awfully far away from Cambodia, and when the Arabs said “Zabag” at this date, they must have been talking about a closer place, possibly Champa. I hope not; we’ll see enough fighting between the Khmers and Chams later in this episode, and even more fighting between the Chams and Vietnamese in the next episode.
Anyway, the new king picked by the prime minister was an excellent choice: Jayavarman II, a relative of the late king who had been living on Java for several years. We’re not sure what he was doing there. One of my sources suggested he fled to Java to escape the fighting between the Water Zhenla kings, but he could also have been a prisoner captured in a raid, or a royal hostage. The king of Java must have thought Jayavarman would be a loyal vassal, because he approved of Jayavaman’s elevation.
Although we know more about Jayavarman II than we know about any of the Zhenla monarchs, we still don’t know as much about him as we would like. Most of what we know comes from the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, which was carved in 1053, more than 200 years after Jayavarman’s death. This caused the French historian Claude Jacques to make the following remark. Quote: “Because of this, Jayavarman II is probably the Khmer king whose life we know the best — or the least badly.” End quote.
First, Jayavarman sailed up the Mekong, subduing the rivals he met on the way, and set up a capital for himself at Indrapura, a site near the modern city of Kompong Cham. Although he appears to have reunited Water Zhenla under his rule, he also seems to have been an insecure monarch, because he had at least three, and possibly five capitals, during his reign. In 802 he made his big move, traveling to the Phnom Kulen plateau, which was northeast of Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap, and nowhere near the Mekong. Here he built a temple to the god Shiva, hired a brahman to serve as his high priest, and took part in what Hindus call the Devaraja, or god-king ceremony. You can see a picture of this ceremony, which I scanned from the April 1960 issue of National Geographic. It’s in the program notes, on the Blubrry.com page where this episode is hosted. This declared Jayavarman not only a king, but also a god worthy of worship, a living incarnation of Shiva, who was independent of and supreme over all other monarchs, especially the king of Java. And now that he was on top of a high hill, he gave himself the title “King of the Mountain.” Long-time listeners will remember that used to be the title of the kings of Funan. More recently, Java’s Sailendra kings had called themselves that. Now Jayavarman was declaring his right to the title.
The 802 ceremony was a turning point in Jayavarman’s career; after that everything seems to have gone his way. On Phnom Kulen he also built a new capital city, Mahendraparvata. While the ruins of the Shiva temple were discovered many years ago, the ruins of Mahendraparvata are an exciting new discovery. Archaeologists scanned this part of Cambodia with LIDAR, a form of radar that uses laser beams instead of radio waves, from 2000 to 2012, to find the ruins beneath the jungle and get pictures of how the capital was laid out. In fact, as an aside, I will tell you that it was a discussion on Facebook about this lost city, which gave me the idea that I should talk about Southeast Asia, when I was wondering what subject my history podcast would cover.
Jayavarman may have been king of the mountain, or at least king of the hill, but he did not stay there. Eventually his confidence grew to the point that he returned to the lowlands, and established one more capital city, Hariharalaya, to the north of the Tonle Sap. It looks like he finally achieved peace of mind with this move, for he stayed here for the rest of his reign. In this he also set a precedent; for the next six hundred years the Khmer capital would be in Cambodia’s northwest corner, culminating in Angkor.
The next two Khmer kings, Jayavarman III and Indravarman I, also built temples, to reinforce the idea that they were the rightful rulers. They also expanded the country’s irrigation system by digging canals, showing that they had learned the waterworks techniques perfected in the age of Funan. Then came a king you should remember — Yasovarman I, who ruled from 889 to 900. A few miles north of the Tonle Sap he built a new city, called it Yasodharapura, and it became Cambodia’s permanent capital. This is the same city we now call Angkor. The oldest temple in the city, Phnom Bakheng, was left by Yasovarman, and he also constructed an excellent system of canals and enormous reservoirs around the city. Those canals would later be used to feed the large number of laborers used in Angkor’s massive building projects; you could say that Angkor was built on water, and not be far from the truth. Fortunately for historians, Yasovarman, like all Khmer monarchs, was a great braggart, and he left plenty of inscriptions boasting of his achievements. Typically they would use phrases like “The best of kings . . . unique bundle of splendors”, or they might say, quote: “In all the sciences and all the sports . . . in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he was as clever as if he had been the first inventor of them.” End quote. And here is the ultimate boast. Quote: “In seeing him, the creator was astonished and seemed to say to himself, `Why did I create a rival for myself in this king?'” End quote.
The Khmer Masterpieces, and the Decline
During the 10th and 11th centuries our only source of information is the inscriptions. For reasons unclear to us, a civil war disrupted the royal family in the early tenth century, forcing King Jayavarman IV to move the capital in 928, to Koh Ker, a site about 60 miles to the north. It stayed there for twenty years, and then a later king, Rajendravarman II, returned to Angkor. Aside from that bad spell, the Khmer Empire enjoyed growth, in size, power, and cultural sophistication. Land Zhenla submitted peacefully to Angkor’s rule. To the west, it appears that the Mon state of Dvaravati, located in central Thailand, and the Malay states to the south of it, also submitted, during the reign of Suryavarman I, between 1002 and 1050. However, the other Mon state in Thailand, Haripunjaya, managed to remain independent. Suryavarman’s son, Udayadityavarman II, ruled from 1050 to 1066, and fought an inconclusive war with the Burmese, who thought the Khmers were getting too close to Thaton, a Burmese frontier city.
But the western frontier wasn’t the only place to experience conflict. By now there were also petty wars between the Khmers and their eastern neighbor, the kingdom of Champa. There also was more infighting between Khmer kings and those who wanted to be king. In all cases the rebels were led by a senior aristocrat, either somebody from the royal family, somebody from the queen’s family, or a minor king from one of the other cities. Peasant revolts, like the Wat Tyler Rebellion in fourteenth-century England, were unheard of in Southeast Asia before the modern era.
The greatest of the usurpers would go down in history as Suryavarman II, the “Protegé of Surya,” the Hindu son god. According to one inscription, Suryavarman became king when he was only fourteen years old, by persuading some troops to support his claim. Together they ambushed his uncle, the current king, whereupon Suryavarman leaped onto the elephant he was riding and killed him. Suryavarman went on to rule from 1113 to 1150, during which he conquered Champa and then went on to fight the Vietnamese; at one point there was a Khmer army in Thanh Hoa, just 80 miles south of Hanoi.
Now let’s step back at take a look at how big the Khmer Empire had become. Here, in the mid-twelfth century, it had reached its greatest size. It ruled all of Cambodia and Laos, all of Thailand except the northwest corner of the present-day country, and two thirds of present-day Vietnam. It that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.
But it takes more than acquiring land to make a great empire. If all an empire does is grow, eventually that will stop, the empire will then shrink, and after it disappears, people will forget about it. For example, the Middle Elamite Empire’s greatest achievement was the taking away of Hammurabi’s law code from Babylon, and how many of you have heard from the Middle Elamite Empire lately? How many of you know anything about the Middle Elamite Empire, besides what I just told you? I rest my case.
Well, Suryavarman II had cultural achievements to match his military victories. At home he felt the need to build a new temple, for two reasons. First, we saw previous kings build temples to legitimize their rule, and Suryavarman certainly needed to prove the gods were on his side, so nobody would get ideas about seizing power by force, the way Suryavarman had. Second, Suryavarman was a follower of the Hindu god Vishnu, whereas all but one of the kings before him had followed Shiva, and the other was a Buddhist, so a new temple was key to promoting the new faith.
There were two other things Suryavarman wanted with the new temple. It had to be finished during his lifetime, because he could not count on anyone else to finish it after his reign ended. And it had to be grander than any other temple the Khmers had built so far. The capital city was now two hundred years old, and full of houses, canals and older temples, so Suryavarman would have to build the new temple outside the current city limits. What he ended up building was the largest religious structure of all time, covering 500 acres and using 455 nillion cubic yards of stone, brought from miles away because there were no quarries at Angkor itself. Because it was as big as a city, modern Cambodians call it Angkor Wat, the “temple city.” The entire structure is covered with endless reliefs showing battles, scenes from Hindu epics, and events in everyday Khmer life. The overall temple design was meant to be a representation of Heaven on Earth; it has five towers to make it look like Mt. Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain in Hindu mythology. Each tower is shaped like a lotus bud; to my Western eyes the towers resemble pine cones, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. And what may be the most amazing feat of all, one modern engineer has calculated that it would take 300 years to build Angkor Wat today, but Suryavarman committed enough laborers to get the project finished around the end of his 37-year reign. By contrast, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, many of which were being built at the same time, typically took a a century or two to finish, though each was much smaller than Angkor Wat. The central tower of Angkor Wat also became Suryavarman’s tomb; his ashes were placed here when he died.
The cost of Suryavarman’s wars and building Angkor Wat drained the treasury, and left the army overextended. After the Khmer sun king was gone, Champa successfully revolted, and in 1177 the Chams sailed up the Mekong River and plundered Angkor itself. Four years of anarchy followed, but remarkably, the best years of Cambodia’s history were yet to come. Royal authority was reestablished by Jayavarman VII, a middle-aged prince who had refused the throne when it was first offered to him years before. Jayavarman defeated the Chams, drove them back to their home, and was crowned the new king of Angkor. Champa would be a Khmer vassal, not the other way around.
A man of uncommon vigor, Jayavarman VII ruled from 1181 to 1219, meaning he lived well into his 90s. Most of that reign was spent in building projects, and he ended up building more monuments than all the other Khmer kings put together. Chief among these was a remodeled capital city, now called Angkor Thom, which means “big city” in modern Cambodian. Angkor Thom was so big and elaborate that only nearby Angkor Wat could rival it. The city’s largest temple was another mountain of stone, called the Bayon, with fifty towers, each carved with four faces to watch in all directions. A convert to the Mahayana Buddhist sect, Jayavarman erected Buddhist shrines and images all over the city. You can tell he built them because of the distinctive art style; the sculptors carved the Buddhas and the faces on the Bayon to look like Jayavarman himself. And then he converted the temples of his Hindu predecessors into Buddhist ones.
Around the country Jayavarman built roads, put rest houses on them for the comfort of travelers, and he built and maintained 102 hospitals, because Mahayana Buddhism has a strong emphasis on caring for the common man. One inscription describes Jayavarman’s feelings about health care with this quote: “He suffered from the sickness of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public grief that causes the grief of kings, and not their grief.” End quote.
Some historians believe that Jayavarman’s building projects exhausted the kingdom. The demands the god-kings imposed on their people, even a kind king like Jayavarman VII, ended up being too much. In the words of a French archaeologist, Bernard-Philippe Groslier, the Khmers, quote, “died of too much glory.” End quote. None of the kings after Jayavarman built anything important; they lived in luxury, performed their god-king duties, but accomplished little.
By the way, I was amused to read in one of my sources that the king’s duties included sex every day, for the Khmers believed that their land would only remain fertile as long as the king was fertile. Every night when the king went to bed, whether he wanted it or not, a wife or concubine had to go with him. This makes me wonder: If the king said, “Not tonight, I have a headache,” would somebody see that as a good reason to get rid of him?
Meanwhile, Champa declared independence again as soon as it heard the news of Jayavarman’s death, and in the west the Menam River valley was lost to newcomers in the region, the Thais. Yes, I said the Thais! I mentioned in the past that the Thais were the last major ethnic group to migrate from China to Southeast Asia, and now in the thirteenth century, they finally show up! At the same time Theravada Buddhism became the most popular religion, undermining the god-king cult. In the middle of the 13th century the Khmer king himself converted to Theravada Buddhism, perhaps because of the success of the Thais, who were Theravadists already.
In 1292 Marco Polo sailed past Southeast Asia, on his way home from Kublai Khan’s court in Cathay. The only stops he made here were in Champa and Sumatra. He did not visit Cambodia, but he heard about a fabulously wealthy kingdom south of China called Lokak, and he wrote down that hearsay in his famous travel guide. In Lokak, quote: “gold is so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it.” End quote. Lokak may be Cambodia under another name.
Around the same time, Kublai Khan sent an embassy to the Khmers, and the current king, Jayavarman VIII, executed the ambassador. In the last episode we saw that when Java mistreated a Mongol ambassador, that became an excuse for the Mongols to invade Indonesia. This time, before Kublai could retaliate, Jayavarman changed his mind and sent tribute; he wisely decided not to start a war with the Mongols, while he was waging another war with the Thais. When we get to our first episode about the Thais, you will meet the Thai king at this time, Ramkhamhaeng, and I think you’ll agree that Jayavarman did the right thing. In 1296 a Chinese visitor, Zhou Daguan, visited Angkor and took home a glowing report of the city; although the Khmer Empire was now eighty years past its peak, to him it was still Southeast Asia’s foremost state. Angkor remained Cambodia’s glittering capital until 1431, when a Thai invasion sacked the city. Instead of repairing Angkor, the Khmers fled south, and built a new capital on the other end of the Tonle Sap — Phnom Penh. Angkor was thus abandoned to a nonhuman enemy that now closed in from all sides, the jungle. But long before the end came, the political initiative had passed from Cambodia to its neighbors.
We’re done for this episode, but things won’t be dull after this. If anything, the narrative is going to get more exciting, as more primary sources become available and more players enter the show. For the next episode, we’re going to return to Vietnam, where we were in Episode 4, and chronicle the great rivalry between the two kingdoms that sprang up there: the Vietnamese state, now called Dai Viet, and the Indianized state of Champa. Who won? Unless you want to cheat and look up the answer, you’ll have to come back after Episode 8 is uploaded, on or around October 16, 2016. Like I said in previous episodes, if you like what you heard, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on the Blubrry.com page where you played or downloaded this episode. That is my online tip jar. And if you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!