The Angkorian era began in the early ninth century and continued until the early fifteenth century after the common era. The Khmer civilisation was at its pinnacle during this time, both in terms of the cultural achievements of its people and the political power it wielded. The enormous temple towns of the Angkorian area, which can be found close to the contemporary town of Siemreab, are a testimony to the glory of Jayavarman II’s successors that will stand the test of time. (Even the Khmer Rouge, who were hostile toward most of their country’s history and customs prior to their rule, used a stylised version of an Angkorian temple as the design for the flag of Democratic Kampuchea. The flag of the DPRK has a design that is quite similar to this one. The name Cambodia, often spelled Kampuchea, is derived from the name of the kingdom that Jayavarman II established. From the beginning of the ninth century until the middle of the fifteenth century, it was known as Kambuja. Kambuja was originally the name of an early north Indian state, and it is from that name that the modern variants of the name have been derived.
Jayavarman II established his kingdom to the north of the Tonle Sap, most likely to put some space between himself and the Javanese who travelled by water. He constructed a number of capital cities before settling on Hariharalaya, which he located close to the location where the Angkorian monuments were constructed. During his reign (A.D. 877-879), Indravarman I stretched Khmer rule as far west as the Korat Plateau in Thailand. Additionally, he issued an order for the building of a massive reservoir to the north of the city to supply irrigation for the growth of wet rice. His son, Yasovarman I, created the Eastern Baray (also known as a reservoir or tank) between the years 889 and 900 A.D., and evidence of it has survived to the current day. The length of its dikes, which may still be seen today, is more than 6 kilometres, and their width is greater than 1.6 kilometres. Over the course of a half millennium, Indravarman I and his successors were responsible for constructing an intricate network of canals and reservoirs, which served as the foundation for Kambuja’s economic success. They made possible an early “green revolution” that gave the nation with vast surpluses of rice by liberating growers from dependency on the unpredictable seasonal monsoons. This allowed the country to feed a larger population. It is likely that the degradation of the irrigation system in Kambuja throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was a contributing factor in the city’s collapse. As a result of attacks by Thai and other foreign peoples, as well as internal unrest caused by dynasty disputes, human resources that were being directed toward the care of the system were diverted, and it progressively fell into disrepair.
One of the greatest Angkorian monarchs, Suryavarman II (1113-50), was successful in expanding his kingdom’s territory through a series of wars fought against the kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam, the kingdom of Nam Viet in northern Vietnam, and the small Mon polities as far west as the Irrawaddy River in Burma. These wars took place between 1113 and 1150. He established his suzerainty over the northern section of the Malay Peninsula, and he did this by reducing the Thai peoples who had moved into Southeast Asia from the Yunnan area of southern China to the status of vassals under his rule. The creation of the temple city complex known as Angkor Wat is considered to be his most notable accomplishment. Angkor Wat is often regarded as the most impressive piece of architecture ever created in Southeast Asia and is the biggest religious structure in the whole globe. Despite this, the reign of Suryavarman II was followed by thirty years of dynastic turbulence and an invasion by the neighbouring Cham, who were ultimately responsible for the destruction of the city of Angkor in 1177.
The Cham were eventually expelled from Kambuja and subjugated by Jayavarman VII, whose reign (1181–ca. 1218) was the period during which Kambuja’s dominance was at its highest point. In contrast to his predecessors, who embraced the religion of the Hindu god-king, Jayavarman VII was a devoted supporter of Mahayana Buddhism throughout his reign. Casting himself in the role of a bodhisattva, he launched himself into a flurry of building activity that included the construction of the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a remarkable temple whose stone towers depict 216 faces of buddhas, gods, and kings. Both of these structures are located in the Bayon. In addition, he constructed approximately 200 hospitals and rest homes over the whole of his empire. In the manner of the emperors of ancient Rome, he oversaw the upkeep of a network of highways that connected the capital to the other cities in the provinces. “No other Cambodian ruler can claim to have moved that much stone,” the historian George Coedès states. “No other Cambodian king was able to do so.” In many cases, the quality was sacrificed for the purpose of increasing the scale or increasing the rate of building, as is seen by the captivating but badly built Bayon.
Carvings demonstrate that ordinary buildings in Angkor were simple timber constructions not dissimilar to those that may be seen in Cambodia today. The magnificent stone structures were not utilised by members of the royal family as houses at any point in time. Rather, they were the centre of Hindu or Buddhist cults that glorified the divinity or buddhahood of the king and his family. These cults were said to have originated in India. It is possible, according to Coedès, that they served as both a temple and a tomb at the same time. In most cases, the scale of their dimensions mirrored the organisation of the world described in Hindu mythology. For instance, the five towers at the core of the Angkor Wat complex symbolise the peaks of Mount Meru, the centre of the cosmos; an outside wall portrays the mountains that ring the world’s edge; and a moat depicts the cosmic ocean. All of these elements are interconnected. The purpose of the monuments that can be found in the Angkor area, in addition to the purpose of many other ancient structures, is a mystery despite the fact that they required tremendous amounts of human work and resources.
An absolute social hierarchy prevailed in Angkorian civilization. Both the land and the people who lived on it belonged to the monarch, who was worshipped as a god. The Brahman clergy and a tiny class of bureaucrats, who numbered around 4,000 in the tenth century, were immediately behind the king and the royal family in the social hierarchy of ancient India. The next class consisted of the commoners, who were subjected to harsh corvée (forced labour) obligations. In addition, there existed a sizable slave population that, much like the faceless masses of ancient Egypt, was responsible for the construction of the everlasting monuments.
Soon after Jayavarman VII passed away, Kambuja began a protracted period of decline that ultimately resulted in the collapse of the kingdom. On the western frontiers of the empire, the Thai presented an ever-increasing threat. The propagation of Theravada Buddhism, which originated in Sri Lanka and made its way to Kambuja from there through the Mon kingdoms, posed a threat to the royal cults of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism did not provide doctrinal support to a society that was ruled by an extravagant royal establishment that was maintained through the virtual slavery of the masses. This was because Theravada Buddhism preached asceticism and the salvation of the individual through his or her own efforts.
In the year 1353, a Thai army took control of Angkor. The Khmer retook control of it, although further battles resulted in many plunderings of the city throughout that period. During this same time period, Khmer land that was located north of what is now the border with Laos was annexed by the kingdom of Lan Xang in Laos. In 1431, Thai forces took control of Angkor Thom. With the exception of a short period that took place in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, the Angkorian territory did not again have a royal capital beyond this point in time.