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Cambodia - an historical sketch

The early years

The country now known as Cambodia had its earliest beginnings in the sixth century a.d. Reference to Chenla is found in Chinese records dating to approximately 550 a.d. As is often the case with an emerging culture, it was a ‘vassal state’of a pre-existing culture- Funan, which itself paid tribute to China. The name ‘Kambuja’ was adopted by the Khmers, and was highly influenced by Indian (Hindu) culture.

Funan influence, at its height of power, stretched from Champa to the east, (now within the Republic of Vietnam), to the bay of Bengal in the east, and included most of the Malay peninsula.

Early Cambodian King Isnavarman (c.e. 611), was credited by the Chinese with the conquest of Funan around the year 627 c.e.  Isnavarman had several capitols. Inscriptions from this era point to a wane in Buddhism coinciding with a rise in Hinduism.

It was this Hindu-based culture that settled at the northern tip of Cambodia’s largest lake the Tonle Sap, and formed the Angkor dynasties. Jayavarman II is recognized as the founder of the Angkor kingdom, though not the actual city. (D.G.E. Hall -A History of Southeast Asia, p.97).

Reference to his reign is found on an eleventh century inscription, which was translated by Louis Finot in 1915. It was Jayavarman II’s adoption of a form of Saivism that led to the proliferation of building over the next centuries. From his time forward it was the duty of successive kings to raise a ‘temple mountain’, an imitation of mount Meru.

Angkor was founded by Yasovarman I (889-900), who began a great building program that included the reservoir now known as the Eastern Baray. Yasovarman I’s greatest achievements, agreed upon by historians, are (1) the provision of an adequate water supply for his capitol, (2) the digging of the immense Eastern Baray (reservoir), (3) change and control of the course of the Siam Reap river, and (4) a complex systems of moats, reservoirs and pools which permitted the storage of water for the very dry ‘winters’ of the region. Indeed, when the Thai’s conquered the city hundreds of years later, they destroyed this intricate system, resulting in the relocation of the capital south to the area of present day Phnom Penh.

The 11th century saw the first Cambodian embassy to China, as well as incursions from its eastern neighbor Champa (southern delta of modern Vietnam). It also saw the most extravagant building yet undertaken. Reacting to a Cham invasion, Jayavarman VII set out to build an impregnable city. The result was Angkor Thom. Enclosed by a moat nearly eight miles in circumference Angkor Thom is protected by a laterite wall backed by an earthen embankment. The Angkor Thom complex also contains one of the single-most recognizable images of the Angkor complexes; the four gigantic faces of Jayavarman VII topping a tower that was at one time covered in gold.

Angkor Thom, Cambodia (P.C. Piilonen photo 2008)

The combination of the demands of wars, with the vast building programs meant thousands of villagers spent most of their time maintaining the many temples, acting as officials, laborers, masons, sculptors. This impoverished the populace to the point of the decline of the culture. The historian Coedes considered Jayavarman VII ‘a megalomaniac whose foolish prodigality was one of the causes of the decadence of his country.’

To the east in modern Sukhothai, the Thai Kingdom was beginning to establish itself. Rama Khamheng, had married a daughter of Jayavarman VII. With support from Kublai Khan, he established the Kingdom of Sukhothai in 1270 c.e.

Wat Taphan Hin ("Stone bridge monastery") lies in the mountains to the west of Sukhothai National Historical Park, Thailand.

This early Thai pressure continued. There is argument as to the correct date and monarch involved in early forays by the Thais, however all agree that the Siamese captured Angkor in 1431. In a foreshadow of what was to befall their own capital Ayuthaya courtesy of the Burmese several hundred years later, the Thai’s took all the loot they could carry and deported thousands of prisoners.

The capital was moved south to present-day Phnom Penh, as it was thought that the old capital was too vulnerable to Thai attack. At the same time the people dispersed to escape the forced labor imposed by former Kings.

Angkor would lie deserted until it was ‘discovered’ by the French centuries later.

© R.J. Carver 2010

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The opinions and information expressed  in "Surviving Angkar" are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tabitha Foundation.