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The Civilization of Angkor

by / Wednesday, 12 March 2014 / Published in History, Monument, Religion
Khmer Marble Carving Jayavarman VII
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The site of Angkor which means « capital city » was the seat of Khmer empire. The Angkorian period began in 802 AD and lasted until the 14th century.

The ruins of two magnificent monuments reflect the distinction of the Civilization of Angkor : the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The site of Angkor counts thousands of temples that characterise Khmer religious architecture. It is also a proof of an elaborate infrastructure system with roads and canals connecting an area of 1.000 square km.

The restoration of the site begun in 1907 under the direction of the Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient. Since 1993 it has been co-ordinated by the German, Indian, Japanese and the UNESCO working jointly with the Cambodian authorities.

It is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and welcome two million visitors annually.

The Civilization of Angkor : The Khmer Empires

The first Khmer King who established his empire in Angkor is Jayavarman II, who announced the independence of Cambodia in 802 AD. He achieved the unification of the country. Jayavarman II identified the King with the deities and promoted the image of the god-king. In 889, the King Yasovarman ascended to the throne. He accomplished many constructions, as massive reservoirs, numerous Hindu temples, ashrams. Over the next 300 years, numerous monuments were built in the area of Angkor.

The Angkor Wat was built between 1113 and 1150 by the King Suryavarman II. At first, it was the King’s personal temple mausoleum.  The temple was dedicated to Vishnu. It was decorated with bas reliefs describing the Hindu cosmology, scenes of the mythology and also scenes from the life of the imperial court.

Around 1150, the King was killed by the Cham (southern Vietnam) who invade the area. But the Prince Jayavarman VII defeated the Cham in battles and assumed the throne in 1181. He constructed the most part of the Angkor Thom. According to the state religion  transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism, the monument exhibits Buddhas images. The Angkor Wat briefly became a Buddhist shrine.

Some theories have been advanced to account for the decline and abandonment of Angkor in 1431 :

The war with the Ayutthaya Kingdom and Ayutthaya invasions. The erosion of the state religion and the Hindu conception of Kingship. The neglect of public works and the reduction of the constructions and maintenances, that forced the population to scatter. Or, a natural disaster, as diseases, earthquakes, inundations or drastic climate changes.

The Civilization of Angkor : A religious History

The ruins of Angkor reveal the history of Angkorian state religion, but it wasn’t only the site of religious monuments. It was also the site of vast cities for Khmer people. But unfortunately conserve nothing from non-religious buildings which were constructed of perishable materials.

The pre-Angkorian religion is known as the a Buddhism and indigenous ancestor cults. The bear stone inscriptions discovered in the temples named the Hindu deity Shiva and local ancestral deities. During the Angkorian period, the deity named Harihara was favored by the Khmer Kings. Harihara is a combination of the two deities Vishnu and Shiva. This period also marked a change in religious architecture. Increasingly, the constructions represented temple pyramids. Lingams, that identified the King with Shiva were setting up in the mains sanctuaries.

At the beginning of the 12th century, the Angkor Wat symbolised a turn in the cult of  Shiva. The temple represented the supreme image of the deity Vishnu. The King Suryavarman II proclaimed his identity with Vishnu. In fact, this turn to Vaishnavism perpetuates the royal personality cult of Angkor. A few years later, the King Jayavarman IV proclaimed the Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion of his kingdom. He constructed Buddhist temples Angkor Thom, where he represented himself as the Bodhisattva. The Hindu restoration began around 1243. The destruction of Buddhist images and the restablishment of the Hindu shrines followed one another.

During the 13th century the Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion. The practise of this religion continues until this day in Cambodia.

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