Sunday, February 23, 2014

Angkor Wat: Part 2 – The Battle for Glory

At the beginning of the christen era Funan kingdom rose to power because of its interaction with traders, especially Indian. However, by the end of 5th century the Funan Kingdom was on a decline. The trade route has shifted from Isthmus of Kra to Indonesia. Indonesia had the best spices and the traders now directly contacted them rather than Funan. Ironically, the prosperity of South East Asia started by the Funan led to their decline, while Srivijaya (Indonesia) thrived. There was a desperate attempt by Funan kings to change from a trade dependent economy to one that was agrarian. Many irrigational canals were built, but could not stop the downfall. By the mid of 6th century Funan Kingdom was dead. The political instability pushed the Khymer people further inland and they settled around the great lake of Tonle Sap. It was here that the Khymer Empire began to take its root.

Floating Village at Tonle Sap- The Great Lake

The cult of worshiping phallus, a symbol of fertility, was already prevalent in ancient Cambodia. Mountains were considered holy, a place where the ancestral spirit rests. Indian god Shiva, one who resides in the mountain, and also symbolized by a phallus, was easily accepted by the Cambodians as their own god. Soon other gods like Brahma and Vishnu were also assimilated in Cambodian culture.  The promotion of Indic religion was driven by local politics. Control of temples gave power over submissive local elites, and thus to the people under the elites. Jayavarman I (657-681) began to unite different Khymer clans by gaining authority over the local temples. This laid the foundation of devrajya cult in Cambodia.

Khymer Empire officially began in 802CE under the leadership of Jayavarman II who declared himself a ‘Chakravartin’, or ‘king of the world’ after claiming independence from Srivijaya Empire. His reign began with a consecration ritual in the holy mountain of Mahendraparvata, now known as Phnom Kulen. Mahendraparvata symbolized Mount Meru, the center of the universe. On the summit of the mountain was the abode of Indra, the king of Devas. With the ritual, Jayavarman II became the guardian of law and order, protector of religion, and the defender of the land. The mountain is made of sandstone which would be later quarried to make the temples in Angkor. In this mountain we can still see beautiful of sculptures of Brahma, Vishnu, Lakshmi and thousands of Shiva Lingas.
Angkor's obsession with Lingas

Vishnu at Mahendraparvata

The kings became divine after their death. Though the royal temple was dedicated to the living monarch, it also became the mausoleum of the dead king letting the new king draw on powers of his dead ancestors. This strengthened the position of the king whose authority could not be challenged by any outsider. Jayavarman II’s successor Indravarman constructed a stone temple to shelter the royal Shivalinga named Indresvara linga inside which resided Jayavarman II. This cult was continued by the successors, though the specific Indian deity changed over time. Suryavarman II, who built Angkor Wat, was fond of Vishnu, while Jayavarman VII became a Buddhist and constructed the Bayon temple complex of Angkor Thom.

The growing Khymer Empire came in conflict with Tambralinga kingdom. Khymer king Suryavarman I (1002-1050) requested help from Rajendra Chola of Chola Empire. On hearing the news of the powerful alliance Tambralinga kingdom asked help from Srivijaya Kingdom. By this time Srivijaya has become the most powerful empire of South East Asia. Borobudur, the biggest Buddhist Temple, is an evidence of Srivijaya’s prosperity. The Indian Ocean ship panel dated to 800CE found in Borobodur is an example of the maritime prowess of Srivijaya Kingdom. Around the mid of 9th century many sailors from Indonesia started to populate Madagascar. Srivijaya maintained friendly relationship with Cholas and the Palas of Bengal. However, their relation with the Cholas soared by eleventh century. Rajendra Chola led an aggressive naval expedition against Srivijaya Empire on request of the Khymer king. Srivijaya and Tambralinga were routed. The defeat lead to Srivijaya’s decline and ended the monopoly they had over trading. The golden era of Khymer Empire began after the defeat of Srivijaya as active trading resumed in Cambodia for the first time since the Funan.

Angkor Wat
Suryavarman I was the first strong ruler who began the expansion of Khymer Empire by several conquests. He centralized the power and gained more control over the land he ruled. Under Suryavarman II (reigned 1113–1150) the empire reached its peak. It was under his rein that Angkor Wat was built, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It was a deviation from earlier rulers whose royal deity was Shiva. Angkor Wat has been built using Dravidian architecture to represent Mount Meru. Angkor Wat is oriented to the west, unlike other temples in Angkor. It makes many scholars think that it has to do something with the cremation ritual, hence a debate if it is a temple or a mausoleum. However, it could also be possible because it was a Vishnu temple, and Vishnu resides in the West.

Bayon, Angkor Thom
After death of Suryavarman II Champa Kingdom conquered Angkor in a battle fought in Tonle Sap lake. The capital was regained by Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181–1219), a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. After 22 years of long battle Champa was finally defeated and conquered by Jayavarman VII. He renovated Angkor Wat and also built the Bayon in his new capital Angkor Thom. In this temple we find the beautifully sculpted faces of boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara, often confused with Buddha.  Many scholars think that the faces were of Jayavarman himself. He also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean. Ta Prohm is commonly known as Tomb Raider temple or Angelina Jolie Temple after the movie.
Ta Prohm
The Khymer Kingdom began to shrink after the death of Jayavarman VII. Indravarman II (reigned 1219–1243) was also a Buddhist who built many temples, but was not a successful ruler.  Champa allied with the Vietnamese and recovered much of their lost territory. The new Sukhothai Dynasty formed in Thailand pushed the Khymers back. Indravarman’s successor Jayavarman VIII (reigned 1243–1295) was a Hindu. He reestablished Hindu idols in many temples. During his reign Mongols under Kublai Khan attacked Angkor. Jayavarman bought peace by agreeing to pay tribute. However, he could not save the decline of Khymer Empire. Jayavarman was replaced by his son-in law Srindravarman (reigned 1295–1309). He was a follower of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest form of surviving Buddhism that probably came to Cambodia via Sri Lanka. Following Theravada Buddhism meant no more big temples were constructed.

Black Death occurred in China around 1330’s affecting trade. It left its affect in South-East Asia, accelerating the steady decline of Khymer Kingdom. Thai kingdom of Sukhothai was conquered by a stronger Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1350. Ayutthaya attacked Cambodia many times finally succeeding to defeat and take over from them. Angkor was lost from the pages of history as forests took over. Ayutthaya was the new super-power of South East Asia.


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