Khmer Kingdom Research Paper

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The Khmer acquired and maintained their substantial kingdom by a skillful combination of warfare, diplomacy, and pragmatism, At its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Khmer-established Angkor Empire controlled much of present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and southern Vietnam. After 1431, the Khmer became pawns perched uneasily between the expanding Vietnamese and Thai states.

The Khmer people established some of the earliest Southeast Asian states as well as the great Angkor Empire. Angkor dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia for half a millennium beginning in the ninth century, flourishing as one of Eurasia’s most creative societies.

Early Khmer States and Indian Influences

Just prior to the common era India began exercising a strong influence in Southeast Asia. The process by which Indian ideas spread into and influenced many Southeast Asians, often termed “Indianization,” mixed Indian ideas with local ideas. This occurred at about the same time as classical Greco-Roman civilization was spreading around the Mediterranean. Indian traders and priests began regularly traveling the oceanic trade routes to mainland Southeast Asia, which they termed the “land of gold,” settling in some of the states and marrying into or becoming advisers to influential families. They brought with them Indian concepts of religion, government, and the arts, as well as writing systems. Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism became important in the region, especially among the upper classes.

The first great Khmer state, Funan, thrived from around 60 to 540 CE. Centered in the fertile Mekong River delta of southern Vietnam, Funan was in regular contact with China, had adopted many Indian practices, valued literacy, and built masterful canal systems linking its major cities. At times Funan may have dominated much of what is today Cambodia and southern Thailand. With its access to major land and sea trade routes, Funan was part of large trading networks. Trade goods from as far as Rome, Arabia, Central Asia, and perhaps East Africa have been found in its ruins. Merchants from various countries, including India and China, lived in the major port city, exporting forest products such as ivory, rhinoceros horn, and wild spices. Another Khmer kingdom or grouping of city-states, called by the Chinese Zhenla, emerged inland in the Mekong River basin around the fifth century and gradually outshone Funan. Zhenla played a dominant regional role until the seventh century, when it was destroyed by a civil war.

The Angkor Empire and Government

The greatest Khmer state was the Indianized kingdom of Angkor, established by a visionary king, Jayavarman II (c. 770–850; reigned c. 790–850), in 802. The name Angkor derives from the Sanskrit term for holy city, and Jayavarman identified himself with the Hindu god Siva. Hindu priests probably brought the Indian idea of god kings to Khmer rulers. His successors extended and consolidated the kingdom. At its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Angkor had a loosely integrated empire controlling much of present day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and southern Vietnam. The Khmer acquired and maintained their substantial empire by a skillful combination of warfare, diplomacy, and pragmatism.

This vigorous imperial system compares favorably with the fragmented states of medieval Europe, bearing some resemblance to the Carolingian state founded by Charlemagne in northwestern Europe around the same time. The well-financed Angkor government supported substantial public services, including a system of hospitals, schools, and libraries. Some kings were noted as avid patrons of the arts. Theater, art, and dance reflected Hindu values. For example, at festivals troupes of dancers enacted scenes from Hindu holy books.

Monuments, Canals, and Urbanization

Many magnificent stone temple mountains were built as sanctuaries and mausoleums, designed to represent the Hindu conception of the cosmos. These temples also provided vivid and concrete symbols of a monarch’s earthly power, since the construction involved advanced engineering skills and massive amounts of drafted labor. The most famous temple complex is Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the premodern world. It dwarfed the magnificent cathedrals of Europe and grand mosques of Baghdad or Cairo. The reliefs carved into stone at Angkor Wat and other temples provide glimpses of daily life, showing fishing boats, midwives attending a childbirth, merchant stalls, jugglers and dancers at a festival, peasants bringing goods to market, the crowd at a cockfight, and men playing chess.

Drafted workers also constructed an extensive hydraulic network of canals and reservoirs for efficient water distribution, demonstrating some of the most advanced civil engineering in the premodern world. The Khmer were successful farmers, obtaining astonishing productivity from what was originally only a moderately fertile region. The Khmer may have had the most productive agriculture in premodern history, producing three to four crops a year. Only a few premodern peoples could match Khmer farming capabilities, which depended on an ingenious water storage system and the unusual geography of central Camodia, including a large seasonal lake which renewed the soil. But historians still debate whether Angkor wetrice farming was based chiefly on rainfall and flooding or irrigation, or perhaps a combination of both.

By the twelfth century the bustling capital city, Angkor Thom, and its immediate environs had a substantial population, perhaps as many as one million people, much larger than any medieval European city and comparable to all but the largest Chinese and Arab cities of that era. The magnificent temples still standing today and the remnants of the remarkable water control network testify to the prosperity and organization of the society. While the source of some speculation, the evidence is unclear whether neighboring or subsequent states imitated or adapted the Khmer water control network.

Angkor Society

The rigid Khmer social structure resembled that of medieval Europe in some respects. Each class had its appointed role, bound by many rules. Priestly families led a cult for the popular worship of the kings, who claimed godlike powers. Below the priests were the trade guilds. The vast majority of people were essentially serfs tied to the soil they plowed, to the temples they served, and to the king’s army. In exchange for considerable material security, Khmer commoners tolerated a highly unequal distribution of wealth as well as substantial labor demands. No India-style caste system existed despite the strong Hindu influence. Like many premodern societies, there were many slaves and people in some form of temporary or permanent involuntary servitude.

Khmer women played a much more important role in society and politics than in most other places in the world at that time, due in part to a matrilineal tradition. Women dominated the palace staff, and some were even gladiators and warriors. They also operated most of the retail stalls. Chinese visitors were shocked at their liberated behavior. Women were also active in philanthropy, scholarship, and the arts, including the national passion for poetry. Unfortunately all the manuscripts, written on palm leaves, deteriorated over the centuries.

The Heritage of Angkor

Eventually Angkor declined from varied causes. Military expansion overstretched resources. Increased temple building resulted in higher tax levies and forced labor, antagonizing much of the population into rebellion. There is some evidence that there may have been a breakdown of the irrigation system. Outside forces also played a role. Amidst the growing disruption, Theravada Buddhism spread into Angkor in the mid-thirteenth century from Sri Lanka, and gradually became the dominant religion, promoting nonviolence and undermining god-kings. By the thirteenth century the ancestors of the Thai and Lao peoples had migrated from southwest China and set up states in northern Thailand and the Mekong River valley. They repeatedly sacked Angkor and seized much of the empire’s territory. The Angkor capital was abandoned in 1431, and the imperial structure disintegrated by 1440. But Angkor left an enduring legacy as the Thai peoples gradually adopted many aspects of Khmer government, culture, and religion.

The ensuing centuries proved difficult. The Khmer became pawns perched uneasily between the expanding Vietnamese and Thai states. Both their neighbors periodically attempted, often successfully, to control or dominate the demoralized remnants of the once splendid Angkor civilization. Beginning in 1863 the French controlled Cambodia, a colonization that only ended in 1953. Terrible conflict and genocide devastated Cambodia from 1970 until the mid-1990s. Yet, even today, the image and spirit of long abandoned Angkor continues to inspire the Khmer people.


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  4. Higham, C. (2002). The civilization of Angkor. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Higham, C. (2003). Early cultures of mainland Southeast Asia. Chicago: Art Media Resources.
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