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Angkor of Cambodia was the heart of the Khmer Empire for about 550 years (9th to 15th centuries) before overpopulation and environmental degradation lead to its abandonment. At its peak, the city spawled over an area the size of Los Angeles and supported more than a million people.
Archaeological evidence indicates that parts of the region now called Cambodia were inhabited during the first and second millennia BCE by a Neolithic culture may have migrated from southeastern China to the Indochinese Peninsula. By the first century CE the inhabitants had developed relatively stable, organized societies which had far surpassed the primitive stage in culture and technical skills. The most advanced groups lived along the coast and in the lower Mekong River valley and delta regions where they cultivated rice and kept domesticated animals. Some historians speculate that these people arrived before their present Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao neighbors.
These people may have been Austroasiatic in origin and related to the ancestors of the groups who now inhabit insular Southeast Asia and many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean. They worked metals, including iron and bronze, and possessed navigational skills.
At about the time that Western Europe was absorbing the classical culture and institutions of the Mediterranean, the people of mainland and insular Southeast Asia were responding to the stimulus of a civilization that had arisen in northern India during the previous millennium. The Britons, Gauls, and Iberians experienced Mediterranean influences directly, through conquest by and incorporation into the Roman Empire. In contrast, the Indianization of Southeast Asia was a slower process than the Romanization of Europe because there was no period of direct Indian rule and because of considerable land and sea barriers that separated the region from the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless, Vedic and Hindu religion, political thought, literature, mythology, and artistic motifs gradually became integral elements in local Southeast Asian cultures. The caste system was never adopted, but Indianization stimulated the rise of highly-organized, centralized states.
Funan, the earliest of the Indianized states, is generally considered by Cambodians to have been the first Khmer kingdom in the area. Founded in the first century CE, Funan was located on the lower reaches of the Mekong River delta area. Its capital, Vyadhapura, probably was located near the present-day town of Phumi Banam in Prey Veng Province. The earliest historical reference to Funan is a Chinese description of a mission that visited the country in the third century. The name Funan derives from the Chinese rendition of the old Khmer word "bnam" (mountain). What the Funanese called themselves, however, is not known.
During this early period in Funan's history, the population was probably concentrated in villages along the Mekong River and along the Tonle Sap River below the Tonle Sap. Traffic and communications were mostly waterborne on the rivers and their delta tributaries. The area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. There is considerable evidence that the Funanese economy depended on rice surpluses produced by an extensive inland irrigation system. Maritime trade also played an extremely important role in the development of Funan. The remains of what is believed to have been the kingdom's main port, Oc Eo (now part of Vietnam), contain Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artifacts.
By the 5th century, the state exercised control over the lower Mekong River area and the lands around the Tonle Sap. It also commanded tribute from smaller states in the area now comprising northern Cambodia, southern Laos, southern Thailand, and the northern portion of the Malay Peninsula. Indianization was fostered by increasing contact with the subcontinent through the travels of merchants, diplomats, and learned Brahmans. By the end of the fifth century, the elite culture was thoroughly Indianized. Court ceremony and the structure of political institutions were based on Indian models. The Sanskrit language was widely used; the laws of Manu, the Indian legal code, were adopted; and an alphabet based on Indian writing systems was introduced.
Beginning in the early sixth century, civil wars and dynastic strife undermined Funan's stability, making it relatively easy prey to incursions by hostile neighbors. By the end of the seventh century, a northern neighbor, the kingdom of Chenla, had reduced Funan to a vassal state.
The people of Chenla also were Khmer. Once they established control over Funan, they embarked on a course of conquest that continued for three centuries. They subjugated central and upper Laos, annexed portions of the Mekong Delta, and brought what are now western Cambodia and southern Thailand under their direct control.
The royal families of Chenla intermarried with their Funanese counterparts and generally preserved the earlier political, social, and religious institutions of Funan. In the 8th century, however, factional disputes at the Chenla court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom into rival northern and southern halves. According to Chinese chronicles, the two parts were known as Land (or Upper) Chenla and Water (or Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla maintained a relatively stable existence, but Water Chenla underwent a period of constant turbulence.
At this time Water Chenla was subjected to attacks by pirates from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. By the beginning of the ninth century, it had apparently become a vassal of the Sailendra dynasty of Java. The last of the Water Chenla kings allegedly was killed around 790 by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. The ultimate victor in the strife that followed was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His assumption of the throne as Jayavarman II (ca. 802 - 850) marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese suzerainty and the beginning of a unified Khmer nation.
The Angkorian period or Khmer Empire lasted from the early 9th century to the early 15th century. In terms of cultural accomplishments and political power, this was the golden age of Khmer civilization. The great temple cities of the Angkorian region, located near the modern town of Siemreab, are a lasting monument to the greatness of Jayavarman II's successors. (Even the Khmer Rouge, who looked on most of their country's past history and traditions with hostility, adopted a stylized Angkorian temple for the flag of Democratic Kampuchea. A similar motif is found in the flag of the PRK). The kingdom founded by Jayavarman II also gave modern-day Cambodia, or Kampuchea, its name. During the early ninth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, it was known as Kambuja, originally the name of an early north Indian state/tribe, from which the current forms of the name have been derived.
Possibly to put distance between himself and the seaborne Javanese, Jayavarman II settled north of the Tonle Sap. He built several capitals before establishing one, Hariharalaya, near the site where the Angkorian complexes were built. Indravarman I (877 - 889) extended Khmer control as far west as the Korat Plateau in Thailand, and he ordered the construction of a huge reservoir north of the capital to provide irrigation for wet rice cultivation. His son, Yasovarman I (889 - 900), built the Eastern Baray (reservoir or tank), evidence of which remains to the present time. Its dikes, which may be seen today, are more than 6 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. The elaborate system of canals and reservoirs built under Indravarman I and his successors were the key to Kambuja's prosperity for half a millennium. By freeing cultivators from dependence on unreliable seasonal monsoons, they made possible an early "green revolution" that provided the country with large surpluses of rice. Kambuja's decline during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries probably was hastened by the deterioration of the irrigation system. Attacks by Thai and other foreign peoples and the internal discord caused by dynastic rivalries diverted human resources from the system's upkeep, and it gradually fell into disrepair.
Suryavarman II (1113 - 1150), one of the greatest Angkorian monarchs, expanded his kingdom's territory in a series of successful wars 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 of Burma. He reduced to vassalage the Thai peoples who had migrated into Southeast Asia from the Yunnan region of southern China and established his suzerainty over the northern part of the Malay Peninsula. His greatest achievement was the construction of the temple city complex of Angkor Wat. The largest religious edifice in the world, Angkor Wat is considered the greatest single architectural work in Southeast Asia. Suryavarman II's reign was followed, however, by thirty years of dynastic upheaval and an invasion by the neighboring Cham, who destroyed the city of Angkor in 1177.
Khmer armed with war elephants drove out the Cham in the 12th century.The Cham ultimately were driven out and conquered by Jayavarman VII, whose reign (1181 - ca. 1218) marked the apogee of Kambuja's power. Unlike his predecessors, who had adopted the cult of the Hindu god-king, Jayavarman VII was a fervent patron of Mahayana Buddhism. Casting himself as a bodhisattva, he embarked on a frenzy of building activity that included the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a remarkable temple whose stone towers depict 216 faces of buddhas, gods, and kings. He also built over 200 rest houses and hospitals throughout his kingdom. Like the Roman emperors, he maintained a system of roads between his capital and provincial towns. According to historian George Coedès, "No other Cambodian king can claim to have moved so much stone." Often, quality suffered for the sake of size and rapid construction, as is revealed in the intriguing but poorly constructed Bayon.
Carvings show that everyday Angkorian buildings were wooden structures not much different from those found in Cambodia today. The impressive stone buildings were not used as residences by members of the royal family. Rather, they were the focus of Hindu or Buddhist cults that celebrated the divinity, or buddhahood, of the monarch and his family. Coedès suggests that they had the dual function of both temple and tomb. Typically, their dimensions reflected the structure of the Hindu mythological universe. For example, five towers at the center of the Angkor Wat complex represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe; an outer wall represents the mountains that ring the world's edge; and a moat depicts the cosmic ocean. Like many other ancient edifices, the monuments of the Angkorian region absorbed vast reserves of resources and human labor and their purpose remains shrouded in mystery.
Angkorian society was strictly hierarchical. The king, regarded as divine, owned both the land and his subjects. Immediately below the monarch and the royal family were the Brahman priesthood and a small class of officials, who numbered about 4,000 in the tenth century. Next were the commoners, who were burdened with heavy corvée (forced labor) duties. There was also a large slave class who built the enduring monuments.
After Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja entered a long period of decline that led to its eventual disintegration. The Thai were a growing menace on the empire's western borders. The spread of Theravada Buddhism, which came to Kambuja from Sri Lanka by way of the Mon kingdoms, challenged the royal Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist cults. Preaching austerity and the salvation of the individual through his or own her efforts, Theravada Buddhism did not lend doctrinal support to a society ruled by an opulent royal establishment maintained through the virtual slavery of the masses.
In 1353 a Thai army captured Angkor. It was recaptured by the Khmer, but wars continued and the capital was looted several times. During the same period, Khmer territory north of the present Laotian border was lost to the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In 1431 the Thai captured Angkor Thom. Thereafter, the Angkorian region did not again encompass a royal capital, except for a brief period in the third quarter of the sixteenth century.
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