Through Eastern Eyes – the Ancient Khmer Kingdom

Angkor WatHow far is what we see filtered by the reference points we have?  Here I explore the ancient Khmer Kingdom, part of the Indian Diaspora of the first millennium AD, doing my best to look at it through Eastern eyes – Indian to be precise.

Cambodia is the country of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the country of the Khmer Empire with its capital at Angkor, and the home of the lower levels of the great Mekong River. Just those thoughts, make me pause with wonder and an element of fear.

As a traveller I am interested in the “in-between spaces”, both geographically and historically. In Cambodia, those spaces are huge – the unknown flat land where dark fields stretch seemingly barren as far as the eye can see, the giant Tonle Sap freshwater lake, where some of the waters of the Mekong back up rather than flowing to the sea. The historical space – what is Angkor beyond a city established by Hindu King Jayavarman I and with a famous temple built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the C12th –  is also largely unknown.

Through Eastern Eyes
On entering Angkor Wat, my first surprise was to step into what seemed like India in design and sculpture, taking me immediately to my time in India over the years – from Varanasi to Madurai, Somnathpur to Kerala. A reminder of the dark and dusty museums across the country that display artefacts that tell us little of the stories of history. I visited temples in temple towns and little Tamil villages where outsiders rarely passed. I puzzled over the bronzes and stone sculpture of Mauryas and Kalingas, Pallavas and Cholas, Hoysala and Chalukya, trying to discern something of the shifting cultures and regimes beyond the quality of artisanal skill. I’ll try and situate Angkor, insofar as one can in the Indian diaspora of the first millennium after Christ.

The second revelation was that the Ancient Angkor Kingdom had been the largest state of antiquity covering most of South East Asia – including Laos, large parts of Vietnam and Thailand. Even Angkor was huge. The city of London or the Mayan city of Tikal would have been mere dots in comparison. A visitor to Angkor to a large extent is a witness to how trees like muscular “nagas” (snakes in Cambodian mythology) can destroy old life and create new life – monochromatic, and voiceless except for the sounds of birds and crickets, but new life all the same. In some ways, it is a warning to us all. Our time will come and pass, as a slightly drunk Nicaraguense once told me in an Antigua, Guatemala bar, almost tearful over the Central American experience at the hands of the richer more powerful El Norte. But what caused the decline? Cambodia had almost disappeared by the early C19th. Environmental degradation, warfare, and the cult of the God-king tend to be the 3 main contenders.

The third striking fact is the easy fusion of different Indian sects – Shaivite and Vaishnavite – as well as Buddhist, similar to the sites of ancient Sri Lanka combined with the stark absence of the female gods of India. There is an almost complete absence of the female pantheon: Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge, Music and the Creative Arts – Laxmi – Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity (both material and spiritual) but also a life force and destructor, and Parvati – fertility, love and devotion, central to the goddess-oriented Shakta sect. With the downfall of the Khmer empire, Cambodia embraced Theravada Buddhism – a purer form of Buddhism more focused on a good life and good deeds. Was the essentially male god-king cult unstable? How much difference does religion make to the stability and strength of a civilization?

I will look at the first and third issue – the second is too large. Perhaps a topic for another blog.

An Earlier Indian Era
Though the people of Cambodia were originally Mons from China, Cambodia’s story is entwined with that of the culture of East and Southern India. Despite the proximity to China, Indian culture would dominate South East Asia much the same way that great swathes of Europe were influenced by the Greeks. The various Indian empires from say 1500BC to 1400AD, it seems were not colonisers or empire builders, not set on demanding tribute of its vassal states as was common in China.

The Indian influence is apparent from the moment of entering Angkor Wat when you come face to face with a 6-arm statue of the God Vishnu after walking across the causeway. This causeway crosses “the baray”, a constructed lake, what in India would be called a “tank”, full of dark pink lotus flowers, dusky in the early morning sunshine. On entering the main building, you will see the depiction of the wars of the Mahabharat.

C12th 6-armed Vishnu – Suryavarman II – Entrance To Angkor Wat


From where does this Indian influence stem from and what period of time? Even before the first millennium AD, ships leaving India for China would have cut through the straits by modern Singapore and then headed up past Cambodia and Vietnam and into the South China Sea. Its not a history as neatly documented and understood as you may think. This may seem a minor mystery compared to the larger questions of how some aspects of this culture travelled around the Pacific to Central America, but still, it remains quite unknown.

The Mystery of Funan
Well before the time of Angkor, in the early centuries of the millennium, it appears there was an established kingdom in the region – called Funan (1st – 7th century). Its capital was close to where Phnom Penh is now. Funan appears to have been a seafaring empire with a navy well-connected to the outside world and, according to the Chinese scholars that visited, it had large libraries. Sadly these are now turned to dust leaving much about this civilization to supposition.


It is to this region that Indian merchants and traders arrived, probably followed by priests. Sanskrit was used as the language of the court and learning, and Chinese visitors recorded seeing vast libraries in Sanskrit. This suggests the influence of the Vedic north of India not the Dravidian South. However, Khmer itself is written in a language of the Pallavas of the Indian South, who we will come to later.

The merchants and traders may have originated from the Kalinga empire(1300BC – 200AD) around modern day Orissa with a long coastline, at times covering almost all of India. You may have heard about the more famous Mauryas and Emperor Ashoka’s deadly battle in around 250BC, before he became a pacifist Buddhist. The battle was against the Kalinga Empire, incorporated by Ashoka into his Mauryan Empire after this battle, gaining independence again after its decline. The Kalingas appear to have been Jain rather than Buddhist, and then later Hindu. The famous temples of Puri are within this region, and they would have taken on board elements of Buddhism too which dominated in the time of Emperor Asoka.

A Matriarchal History?

Interestingly in the latter part of the Funan era, around around 613 AD, Funan had a princess named Liuye or Soma – hard to say whether she was a princess or a Queen. It seems that Queen Liu Ye married the predecessor of the kings of the Khmer era. Sadly of course we get to read little about this queen – only of whom she marries.  Was there an element of matriarchal culture in indigenous Cambodian culture? Did it take some ideas from the more strongly matriarchal South of India?

In the time of Funan, the Indians from the north were unlikely to have been alone, or may not have been the dominant force. There were most probably traders and others from the Southern empires – Pallava, then Chola – reflecting the dominant empire of the time. Some of these states had stronger matriarchal traditions. Perhaps the Kalinga traders were followed by people from the Pallava (6 – 9th centuries) and then Chola (9th -12th century) states in the South.

Then there would also have been indirect influences from Java, in the South, and even Sri Lanka, both within the wider Indian diaspora.

The Founding of Angkor: its Indian Influence
This sprawling city is generally dated to the 9th century, when Jayavarman II moved upstream from the Mekong to found a city on this site, crowning himself as a deva-raja or “god-king” in 802 A.D. Why he chose to do so is unclear – floods or threats from outsiders. Remember the world was in another period of climatic change at the time.

Religion and Culture
What we do know is that the Khmer civilization from around 800AD to 1400AD would have inherited much from its Funan and Chenla predecessors (between the 2 periods). A form of Hinduism (Saivism), later in combination with Mahayana Buddhism dominated. This is evident from the temples, However, unlike Indian temples the sculptures of the Gods have the faces of the kings.

Other than the iconography, there is little evidence of other aspects of Hinduism like a rigid caste structure. Though perhaps that was not as rigid a part of Indian culture as it later became. Some elements of the Vedic Law of Manu may have been taken on board.

Understanding the influences of India is a challenge with the waves of Indian influence from different parts of India and their differing cultures and religious beliefs. The happy mixing of Buddhist and Vaishivite iconography seem quite different from India, though this is to be found in Sri Lanka.

The striking aspect is the metamorphosis of Hinduism into the religion of the God-King. As I mentioned before, an Indian visitor, the absence of female representations other than in the form of apsaras – however beautiful – is also noticeable.

In the end, it was Theravada Buddhism less institutionalized and hierarchical that held sway. It was brought by the Thai invaders in the C14th.  The links with the sub-continent weakened. One of the most beautiful sights of the country remains the saffron robed Buddhist monks, standing in ancient doorways, carrying orange umbrellas, chatting in groups in the course of their everyday life.

But what difference did this new religion make? Some historians contend that the gentle Theravada Buddhism undermined the system. It weakened the loyalty to the God-King and reduced its militarism. But its swift dominance may have been the result of dissatisfaction with the elitism of the God-King system? What about the limited female influences – was this destabilizing in itself? How different is Confucian China or northern Vietnam as a result of different religions and philosophies?

Water Management
Another aspect of the closeness of the cultures – Indian and Khmer – is the system of water management that allowed Angkor to thrive despite the seasonality of rainfall. Large storm water “tanks” were built some just around the city.

Considerable areas of land may have been irrigated, with the resultant capacity to produce 2-3 crops a year and freeing up labour to be spent on construction of the massive temples. The questions of whether the baray were to irrigate the land or whether the civilisation managed on rainfed fields is hotly debated amongst western historians. The original report by French archaeologist Henri Mouhot (1860) suggested considerable irrigation. Groslier in the early 1950s developed the idea of a hydraulic city. Other archaeologists in the 1980s condemned this idea suggesting that the water tanks were for ritual and religious purposes. They argued that Hinduism demanded a system of reflecting pools for its Gods. It was the inherent weakness of the God-King system, disliked in the end by the people, that they say led to the downfall. Do they see this world through a Western lens?

The consensus now appears to be that Cambodia had a well-developed irrigation system, surpassing any similar system in India, though not dependent on the baray. So the collapse of the irrigation system may well have played a part.

Construction and Architecture

So what is the origin of the architecture of Angkor? The similarities with the Pallavas, with their capital in Mahabalipuram, is striking. The stories of the founding of the Khmer Empire (Brahman and Naga Princess) is surprisingly similar. The Pandyas from the South were seafaring people, with their capital in Madurai, that no doubt also influenced South Asia. Some of the decorative work however looks closer to the sculpture of the Hoysala and Chalukya civilisations closer west into the Deccan Plateau.

Temple at Mahabalipuram: Pallava Empire (C3-9th AD)




It is the Chola Empire (900AD – 1200AD), at the same time as the height of the Khmer Empire, that spread the Indian culture most widely: from the Malay Peninsula and into Java and Bali. Even today Bali remains Hindu if a Hinduism of its own form and variety. The Cholas were Shaivites with less interest in Buddhism and Jainism than some of the other empires. Their capital was at Thanjavur, home of temples of superlative design and sculpture.


So as you can see it is difficult to get an objective sense of the source of the influence. Historians from the south and north spar to show the influence of their region. Nevertheless the vast inter-connection between the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia is apparent.

In part this was direct, but also indirect as the Javanese were also expansionist in their aims, and may have brought their variation of Hinduism with them. The dominance of Theravada Buddhism after the Angkor period is also generally explained as Sri Lankan influence in Java and beyond.

Chola empire

Conclusions: An Indian Millennium
Like the Western modernity that dominated and spread from around 1500, it seems there was an earlier modernity, of Indian character that we know little about. The written scripts that seemed to have existed have not survived at least not in the area. The relations between the different parts of Asia, how religion melded and evolved, the extent of trade and movement of people, Chola influence compared with Pallava, are just some of the issues that arise. I also wonder how the pantheon of Hindu Gods lost the trilogy of female gods and what this meant to the local culture? How did religion impact on the state?

All of these issues still need further study. Maybe one day, those artefacts in the dusty museums will tell us a story of culture and civilization


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