How marvellous would be to see Angkor Thom, or Yasodharapura as it was called in the 12 century, in its heyday? To see those two hundred stone-faces on those fifty-four towers of the Bayon covers in gold, and as the sun starts to rise, they sparkle like nothing you have ever seen before that it takes your breath away. To see Sras Srang covers with lotus and lilies and the water glistening clear and pure, and thousands of Khmers dressed in their rich clothing of colourful silk and gold coming and going to bathe.
Wouldn’t it be marvellous to walk through the Terrace of Elephant and watch those large, beautiful beasts being trained by the Royal Regiment of Elephant to go to war. What about the king procession? What a delightful sight it would be to see carriages, horse-chariots, and palanquins made of precious metals sparkle brilliantly in the sun. To see princes, ministers, and courtiers dressed in their finest clothing and being carried on gold palanquins as they passed through the streets. To see dancing girls, concubines, and wives of the king dressed in their finest silks and gold jewelleries adorning their soft, white body. And then the god-king himself, dressed all in gold with a golden diadem on his head and holding the Sacred Sword—Preah Khan or Jayasri as it was named back in the 12 century—as he rides on an elephant.
Angkorean era was the golden era indeed in Cambodia which dated from about 802 when Jayavarman II was named as king of kings and found the kingdom of Angkor to 1431 when the Khmer abandoned Angkor after the Siam invasion. This remarkable empire was found by King Jayavarman II who believed that the entire nation could only be completely united if his subjects believe him to be the god-king, one that they would blindly obey and worship. And to these some one million Khmers who lived in Angkor at that time, he was the reincarnation of the Hindu god Siva or Vishnu, and then later there was Jayavarman VII who to them was the reincarnation of Buddha himself.
At first Jayavarman II seemed to be having trouble finding the right spot for his capital, and after some relocations, he found his site and thus started the enormous programme of building his temples, dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu and Siva. The building of Angkor Wat itself was built during King Suryavarman II reign in the year 1140, also dedicated to Siva. And then came King Jayavarman VII who ordered the major building programme of the city Angkor Thom with the famous Bayon that towered right in the middle of it, which many decided today was in fact his face that look so serene and in some way like that of the Lord Buddha himself in meditation.
Jayavarman VII came to the throne in 1181 after what one call a tragedy of the kingdom. At the time there was a big revolt within the slaves and pheasants who blamed their suffering on the previous king, Suryavarman, for the massive building programme of Angkor and for the fact that the new king, Yasovarman, Jayavarman VII’s brother, who couldn’t alleviate their suffering from the cruel officials and corruption of the system. The Kingdom was divided and civil war began.
Then came a man, one who might say was a hero amongst the pheasants, and one with a lengthy name indeed—Tribhuvanandityavarman it was—petitioned for the throne. It was not, however, the support of these nuisance pheasants and slaves who moan and groan quietly and could never do anything but obeying their masters commands meekly that gave the power to Tribhuvanandityavarman to become king. This man with the unusual name was smart, and he appealed to those young, ambitious officers and such like who disliked the hierarchies and favouritism (another word corruption) which prevented them from a higher position in the ladder of the court. And so there was the civil war, King Yasovarman was killed, and Tribhuvanadityavarman became king.
At this time Jayavarman heard of the news that this pheasant claimed the throne, he rushed back to Angkor to help his brother but only to find that the revolt was over. Jayavarman, a true Buddha man that he was, refused to make another war simply to claim the throne from this sub-human of a man whom many thought was a hero and returned to Champa.
The King of Champ, Jaya Indravarman knew that Angkor was at its weakest with a pheasant as king and the kingdom divided. In 1177 he planned an attack, and he was indeed sure that he would win for the Champs had a certain weapon that the Khmers did not, the firing of a crossbow on horseback, taught by a Chinese. On that day they stormed into Angkor and slaughtered the Khmers.
Tribhuvanandityavarman was made. How dare they? Stormed into their Kingdom and slaughter his people, no matter that they were just mere slaves and soldiers? Tribhuvanandityavarman was a hero and a leader indeed, for he encouraged his men with inspiring speeches, and hence they stormed back. Thanks to those wonderful, mobile war beasts—the Royal Regiment of Elephant—they won, and the Champs ran back to Champa, defeated and shamefaced.
The Champs were a stubborn lot, however, for they must at all cost defeat and destroy the beautiful city of Angkor. In 1177 they invaded again, this time via the Mekong River to Angkor. Their plan worked for the Khmers did not expect the Champs to invade again after such a defeat. In that night, the Champs once again slaughtered the Khmers, and to them what better way to do it than when these Khmers were still in their sleep.
King Tribhuvanadityavarman died at the battle and Angkor was sacked. The Champs, those jealous lot, humiliated the proud Khmer by undergoing a massive mascara for days—murmuring young and old, burning the temples, stealing the precious treasures that belonged to the state, and raping the women, especially those proud, white-skinned beauties in the court.
And then Jayavarman returned to Cambodia. What he saw must have struck something deep in his heart, for his home land of Angkor that had once stood so proud and majestic had now been destroyed. There was nothing left except for the strong stones of some temples and his people who greeted him wearily and unenthusiastically.
The Brahman priests then crowned him King Jayavarman VII. Hatred and revenge for those Champs must have been strong in his blood, and even though he was by then 50 years of age, those emotions of his must have drove him forward into cunning, ruthless actions and inspired his people to follow him. And hence against his believe in the Mahayana Buddhism, the believe in the teaching of the Enlightened One, he declared war with the Champs.
Jayavarman VII and his men planned their strategy carefully, invading Champa via both land and sea. And yes they stormed back into Champa. Those strong Royal Regiment of Elephants brought fear to the Champs who took one look at those beasts and ran in the opposite direction. They were mowed down, those Champs. If one thought the Champs was cruel to the Khmers previously, well the Khmers were as merciless to the Champs. They won the war and for the Khmers to remember their moment of victory, Jayavarman ordered an inscription as a bas-relief on the wall of Bayon and Banteai Chmar. And within only of a few years Angkor Thom was born. It became even more majestic as the years went by and more buildings were constructed, never mind that thousands of slaves were killed in the process due to cruel treatment, starvation, and of course there were the accidents of large stones falling down up on them.
Those poor souls, their body thrown into the wilderness of the jungles and forests for wild beats like tigers, panthers and such likes to devour. Well of course at that time to the Khmers these salves were easy and cheap to obtain, for they could be capture from the mountains near by.
Jayavarman VII was considered to be a kind and generous king despite his treatment toward the slaves. Amongst the massive buildings programmes he also ordered the buildings of over a hundred hospitals and inns for his people and of course other now still standing temples that can be visited today.
Yes, Angkor Thom was one such beautiful city indeed as noted by Chou Ta-Kuan description of the city when he visited there in 1296 during the regime of Indravarman.
A golden tower marks the centre of the kingdom. It is flanked by more than twenty stone towers and many hundreds of stone houses. A bridge of gold stretches from the East gate; two golden lions have been erected left and right of the bridge, and eight golden Buddhas stand below the stone galleries. About a furlong to the north, there is a bronze tower which is higher than the golden one, and room the top the view is most impressive. At the foot of the tower there are more stone galleries. Another furlong to the north, one comes across the royal residence. In the private apartments there is another golden tower. I think it is these edifices which have given the country the title ‘Rich and noble Cambodia’ by foreign visitors.
1. Charles Higham. The Civilization of Angkor. California: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, The Orion Publishing Group Ltd; 2001.
2. David Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 3rd ed. Colorado: Westview Press; 2000.
3. Dawn Rooney. Angkor: An Introduction to the Temples. Hong Kong: Twin Age Limited; 1994.
4. John Audrice. Angkor and the Khmer Empire. Great Britain: Redwood Press Limited; 1972.
5. John Tully. A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival. Singapore: South Wind Production; 2005.