Inhabitants of Cambodia were one of the first peoples of Southeast Asia, although scholars continue to debate whether they migrated principally from southern China or India. The oldest vestiges of pre-historic Cambodia (stone-made tools) were found in the cave of Laan Spean in Battambang with evidence suggesting the cave was inhabited around 6,000 years ago. Information is scarce although it is known that some pre-historic groups occupied caves, while others occupied large earthen mounds in lowland areas. These groups lived through rice cultivation and animal husbandry and practiced animism, worshiping both the spirits of the land and their ancestors.
Other prehistoric sites have been found at Samrong Sen in central Cambodia which was occupied around 1500 BC. and Bas-Plateaux in Kompong Chang, occupied in the 2nd century BC. A beautiful example of a circular moated iron-age site can be found at Phum Lovea (13° 29’ 05N, 103° 42’ 50E), 7km northwest of the West Baray, dating from probably around the 5th century BC.
By the ﬁrst few centuries AD, the growth in maritime trade between China and India had drawn Southeast Asia into a global trading network and catalyzed a series of profound transformations within Khmer culture and society. Pre-historic chiefdoms began to coalesce into larger, more complex social and political systems and to develop urban centers. Chinese records begin to refer to one civilization in particular that they named Funan, which was likely located in what is now southern Cambodia and the Mekong Delta.
Archaeological evidence found at Òc-Eo (in Vietnam) such as Roman coins, Indian jewelry, and Buddhist religious objects, suggests that the kingdom of Funan was a powerful trading state.
Other archaeological discoveries, such as a large canal system linking various settlements within the kingdom, reveal a highly organized society with a relatively high population density and advanced technology.
The Funan kingdom was strongly influenced by Indian culture and adopted many elements of the Indian tradition such as the use of the Sanskrit language in the high courts. the Buddhist and Hindu religions, astronomy, the legal system, and literature. The kingdom reached its power peak under the reign of King Fan Shih-man in the early 3rd century, occupying at least the coastal areas of present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia.
By the 6th century AD. Chinese records suggest that Funan inﬂuence and involvement in regional trade was sharply diminished. Various sources of evidence, including written inscriptions and archaeological remains, suggest an ascendancy of rival kingdoms away from the coastal areas. The most prominent among these, at least according to Chinese sources, was a kingdom known as Chenla. Exactly why power should shift inland is unclear but may have to do with a downturn in the fortunes of the global maritime trading network and perhaps the increasing sophistication of water management and agricultural techniques in Cambodia’s interior around the Tonle Sap basin.
The kingdom of Chenla appears to have peaked under the reign of the King Isanavarman, who established his capital at the temple complex of Isanapura (Sambor Prei Kuk). Other pre-Angkorian sites have also been discovered at Phnom Da, which has disclosed artifacts from the Funan, Chenla and earlier periods, and Angkor Borei, both to the southeast of Phnom Penh. It has been said that the statuary and carvings unearthed at these sites are the ﬁnest ever produced by Khmer artists and much of it is now on display at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
According to evidence from inscriptions, the Angkor Empire originated with an 8th-century king named Jayavarman II (790 — 835), who ruled his own kingdom in the territory around present-day Siem Reap. In 802, following a unique and elaborate ceremony upon the Kulen plateau, he was installed as the ruler of a uniﬁed new empire. Declared the universal ruler of Kambuja, he now had control over a territory formerly ruled by multiple divided and fractious warlords.
This extraordinary ceremony also integrated one of the new empire’s fundamental features, a cult of the devaraja (‘god-king’ or ‘king of the gods’), through which power was invested in the king. The precise position of this new role in relation to the Hindu gods, in particular, Shiva and Vishnu, is still not known, but it is now thought unlikely that the king himself was considered a god.
Jayavarman II’s successors gradually annexed territories and as the empire gathered wealth the architectural manifestations became more magniﬁcent. Major building projects of the classical Angkor Wat period began with King Indravarman I (877 – 899 A.D.), who built Bakong and Preah Ko at Hariharalaya as well as the Indratataka, the ﬁrst of Angkor Wat huge reservoirs or “barays”. His son, Yashovarman I (889 – 915 A.D.) established the ﬁrst capital of Angkor Wat. Yashodharapura centered on Phnom Bakheng, selecting it over Phnom Bok and Phnom Krom for practical reasons of administration and water management.
The yashodharasramas (“hermitages of Yashovarman”) were rest houses for religious pilgrims as well as dedicated spaces for spiritual retreat and the sharing of knowledge. Though each one was dedicated to a particular deity, the king’s hermitages welcomed and patronized all religions, reﬂecting the religious diversity and tolerance that was a special feature throughout the Khmer Empire.
Evidence that Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Cambodia starts to appear in the early centuries of the Christian era. Hinduism was the religion of most Khmer kings. but Buddhism enjoyed royal protection, and King Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1220) made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion during his reign. Some time afterward, however, there seems to have been a Violent backlash and many of the Buddhist images that he created were defaced or destroyed during a period of “Hindu reaction” or “iconoclasm”, though we are not exactly sure when or by whom. The destruction was large-scale and completely at odds with the tolerance that had previously characterized Khmer’s religious life. Some images did survive the systematic destruction and can be found, for example, at Bayon and Banteay Kdei.
Less than 100 years after Jayavarman’s reign, Indravannan III (1295 – 1307), established Theravada Buddhism as the state religion of Cambodia, a position it continues to enjoy today.
From the 9th to 15th centuries Khmer kings consistently established their capitals in the Angkor Wat area. A notable exception is Jayavarman IV, who brieﬂy ruled from Koh Ker, 80km away, in the ﬁrst half of the 10th century.
His nephew. King Rajendravarman II (944 – 968 A.D.) restored the capital of Yashodharapura and built East Mebon and Pre Rup temples. Upon his death, his young son Javavarman V ascended the throne and under his rule, new temples such as Banteay Srei and Ta Keo were begun. The period that follows is a succession of short reigns and internal struggles for power until King Suryavarman I (1010 – 1050 A.D.) gained the throne. Under this monarch the Khmer Empire achieved its greatest territorial extent so far, covering much of South Asia.
Sixty years later Suryavarman II (1113 – 1115) provided a period of stability. Although we know surprisingly few details of his personal life he became famous for building Angkor Wat. He further extended the influence of the empire across Laos and Thailand, taking in parts of modern-day Malaysia, sent emissaries to China, and also launched at least three military campaigns against the Dai Viet in the northern part what is now Vietnam, although these efforts were largely unsuccessful. However, an attack on the City of Vijaya, the capital of the Cham civilization in what is now central Vietnam, brought him victory in 1145 after his armies first sacked and then occupied the city.
In 1149 the Chams expelled the Khmer from Vijaya. In 1177, seizing an opportunity against a weakening Khmer Empire, the Cham launched a devastating naval campaign via the Tonle Sap and claimed the royal capital at Angkor. As far as we can tell, this was the worst defeat the Khmers had known until that time. Graphic scenes from that Battle are carved into the reliefs at Bayon and Banteay Chhmar.
The last great king of Angkor Wat, Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1220 A.D.) decisively defeated the Chams and reclaimed Angkor. He set about the largest program of construction in Khmer history, building not only Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Chhmar and Banteay Kdei but also roads, bridges, rest-houses and other monuments across the Empire. For two centuries after the death of Jayavarman VII until the ﬁfteenth century, the classical Khmer Empire seems to undergo a period of decline, producing very few new works of engineering, architecture, art or literature to rival the achievements of centuries past. Conventional histories conclude the Khmer Empire with a Thai invasion and sacking of Angkor in 1431.
The real causes of Angkor Wat’s decline and eventual abandonment in favor of capital to the southeast remain the subject of debate. A number of factors have been cited, including resource depletion and the failure of the water management system. Jayavarman VII’s ‘frenzied’ building campaign has been implicated, as has the conversion to Theravada Buddhism, which may have subverted long-established power structures.
Bernard-Philippe Groslier, of the EFEO, regarded Angkor as a ‘hydraulic city’ whose success and failure hinged on the proper functioning of the water management system. There is emerging evidence that climate change may have played a role too, with tree-rings recording periods of low rainfall persisting for decades. These ‘mega-droughts’ occur around the time of Angkor’s decline and may have had serious implications for the sustainability of the city’s all-important system of rice agriculture. Evidence also exists of occasional massive ﬂash ﬂooding in a period we know was particularly unsettled and recognized in Europe as the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The plain between Kulen and Tonle Sap has an average slope of only 0.1%. The effectiveness of an irrigation system of canals and channels on such a gentle slope is particularly sensitive to any disruption. Flash ﬂoods either ﬁlling channels with sand or scouring them to a lower level would be disastrous.
What is clear, at least, is that in the 15th to 16th centuries the center of gravity of Khmer royal power had moved southwards to the region of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer’s were much better positioned to beneﬁt from a resurgence in global maritime trade, and where the capital has remained until this day.