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July 2007 (Smithsonian Magazine) – Quite aptly enough, the July issue of the Smithsonian Magazine has a feature story on the jungle complexes of Angkor – a nice fit for this week’s Angkor theme while I’m away in Cambodia to visit the temples myself. 🙂 Unlike most travel pieces, this feature gives a good historical overview of the Angkor temples.

Jewel of the Jungle

Although Angkor Wat is the largest and best known of these temples, it is but one of hundreds built by the kingdom of Angkor. Huge stone monuments scattered across hundreds of square miles of forest in northern Cambodia, the temples are the remains of a vast complex of deserted cities—which included manmade lakes, canals and bridges—that were astonishing in their size and artistic merit.

But piecing together information about the ancient Khmers who built them has not been easy for archaeologists and historians. The only written records that still exist are the inscriptions on the temple walls and the diary of a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296. All administrative buildings and the homes of kings and commoners alike were made of wood; none have survived, leaving only the religious creations of brick and stone.

Direct ancestors of modern-day Cambodians, the Khmers are thought to have descended from the Funan peoples of the Mekong delta. Funan was a decentralized state of rival kings that thrived as a trading link connecting China and the West for the first few centuries A.D. In the late sixth century, Funan was superseded by the state of Chenla, based farther north into Cambodia’s interior. Chenla lasted for about 250 years until the start of the Angkor period.

Meanwhile, Hindu and Buddhist influences, which originated in centuries-old contact with Indian traders, appeared in region. (Neither ever fully displaced the local animist religion, but rather assimilated into it.) Elite Khmer rulers commissioned the building of temples and gave themselves Sanskrit names to demonstrate their wealth and power. Their subjects made donations to the temples to curry favor—both with the gods and with the local ruler. Temples, as such, were not only religious but also commercial centers. In the time of Angkor many temples operated as small cities, and some of them as very large cities.

Around A.D. 800 a powerful regional king named Jayavarman II consolidated the rival chiefdoms in Cambodia and founded the kingdom of Angkor. It was Jayavarman II who instituted the cult of the Devaraja (literally “god-king” or “king of the gods”), symbolically linking Khmer royalty to the divine realm.

Read more about the Jewel of the Jungle, Angkor.

More books about the Angkor temple complexes and the history of Angkor:
Khmer Civilization and Angkor by D. L. Snellgrove
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places) by M. D. Coe
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
A History of Cambodia by D. P. Chandler
Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals by P. Y. W. Chuen and W. Weng

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