The Lost Hindu Empire of Cambodia

A visit to Cambodia is recommended or may even be de rigueur for any Indian with an interest in the erstwhile history of India. For nowhere in the world outside India one can see the glory of its past splendor so well exhibited as in Cambodia. There are several hundred Hindu and Buddhist temple ruins throughout the countryside, especially around the town of Siem Reap near the large lake Tonle Sap. Siem Reap is the heart of the country. Here is where the splendid temple Angkor Wat has stood for nearly nine hundred years.

Mostly neglected for centuries and then ransacked and looted by occupying forces, the treasures of Cambodia are scattered all over the world now, mostly taken by Europeans. Smuggling of artifacts continues to this day. Cambodia has a very checkered history of war and destruction. It is only in the last one hundred years that attempts have been made to preserve, excavate and study the chronology of history, first by the French, and now by the rest of the world community. Indian and United States governments are also assisting in refurbishing and preserving the temples.

Many of the temple ruins appear like they are right out of pages of Rudyard Kipling’s books. Many with crumbling walls and roofs have seen better days. Giant trees hover over many temple walls, threatening their very foundations. Large roots of Kapok trees twine around the temples like giant mythical birds gripping them in their talons. Yet there is an indescribable charm that one immediately imbibes at first sight. Many ruins may look similar but one is drawn to see more. Those, which are preserved, demonstrate exquisite works of art and sculpture.

The people of this impoverished country are graceful and charming. They are simple, honest people, (mostly fishermen and farmers. There are not many towns outside a few larger cities. Once you leave the city limits of Phnom Penh there are not many homes or buildings of significant magnitude. Two-wheelers are the main modes of transportation, often attached to trailers that are used to transport families and goods. The vendors selling books, shawls and skirts are mostly beautiful children at temple sites, who surprise the tourists with better English than one would expect them to speak. These children are not scrappy, but not pushovers either and they can drive a hard bargain.

The scattered temples are mostly deserted reminders of the former glory of the Khmer people, the dominant people of the region. Their kingdoms waxed and waned, to include parts of Thailand (Siam), Vietnam (Champa) and Laos at various times. There have been wars and skirmishes between the Khmer people and their neighbors for centuries. The most recent involvement of Cambodia in the larger war in Vietnam, when the country was carpet bombed by the might of the American military, was just one of several wars in its history to cause much death and destruction. Following the American exit, civil war had kept the country impoverished and desperate until the year 2000 when it gained independence and now has a nascent socialist democracy.

The early history of Cambodia is best studied as Pre- Angkor era and Angkor era. Angkor is a ‘Khmer-ization’ of the Sanskrit word Nagara, meaning city.

Pre-Angkor History

Pre-history of Cambodia starts with the legendary Khambujaraja, a Brahmanical king of India, who had come to the region and faced adversity from a beautiful lady on the mountain. After a brief fight between them, a truce was drawn and the beautiful lady, Mero by name, married Khambuja. The country they jointly ruled was called Khambujadesa and their descendants were called the Khmer people. Khambujadesa later became Kampuchea and then Cambodia. The original language spoken was Mon-Khmer. Later in the 6th century the ‘Mon’ people moved further west to Thailand and the Khmer remained in current day Cambodia.

Indian influence in the region began in the first century C. E. They traded goods with Khmer by way of sea, when spice and silk trade had flourished. Both Indians and Chinese exerted their influences on the local people but Indian culture took a firm foothold, perhaps through the efforts of Brahmin priests. The rulers of the time had a suffix of ‘Varman’ to their names, similar to the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. Whilst the Cholas of Tanjavur in India eventually defeated the Pallava Varmans in the 8th century, the Khmer kingdoms flourished well into the 14th century. Though all the rulers of Cambodia bore the name ‘Varman,’ they did not necessarily belong to the same dynasty. At various periods in their history, the rulers and usurpers came from Siam (Thailand) or Champa (Vietnam) as well as Khambujadesa (Cambodia or Kampuchea).

There are historical references suggesting that Cambodia had been inhabited in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Chinese travelers later chronicled the first established kingdom. The first kingdom was called Funan (an alteration of the word bnam or mountain in Khmer language). A certain Kaundinya, inspired by a dream, traveled from India and married a local princess Soma, belonging to the naga (cobra) tribe. He established the first Kaundinya dynasty of Funan. Later in the 5th century a second traveler from India - Kaundinya Jayavarman (478-514) arrived and focused on re-establishing the Indian culture. He established a more defined Funan kingdom and was later followed by Rudravarman in the sixth century. He was responsible for the first sculptures, mostly of Vishnu.

After the decline of Funan kingdom Khmer people established Chenla kingdom, where the names of kings Shrutavarman and Sheshthavarman are mentioned. They established their capital in Shreshthapura. Later Ishanavarman, from the Khmer kingdom of Bhavapura, defeated the remnants of Funan, and established his capital in Ishanapura.

Jayavarman I followed him and then his successor Pushkaraksha again united the splintered principalities in the year 716. His capital was Shambhupura (currently Sambor). His heirs maintained control over the kingdom until the end of 8th century, when Malayans and Javanese (Jayavarman II) gained dominion over many Khmer principalities. During this pre-Angkor period many temples were built, though they did not demonstrate the same style of architecture or the confidence of the later builders.

The Golden Period

The glory of Cambodia and its temples began in earnest during the rule of Jayavarman II beginning 802 C. E. It is thought that he came from the royal court in ‘Java’ to conquer smaller Khmer states. He declared a unified and sovereign Khambujadesa, independent of Javanese influence. This was when the Angkor era in the history of Cambodia was born. He named his capital city Hariharalaya and introduced ‘linga-cult.’ to his kingdom. The cult of Devaraja or the God King (the terrestrial counterpart of the celestial being) was also introduced by Jayavarman II. The capital stayed around the large Lake Tonle Sap, in and around the city of Siem Reap (until the 15th century, well after the demise of Hindu empires, when it was moved to Phnom Penh).

Thirty years after Jayavarman II’s death, his successor Indravarman I constructed the first major temple in his honor (one of the so called Rolous group of temples). From then on the rulers busied themselves in building temples using bricks, sandstone and laterite. Often they were painted in bright colors. They also built large water reservoirs called barays. Following Indravarman I, his son Yasovarman I built many more temples and barays.

Rajendravarman in the 10th century was a ruler busy building another half a dozen temples, the best preserved and an architectural masterpiece at Bantay Srei.

During the rule of Udayadityavarman II, several lingas were carved in the riverbed on Phnom Kulen (called Mahendraparvata at the time). Today it is known as the ‘River of thousand lingas’ and is a tourist attraction in its own right. It was believed that the water that flowed over the countless lingas of the river would fertilize the rice fields below. A short hike up the mountain will take a visitor to the place of thousand lingas at Kbal Spean.

The first inscriptions found on temple walls, dating back to 5th century, resembled the script used by Pallavas of South India. Later, the Khmer developed their own unique script and carved them into the walls mostly describing the temple and its deity but sometimes the inscriptions were just mundane details like a list of inventory. There are as many inscriptions in Sanskrit language as in Khmer language.

The first decade of 11th century witnessed the ascent to the throne of a powerful king Suryavarman I (1010-1050), who unified almost all of Khambuja and southern Thailand. He was also a busy builder of temples and royal palaces. Following his rule, Suryavarman II (1113-1150) further expanded the kingdom. He also built the glorious temple Angkor Wat (from the Indian words Nagara Vata - City Temple), the pinnacle of temples built in Cambodia.

The sprawling temple spreads over a one square mile area. Long walls with stories of Hindu mythology are sculpted as bas-reliefs. It is a magnificent temple complex, constructed in the form of mythological Mount Meru - the Hindu center of the Universe. The temple is surrounded by a large moat, representing the ocean surrounding Mt. Meru. The brilliant paint used to enhance the reliefs has faded but the architecture and beauty are still preserved. The sheer magnitude of the temple complex is impressive.

All the gods of the Hindu pantheon are represented in temple sculpture. Shiva and Vishnu were held in high esteem. Ramayana and Kurukshetra war are depicted on entire walls of stone sculptures. A masterpiece bas-relief is that of the legendary churning of the ocean by the gods and demons.

Sculptures of Vishnu on the back of his vessel Garuda or reclining on the serpent Ananta and Shiva with his consort Parvati are repeated in many temples. Also seen are Hanuman and Ganesh, along with many seductive figures of Apsaras - reminiscent of Dev-dasis, the consorts of the Gods.

Another colorful king Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) followed Suryavaramn II. The kingdom had briefly fallen into the hands of the Chams of Champa, but the warrior-like Jayavarman VII reclaimed it and united Khambuja once again. He expanded his kingdom to include southern Malaya and northern Laos as well as Champa. Burmese kingdoms including Java became subsidiaries.

Jayavarman VII was married to a Buddhist woman and later became a Buddhist himself. Builder of dozen or more significant temples and palaces including the great Angkor Thom, he built many Buddhist monasteries and converted many Hindu temples into Buddhist shrines. The elephant terrace and the statue of the Leper King are in Angkor Thom. The statue when first found with blunted fingers, was first thought to be of a leper (the French mistook the weather damaged fingers to be that of a leper), but in fact is that of Yama, the king of death. The Elephant Terrace is a ceremonial altar in facing the Royal Square, supported by beautifully carved figures of elephants and mythical creatures. At the entrance to Angkor Thom is a large tower, large enough to admit elephants. On either side of the road near the entrance are rows of large statues, with angelic face on one side and the scornful evil face on the other.

Jayavarman VII declared himself to be Bodhisattva (as opposed to Devaraja - God-king - introduced by Jayavarman II). His delusions of grandeur are evident in the sculptures of colossal facial images of himself on temples, especially at the towers of Bayon. Thus Mahayana Buddhism (higher vehicle) had been introduced to Khambuja, which in turn marked the beginning of the end of a glorious Hindu era.

Following Jayavarman VII’s death, skirmishes arose again both within the kingdom and in its bordering regions. Brahmins tried to reassert their authority with the help of Jayavarman VIII and tried to usurp Buddhist power. However, their influence did not last too long. Soon after his death Buddhism returned once again, though it was the Hinayana Buddhism ((Theravada or lesser vehicle) that took final foothold and still remains the dominant religion of Cambodia today. The advent of Buddhism effectively put a stop to the building spree in Cambodia. Some of the existing Hindu temples were converted to Buddhist temples and monasteries. Gods of Hindu pantheon were removed and replaced with statues of Buddha.

Statues of Buddha had already appeared in the pre-Angkor period. These were mostly ushnisha Buddha (with the knot in the head, denoting enlightenment and Nirvana) in the standing position. Later Buddha statues appeared in many other positions of the hands of giving, preaching and blessing. Bodhisattvas and Avalokiteshvara – Lord of the World (Lokeshvara in Khmer) also are seen.

The last king of record from the lost empire is Jayavarman Parameshvara (1327 - ?). In the meantime, the first large Thai state, Sukhothai, had occupied much of the northern and western territories of Khmer empire. In 1430 a Thai king, Paramaraja II of Ayuthya laid siege on the capital and conquered it in seven months. From then on the decline, abandon and decadence set in. Discussion of the upheaval and the tumult in the ensuing history of the kingdom in the following centuries is beyond the scope of this article.

During medieval times the capital was moved to Phnom Penh. Today it is a city with orderly traffic with clean air and streets, with none of the typical hustle and bustle of a mega-city in South East Asia. There are many Pagodas and Buddhist monuments with larger than life sized statutes of Buddha (including the Emerald Buddha), adorned with gold and decorated with diamonds. The use of jewels on the statue of Buddha, who had taken a vow of poverty, is curious. This is explained by the desire to emphasize the pre-eminence of the Enlightened one, who is the chakravartin - a sovereign of the Universe - worthy of jewels and riches.

There is an interesting story about Phnom Penh. The word Phnom means mountain. Penh is a Khmer word, meaning woman. This is where a beautiful woman sitting on the mountaintop had confronted the wandering king from India, and eventually became his consort. The place came to be known as Phnom Penh - mountain woman. Interestingly the word Penh (or Pen – reflexive n) means a woman in the Tamil language as well.

The epic story of Ramayana plays an important part in the philosophical and cultural life in Cambodia. The Khmer version, referred to as Reamker, is carved into the walls of Angkor Wat. Reamker follows the characters depicted in the Indian Ramayana with some of its own twists. It is a philosophical allegory that combines Hinduism with Buddhism. Though written in the 16th or 17th century, a full half a millennium after the sculptures of Angkor Wat, it formed the basis of Khmer life and philosophy from the time of its origing. It is the foundation of the Royal Ballet repertoire and classical theater and dance.

The protagonist of the story is Preah Ream whose wife is called Neang Seda. His brother is Preah Leak and his antagonist Ravana is called Krong Reap. Hanuman even has a love interest in a mermaid princess called Sovanna Maccha (translates to Golden Fish). Interestingly the Thai version of Ramayana (called Ramakien) is actually an adaptation of Reamker rather than the Indian original.


More than a million people lived around the region of Angkor Wat (Siem Reap) during its peak. Today, the Hindu population of Cambodia (population approximately 14 million) is not even measurable. The majority belongs to the Buddhist religion. Though mainly based on Hinayana (lesser Vehicle), a unique potpourri of Buddhism that is currently practiced. Its pantheon of gods includes many Hindu idols. They have not forgotten their history and still pay their obeisance to god Vishnu and Shiva as well as worship Buddha.

The lost Hindu empire of Cambodia is marked by hundreds of temples. It is the product of sweat and blood of devoted subjects of many rulers with a passion for building. Many of the temples have crumbled from neglect and vandalized. Many have not withstood the onslaught of centuries of harsh weather.

But the memory of the glory of the empires left behind by its temple-building rulers is lasting. Its vibrant former civilization and culture are firmly etched in stone sculptures, and in their ancient scripts. The beautiful bas-reliefs depicting Hindu puranas are delicate as well as delightful. The sculpted figures of lovely apsaras on its temple walls, with their modern appearing hairdo and dresses are esthetically pleasing to the eyes. The neglected temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, with their overgrown roots of Kapok trees are sights to behold. The rooftops appear to be strangled by giant talons of some mythical birds in a vise-like grip. Tree roots snake around the temple walls like Anacondas lazily bathing in the sun.

Palace city of Angkor Thom with its Elephant Terrace and the Leper King (which actually is a sculpture of Yama with blunted fingers - due to damage - and so it came to be known as the Leper King), and the rows of giant statues at the entrance with the large gate are majestic. Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring by its sheer magnitude and architectural finesse.

To see all the ruins will take many trips to Cambodia but a student of history and anyone with curiosity about the eastward spread of the Indian Diaspora in yesteryears must pay at least a visit to Cambodia.      


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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Views: 4359      Comments: 23

Comment Just returned after a wonderful trip to Siem Reap. I am sure I will go there again. I feel very proud as an Indian, when I see our culture was once so well respected in these countries. A country of very polite and simple people, who make tourists feel very much at home. The temples are too magnificent to describe. The scale of it is unimaginable even today. How Khmer King managed to build Angkor Wat, an astonishing master piece, in just 40 years is mind-boggling. A place Indians must visit. (Not just Bangkok or Singapore)
Thanks for the nice article.Some one inquired, if there is any worship in these temples. Yes only Buddhist worship. The Hindu idols are mostly damaged or replaced and hence traditionally damaged idols are not worshiped as Hindu temples.

25-Sep-2015 09:40 AM

Comment Ankor wat's temples meaning is given as city temple . Actually wat is the apabramsha of bhata as in south east asia bha ia pronunced as wa . bhata means bhata kriya which indicates a lot of shrouta yagas were being conducted over there . There is still those proofs of yaga kundas inside the temple angana / courtyard . Ankor does'nt mean nagara it means ankura which means always shrouta yagas has to be conducted in a field wherein three harvests are obtained So ankor wat means a temple build on a field of three harvests and yagas were conducted on them. Even today Bhatkal word is there which means the same thing bhata -kala .Kala means a tulu word indicating a field with three harvests

Dr. Chera Nattoja H. Hariharaprasad.rao
08-Sep-2015 01:44 AM

Comment thanks for ur information really its very useful , continue ur works with the same efforts!

11-Jan-2015 11:36 AM

Comment is any one know historical evidence wether Suriyavarman is pallava/tamil king or not

06-Jan-2015 05:31 AM

Comment I could definitely see a lot of Tamil influence even as per this write-up. Can any of the Tamil enthusiast give some references from Tamil literary and cultural history, to highlight this aspect. Penh and Nagara has definite Tamil origins.

L V Nagarajan
23-Nov-2014 05:45 AM

Comment sir,
great article with so much knowledge of our mahabharat.i am planning to visit this temples in dec to have ancestoral darshan of our great deities.Can you please let me know can we do puja and havan their in the rememberances of our departed souls at the temples.if you can kindly give me contact details of oldest hindu families resident near the temples to have a detailed knoweldge of the temples.
thank you and om namah shivay
vijay pandya

30-Oct-2014 07:20 AM

Comment Amazing - the spread of Indian civilisation to Cambodia of which Angkor Wat is the finest monument.

Bejoyaditya Pal
26-Aug-2014 03:50 AM

Comment Angor wat temple was build by our great tamil chola king, this is true, all these brahmins change the history by telling wrong stories.

11-Jul-2014 07:18 AM

Comment Excellent article on Khamboja Desh and its history. I visited Siem Reap - Cambodia in JUne 2014. The magnificient temples of Angkor Wat are just magnificient. The beutiful sculptures on the walls depict Mahabharat stories. In fact our local guide requested me to explaine the sculptures depicting the scenes of Kurukshetra and Samudra Manthan. The glory of the era is very much visible in the temples.

The Ta Phrom temple complex is so vast, it takes hours to look through the ruins. It has been damaged beyond repairs. Large trees have grown inside the magnificient temples and the roots have damaged many structures. Archaeological Survey of India is helping to restore some of the temples in this complex. I was so happy to see the sign boards of ASI.

The Bayon temple is another magnificient piece of sculpture art. There are many budhist temples with large faces of budha adorning the temple shrines. Each has a unique expression and smile. It is again in bad shape due to neglisgence. fungus has grown over most of the structures. In one of the temples here, I found a Shiva Linga. But there was no mention of it anywhere. It was probably a Hindu temple in ruins.

Overall, a great experience visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia. It takes us back in history and connects us with the people of Cambodia. Very humble and honest people. They make you feel at home with thier graceful smile.

28-Jun-2014 11:08 AM

Comment I am a Hindu from Sri Lanka been to Cambodia to see the Angkor Wat and other monuments in February 2014. I am amazed to note how the Hindu religion has been twisted as that of Budhist by replacing Hindu deities with Budha statutes etc. Even the tourist guides are been trained to say like that, so that a layman would believe them. I am thankful to Dr Neira H Hebber to do reasearch study on this matter for us to see it on Google. What worries me most is that whether World Hindu Organisation is doing anything about it.

Thambi Selvaratnam
23-Feb-2014 03:42 AM

Comment sir

it shows the devotion of our ancestors in spreading hinduism and their faith in their religion this devotion and faith of brahmin kings made tjose magnificient temples

rama murthy
21-Feb-2014 22:35 PM

Comment Angkorwat was built by Tamil kings (cholas)..which was the large empire during that time and there was no country called India existed at that period.

01-Feb-2014 10:22 AM

Comment its very educative.thanks a lot author

27-Nov-2013 04:47 AM

Comment i like their page

12-Oct-2013 10:03 AM

Comment I understand Khambojadesha means khamboja-desh or Kamboja- desh, Desh means country. So kamboja Desh means a country established and ruled by the Kamboja kings.. Kamboja kingdom was second to Kaurav kingdom in power at the time of Mahabharat.

satpal amar
11-Oct-2013 05:56 AM

Comment Thanks for a detailed write up on Angkor Wat and history of Cambodia.Highly motivating piece of writing.So much of patience and research have resulted in this beautiful article.Will guide any one really interested in visiting places to understand human activity and creativity.
Let not disturbing discussions deviate our attention from appreciating the magnificence of architectural splendour on view.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
10-Oct-2013 08:10 AM

Comment "The sovereign goes to sleep in the highest room of the Golden Tower [of the Royal Palace]. The local people claim that there is a genie inside the tower, who is master of all the lands of the kingdom. This genie appears every night, having taken the form of a woman. It is with her that the sovereign lies and enjoys intimate relations. If the genie does not show up on a certain night this means that the time to die has arrived for the barbarian king, and if the king does not go up even for one night something terrible will happen." (This is a passage from the journal of Chou Ta-kuan, or Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy whom the Mongolian ruler of China sent to Cambodia in the 13th Century.)

Daniel Rey M.
30-Sep-2013 17:49 PM

Comment Its Purely the work of TAMILKings, NOT of INDIANS . TQ @Jeyaprakash & Rada

VK Kishore
10-Aug-2013 08:10 AM

Comment There is no relation of Hindusim here. It is built by TAMIL Kings. The Hindusim will always try steal others and say it belongs to them.....Baiscally the strucure is an example of Dravidain Architecture.

13-Jul-2013 21:16 PM

Comment Great article. Wish I'd read it before my trip to Siem Reap. One doesn't just 'see' Angkor Wat - one experiences it! It is quite amazing and I felt such a bond to Cambodia. There is something quite unique to that beautiful country.

18-Feb-2013 10:23 AM

Comment A very good synopsis of the hindu influence in the south east asia region. Really makes one feel proud. Reading this will make my trip to Cambodia more meaningful.

Girish Ghaisas
22-Nov-2012 13:11 PM

Comment Thanks for a detailed info about Combodia and Indian/Hindu connection.Let us hope that our gen next show interest in these aspects.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
12-Sep-2012 21:07 PM

Comment " The early history of Cambodia is best studied as Pre- Angkor era and Angkor era. Angkor is a ‘Khmer-ization’ of the Sanskrit word Nagara, meaning city."

Nagara is of early Dravidian origin, later incorporated in Sanskrit. This has been widely accepted by linguists.

30-Jun-2012 15:54 PM

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