Khmer Empire and Southeast Asia, 800-1450

by Swati Chemburkar

A summary of the history of Khmer Empire and neighboring cultures through architecture.

Wat mahathat sukhotai Khmer Empire and Southeast Asia 800 1450 1

Publication: in Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture, 21th edition, ed. Murray Fraser, chap 54, pp 1083-1106. Routledge, 2020 [pdf provided by the author]. Twentieth Edition ) 20th Edition

Published: 2020

Author: Swati Chemburkar

Pages: 24

ISSN: 978-1472589989

Language : English

View publication

pdf 5.6 MB

How did the Khmer builders differentiate themselves from their Burmese, Siamese, Vietnamese and Indonesian counterparts? As a contribution to the monumental History of Architecture launched by Sir Banister Fletcher in 1896 , 21th edition, this essay relies on comparative studying of architectural forms, mainly across mainland Southeast Asia but also considering Javanese candis

From the study:

Indian influences:

From the fourth century onwards. the Mon-Khmer people of present-day Thailand absorbed diverse lndian and Chinese influences, like other early states of Southeast Asia. Theearliest traces of Buddhist art and architecture in the Chao Phraya River basin indicate a society of growing complexity with references to a lost early kingdom of Dvaravati (sixth to tenth centuries). 

Architecture and Khmer royalty

The architecture of the Khmer Empire expresses the history and evolution of power in Cambodia. The authority granted by kings to the huge state temples – with varnas (occupational divisions) to sustain and control them – was directed hierarchically downwards through smaller regional temples down to the personal sanctuaries of village leaders. Temples controlled the land, human agricultural labour, and the produce that was grown. At the high point of the Khmer era, there were up to 1,200 local temples and cults linked to the regional temples and ultimately to the king’s state temple in the royal capital of Angkor. In the deeply hierarchical Khmer society, the palace of the ruler was situated near the state temple, surrounded by monasteries for the Brahmin priests and houses for the court members. Beyond them were the houses and rice fields where the artisans and peasants lived and worked. Various sorts of slavery existed in Angkor that would have been instrumental in the construction of the Khmer temple complexes there. Water management played a key role in Cambodian administration. The construction of hydraulic networks into previously uncultivated agricultural land produced taxable rice surpluses that were central to the prosperity of Khmer kings.

Cham and Khmer architectures

In terms of monumental architecture, the Champa kingdom could boast two major and very early Hindu temple
complexes that were then added to over the intervening centuries. The first, My Son in the former capital city of Simhapura in Quang Nam province, located in a deep valley surrounded by high mountain ranges, was largely built under King Bhadravarman (r. 380 – 413) and includes several temples dedicated to Shiva by a male clan named Pinang (meaning areca nut’) in the Cham language. The other, Po Nagar in Khanh Hoa province, located on a riverside, was dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati by a female clan named Li‑u (meaning coconut’). Po Nagar’s main goddess temple was inaugurated by King Satyavarman (r. 773 – 798), and continued afterwards. Alongside these two Hindu sites, the ninth-century Buddhist temple complex of Dong Duong in Vietnam’s Quang Nam province, was built in brick and exhibited corbelled technique similar to that of the Khmer Empire and Javanese style. However, compositionally, the Chams created tall structures with comparatively large vaulted internal spaces compared to Angkorian architecture. Bricks of different lengths and thicknesses were used for a variety of different purposes and were rubbed together until they fitted properly. In many cases, the exterior surfaces of the bricks were sculpted, but this was only carried out after all the bricks had been laid and the building completed. Motifs of female breasts were frequently carved onto Champa temples and pedestals, again as signs of fertility. The main characteristics of Champa architecture are the flat foundation of the main sanctuary or kalan, a square cella, a three-tiered pyramid-shaped roof for the main sanctuary, and a boat-shaped roof for the treasury buildings.

Javanese candis

Java is particularly notable for its temple precincts, known as candis. In both Central Java and East Java, these candis are made up of three parts: a base or foot; a body containing the cella (inner chamber); and a roof. While the Central Javanese temples mostly have a somewhat squat, bulky form with emphasis on horizontal mouldings for the body, East Javanese temples display a strong vertical slender body. The vast roofs, or shikharas, of Central Javanese temples are made up of smaller bell-shaped stupas, while East Javanese candis are more modest in size. The layout of the Central Javanese temple complexes tended to be symmetrical, with their principal building situated in the centre, aligned in the cardinal directions. However, there appears to have been a move away from the centrally focused orientation in the temples of East Java. There the most sacred building was placed at the rearmost end of the complex, furthest from the entrance, as seen at Candi Panataran (twelfth and fourteenth centuries). And while the ritual processions held in Central Javanese candis circulated clockwise, East Javanese temples often favour movement in the anti-clockwise direction. The motif of demonic kala heads above the entrances of the temples was developed in Central Java and then adopted in East Javanese candis, where the sculptures became fiercer with fangs, protruding eyes and threatening lower jaws. The tradition of narrative relief carvings continued in East Java with a development of a more flattened style with stylized, stiff figures reminiscent of the island’s famous wayang shadow puppetry. Andesite stone remained the key building material in both regions, but brick temples dominated the later Majapahit period (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). 

Kingdoms and Empires c. 1200 (©Swati Chemburkar)
Angkor Thom City layout by Olivier Cunin.

Main photo: Wat Mahathat, typical Sukhotai-style architecture. (photo by the author).

Tags: architecture, Khmer Empire, Champa, Siam, Vietnam, candi, Khmer arts, comparative studies, Bagan, Burmese Empire, Java, Sukhotai

About the Author

Swati Chemburkar

Swati Chemburkar

Course Director at Benaras Hindu University, Mumbai, Swati Chemburkar studies the interconnection between Khmer arts and Indian civilization.
An architect and historian, she teaches Southeast Asia art history at the Jnanapravaha Institute in Mumbai. Swati Chemburkar has done several field researches in Cambodia, in particular at Banteay Chhmar.

with photographer Paisarn Piemmettawat in Banteay Chhmar (from Banteay Chhmar, Peter D. Sharrock Editor, 2015)