Mahendraparvata: The City on The Hill

by Jean-Baptiste "JB" Chevance & Damian Evans & Nina Isabella Hofer & Sakada Sakhoeun

Publication: Antiquity, Volume 93, Issue 371. Cambridge University, UK.

Published: October 8th, 2019

Pages: 18

Languages : English, French

This major archeological breakthrough regarding the location of the Mahendraparvata city, which has been labeled as "the template of Angkor" in the 9th-10th centuries, shows that

  • Angkorian research remains a very lively field more than 150 years after the "rediscovery" of Angkor
  • modern technology, especially the Lidar resource, often confirms what field researchers had surmised from empirical findings on the ground
  • the spatial development of what was to become the Khmer Empire is still very much a matter of speculations and further research.

The reality of a major urban formation predating Angkor by a few centuries, organized around worshipping and sacred locations, not based on a system of intensive agrarian production where rice became the main economic commodity, places the whole ancient Khmer civilization under new perspectives.

Mahendraparvata (មហេន្ទ្របវ៌ត) as an ancient city of the Khmer Empire era in has been known for decades, but much of it lay concealed by forest and earth. The city was uncovered by an archaeological expedition led by Jean-Baptiste Chevance and Damian Evans in 2012, with the aid of airborne laser scanning technology (LIDAR).

Its origins date to the reign of Jayavarman II, considered the founder of the Khmer Empire. His reign was consecrated on the sacred mountain of Mahendraparvata. Mahendraparvata was one of the three capitals, or courts, of Jayavarman II's reign, the others being Amarendrapura and Hariharalaya.

The 1936 expedition of French archaeologist and art historian Philippe Stern helped to discover there some previously unknown temples and Vishnu statues. But the area, while being the source of rivers flowing south to the Tonle Sap, was remote and, later in his reign, Jayavarman II moved to Hariharalaya where he died in 835 AD.

The name Mahendraparvata means "Mountain of the Great Indra". It is derived from the Sanskrit words महेन्द्र (Great Indra, a title of the Hindu god Indra) and पर्वत (mountain), a reference to the hill top site known as Phnom Kulen, today where Jayavarman II was consecrated as the first king of the Khmer Empire in 802. The name is attested in inscriptions at the Angkor-area Ak Yum temple.

Tags: Jayavarman II, Khmer capital cities, Mahendraparvata, lidar, rediscovery

About the Authors

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste "JB"  Chevance

Jean-Baptiste "JB" Chevance

After graduating from École du Louvre in 1997, and obtaining a PhD in Khmer Archeology in 2011 at Sorbonne-Paris III University, Jean-Baptiste Chevance has focused his research on the Phnom Kulen Mountain, 25 miles north-east from Angkor proper.

Prospecting the mountainous area right after the demise of the Khmer Rouge guerilla, the archeologist has worked with EFEO, INRAP and Apsara Authority, lauching in 2007 the Archaeology and Development Foundation (ADF), devoted to the preservation of the Phnom Kulen site. 

Portrait of Damian   Evans

Damian Evans

A Canadian-Australian researcher, Damian Evans focuses on archaeological landscapes in mainland Southeast Asia, in particular those of the Khmer Empire. 

He specialized in using advanced remote sensing technologies such as airborne laser scanning (or “LIDAR”) to uncover, map and analyse the urban and agricultural networks that stretched between, and beyond, great temple complexes such as Angkor in Cambodia.

Fellow researcher with the University of Sydney, then the Institut Francais d'Etudes Asiatiques, has published several essays on Angkorian archaelogy and mapping

Portrait of Nina Isabella  Hofer

Nina Isabella Hofer

A specialist in archeological laser scanning, Nina Hofer is a graduate of Vienna University, Department of Geography and Regional Research.

In 2018, she co-directed the CALI (Cambodian Lidar Initiative) field season with Leng Vitou of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. She wrote about the findings on post-Angkorian capital cities of Longvek and Oudong here

Portrait of Sakada   Sakhoeun

Sakada Sakhoeun

Sakada Sakhoeun (1986, Phnom Penh) is a senior archeologist with ADFKulen

Involved in several archaeological projects for Sydney University (Australia) and Sophia University (Japan), Sakhoeun joined the Archeological and Development Foundation/Phnom Kulen in 2009, spending his time between the ADF office in Siem Reap and the archaeological sites on Phnom Kulen.
Since mid-2017, Sakada has taken over the local responsibility of the organization, in coordination with the management team. He is also closely supervising the ADF environmental activities.