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King Jayavarman VII: The Compassionate Warrior King of the Khmer Empire

“Let me assure that the Kingdom of Cambodia, a country with independence, neutrality, peace, freedom, democracy and human rights as you all have seen, shall be existing with no end.” – Hun Sen

By Darryl C. RichiePublished 11 months ago 16 min read
“For the complexion of men, they consider black the most beautiful. In all the kingdoms of the southern region, it is the same.” – Nan Ts’i Chou

The most prominent and enduring kingdom of early Southeast Asia was Angkor (802-1431). The builders of this civilization were Africoid people known as the “Khmers,” a name that is like Kmt (ancient Kemet, ancient Egypt). Much of the early knowledge of early Southeast Asia comes from Chinese and Indian sources. Chinese historical documents speak of the Funanese, who were the builders of the earliest kingdom in Southeast Asia. The Funan Kingdom was in present-day Southern Vietnam and Cambodia. The documents describe the people as “ugly and black.” Their hair is curly. The Khmer men, essentially the same as the Funanese, were described by the Chinese as “small and black.” In 1923, Harvard University anthropologist Roland Burrage Dixon noted that the ancient Khmers were physically “marked by distinctly short stature, dark skin, curly hair or even frizzy hair, broad noses and thick negroid lips.”

Based on recent scientific studies of DNA, modern humanity originated in Africa, that African people are the world’s original people, and all modern humans can trace their ancestral roots back to Africa. Were it not for the primordial migrations of early African people, humanity would have remained physically Africoid, and the rest of the world outside of the African continent absent of human life. Since the first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) in Asia were of African birth, the African presence in ancient Asia can therefore be demonstrated through the history of the Black populations that have inhabited the Asian land mass within the span of modern humanity. Not only were African people the first inhabitants of Asia. There is abundant evidence to show that Black people within documented historical periods created or influenced some of ancient Asia’s most important and enduring high cultures.

“I only made passing reference in the work to Blacks scattered outside of Africa over the world, not from the slave trade, but from dispersions that began in prehistory. This fact alone indicates the great tasks of future scholarship on the real history of the race. We are actually just on the threshold, gathering up some important missing fragments. The biggest jobs are still ahead.” – Dr. Chancellor Williams

Ancient China and the far East are examples to explain large populations of Black people. Large populations in Southern China, powerful enough to form a kingdom of their own. Black populations are in Formosa, Australia, the Malay peninsula, Indochina (present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos), the Andaman’s and numerous other islands. There is also a heavy concentration of Africans in India, along with populations in Palestine, South Arabia, and Mesopotamia.

Before any slave trade, Black people have wandered any and everywhere over the planet earth with great and dominate populations. It is these Blacks who have puzzled Western scholars, and some theorize that Asia and Europe may be the homeland of African people after all.

The Khmers established themselves through a vast area that included portions of the present-day countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Kampuchea (Cambodia), Malaysia, Vietnam, and Laos.

By the midpoint of the 6th century, the stature and prestige of the kingdom of Funan began to deteriorate, and the focal point of regional domination was transferred northwards to the kingdom of Chenla, where stone was in great abundance, and utilized as a major building material for the first time in the history of Southeast Asia. The kingdom of Chenla was a vassal state of Funan, and was the second significant Khmer kingdom, and was divided into two parts, Upper Chenla and Lower Chenla. Sometime around the 8th century, the Chenla Kingdom was divided into two rival states, Lower Chenla and Upper Chenla.

For instance, the southern state, Lower Chenla, bordered the sea, was covered with lakes and waterways, and was called Water Chenla. Water Chenla was located near the Mekong Delta in the lower area of present-day Cambodia. The people of Water Chenla were subject to attacks from Javanese pirates, who sailed up from their islands that were located south of the Indochinese Peninsula. The northern state, Upper Chenla, consisted of mountains and valleys, and extended northward to the Chinese province of Yunnan, and was called Land Chenla. The people of Land Chenla reportedly lived a peaceful life compared to the people of Water Chenla who were subject to attacks.

Also, during the 8th century, the number of inscriptions were decreased, and the historical record were incomplete. This may indicate a decline in the Chenla Kingdom, but this was during the time when large sites began to appear near Angkor. These sites may have been the base for King Jayavarman II (770-834), the ruler who founded the Khmer Empire. The beginning of Jayavarman II’s rule, he chose the land between the Kulen Hills and the freshwater lake Tonlé Sap for his court and cult centers. The Kulen Hills are described in inscriptions as the “Mountain of the Great Indra,” and it was here that Jayavarman II made himself the “god who is king” in 802, marking the beginning of the Khmer Empire.

Angkor Wat was constructed by King Suryavarman II (1113-1150), and the Angkor Wat temple was called “the largest stone monument in the world.”

“Half a league from this city is a temple called Angar (Angkor). It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all refinements which the human genius can conceive of. There are many smaller towers of similar style, in the same stone, which are gilded. The temple is surrounded by a moat, and access is by a single bridge, protected by stone tigers so grand and fearsome as to strike terror into the visitor.” – Diogo Do Couto, Portuguese and first European to encounter Angkor and Angkor Wat in the 16th century

King Jayavarman II unified the Khmer Kingdom and identified himself with the powerful Hindu deity Shiva. The Khmer people of Angkor were sophisticated agriculturalists, advanced engineers, aggressive merchants, and intrepid (fearless) warriors. They developed a splendid irrigation system with some canals extending 40 miles in length and created grandiose hydraulic works. The hydraulic system of Angkor was used for transportation and for rice cultivation to support a surrounding population estimated at 1 million people.

In 889, King Yasovarman (889-900) constructed his capital on the current site of Angkor, and over the centuries Khmer monarchs augmented the kingdom with their own distinct contributions. Angkor covered 77 square miles and was designed to be completely self-sufficient. The Khmer people were magnificent builders in stone, and for more than 600 years successive dynasties commissioned the construction of meticulously detailed temples. Angkor Wat was the crown jewel of the Angkor Kingdom and is estimated to contain as much stone as the Dynasty IV pyramid of King Khafre in Old Kingdom Kemet (ancient Egypt).

The architectural styles that would be used in Angkor were developed in the Chenla Kingdom. City centers featured brick temples and encircling walls and barays (reservoirs). These temples featured laborite doorways and lintels that were highly influenced stylistically by India, complete with a range of motifs.

It was under King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) when the Khmer civilization covered a massive portion of Southeast Asia “stretching from the South China Sea to modern Thailand, as far north as the uplands of Laos and as far south as the Malay Peninsula. King Suryavarman II built it as a funerary temple for himself, and dedicated it to the Hindu god Vishnu, whom the king represented on Earth and with whom he integrated on his death.” King Suryavarman II was known as “the most powerful king in the country’s history.”

King Jayavarman VII: One of the Khmer Empire’s Greatest Kings

Giant Buddha face inside Bayon temple - Angkor Wat - Cambodia is a photograph by Matteo Colombo which was uploaded on October 19th, 2014.

After the death of King Suryavarman II, by 1177, a surprise attack from the Cham forces (Champa Kingdom, were sometimes a rival of Angkor in Southeast Asia) led the sacking of Angkor and general devastation in the region.

Chinese dynastic records from as early as 192 CE reference a kingdom of Lin-yi, which meant the “land of Black men.” The kingdom of Lin-yi was known as Champa in Sanskrit documents. Its inhabitants possessed “black skin, eyes deep in the orbit, nose turned up, hair frizzy’ at a period when they were not yet subject to foreign domination and preserved the purity of this type.”

Africoid figure from early Vietnam (Champa). Photo courtesy of Wayne B. Chandler

The Cham forces were eventually defeated by King Jayavarman VII, and the Champa Kingdom became a vassal kingdom of the Khmer Empire. From the ruins, King Jayavarman VII rebuilt parts of the Khmer Empire and added constructions of his own, like the kingdom of Angkor Thom. King Jayavarman VII was the compassionate warrior king of the Khmer Empire who built the Bayon Temple of Angkor Thom, and he established hospital temples throughout his realm. King Jayavarman VII (the prefix of whose name, Jaya, in Sanskrit, means “victory”) lived more than nine decades, ruling with strength and wisdom.

King Jayavarman VII built more than any other Khmer king, and it is calculated that he built more than all the other Khmer kings combined. It was during this time where more military constructions were found, such as high walls with monumental gateways. Unfortunately, it was these monumental constructions that would drain the resources of the Khmer Empire and contribute to its collapse and the abandonment of Angkor in general.

By the end of the 12th century, shortly after its construction, the role of Angkor Wat would shift from Hindu beliefs to Buddhist, a change that is also reflected in the shifting beliefs of ruling kings. When King Jayavarman VII restored power by defeating the Chams, in 1181, a Mahayana Buddhist, King Jayavarman VII built his own sacred mountain on earth, the Bayon, near Angkor Wat and he constructed Angkor Thom surrounding it. The temples complexes of Angkor Thom were a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. It is likely during this time that the functional role of Angkor shifted more to Buddhism. King Jayavarman VII became the first king of the Khmer Empire who established Buddhism as the official, preferred religion of the state. King Jayavarman VII was extremely tolerant of Hinduism, and he used it to build his vision of kingship.

The Bayon temple itself was established along with Angkor Thom only 1,700 meters north of Angkor Wat. The Bayon, the sculpted stone mountain at the center of the six-square-mile walled kingdom of Angkor Thom and was the capital of the Khmer Empire from the late 10th through the early 12th century. Inside the Bayon are numerous towers with large, massive faces, each facing a cardinal direction. The Bayon featured 50 towers that bore the image of King Jayavarman VII looking out over his kingdom. Fish were carved in stone around the exterior to symbolize the nether world below the oceans.

“To protect Angkor Thom, Jayavarman constructed a moated stone wall around the city, with five monumental bridges.” The Bayon was meant to be a symbolic mountain for the king. The original name of the temple was Jayagirl, which means “Victory Mountain.” Since King Jayavarman VII was primarily a Mahayana Buddhist, the temple was built to reflect such beliefs and is the only such state temple to be built in the Khmer Empire.

The Bayon was only second in size to Angkor Wat, is an intricate, 800-year-old shrine celebrated for the gigantic stone faces of its builder, King Jayavarman VII. In 1297, a Chinese diplomat named Chou Ta-kuan described the Bayon as shinning with gold, and exclaimed that:

“On the eastern side is a golden bridge, guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers. North of the Golden Tower, at a distance of about two hundred yards, rises the Tower of Bronze (Baphuon), higher even than the Golden Tower: a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base. A quarter of a mile further north is the residence of the King. Rising above his private apartments is another tower of gold. These are the monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of “Cambodia the rich and noble.”

King Jayavarman VII’s Hospital Temples During Medieval Times

Bust of Jayavarman VII, Guimet Museum

An inscription on the Bayon temple pertaining to King Jayavarman VII states that:

“He suffered from the sickness of his subjects more than from his own: for it is the public grief which makes the grief of kings and not their personal grief.”

To the king, the number of subjects was what mattered most. The more people he ruled, the greater a king was. Buddhist kings, on the other hand, used their subjects as an audience, objects of their compassion, and as the element of their redemption. King Jayavarman VII felt this as spiritual pain; therefore, it was on a higher level, meaning he felt more than his own citizens did. This is in accordance with the Buddhist teachings, which places suffering as related to purpose in life. Physical suffering is less important because its physical. It was through his subjects and by performing good deeds that a Buddhist king could redeem his soul from the misdeeds of his past lives.

King Jayavarman VII was an innovative king because he was the first to build “hospital temples,” in which the average citizen could have ailments cared for. These hospitals were way ahead of their time, and they offered spiritual prayers as well as medical herbs for the sick and infirm.

The Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples, monuments almost as large as Angkor Wat, were constructed by the prolific King Jayavarman VII, and were designed by him as mausoleums for his parents. The inscription of Ta Prohm reveals that there were 102 hospitals in the Khmer Empire when King Jayavarman VII reigned supreme. The first four hospitals were built at the gates of Angkor Thom, as well as to the west of Angkor in present-day northeastern Thailand. Some were even constructed in present-day Laos. The hospitals served 838 villages, and steles were carved upon the foundation of the hospitals, which give details about their administration. The medical personnel in each hospital consisted of two doctors, two pharmacists, 14 guardians, eight male nurses, six female nurses, six orderlies, two cooks, two clerks, and 60 general assistants.

Along with hospitals, King Jayavarman VII thought that the construction of roads and bridges were equally important. For example, he not only secured the borders of the Khmer Empire, but he also greatly improved the living conditions within those borders. It was under King Jayavarman VII that some of the greatest infrastructure projects of the Khmer Empire were made. This included new roadways, dams, reservoirs, and countless hospital temples dedicated to the healing and general well-being of the population. Another important construction by King Jayavarman VII was the “houses of fire.” The purpose of these buildings may be that they were served as rest houses for travelers. They were built in 10-mile intervals along the roads. There were 57 “houses of fire” on the road that connected the capital of the Khmer Empire to the kingdom of Champa.

The inscription on the Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples prove the magnitude of King Jayavarman VII’s realm, but they also show how Khmer bureaucracy developed, especially in terms of states’ control over the duties of the population. For instance, Ta Prohm housed several thousand people, as the inscription there describes the existence of 18 high priests, 2,740 other priests, 2,232 assistants, and 12,640 people. Additionally, there were 66,625 men and women who performed services. Among them were other ethnic groups, like the Burmese, Chams, and others who came to the Khmer Empire. In total, there were 79,265 people around this temple. Preah Khan had a similar inscription, stating that over 100,000 people were drawn to the area from 5,300 neighboring villages. The outsiders, like the Burmese and Chams, were accounted for differently than the Khmer population.

The Fall of the God Kings of the Khmer Empire

After the death of King Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire began to decline, and no great monuments were constructed after his prolific reign. During the 15th century the Khmer people were faced with a steady series of Thai invasions, and they tried to preserve the last vestiges of Classical Khmer civilization. Although the early of the country of present-day Thailand reflected a pronounced Africoid phenotype, but these Thai invaders into Khmer territory were Sincized or Mongoloid types generally believed to be ethnically related to modern Chinese people. They lived in the southern and southeastern portions of present-day China. Similar peoples, Sincized Vietnamese, brought about the final destruction of the kingdom of Champa.

The invasion of the Thais was a life-or-death struggle for the Khmer people. The able-bodied Khmer men and the last remnant of the Khmer intelligentsia were abducted as captives and carried away, and the intricate irrigation system of Angkor, which required consistent innovation, ceased to work effectively. Archaeological excavations have shown that the Thais blocked canals at Angkor, so that the kingdom of Angkor’s complex and elaborate irrigation system ruptured. In 1431, after a seven-month siege, the Thais successfully occupied and ravaged Angkor and pilfered (stole) many of its statues. By the end of 1432 came the physical abandonment of Angkor by the Khmer court and the removal of the capital, first to the province of Srei Santhor and later to Phnom Penh and Oudong.

Angkor was eventually retaken from the Thais by the Khmer’s, and they experienced a short renaissance period in the late 16th century, but soon afterwards slipped into obscurity.

In late 1860, a young French scholar and scientist, Henri Mouhot, recorded in his dairy about Angkor that:

“It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

Visiting Angkor for the first time, Mouhot wrote that:

Central portion of the Bayon temple, Angkor. Constructed by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century.

“In the province still bearing the name Ongcor [Angkor], there are…ruins of such grandeur, remains of structures which must have been raised at such an immense cost of labor, that at first view on is filled with profound admiration and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works.”

In 1863, King Norodom sought the protection of France from the Thais, and in 1867 a treaty was developed that stayed in place until 1953, which made Cambodia a protectorate of France.

“Let me assure that the Kingdom of Cambodia, a country with independence, neutrality, peace, freedom, democracy and human rights as you all have seen, shall be existing with no end.” – Hun Sen


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About the Creator

Darryl C. Richie

Inspirational Speaker, Author and Blogger looking to inspire with my story of being a two-time cancer survivor and hip amputee, and connect the African Diaspora to their African roots via Black Consciousness.

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