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Angkor Religious history


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Angkor Religious History

Pre Angkor
Hinduism and becoming a God King – Shiva
Change in Hindu Deity
Major religion change
Return to Hinduism
Transition to Theravada Buddhism
Affect on the architecture

The religious history of Angkor is perhaps one of the most important parts both in its rise and fall. Although heavily intertwined the Cities and structures of Angkor were more than just elaborate monuments to religious beliefs, they embodied the foundations and culture of the Khmer empire and state religion played an important part in the success of the empire.

During the Khmer Empire times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king, were constructed of perishable materials, this is on the understanding that “only the gods had a right to reside in buildings made of stone”.

Pre Angkor – Up to 802 AD

Prior to the beginning of the sovereign state, founded by Jayavarman II, the traditional beliefs of the people of the region consisted of Indigenous cults, including those centred on ancestor and lingam worship (a symbol for the worship of the Hindu deity Shiva).

Hindu god - Shiva

Statue of Hindu god - Shiva

Hinduism, Shiva and becoming a God King – 802 AD

Following the unification of the region and the founding of the state religion of Hinduism, king Jayavarman II built impressive pyramids temples which came to represent the mythological Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods in Hindu scriptures.

The Lingam (symbol of Hindu deity Shiva) was placed at the centre of the temple as the focal point. King Jayavarman II named the central lingam after himself, combining it with the suffixes that designated Shiva. Through the worship of the lingam, the king was identified with Shiva, and Shaivism became the state religion enforcing the concept of the God king.

Change in Hindu Deity – 1113 AD

With Hinduism being the state religion, there was an order of preference as to which gods were worshiped, this had closely tied into previous beliefs and the worship of Linga, however the relationship seems to have changed with Suryavarman II and the construction of Angkor Wat.

With the building of Angkor Wat came the veneration of Vishnu however not the ancient Hindu deity nor even one of the deity’s traditional incarnations, but simply king Suryavarman II posthumously identified with Vishnu – consubstantial with him.

This however does not mark a radical change within Khmer society as religious syncretism, remained thoroughgoing in the Khmer empire years:

Major religion change – 1181 AD

The first real religious change came when King Jayavarman VII shifted radically from his predecessors by converting to Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. At the same time he built his new capital city Angkor Thom with the Buddhist temple known as the Bayon at its centre and installed Buddhism as the state religion. However rather than removing the “god king” personality cult he adopted the Buddhist “enlightened being” and “lord who looks down” – compassionate to his subjects identity, enforcing this by including stone carving images of him into the “face towers” of the Bayon. During this time, many temples were converted from Hindu temples to Buddhist.

Statue of Buddha

Statue of Buddha

Return to Hinduism – 1243 AD

The following king Indravarman II was also devoutly Buddhist and he finished many of the grand projects that Jayavarman VII started.

However on Indravarman II death in 1243 AD Jayavarman VIII, who was a strict traditional Hindu replaced him. Jayavarman VIII set about returning the state religion back to Hinduism and Lingam worship, this included converting all the previous Hindu temples (transformed by his two predecessors) back to their original condition. During this period many Buddhist artefacts were destroyed.

Transition to Theravada Buddhism – 1295 AD

In 1295 the Hindu restoration king – Jayavarman VIII was overthrown by his son in law Srindravarman, who was a devout Theravada Buddhist.

It is at this time that the empire changed considerably as the royal family and all levels of society embraced Theravada Buddhism and as per the Theravada Buddhism teachings – the king was no longer regarded as a “god-king”.

Affect on the architecture

Much of Angkors buildings were constructed for religious purposes, however a lot were also built to correspond with the needs of the largest pre-industrial city in the world, examples being the extensive canal network and huge reservoirs.

Arguably the successful completion of the huge constructions came from the personality cult belief that the Khmer kings were gods. This was amplified across many buildings, especially temples that were designed to be real life representations of religious mythology. As the belief in the “god-kings” died, so did the need for such elaborate constructions.