The Trace of King Suryavarman I: The Greatest King of Khmer Empire Establishing Tremendous Territories and Temple in 11th Century

King Suryavarman I (1002 – 1050 AD), a great Khmer king of the Angkor period of Cambodian history, marks a turning point in the history of Cambodia. Some scholars researched that he is ancestry to a homeland Malaysia. Suryavarman sized King Udayadityavarman I throne (1001-1002 AD), and defeated his enemy in 1002 AD. He put up a brainy fight with Udatadityavarman I for throne coup. After a sustained war with Udayadityavarman’s successor, Jyaviravarman (1002-1010 AD), Suryavarman I claimed him as a king in his throne in 1010. He established Phimeanakas and Western Baray, and Khmer center at Louvo (Lopburi). As a Mahayana Buddhist, Suryavarman I was tolerant of the growing Theravada Buddhist presence in the Khmer empire.1)

The king and his successors extended the boundaries of the Khmer territory far and wide. Under his reign, his troops seized Champa and Annam (in present-day Vietnam), including the lands north of the Menam Valley in modern Thailand.

Fig. 2: Phimeanakas Temple, at Angkor, Cambodia, 11th Century

The reign of Suryavarman I is recorded on Khmer stones inscription, and one of them is now in the National Museum at Phnom Penh, Cambodia (see fig. 1: old Khmer and Sanskrit languages written on stone (55 cm), circa 11th c. AD, stating the king Surya Varman I reign). The old inscriptions of Suryavarman I mention that the king sent his army to invade the land comprising North of the Gulf of Siam and around the Valley of Menam river in the year 1002 AD. The inscriptions also reveal that in 1017 the Khmer king under Suryavarman I extended its dominion over the whole territory which now comprises the North and the areas beyond the Valley of Menam river in modern Thailand. For the administrative facilities, the king established several headquarters of Khmer dominion in this land. Each of these Khmer headquarters was governed by a Khmer General or Viceroy who controlled power on behalf of the Khmer empire king.2) In his reign, the Khmer Empire expanded to include much today’s Myanmar (formerly Burma) and reached farther into the Malay Peninsula in the south and Laos in the north.

Angkor reached its zenith under King Suryavarman I, and in 1011 AD the King successfully reunified Cambodia after a period of civil war. In the same year, King Suryavarman I summoned his officials to swear an oath of allegiance. The officials offered their lives and unswerving devotion to the king in the presence of the sacred fire. The officials also promised to safeguard the meritorious foundation of the country and urged the king to punish severely who supported any rivals. In 1018, to consolidate his position, the king had inscription set in place at ‘Preah Vihear’, ‘Phom Chisor’, ‘Wat Baset’, and an unidentified location probably to the east of Angkor, in which ‘Lingams’ named Suryavarmesvara were erected to identify the boundaries of his kingdom. Suryavarman I was responsible for a burst of building activity at Angkor. He placed his royal palace north of the ‘Bekheng’, within the bound of the future Angkor Thom, and ordered the construction of the relatively small royal Hindu temple of the Phimeanakas or Celestial Temple.3) (see fig. 2: Phimeanakas Temple at Angkor).

In 1012, King Suryavarman I also established the diplomatic relation with Chola dynasty of south India, and sent a chariot a gift to emperor Raraja Chola of Chola dynasty. However, the growing of Khmer Empire came in conflict with Tambralinga kingdom, located on the Malay Peninsula under Srivijaya empire. King Suryavarman I had recourse from Raraja Chola of Chola dynasty to force Tambralingga kingdom. Likewise, to encounter the alliance between Suryavarman and Chola dynasty, Tambralingga kingdom requested a help from Srivijaya kingdom, where Srivijaya had become the most powerful empire of Southeast Asia at this time. Actually, both Chola and Khmer empires actually would control the trade route of Malacca Straits under Srivijaya. Rajendra Chola, together with Khmer troops, led an aggressive naval expedition against Srivijaya empire. Srivijaya did not guess and prepare for such sortie with a huge army. Srivijaya and Tambralinga were besieged and powerless. The war led Srivijaya’s declined and ended the monopoly of commerce in Malacca Strait in 1017 AD. It was also an important era leading Khmer Empire in its peak on trading.4)

The zenith of Khmer Empire was succeeded by Suryavarman II (1113–1150 AD). The king resumed the Khmer’s betterment pioneered by Suryavarman I. King Suryavarman II was considered and a builder of Hindu Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat today, officially the Angkor Empire, has been called heaven on earth by many historians and scholars researching what is known to be not only the oldest, well kept, temple of our time but the largest religious temple in the world. The temple is the earthly depiction of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the home of their ancient gods. Interestingly, the religion and art of Angkor Wat deliver forth raw emotion that many of people cannot find in other aspects of their lives. The one thing that they truly have in common is that they show the uniqueness of human thought and what can be created from it. (see fig. 3 and 4: Angkor Temple).

Under the King Suryavarman II, the power Angkor extended to modern Vietnam and Burma. He also resumed diplomatic relation with China by sending tribute to Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). He sent tribute to China that stimulated trade. He led an effective administration of court enabling Khmer to produce enough rice to feed its people and to export for profit.5) The Chinese ceramics traced Angkor’s prosperity and art movement since in tenth century. Chinese ceramic was imported, and archaeological fragments were discovered in several areas. It is said that ‘literally thousands of Chinese fragments were excavated by the last French Conservator at Angkor, Bernard Philippe Groslier. He distinguished the shards into four categories of Chinese ceramics, dating from the Northern Song dynasty to the Ming periods. A high-quality unique vase, dating to Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) was researched as ‘Diplomatic Gift’. The pieces dated to Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279 AD) were found around temples or catches in tombs, and they were researched as imported pieces in the later Angkorian period. While in shape of bowls, boxes, and globular vases were considered as mass-produced objects. Further, the Chinese ceramic in narrow-neck jars shape with unglazed but well-fired were considered as for daily use.6)

Suryavarman I was considered as a king holding the records for the greatest territorial expansion ever achieved in the Khmer empire that led his later successors in maintaining and developing Khmer Empire as a powerful empire in Southeast Asia, ruling from 802 AD to 1431 AD. He was a first milestone of great Khmer Empire. He contributed a tremendous influence not only in the field of religious aspects, but also on political and trade relation, and art movements. The art and architectures of Cambodia had reached its zenith and is still regarded as the brilliant classical art of Southeast Asia. Like King Airlangga in Java Kingdom, George Coedes respectably places Suryavarman I in a position equal to that of other kings on mainland Southeast Asia and South Asia as the greatest king in 11th century.7)

Bibliography

  1. Promsak Jermsawatdi, Thai Art with Indian Influences, Abhinav Publications; First Edition edition, 1979, p. 27.

  2. Wolters O.W, Early Indonesian Commerce: A Study of the Origins of SRīvijaya, Ithaca, N. Y: Cornell University Press. 1967, pp. 250 – 251.

  3. Charles W.F. Higham, Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations, Fact on File, Inc, USA, 2004, p. 335.

  4. Kenneth R. Hall, “Khmer Commercial Development and Foreign Contacts under Sūryavarman I”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 18 (3), Brill Publishers, October 1975, pp. 318-336.

  5. David W. Del Testa, Lives and Legacies: An Encyclopedia of Peope Who Changed the World, Government Leaders, Military Rulers and Political Activists, Routledge, Tailor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2001, p. 178.

  6. Groslier, B.- P, La céramique chinoise en Asie du Sud-Est : quelques points de méthode. Archipel, 1981, reprinted in Mélanges sur l’archéologiedu Cambodge(1949-1986), in J. Dumarçay (ed.), Paris: ÉcoleFrançaise d’Extrême-Orient 1998, pp. 221-245.

  7. George Coedès, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Walter F. Vella (ed.), trans. Susan Brown Cowing. University of Hawaii Press, 1968, p. 134.

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