Founding of the Khmer Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Jayavarman II combined the many kingdoms that existed during the Chenla period of Khmer history and formed a dynasty that would last more than five centuries.

Summary of Event

The Khmer state in modern-day Cambodia dominated its neighbors for more than six centuries and built some of the greatest architectural works of Southeast Asia, including the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complexes. The state began at the start of the ninth century, but its creation involves a mix of Chinese and Indian history that influenced how the Khmers viewed their monarchs and how the monarchs viewed themselves. The state’s exact beginnings are a matter of dispute and based on fragments of writings composed centuries later. [kw]Founding of the Khmer Empire (802) [kw]Khmer Empire, Founding of the (802) Khmers Southeast Asia;802: Founding of the Khmer Empire[0850] Government and politics;802: Founding of the Khmer Empire[0850] Jayavarman I Jayavarman II

The region now known as Cambodia was initially influenced by the two largest powers in Asia: India and China. The creation of the cult of the god-king in Khmer history can be traced back to an Indian folktale about the creation of the original Khmer nation and monarchy. According to the story, a Brahman by the name of Kaundinga was looking for a wife. He shot an arrow into the boat of a dragon princess, which enabled him to convince her to marry him. Her father, the dragon king, proceeded to swallow all of the water that covered the land and gave that land to the couple to rule. The name given them, Kambuja, became the name of the territory they ruled, and from it derives the English word Cambodia, the modern name for Khmer.

A sculpture at Angkor Thom, built in the twelfth century by Jayavarman VII.


From the third through the sixth century, the Chinese had control over what they called Funan Funan province. Funan did not contain all of Cambodia and was focused more on the southern towns, which were used by the Chinese as ports for their trading ships sailing to India and other portions of Asia. Not much is known about the Funan period, and what was written by Chinese historians contains exaggerated accounts of Chinese accomplishments and the extent of Chinese control.

The Funan period ended after the sixth century, and the Cambodian state fragmented into several smaller kingdoms. This period became known as the Chenla Chenla . During the Chenla, Cambodia was divided between coastal kingdoms with a trading economy and the inland kingdoms, which were agriculturally based. Most of these kingdoms were located along the Mekong River flowing north and along the Tonle Sap or Great Lake and the Tonle Sap River. From 600 to 800, various kings attempted to combine these kingdoms into a single state. In 620, Isanavaraman Isanavaraman was able to seize control over several kingdoms along the Mekong and create a larger state. His successor, Jayavarman I Jayavarman I , expanded on this control and included a portion of the Tonle Sap region. However, this kingdom collapsed after his death, and during the eighth century, there was a tendency for the small states to resist any attempts to form them into a single state.

At the end of the eight century, however, a leader emerged who would draw the kingdoms together into a united Khmer state. Jayavarman II Jayavarman II most likely came from the Malay peninsula. He was chosen to lead one of the kingdoms in the south of the country, probably near the town of Prei Veng. He began consolidating his power along the Mekong River, militarily conquering several states and, in one instance, marrying a princess so as to take over her father’s territory. Once his control over the Mekong was assured, Jayavarman II moved westward, to the Tonle Sap River and the Great Lake. His movement west was marked by a succession of capital cities that followed him. In his conquests, Jayavarman demonstrated that he had a larger goal than his predecessors. He sought to build a more permanent state, one that would combine all the Khmer people and would allow them to defeat invaders, conquer weaker peoples outside their borders, and build a civilization that would be uniquely Khmer.

Once his conquests were secure, Jayavarman II sought to establish that central Cambodian state and a permanent dynasty that could be handed down through his family. He arranged for a ritual in which he would be crowned as king of the Khmers and would assume a godlike status among the people. In 802, Jayavarman received a Brahman or priest who was given the task of performing the necessary rituals. Most scholars place this event at Mount Makendrapavata, a sacred mountain of the Śiva cult. Although the exact rituals are not known, the Brahman utilized those from several local religions, including the worship of Śiva and Viṣṇu (Vishnu), two cults from India, and Buddhism. All the rituals were intended to prevent invaders from attacking the Khmer people. The rituals also established Jayavarman and his successors as the king of kings, a deity on earth not only to be obeyed but also to be worshiped by his people. Religion;Khmer

Jayavarman II extended this idea into the cult of Devaraja, Devaraja (god-king), cult of or the worship of the god-king. No longer were kings mortal men who could be defeated or killed or would share power with others. Instead, Jayavarman II and his successors attained the status of divine rulers. Part of the development of the cult required creating a priesthood and a ritual structure with temples and sacred objects for worship. One such object was the Linga. Each ruler following Jayavarman II would build a new temple on a hill, mountain, or mound as protection for the sacred Linga. Jayavarman II was also responsible for the hereditary priesthood in the cult. He appointed a head priest, Sivakawalya, who appointed the rest of the priests. He created the rituals used for worshiping the new god-king and had strict oversight to ensure the priests were performing the rituals properly and treating the beliefs with sufficient regard.

Beyond his creation of the god-king, Jayavarman II proved to be a shrewd and, at times, brutal leader. He swiftly eliminated opposition to his rule either by using lower officials to carry out his policies or executing those who refused to accept his offer. Jayavarman constructed a new capital city on a mountain near the Tonle Sap. The location provided security for his rule and was close to some of the best fishing and agricultural lands in Cambodia. Jayavarman also began constructing temples in the region, construction that through the centuries would produce the Angkor Wat Angkor Wat complex.

Jayavarman II ruled his new kingdom until 850, but unlike previous rulers, who had allowed others to choose their successors, Jayavarman chose his and anointed him as the next god-king. This began the Angkorean period Angkorean period of Cambodian history. The period lasted until 1431 when the Khmers were defeated by Siam (Thailand). However, even after defeat, the Khmers continued the tradition of the god-king, which still existed in the twentieth century with the last king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk.


Jayavarman II’s crowning as the king of kings and the rituals performed on Mount Makendrapavata created a new nation and a form of government that would last for more than eleven hundred years. The Khmer state, under a single monarch after 802, would develop into a major economic and military power in southeast Asia. Its armies swept north into what is now Laos and west into modern-day Vietnam. The Khmer form of king worship made the Khmer leader one of the most absolutist in the region. In addition to military power, the Khmers proved to be economically strong and used their wealth to construct some of the greatest architectural sites in Southeast Asia. The Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom sites were built in the twelfth century by one of Jayavarman II’s successors, Jayavarman VII Jayavarman VII . These temples and palaces have existed under the attack of nature and the many wars that have plagued modern Cambodia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Audric, John. Angkor and the Khmer Empire. London: Robert Hale, 1992. A story about the building of the Angkor Wat complex and its meaning within Khmer cultural and political history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. A wide-ranging description of the history of Cambodia starting with the influence of the Chinese and Indians and continuing into the modern-day genocide of the Khmer Rouge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. The Civilization of Angkor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. A book with a plethora of pictures detailing the Angkor Wat complex and text on how the civilization grew and flourished during the medieval period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mabbet, Ian, and David Chandler. The Khmers. Oxford, England: Blackwell Press, 1995. A more limited look at the Khmer empire and the various leaders before Jayavarman II and the cultural and economic growth of the empire and its people.

Categories: History