A brief overview of who built what and when
Knowing a little bit about Angkor Wat history is a good thing.
When you’re visiting the temples, wouldn’t you rather be taking in the sights instead of burying your nose in a guidebook?
Having an idea on the general sequence of Angkor temples and Angkor kings would make temple visits more meaningful.
Here you’ll get an idea of who built what, when, where, and also the symbolism behind the temple structures. I’m obviously not an Angkor Wat historian, but here’s what I’ve gathered so far:
The Angkorian period started in AD 802 and ended in 1432. It was during this period that all those Angkor temples were built.
Angkor Wat History – Early Years
Jayavarman II was the founder of the Angkor empire, and he proclaimed himself a devaraja or god king (deva = god, raja = king) possessing similar powers to the Hindu god Shiva. You’ll find that this god-king theme was also adopted by his ‘successors’ throughout Angkor Wat’s history.
Jayavarman II built a temple mountain at Phnom Kulen (Kulen Hill/Mountain), and this was where he held his court. He built it on a mountain to mimic Shiva’s dwelling place, the mythical Mt. Meru. By setting up his court at the top of the mountain, he was saying that Phnom Kulen was the center of the universe and that he was the king.
To this day, Phnom Kulen is the most sacred site for Cambodians. Later on in history, the court was moved to Rolous.
Indravarman I is considered to be a usurper and he was also a devaraja. He built the first baray (reservoir), and at Rolous he built the Preah Ko and Bakong temples, earning him a place in Angkor Wat history. These temples were some of the first ones with moats surrounding them. The moats have a religious significance also.
It is said that the mythical Mt. Meru is surrounded by lakes. So you can see the symbolism there.
Yasovarman I was Indravarman I’s son, and during his reign he moved the capital to the Angkor area as we know it now. He built another temple at the previous capital city Rolous, called Lolei. The Phnom Bakheng temple, which is a popular place for viewing sunsets, was also built during his time. Notice that Phnom Bakheng is sitting atop the hill, again showing the symbolism of Shiva’s Mt. Meru.
Jayavarman IV was another usurper. He took on the power sometime after Yasovarman I’s death, and moved the capital city to Koh Ker. He built Koh Ker in 20 years, taking advantage of natural resources around the area and using an army of workers. According to some texts, Koh Ker was a magnificent capital, but sadly very little can be gleaned from the available Angkor Wat history texts.
Rajendravarman II moved the capital back to Angkor. He built the Eastern Mebon, Pre Rup, and Phimeanakas (you can visit all these because they’re located in Angkor). The Eastern Mebon temple was built in the middle of Eastern Baray, so at one time the temple was surrounded by water, fulfilling that Mount Meru symbolism.
Today, the Eastern Baray is completely dry, so the Eastern Mebon temple is very much on a dry land.
968 – 1001
Jayavarman V was Rajendravarman II’s son. During his reign, the Ta Keo and Banteay Srei temples were built.
The Banteay Srei temple, in particular, has been hailed as the prettiest of all temples on earth, due to its magnificent and deep detailed carvings. It is also often mentioned as the jewel among all the Angkor temples. Not a small feat when you consider the long span of Angkor Wat history. Interestingly, Banteay Srei was not commissioned by the king, but rather by a Brahman (who could have been Jayavarman V’s tutor).
Angkor Wat History – Classical Period
Suryavarman I was another usurper, and he expanded the Khmer empire perhaps to its greatest extent.
This was also the beginning of the classical age, which means abundant and productive temple building. At the same time, however, there was a lot of military activity in the Khmer empire, and therefore turmoil.
Suryavarman also played an important role in Angkor Wat history. He is believed to be the promoter of Buddhism in Cambodia. Although he adopted the god-king status, Buddhism and Buddhist sculptures made their way into the Angkor city. Today, 97% of Cambodians are Buddhist.
Not much is known about what Suryavarman I built, because none of his buildings have survived.
Udayadityavarman II (what a mouthful!) was the son or Suryavarman I. He expanded the empire even more and built Baphuon and Western Mebon, which is located in the middle of Western Baray. Who built Western Baray, the largest baray of them all (8km by 2.3km)? I don’t see it stated plainly, but it should be Udayadityavarman, since the Western Baray was built roughly 150 years after the Eastern one.
Today, the Western Baray still holds huge volumes of water.
Yasovarman I also built Phnom Krom, Phnom Bok, and that huge Eastern Baray reservoir (7 km by 1.8 km), earning his place in Angkor Wat history.
1112-52 (The period when Angkor Wat was built)
Suryavarman II was the king responsible for beautiful Beng Melea and the grand Angkor Wat temple, which he dedicated solely to the Hindu god Vishnu. Previous god-kings did not have this special devotion that he exhibited; they always included other gods as well.
Although the Angkor Wat temple signifies the high achievement of the Khmer people, there were signs of decline. The city was overpopulated, the agriculture could not keep up with demands, and canals had started to dry up.
Supposedly, the construction of Angkor Wat was what caused all these major strains on the empire. Plus, war was still going on, so resources were spread too thin. Nonetheless, Suryavarman II earned his place in Angkor Wat history as the king who built the largest religious structure.
1181-219 (The peak of Angkor Wat history)
Jayavarman VII took over the reign of the Khmer empire, after it was invaded by the Dai Viet (Vietnamese army). He built Angkor Thom (a humongous temple complex, larger in area size than Angkor Wat), Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, and the now atmospheric Ta Prohm temple.
He also rebuilt other temple complexes like the Banteay Chhmar and the Preah Khan in the Preah Vihear province.
Jayavarman VII also took Buddhism to another level. Instead of continuing the tradition of Hinduism, he adopted the Buddha of Compassion as his patron and built Buddha structures on his temples.
The most noted is Bayon, one of the most famous Angkorian temples, with its 216 four-faced Buddha statues. Angkor Wat history was forever changed by this move, as Hinduism is now but a minority religion in Cambodia.
After his death, the empire steadily went into a decline, and for around a century the state religion was once again Hinduism. This change made its way to the temples, where Buddha figures were defaced and destroyed. The Khmer empire practically ended when the Thais attacked Angkor in 1351 and again in 1431.
So In Short…
I must admit, Angkor Wat history is fascinating and these temples grow on you. The more time you spend among the temples, the more you read about them, and the more you imagine how life was lived during the ancient times, the more you feel that strange lure and magical attraction about them.
Warning: If you spend more than just a casual time at the Angkor temples, and you might start thinking that you need to become an archeologist!
If you want to know more details about Angkor Wat history and Angkor temples, there is a great free e-book available online, written by Maurice Glazier, that is one of the definitive guides of Angkor. It has been reprinted many times and somehow the author makes it available online at no charge.