Religious history

Historical Angkor was more than a site for religious art and architecture. It was the site of vast cities that responded to all the needs of a people, not only to specifically religious needs. Aside from a few old bridges, however, all of the remaining monuments are religious edifices. In Angkorian times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king himself, were constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, "because only the gods had a right to residences made of stone." Similarly, the vast majority of the surviving stone inscriptions are about the religious foundations of kings and other potentates. As a result, it is easier to write the history of Angkorian state religion than it is to write that of just about any other aspect of Angkorian society.
Several religious movements contributed to the historical development of religion at Angkor:

Indigenous religious cults, including those centered on worship of the ancestors and of the lingam; A royal personality cult, identifying the king with the deity, characteristic not only of Angkor, but of other Indic civilizations in Southeast Asia, such as Champa and Java. Hinduism, especially Shaivism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Shiva and the lingam as the symbol of Shiva, but also Vaishnavism, the form of Hinduism focussed on the worship of Vishnu; Buddhism, in both its Mahayana and Theravada varieties.

Pre-Angkorian religion

The religion of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, known to the Chinese as Funan (first century A.D. to ca. 550) and Chenla (ca. 550 - ca.800 A.D.), included elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous ancestor cults.
Temples from the period of Chenla bear stone inscriptions, in both Sanskrit and Khmer, naming both Hindu and local ancestral deities, with Shiva supreme among the former. The cult of Harihara was prominent; Buddhism was not, because, as reported by the Chinese pilgrim Yi Jing, a "wicked king" had destroyed it. Characteristic of the religion of Chenla also was the cult of the lingam, or stone phallus that patronized and guaranteed fertility to the community in which it was located.

Shiva and the Lingam

The Khmer king Jayavarman II, whose assumption of power around 800 A.D. marks the beginning of the Angkorian period, established his capital at a place called Hariharalaya (today known as Roluos), at the northern end of the great lake, Tonle Sap. Harihara is the name of a deity that combines the essence of Vishnu (Hari) with that of Shiva (Hara) and that was much favored by the Khmer kings. Jayavarman II’s adoption of the epithet "devaraja" (god-king) signified the monarch's special connection with Shiva. Dedicated by Rajendravarman in 948 A.D., Baksei Chamkrong is a temple-pyramid that housed a statue of Shiva. The beginning of the Angkorian period was also marked by changes in religious architecture. During the reign of Jayavarman II, the single-chambered sanctuaries typical of Chenla gave way to temples constructed as a series of raised platforms bearing multiple towers. Increasingly impressive temple pyramids came to represent Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods, with the moats surrounding the temples representing the mythological oceans.

Typically, a lingam served as the central religious image of the Angkorian temple-mountain. The temple-mountain was the center of the city, and the lingam in the main sanctuary was the focus of the temple. The name of the central lingam was the name of the king himself, combined with the suffix "-esvara" which designated Shiva. Through the worship of the lingam, the king was identified with Shiva, and Shaivism became the state religion. Thus, an inscription dated 881 A.D. indicates that king Indravarman I erected a lingam named "Indresvara." Another inscription tells us that Indravarman erected eight lingams in his courts, and that they were named for the "eight elements of Shiva." Similarly, Rajendravarman, whose reign began in 944 A.D., constructed the temple of Pre Rup, the central tower of which housed the royal lingam called "Rajendrabhadresvara."


In the early days of Angkor, the worship of Vishnu was secondary to that of Shiva. The relationship seems to have changed with the construction of Angkor Wat by King Suryavarman II as his personal mausoluem at the beginning of the 12th century A.D. The central religious image of Angkor Wat was an image of Vishnu, and an inscription identifies Suryavarman as "Paramavishnuloka," or "he who enters the heavenly world of Vishnu." Religious syncretism, however, remained thoroughgoing in Khmer society: the state religion of Shaivism was not necessarily abrogated by Suryavarman's turn to Vishnu, and the temple may well have housed a royal lingam. Furthermore, the turn to Vaishnavism did not abrogate the royal personality cult of Angkor by which the reigning king was identified with the deity. According to Angkor scholar George Coedès, "Angkor Wat is, if you like, a vaishnavite sanctuary, but the Vishnu venerated there was not the ancient Hindu deity nor even one of the deity's traditional incarnations, but the king Suryavarman II posthumously identified with Vishnu, consubstantial with him, residing in a mausoleum decorated with the graceful figures of apsaras just like Vishnu in his celestial palace." Suryavarman proclaimed his identity with Vishnu, just as his predecessors had claimed consubstantiality with Shiva.

Mahayana Buddhism

In the last quarter of the 12th century, King Jayavarman VII departed radically from the tradition of his predecessors when he adopted Mahayana Buddhism as his personal faith. Jayavarman also made Buddhism the state religion of his kingdom when he constructed the Buddhist temple known as the Bayon at the heart of his new capital city of Angkor Thom. In the famous face towers of the Bayon, the king represented himself as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara moved by compassion for his subjects. Thus, Jayavarman was able to perpetuate the royal personality cult of Angkor, while identifying the divine component of the cult with the bodhisattva rather than with Shiva.

Hindu restoration

The Hindu restoration began around 1243 A.D., with the death of Jayavarman VII’s successor Indravarman II. The next king Jayavarman VIII was a Shaivite iconoclast who specialized in destroying Buddhist images and in reestablishing the Hindu shrines that his illustrious predecessor had converted to Buddhism. During the restoration, the Bayon was made a temple to Shiva, and its image of the Buddha was cast to the bottom of a well. Everywhere, cultic statues of the Buddha were replaced by lingams.

Religious pluralism

When Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan came to Angkor in A.D. 1296, he found what he took to be three separate religious groups. The dominant religion was that of Theravada Buddhism. Zhou observed that the monks had shaven heads and wore yellow robes. The Buddhist temples impressed Zhou with their simplicity. He noted that the images of Buddha were made of gilded plaster. The other two groups identified by Zhou appear to have been those of the Brahmans and of the Shaivites (lingam worshippers). About the Brahmans Zhou had little to say, except that they were often employed as high officials. Of the Shaivites, whom he called "Taoists," Zhou wrote, "the only image which they revere is a block of stone analogous to the stone found in shrines of the god of the soil in China."

Theravada Buddhism

In the course of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism coming from Siam (Thailand) made its appearance at Angkor. Gradually it became the dominant religion of Cambodia, displacing both Mahayana Buddhism and Shaivism. The practice of Theravada Buddhism at Angkor continues until this day.

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Earthwalkers’ · Sala Kanseng Village · Sangkat No. 2 · Siem Reap ·
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