The legend of Jayavarman VII, mysterious king of Angkor

- through Sophie Solere

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The greatest ruler of the Khmer Empire was also its first Buddhist monarch, succeeding many Hindu kings.

From the civilization of Angkor, we know the fascinating image of the dormant temples in the Cambodian jungle, “rediscovered” in the second half of the 2th century by French colonists. Today, a visit to these monuments often begins with the fascinating Angkor Wat (Vat meaning temple in Khmer). Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world. It is also the best preserved monument of the 000 km2 of Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire which reigned over a good part of Southeast Asia from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century. It should be noted that this ancient Hindu temple has been occupied and maintained by a Buddhist monastery for five centuries – the French settlers took credit for a “discovery” which they also owed to the local monks. But for a first visit, it is necessary to pass in front of Angkor Wat without stopping, to exceed the crowd of the tourists of the morning, because the most spectacular requires to sink further, until the temple of Bayon.

Here we are. A stone pyramid, bristling with towers, surrounded by a gallery; the latter deploys a fresco of superbly preserved bas-reliefs, depicting a long battle over several hundred meters, with consummate art. Everything is there: the war elephants, the ships, the weapons of the soldiers, of a striking realism...

The towers of the pyramid have four sides. Each of these sides is adorned with gigantic faces, facing a cardinal point. All identical, the faces survey the horizon for eternity. Wherever we are, a look follows us. Wide mouth, compassionate smile, flat nose, square and determined jaw, charismatic features… All these faces, evoking the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, realistically reproduce the face of an extraordinary king, Jayavarman VII.

Jayavarman VII, first of the kings of the Khmer Empire

Let's go back eight centuries. The Khmer princes are vying for the throne of a powerful empire in Southeast Asia where Buddhism and Hinduism, which came from India via Burma and Indonesia, have coexisted since at least the XNUMXth century.

We have few historically attested elements on Jayavarman VII, the first of the Buddhist kings to reign over the Khmer Empire – his predecessors were all Hindus. Son of King Dharanindravarman II and Queen Sri Jayarajacudamani, this Mahayana supporter was born around 1120. He married a Buddhist princess, Jayarajadevi, whose strong personality balanced his own. She will give him a number of decisive advice, both in the first part of his life and during his reign – knowing that he will not ascend the throne until very late!

When the future Jayavarman VII was between 30 and 40 years old, one of his half-brothers, Yasovarman, seized the throne upon the death of their father. The prince goes into exile, probably to the neighboring kingdom of Champa (which extended to the center of present-day Vietnam), so as not to give a pretext for a civil war.

Alas, in 1166, a courtier, Tribhuvanadityavarman, seized the throne from Yasovarman. When Jayavarman hears of this coup, he rushes to Angkor. He arrives too late to take sides, Yasovarman has perished and the civil war is over. Jayavarman can nevertheless find his family and settle in Angkor, without being worried by the new king.

Cambodians readily say that Jayavarman VII invented Social Security, because these hospices would have treated and sheltered people for free.

Twelve years later, Champa launches a murderous invasion. His fleet goes up the Mekong River, then Lake Tonlé Sap, before plundering Angkor. Tribhuvanadityavarman is slain, the capital burned down. Jayavarman takes the lead of the resistance. After five years of struggle, he inflicted a definitive defeat on the Chams – it is this interminable battle that is depicted on the bas-reliefs of the Bayon temple.

It was in 1181, aged 61, that Jayavarman VII could be crowned king. His reign will last more than thirty years, since he died around 1215, at about 95 years old! From a territorial point of view, it embodies the peak of the Khmer Empire. He broke Champa and sacked its capital in 1190, putting under his control the southern half of Laos, the northern half of Malaysia and most of Myanmar.

Bayon, or the construction frenzy

Once his empire is consolidated, he becomes a builder. He first reinforced a gigantic sacred citadel, Angkor Thom, now surrounded by a cyclopean wall. Then he built a good part of the temples that can be visited today in Angkor: Ta Promh, dedicated to his mother and his guru in 1186; Preah Khan, dedicated to his father in 1191; not to mention Banteay Kdei, Ta Som, Neak Pean, as well as the immense terraces known as the Elephants (for the review of armies) and the Leper King (for royal cremations).

The most beautiful witness to this construction frenzy remains the spectacular Bayon, erected in the center of Angkor Thom. It is a Buddhist temple in the shape of a pyramid, bristling with towers, which is part of the architectural mandala that is Angkor Thom. The Bayon, whose Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan will report in 1296 that its turrets were covered with gold, is a mausoleum of the dimensions of this universal monarch: out of the ordinary.

In the 121th century, the agglomeration which extends around Angkor Thom shelters at least half a million inhabitants. Are erected throughout the empire, it is reported, more temples, Buddhist but also Hindu, than under all the reigns of his predecessors. The roads are restored, radiating from Angkor, now marked out, the count is attested by numerous steles, 102 houses of lights (equivalent to caravanserais) and XNUMX hospitals, all identical in size and plan. Cambodians readily say that he invented Social Security, because these hospices would have cared for and sheltered people for free – inscriptions detail precisely the list of staff and the land donations that financed their operation. These works were placed under the protection of Bhaishajyaguru, Bodhisattva of Medicine, of whom hundreds of statues have been found.

On the death of Jayavarman VII in 1219, his son Indravarman II ascended the throne and reigned as a Buddhist until 1243. Jayavarman VIII succeeded him. He returns to Hinduism, puts himself under the protection of Shiva and transforms many Buddhist temples into Hindu sanctuaries. He was overthrown in 1295 by his son-in-law Indravarman III who, a devotee of Theravada Buddhism, introduced this new school. It will be necessary to wait for the XVIth century so that it becomes hegemonic, 19 Cambodians out of 20 now claim it. But this is a story that is told elsewhere, far from the stones of Angkor.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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