Jayavarman VII (ca. 1120/25-ca. 1218; r. ca. 1181–1218) was one of the most influential kings of “Angkorian” Cambodia; in his lifetime, through conquest and astute diplomacy, he brought a large number of small regional territories under his control. He reportedly lived a very long life and more certainly, was responsible for massive building projects in his Cambodian, ethnically Khmer kingdom. The Cambodian or Khmer civilization flourished between the early ninth and the mid-fifteenth century, with shifting boundaries between its Thai “Ayutthaya” and Vietnamese “Cham” neighbors, sometimes as allies and sometimes as enemies. For a brief but brilliant period, Jayavarman VII was able to assume control of a remarkably large empire, one constructed in the political climate of the day, of sometimes shifting alliances and disputes.

This essay includes a description of Jayavarman VII, and his rise to power through medieval Khmer political processes. It shows the important role of religion through analysis of inscriptions carved in stone. The goal is to show the complex and distinctively Khmer interface of politics, Buddhist and Hindu (“Brahmanical”) religions and cultures. The proliferation of Mahāyāna Buddhist images and epigraphs will be used to consider components of medieval Khmer identity, including their regard for monastic institutions and fundamental religious principles and practices.

Map, Natalie Maitland, “Peninsular Southeast Asia at the time of Jayavarman VII.” In Sonya Rhie Mace, Banteay Chhmar, Lokeshvara, and Cleveland. Cleveland Museum of Art, 2017, p. 9.

Jayavarman VII was in a privileged class of his day. He was born into a lineage of wealthy rulers, and was exposed to political diplomacy and the politics of conquest at an early age. In a vibrant religious environment, he marked his success in politics and diplomacy with expressions of religious belief and practice; in his case, Buddhism. In his reign, as with those before and after him, religions (especially Indian Buddhism and Brahmanical or “Hindu” ideologies) were the central systems for validating royal authority.

Many of the medieval Angkor monuments were constructed as Buddhist or Brahmanical, and several served both religions over time.1 This essay focuses on Jayavarman VII (1181–1218), a major sponsor of Buddhist monuments, whose visions and achievements are commemorated in votive and donative inscriptions. The proliferation of Buddhist monuments and inscriptions, moreover, evidences broad community acceptance of Buddhist beliefs and practices, and along with these, political and economic support. This support is verified by the remarkable extent of existing Buddhist monuments and, notably, by very many inscriptions that serve as sources for this essay. As Sheldon Pollock argues, inscriptions were not only written “for the gods”; rather, “[i]nscriptional discourse in Cambodia had some other, political-cultural work to do.”2

The monuments and inscriptions studied here represent the multi-faceted Khmer political and religious vision, which focused on Buddhism in Jayavarman VII’s time. One caveat is that the extant data from conserved monuments, art objects, and inscriptions are only traces of complex religious institutions and sponsorship by literate classes of society. They can only provide inferential clues about long lost religious buildings made of perishable materials, and about beliefs and practices of communities at large. Nonetheless, this paper proceeds under the assumption that the inscriptions and objects under study did the work of kingship and religion in specific contexts, with recognizable expressions of religious affiliation and of devotion to deities, to Buddhist and Hindu principles and practices, and to monastic institutions.3

Photos, Sandar Aung, top left photo of Jayavarman VII at the National Museum, and the remaining four at the Bayon.

The Life of Jayavarman VII

The little available biodata about Jayavarman VII shows that he was the son of King Dharaṇīndravarman II (r. 1150–1160) and his wife Queen Śrī Jayarājacūḍāmaṇi. Jayavarman VII married Jayarājadevī, and after her death he married her sister Indradevī. Little else is known of Jayavarman VII’s childhood and youth, but it is clear that he was in a privileged class, relatively wealthy, with political connections likely through his clan, and with significant military skill. It appears that he grew up in the Khmer empire, but spent much time in neighboring Cham (Vietnam) lands. For their part, the Cham were at least as fragmented as the Khmer; Vickery has shown that like the Khmer there were several, if not many, small Cham kingdoms, some of which allied among themselves, with their Khmer neighbors, and evidently mercenary groups, in agreements made and broken over years for expected military, political, trade, and territorial advantages.4 This was the normal political process in medieval Cambodia. The scenario was one of running battles between different allied Khmer and Cham clan groups, who could and did shift alliances over time.

After Jayavarman VII’s father passed away in 1160 and his clan member Yasovarman claimed the throne, Jayavarman VII (then about forty years old) served in the court. But around 1166, Tribhuvanādityavarman, evidently a court official, took the throne. Jayavarman VII left the Khmer capital, possibly going to Preah Khan in Kompong Svay (about 100 km east of Angkor) or perhaps to a Cham kingdom.5 For the next decade, until about 1177, there were more alliances and more battles between groups of allied Khmer and Cham. It is often said that in 1177 there was a unified Cham invasion of Khmer territory. Vickery and others refute this, and Vickery argues further that in this decade (1166–1176) the Khmer were in political turmoil and there was a series of raids and battles between the Cham and Khmer.6 He suggests that “… the real conquest of Angkor was by Jayavarman VII and his Cham allies–probably in the 1170s, at least before 1181–and that the subordination of central and southern Champa to him dated from that time.”7

In 1181, Jayavarman VII took the throne of the Khmer empire. Again following the policy of fortuitous alliances against his enemies, he then expanded the empire to its greatest extent ever and built an unprecedented number of temples, religious buildings, and infrastructure projects. He was an innovator, and though tolerant and even supportive of Hinduism, he clearly adopted Mahāyāna Buddhism, Sanskrit language inscriptions, and Buddhist imagery. The expansive and explicit nature of his religious expressions supply good materials and some enigmas for the study of Buddhism in Khmer society of the day.8

Jayavarman VII’s9 reign over the Khmer kingdom extended from about 1181 to 1218. He was likely in an extended family or as Vickery put it, a “conical clan,” in which all biologically and perhaps marital-related members shared considerable wealth and social status.10 Wolters describes “cognatic kinship,” in which prominent males and females are equally important, and there is individual distinction as a “man [or woman] of prowess.”11

It appears that for much of Jayavarman VII’s youth and middle age—until he assumed control of the empire—Khmer clan-based society was stratified, with little continuity of administrative and bureaucratic structures, and no unity under a single leader. Social, political, and economic patterns were divided into villages, and likely into groups of bonded workers impressed by or under the control of classes of equal or higher status. These included court officials and corporate groups or small “kingdoms” made up of a number of regional estates.12 These larger clan-based groups could often rally militias and engage in running battles with neighboring forces. Battles, territories, property and populations, including communities of working people, were won and lost as alliances were made and broken.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Bayon, Khmer & Cham in battle.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Bayon, Cham in doublet armor.

Cham (doublet armor).

Photos, Sandar Aung: Khmer (strap battle dress).

When large groups were consolidated, a group leader or king could be named until he was usurped by a neighboring king in a very loose model that could evolve over time, and was inconsistent.

This was Jayavarman VII’s background, one of internecine warfare with unstable and shifting political structures. However, even though unstable, the Khmer corporate regimes or kingdoms did manage to maintain some degree of control via warfare, inter-clan alliances, military force, economy, and diplomacy. This resulted in the establishment of city centers, where culture and economy flourished, as is evident in the Khmer dynastic histories and monuments, notably those associated with Jayavarman VII.

Khmer Politics

Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1218) unified the Khmer empire by consolidating power over individualized “segmented” provinces. His visions of conquest and kingship over these provinces were likely rooted in Indian models for religion and governance, at least rhetorically. Kulke and others suggest a three-stage model for the emergence of Jayavarman’s empire: first, local units led by native chieftains; second, consolidation into larger regional units, with petty “kings” (rāja), but “not yet Aryan” (anaryya); and third, coalescence into larger states under one central authority. Jayavarman VII was this third type of leader.13

As the process went through its stages, there was also a gradual process of royal divinization, the transformation or apotheosis of a human political and military leader into a religiously-endowed leader, from a chieftain, to a king, to a divine king. The use of Indian titles, political structures, and religions was a process many scholars call “Indianization,” which Kulke and others minimize, and Pollock and others describe as vital.14

The Khmer assimilated outside influences in politics and in the construction of distinctive Khmer art, but they made it their own. This is made clear in the representations of divinities and royalty with Khmer facial features, including rounder faces, broader brows, and other features.15 The collections of sculpture in Phnom Penh’s National Museum and in the Musée Guimet give ample evidence of the beauty and precision of Khmer sculpture.

Photos, Sandar Aung: Bayon apsaras.

Photos, Sandar Aung: Bayon apsaras.

Evidence for “Indianization” is in the Khmer’s extensive and literate use of Sanskrit and Indian languages for official inscriptions and religious discourse, the subject matter of the exquisite Khmer sculpture, and the evident presence of and high regard for Brahmanical authority and ongoing contacts between India and Cambodia. Taking this into account, Angkor was an “Indianized” state in which Sanskrit and notably, Indian religions, were adopted by local people.16

Further, in medieval Cambodia a key Indian political structure was a process called “maṇḍalification” or “sāmantization,” a phenomenon known in small Indian Pāla kingdoms and a likely model for the Khmer kings.17 This was arguably a key component of the Indian influence on the Khmer. The root of this key belief was that if a king was properly consecrated he could transform himself and his environments into a sacred realm (maṇḍala) under his control. Consecrated kings became the central Buddhas of these maṇḍala realms; their retinues became attendant bodhisattvas, protectors and so on. Their kingdoms became perfected Buddha heavens, their edicts and rule became enlightened speech or mantras, and their motives and inspiration led to Buddhist enlightenment. It may well be that ideologically, the Buddhism adopted by the court was favored precisely because it flattered the imperial self image. “Que Jayavarman se soit considéré comme un Bouddha vivant.”18 The kings’ adoption of Buddhism was “… wholesale conversion, the fundamental transformation, of a human domain into a Buddha-realm, an empire governed by superhuman insight, power, and law.”19

Photo, Sandar Aung: Maṇḍala-influenced architectural diagram, Preah Khan.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Ta Prohm.

The emphasis on kingship and dominion over one’s newly formulated world came on a foundation of conquest and subsequent sacralization of space, an extension of a deity’s dominion, and a place where a vastupuruṣa divine body, “comme un Bouddha vivant” became synonymous with the sacred site of a temple and, by extension, the entire universe, the totality of one’s experience. Accordingly, the central religious practice of the time was “… the individual assuming kingship and exercising dominion…. the person metaphorically becom[ing] the overlord (rājādhirāja) or universal ruler (cakravartin)”20 or divine king (devarāja) of the new vision of a perfected realm,21 whether individual layman, monk, or king.

Jayavarman VII and other Angkor Buddhist kings had the status of divine kings (devarāja) and functioned as universal monarchs (cakravartin).22 Thus, in the course of (and after) consolidating the kingdom, Jayavarman VII utilized established systems of Indian Buddhist mantras, mūdras, and ritual practices.23 More emphatically, in an epigraph at Angkor Thom, Jayavarman VII “recites mantras to lead the world to the highest religious goal by destroying obscurity and by following all of the rules.”24

Khmer Religions

Buddhism, not to the exclusion of Hinduism, was a one of the major forces in Khmer history. Jayavarman V (968–1001)’s tenth century inscription at Vat Sithor in Kompong Cham tells us:

eṣā śrī jayavarmmājñā buddhadharmmānucār[iṇī]

vauddhānām anukarttavyā mokṣābhyudayasiddhaye25

“This observance of the Buddhist teachings was ordered by the glorious Jayavarman and must be followed by Buddhists for success in the process (abhyudaya) to freedom.”

And again, by Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1218), in his typical opening dedication of the widely distributed “hospices,” here showing the extent of his empire, from Vientien, in Laos:

namo vuddhāya nirmāṇadharmmasambhogamūrtaye

bhāvābhāvadvayātīto dvayātmā yo nirātmakaḥ26

“I bow to the Buddha, in his emanation, reality, and beatific aspects, who is beyond both being and non-being, whose self is non-dual (advayātmā), who is selfless.”

If the proliferation of icons, ambulatories, meeting halls, stūpas and other architectural features were used as they were and are in other Buddhist cultures, devotion (bhakti) was likely a central practice in medieval Angkor.27

There is evidence of this type of practice in medieval Angkor. In her Phimānakas inscription (ca. 1194–1200), Queen Indradevī uses language and mechanisms typical of religious practice. The epigraph is incomplete and the context mundane—and perhaps typical of a devoted wife praying for her husband’s safe return— but the language and literary devices use mechanisms reminiscent of, if not taken from, devotional meditation. Fragments of verses (#59–64) are suggestive of religious sentiments:

Photo, Sandar Aung: Phimānakas.


“Her (Queen Jayarāja Devī’s) primary teacher was Indradevī; she focused (avekṣamāṇā) on the Buddha as her best goal.

She followed the path to the peace of the Sugata, the middle path between the sea of [suffering] and the fire of sorrow.”


“… First, she invoked (vavande) the Buddha, imagined (cintā) in the form of an elephant, then manifested over her twisted locks of hair. Then with intense effort … she guided him (nayantam) along her own path.”


“… like seeing a blazing flame in a fire chapel she succeeded in her meditation. (vigaṇyamānām)”


“… like a beauty greater than Bhiṣma’s, in her mind able to directly realize suffering as happiness.”


“… she had a vision (sparddham) of her husband returning home, like the light of a deity (kṣitidevatā) that manifests itself (sandarśitātmā).”


“… by the merit of her extreme devotion (bhaktyā) to her husband … by the power of her vow she invoked (yayāce) continuously.”28

These are fragments of verses, but they show well the piety of Queen Jayarājadevī. They also show the function of Buddhist devotional meditation. In verse 60 the Queen invokes the presence of the actual Buddha, succeeds, and engages him. In 61 she has a powerful vision of light. Verse 62 brings a level of realization consistent with Buddhist trance states. In 63 there is a deity manifesting itself to a devotee, and the use of the verb dṛś in a typical Buddhist devotional practice. And finally in verse 64 the Queen carries on with continuous devotional practice, fueled by the force of her vow. These can be understood as examples of Buddhist devotional meditation, likely well known and widely practiced in Angkor’s temples and lay communities.

Similarly, the mechanism of devotion appears in Jayavarman VII’s (ca. 1186) Ta Prohm inscription,


munīndradharmmāgrasarīṃ guṇādhyān

dhīmadbhir adhyātmadṛśānirīkṣyām


bhaktyā jinānāṃ jananīṃ namadhvam29

“I bow (namadhvam) with devotion to the genetrix of the Conquerors

Whose magnificent qualities are foremost of the excellent marks (indradharma) of the Sage, whom the wise know as the manifestation of inner being,30 who has completely eradicated the net of conceptual constructions.”

And emphatically, from very late in Jayavarman VII’s reign, the Angkor Thom Prasat Chrun (the southwest “Corner Temple,” one of the four, in each corner of Angkor Thom) epigraph describes how “by devotion the depths of the king’s heart were filled by the waters from the object of his devotion.”31 And again, from Prasat Chrun,


sakaustubhe vakṣi karkaśe śrīr duḥkhaṃ vasantī dhruvam acyutasya yasyāpi ratnatrayabhakticitre snigdhe sukhan niścalam eva reme32

“The [goddess] Śrī was always miserable in the hard, kaustubha-jeweled heart of Viṣṇu, but in gentle, clear devotion to the Three Jewels she enjoyed only unceasing happiness.”

The Buddhist and Hindu practices alluded to in these verses were likely formalized and structured when practiced in Angkor’s temples; the temple architecture is designed for circumambulation, icon worship, recognition, worship to and invocation of deity bodies. In Indian Brahmanical—and Buddhist—temples, the elaborate pūja worship of the time was, in Hopkins’ words, “full-blown theism.”33

The Angkor kings, notably Jayavarman VII, recorded their expressions of devotion in their construction of temples and hospices, and offerings to their teachers and to their parents and families, likewise sanctified. In his 1186 Ta Prohm inscription the king is credited with erecting statues of his teacher, and many others, and performing “daily pūja rituals” on an enormous scale.34 Bhūpendra III’s 1189 Prasat Tor, clearly a Hindu inscription, is a good example:


saptārccir vahnyagāre vidhisatatahuto yena mantraiḥ prayuktair

mmedhyenābhūtapūrvveṇa vividhahaviṣāpi prahṛṣyatyīva

pūrvvatrāpūrvvam āśuprahitahitahavir mandapālasya mantrāt

kṛtsnaṃ kṛṣṇārjunābhyāṃ priyam adhikam asau khāndave no cakhāda35

“The [Lord of] Seven Fires [Agni], constantly invoked by rituals in the house of fire is pleased by mantra recitations by [Jayavarman VII], whose manifold offerings are pure and unprecedented. This is similar to Mandapāla’s mantras, because of which [Agni] suddenly presented (āśuprahita) with an unprecedented offering by Krsna and Arjuna, did not thus consume everything good and excellent in Khāndava.”

Further, and even more emphatically, in the earlier but arguably continuously present Buddhist environment at Angkor and here at Vat Sithor (in the reign of Rājendravarman, 944–968) in Kampong Cham province, there is extensive mention of Indian Buddhist ritual:


hṛnmūdramantravidyāsu homakarmmaṇi kovidaḥ

bajraghaṇṭārahasyajño dakṣiṇīyaḥ purohitaḥ

“He is expert in the sciences of essential gestures and invocations, and in fire ceremonies, a skilful priest who knows the secrets of the vajra and bell.”36


vedasūkta rṣabhavrahmaghoṣonmīlābhiṣecanaiḥ

muneḥ parvvadine kuryyāt snānādini purohitaḥ

“The priest should bathe [and worship] the Sage at the phases of the moon, with the best words of wisdom (vedasūkta), the sacred prayers, and the eye-opening consecration.”


buddhasnānādibhir llokās sukhitā dharmmavarddhanāḥ

antarbhūtā hi sarvvajñakāye satvāś carācarāḥ

“The world is happy and the teachings grow by bathing the Buddha, and so on, because active and inactive living beings are inside the body of the omniscient one.”


pratītyotpādanaṃ vrahmaghoṣas saddharmma ārṣabhaḥ

sūktaś śāntyavadhāraś ca gāthāveda iti smṛtaḥ

“It is explained that verses of wisdom (gāthāveda) are known as dependent origination, sacred prayers, the best true teachings, well spoken, and tranquil.”


Vrahmaghoṣādayo vidyā yadokrā [sic]37 mama mastake

tan mūrddhātīva maṇgalya iti sarvvajñaśāsanam38

“When [sacred] knowledge (vidyā), the sacred prayers, etc, are recited over my head, it is like a blessing on the crown of my head and so on; this is the teaching of the omniscient one.”

Queen Indradevī’s verse 62 cited above tells us that the Jayarājadevī was “… in her mind able to directly realize suffering as happiness (sākṣāt … duḥkhaṃ sukhāyamānaṃ smaraṇe prapede).”39 And below, in the Ta Prohm inscription, it is said of the king that “He seeks to know (jighṛkṣur) substance from the insubstantial body with its impure sense fields, …” (sāraṇ jighṛkṣur aśubhāyatanād asārāt)40 Again, here below, “… materials are a virulent poison … for their invocations are changed into poison, (dravyaviṣādhikam viṣaṃ hi pratikurvvanti) …”41 The implication is that mundane material donations are changed into non-poisonous substance. And finally, “… the residences constructed around the monastery are just like manifested deity heavens made constantly present … by continuous rituals.”42 The point is that there is a transmutation or a transubstantiation of gross, worldly matter into divine substance by means of devotional meditation.

Buddhists and Non-Buddhists

The 1189 Prasat Tor inscription attributed to Bhūpendra III43 was sponsored by a prominent Brahmanical family with strong religious sensibilities well before and during Jayavarman VII’s reign.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Prasat Tor.

The inscription is clearly Hindu. It describes Jayavarman VII as an embodiment of Śiva, not of a Buddha or of a bodhisattva, and it invokes Hindu deities, myths and doctrines. However, it also includes reference to Buddhist monasteries.44 The co-existence and overlapping of architecture, iconography, ritual, and language most probably reflected a degree of accommodation, cross fertilization,45 and even competition. However, it appears that at Angkor there was not a fully developed Hindu-Buddhist syncretism. Each religion maintained its separate identity.

Hindu and Buddhist religions were separate Khmer institutions in medieval Angkor. Rituals and practices were adopted and re-interpreted in historical sequences or in different regions. Coedès has remarked on this point, of a typical passage in the ca. 1186 Ta Prohm inscription (but relevant to the entire religious environment) that “… le caractère bouddhique n’exclut pas certaines expressions trahissant un tréfonds brahmanique …”46 The inconsistencies between Khmer Hinduism and Buddhism were the results of redefinitions and revaluations of their respective rituals. While orthodox doctrines of both religions were applied to heterodox rituals the faithful were likely clear about their religious affiliations.47 Buddhism and Hinduism co-existed in this environment, and to a certain extent shared ritual mechanics and ritual spaces.

There is also much evidence of religious conflict: for example, in the post-Jayavarman VII period, when all depictions and statues of the Buddha were systematically and very nearly entirely destroyed or chipped away from major Angkor temples, including the Bayon, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, Ta Som, Ta Prohm and others.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Defaced Buddha images, Preah Khan.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Hindu liṅgam & Buddhist stūpa, Preah Khan.

Many twelfth- to thirteenth-century monuments at Angkor were constructed as either Hindu or Buddhist, but over time several alternated between both religions.48

At Ta Prohm, the temple dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s mother, the king inscribed his recognition of Buddhism as the dominant religion:




sāraṇ jighṛkṣur aśubhāyatanād asārāt

kāyād ajasrajinapādakṛtānatir yaḥ49

“His self-contentment comes from the moon of the Śākyas and the nectar of the teachings, He extends his respected (sātkṛt) influence to monks, the twice-born, and worthy persons,

He seeks to know (jighṛkṣur) substance from the insubstantial body with its impure sense fields, [and]

He constantly bows in homage to the Conqueror.”

Still, Buddhism and Brahmanism co-existed in this environment, and to a certain extent shared ritual mechanics. Even at times of powerful political sponsorship of one religion over the other, both persisted.

Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and their Friends

The Buddha, stūpas and other Buddhist imagery are common, and Jayavarman VII was clearly influenced by the iconography and symbolism of Mahāyāna Buddhist bodhisattvas, especially a triad known elsewhere in Asia that included various combinations of three; Lokeśvara (Avalokiteśvara), Vajrapāṇi, Mañjuśrī, Śākyamuni, and/or the goddess Prajñāpāramitā.50

The invocation and rituals surrounding these deities were carried out as described above, and their specific attributes worked to generate different Buddhist qualities. The main principles embodied by those mentioned here are compassion and wisdom, which together yield enlightenment. Accordingly, Jayavarman VII dedicated Ta Prohm (1186) to his mother as Prajñāpāramitā, and Preah Khan (1191) to his father as Lokeśvara.51 Lokeśvara appears very frequently at Buddhist Angkor. In her Phimānakas inscription (ca. 1194–1200), Indradevī, his second wife, opens her long poem with praise to the Buddha, dharma, saṅgha, and Lokeśvara, who promote the good of the world (lokeśvaro lokahitānulomo), as Jayavarman VII himself strives to further the ends of the world (lokārthavidhānadīpta …).52

Photo, Sandar Aung, Prajñāpāramitā.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Avalokiteśvara, Banteay Chmar.

Photos, Sandar Aung: Banteay Chmar, Khmer soldiers in strap battle dress.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Prasat Chrung, “corner temple,” of four at Angkor Thom.

There are extensive and dominant bas-reliefs of Lokeśvara at Banteay Chmar that remain to the present day and there is explicit mention at Prasat Chrung of the “compassionate one” (the epithet of Avalokiteśvara), who on the support of the Buddha-fields, solidifies the dharma.”53

Again, from Vat Sithor, in the tenth century:


tatsthāne sthāpitā sthityai sarvvavidvaṇśabhāsvataḥ

prajñāpāramitā tārī jananī yena tāyinām

“To maintain the light of the lineage of omniscient ones he built there a Prajñāpāramitā Tāra, who protects beings.”


Śrīsatyavarmmaṇā bajrilokeśārccā daśādhikāḥ

sthāpitāḥ prāg girau bhagnāsanā yo tiṣṭhipat punaḥ54

“The Lord Satyavarman rebuilt statues of Vajrapāṇi, Avalokiteśvara, and ten others on a mountain where their foundations had collapsed.”

These two verses show the veneration, active construction and reconstruction of central deities in the Buddhist pantheon. It is not surprising then that Harris wrote that “[a] preoccupation with Mahayanist pantheons, then, is a distinct feature of this period.”55

There is also a presence of Hevajra and other tantric deities at Angkor. These have been the subject of much speculation, and art historians in particular have done much to locate these deities in Angkor’s religious world. There continue to be many different hypotheses, but none, as far as I can tell, present an explanation of the extent of tantric practice. Perhaps these deities were understood much as bodhisattvas mentioned above, powerful and wise deities to be invoked for merit, material benefit, and (for some) to be internalized as components of consciousness.

Hevajra, c. 1200. Cambodia, reign of Jayavarman 7th. Bronze. Overall: 46 × 23.9 cm (18 1/16 × 9 3/8 in.). Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Maxeen and John Flower in honor of Dr. Stanislaw Czuma 2011.143.

McGovern, Crosby, and others have shown the range of esoteric practices that depart from canonical models in later Thai and Cambodian Buddhism; versions of such practices were very likely known at Angkor in years previous. These, however, seem to be more consistent with the kinds of rituals described above, rather than the fully developed transgressive tantra found in India.56 See for example at Vat Sithor:


vāhyaṃ guhyañ ca saddharmmaṃ sthāpayitvā cakāra yaḥ

pūjārthan tasya saṃghasyātitheśca pṛthagāśramān

“He set up the true dharma, exoteric and esoteric, and then he made places (āśrama) of worship for the ordained community and lay practitioners.”57

The role and practice of tantra at Angkor remains unclear and is another of the many areas for detailed research.


Religious specialists, monks, and tantric practitioners alike often worked in service of political authorities. Monasteries…

… interact[ed] with warlords and princes, the military generals and their emerging tribal leaders. [They] arose wherever esoteric Buddhism was practiced. [They were] the domain of monks, who wrote and preached in a hermeneutical method that emphasized the development and integration of esoteric ideas and models into institutional requirements…. [L]aymen from disparate backgrounds became members of a culture unified by monastic rule, ritual, cosmology, and doctrine.58

Archeological data for monasticism from medieval Angkor, even from the reign of Jayavarman VII, is minimal. Compared to the more than one hundred remaining temples, there is little evidence of large-scale monasteries.59 This lack of archeological evidence may, however, be a function of the choice of perishable building materials for monastic and other complexes. The excavation of what is evidently a small monastery in the NW quadrant of Preah Khan is an exception.

However, the presence of educated monks in Angkor is signaled by the mention of monastic activity in inscriptions. This, and the actual level of literacy found in inscriptions, supports the hypothesis that monastic experts were present as authorities, teachers, doctors and medical experts in the more than one hundred medical clinics. These matters were the provenance of Buddhist monks. Further archeological excavations at Preah Khan and elsewhere may reveal evidence of wooden monastic dwellings, which are noted in Zhou Daguan’s 1296–1297 CE account.60

There are explicit references to monastic activity in inscriptions, even if not yet fully corroborated by archeological data. From the reign of Jayavarman V (968–1001), at Vat Sithor, there is mention (see above) of the establishment of monasteries for esoteric and exoteric groups, and separate residences for ordained and lay persons. The Vat Sithor inscription also contains a long list of rules for monasteries.


vihāraṃ kārayitvā yas triṣu ratneṣu kalpayan

pareṣāṃ hitasiddhyarthaṃ sa mahāpuṇyam āpnuyāt

“One who constructs a monastery for the Three Jewels, and for the sake of accomplishing goodness for others, obtains great merit.”


tribhāgas sarvvasaṃbhogo ratnatritayakalpitaḥ

sthāpanīyaḥ pṛtaktvena mā miśras syāt parasparam

“All of the donations in three parts must be allotted to the Three Jewels, set up separately without mixing with each other.”


na jñaptiś ced vihārasya bhikṣubhir vvidhivat kṛta

avihāra iti jñeyaḥ koṣṭhāgāras sa eva tu

“If it is not designated as a monastery by the monks’ rules, it will be known as a non-monastic place, and just a storehouse.”


jīvikārthe kṛtas so ya[ṃ] na parārthe na śāntaye

vrahmapuṇyan na tatrāsti yena sarvvajñatā[ṃ] vrajet

“A place for this life that is not for anything else, not for tranquility, has no divine merit (brahmapuṇya) that leads one to omniscience.”


vihārasya yadā jñaptis sādhunā vidhinā kṛtā

tataḥ puṇyam ivākāśaṃ sarvvatra gatam akṣayam

“When a place is designated as a monastery according to the good rule, its merit spreads everywhere, indestructible, like space.”


ata evavidhaṃ puṇyam. ye lumpanti narādhamāḥ

tair ghoran nārakaṃ duḥkham anantam anubhūyate

“Thus too, those wretches who destroy this kind of merit experience unending misery in dreadful hell.”


gṛhibhir nnopabhoktavyaṃ saṃghadravyaviṣādhikam

viṣaṃ hi pratikurvvanti mantrādyāḥ na tu sāṃghikam

“The community’s materials are a virulent poison for householders who do not donate, for their invocations are changed into poison, but not for those of the community.”


sarvvajñavākyam evan tat kṛtvā manasi bhaktitaḥ

vidvān utpādya vidhivad vihāraṃ dūratas sthitaḥ

“An intelligent person with devotion in his mind, who acts according to the words of the omniscient one, who builds a monastery according to the rules, will live for a long time.”


guṇinaś śīlavantaś ca dhīmantas te gaṇādhikāḥ

nānābhogas tadarthāya kalpitaḥ puṇyam icchatā

“Those with good qualities, who are ethical, intelligent, the best among their peers, wish to make merit for a variety of good causes.”


pratyūṣādiṣu yat karma yamināṃ muninoditam

kāryyaṃ saṃghena tat sarvvaṃ yājakena viśeṣataḥ61

“Obligatory rituals at dawn and so on taught by the Sage are to be performed by the entire community, especially the ritual [master] (yājaka).”


tasmāt tyaktānyakarttavyo vihārastho vicakṣaṇaḥ

saddharmmaṃ parigṛhnāti sarvvadā lekhanādinā

“Therefore, a wise monastery resident has abandoned other behavior, always following the true dharma, writing, and so on.”


samyagācārabhūṣeṇa vihārādhikṛtādinā

guravo bhyugatās sarvve satkarttavyā yathāvalam62

“Teachers endowed with perfect conduct, with the monastery rules and so on, go out to meet all of the worthy, as they come forward (yathāvalam).”

Further, there is more evidence of royal sponsorship of monasteries in the twelfth century. In her inscription at Phimānakas, Jayavarman VII’s second wife, Indradevī, a devout and well educated Buddhist, sponsored the construction of numerous statues around the kingdom, took in orphaned girls, sponsored their ordination and sustenance as nuns, and was in general known for her ethical behavior. She was a teacher in three named Buddhist nunneries (jinālaye). These typical Buddhist merit-making activities are proof that there were monastic institutions at Angkor, including those for women.63

The 1189 Prasat Tor inscription attributed to Bhūpendra III64 includes reference to Buddhist monasteries, which in this strong Brahmanical context is good evidence of actual monastic presence.65


yenāśramā viracitāḥ parito vihāraṃ

ye nityahūtapuruhūtapurassareṇa

achinnasantatamakhe sukhinā sureṇa

kenāhṛtā iva ciraṃ sthitaye dyulokāḥ66

“Because of the attendants’ constant and repeated invocations the residences constructed around the monastery are just like manifested deity heavens made constantly present (ciraṃ sthitaye) by spirits pleased with unbroken, continuous rituals (makha).”

Jātaka Stories

The ancient Buddhist Jātaka stories tell stories of the Buddha’s past and future lives as a human or animal. He may be a king, an ascetic, a god, an elephant, or other animal. In all cases the story carries a Buddhist teaching from the Buddhist tradition. The literary and pedagogical traditions are usually associated with relatively early Buddhist roots, for example in Thailand, Śrῑ Laṅka, and India. The Jātakas are however known and taught in later Buddhist environments, for example, in Pagan, Myanmar, in Tibet, and in Angkor.

The reliefs and epigraphs at Angkor include episodes from Jātaka stories, intended to convey Buddhist messages. For example, the bas-relief from Angkor Wat on display at the Phnom Penh National Museum represents four episodes from the Vessantarajātaka, even though Angkor Wat was a known Vaiṣṇavite temple in this period. The panels depict episodes from different non-sequential chapters, but the Buddhist message of generosity is clear.

Temple steles and mural episodes from Jātakas were used to tell Buddhist stories. “Everything in these pictures means something; nothing is merely decorative.”67Jātaka episodes were meant to teach, “[t]hese illustrations are not merely ornamental.”68 Queen Indradevī sponsored performances of Jātaka stories, likely for their instructive qualities.69Jātaka stories were used as pedagogical devices; they were not mere decoration.

This pedagogical motive may well have been intended in the carved steles of a number of Jātaka-related murals at Jayavarman VII’s Bayon.70 The Jātakas in the outer ambulatory include several episodes from the Mahānipāta, the last ten of the canonical collections, said to exemplify key Buddhist virtues.71 Dagens points out that the Bayon Jātakas also include episodes from other Jātakas and sometimes highlight non-Jātaka figures like Lokeśvara and Prajñāpāramitā. The Bayon Jātakas include episodes from the Sāmajātaka, representing loving kindness, from the Vessantarajātaka, representing generosity, and from the Vidhurapaṇḍitajātaka, representing honesty. Thus, in addition to the powerful religious and social messages of the entire complex the Bayon carvings taught viewers compassion, kindness, and generosity, basic Buddhist principles.

Concluding Remarks

Khmer religion does not fit any convenient category. It had beliefs and practices shared with Mahāyāna Buddhism built on Buddhist monastic foundations, and with tantric elements, all synthesized or assimilated into inherited local Khmer religious sensibilities. Brahmanical religions, “Hinduisms,” were widely represented and supported at different times and places in Khmer history, not always clearly divided from their Buddhist neighbors. In the end, Khmer religions are perhaps best understood in a category of their own, a special type of Khmer synthesis. This eclecticism, however, did not at all detract from the authenticity of Khmer Buddhism, or Brahmanism, or local religions: much as in other cultures, it instead represents the diversity of the medieval Asian religious world. What is important is that the Khmer religious traditions were fully authentic in all of their manifestations, with periods of shifting political and social emphasis and support. In the case of this project, the remarkable proliferation of Buddhist monuments and inscriptions in the reign of Jayavarman VII, displays a full commitment to Buddhism, but in a larger historical and ethnographic context both informed and tolerated by other Indian and local Khmer traditions.

Photo, Sandar Aung: Bayon.

The story of Jayavarman VII’s life includes the depth of his Buddhist religious sentiments and at the same time his skill as a military tactician and political leader. These different roles worked with his religious sensibilities to his advantage; there was no contradiction between his apocalyptic Mahāyāna and likely tantric apotheosis and his vision of imperial rule. Cambodian and regional politics of the day were locally segmented under individual rulers who engaged in shifting alliances with their neighbors. Jayavarman VII was thus able to form a critical mass of alliances with his neighbors, Khmer and Cham, to his advantage. The governance of medieval Southeast Asia, and especially the Khmer, was decentralized. Jayavarman VII’s astute political sensibilities, fueled by his Buddhist religious vision and authenticated by Indian-derived expertise enabled his construction of a Khmer empire.