Angkor Thom is a great city, indeed one of the largest and last cities of the Khmer Empire which was founded by king Jayavarman VII (his perinirvana name Maha Parama Sangatha), his reign in 1181-1220 and its real name was Jaya Khiri meaning the victorious mountain and the moat enclosing it called Jaya Santhor, the ocean of the victory. It served as the political, religious and administrative center of gravity for the Khmer Empire until the 15th century before the capital was jettisoned by its royal patrons who moved south to settle in an area near Phnom Penh. This city, according to the inscription, was grander than any city in Europe at the time; it must have supported a considerable population which may have been as high as one million. Within the walled city were the residences of the king, his royal family, military officers, officials and high priests whereas the plebs ‘commoners’ lived outside the walled city. This 8m high walled city, built out of laterite (lava rock) runs an area of 3km squares (3km each side or 900ht) and enclosed by a 100m wide and about 5m or 6m deep moat which was pierced through by 5 gates, fours on the cardinal points and one more called “Victory Gate” is located 500m north of the east gate. Each was built in the same architectural decoration and design; it has faces carved on their 4 sides and each corner ornate with 3-headed elephant; on the elephant’s back Indra with his 2 wives sits while the trunks of elephant plucking the lotus flowers. At each corner of the walled city, there are four small shrines called Prasat Chhrongs which are of archaeological importance because they originally comprised a stele that mentions the foundation of Jayavarman Vii and provides historical information about the period. Now the steles have been removed and placed in the Angkor Conservation (the French-built storehouse) for safety. The causeways spanning the moat to each gate were flanked by rows of 54 gods and 54 demons; the gods on the left-hand side wearing conical headdresses, pointed earrings and having almond-shape eyes; the demons on the right-hand side wearing crested headdresses, rounded earrings and having bulbous eyes. They are both holding the Naga’s body “the snake”; this symbolism represents the churning of the ocean of milk in the Bhagavatta Purana (Vishnuite Scripture), the Hindu myth of creation. All the causeways running to the city or the temple symbolically embodied the rainbow bridge that links the world of men to that of gods.
• The border of the Khmer Empire during the reign of Jayavarman VII extended S to N from the coast of Vietnam to the border of Bagan in Myanmar and E to W from the vicinity of Vientiane in Laos to Malay Peninsula.
• Following the demise of the king there were the conflict of the royal family, the decline of political influence on the peripheries of the Khmer Empire and the reaction of Buddhist and Hindu Religion; the Siamese or Thais, a persistent invader of Khmer territory who had migrated south from Yunnan (China) to escape Kublai Khan, the commander of Mongolian Empire and his hordes, established a political centre called Sukhothai (in north-central Thailand) “the first organized Thai settlement” in the 13th AD and at the same time, the Thai principality of Lan Na founded with its capital at Chhiang Mai and then the Thais also controlled the area around the mouth of Chao Phraya River which became the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the mid-14th AD, grew in strength. Within 100 years, the Thais had gained control of a large part of the area corresponding to modern-day Thailand. Ayutthaya became the dominant power in the region until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. In the 14th century the Thais made repeated raids on Angkor several times and battles between the two rivals continued almost a century until 1431 a final siege of Angkor by Thais for 7 months. However the Thai invasions did not lead to permanent occupation of Angkor. Some times after the brutal attack on the city of Angkor Thom, the Khmers retreated and shifted the capital southward to Phnom Penh, Lovek and Udong serving as capitals in the 16th and 18th centuries. Even the Khmers moved the capital from Angkor but it was never completely abandoned. For example, Angkor Wat was maintained by Buddhist monks even in the 15th and 16th centuries till now while the court returned to Angkor briefly in the late 16th and intermittently in the 17th, but it never recovered its former glory (the inscriptions in the wall or column and cornice level as the evidence).
• What reason pushed the decline of the Khmer Empire? The evidence is inconclusive. It seems likely that several forces acted as catalysts leading to the decline of the empire. The most important reason was: ‒the increasing pressure brought about by the encroachment of the Thais. ‒the loss of manpower through the ensuing wars further meant that maintenance of the irrigation network was neglected. – Some Khmers revolted against harsh conditions in the empire, against Jayavarman’s extravagant building and against his opulent lifestyle which exhausted the Kingdom’s resources. –as centralized control faded, the vassal states gradually asserted independence. –and another school of Buddhism, Theravada, spread from Sri Lanka across Southeast Asia in the 13th eclipsing former beliefs. The additional reason was: (ecologists indicated that) ‒by the 13th century forests may have become depleted. –sustaining the huge population probably put pressure on the agricultural system. ‒drought or climatic factors may well have contributed to the deterioration of the state’s authority. –and increased mission from Cambodia to China in the 14th and 15th centuries suggest an interest in developing maritime trade in southeast Asia so Phnom Penh would have been a more suitable place from which it could be developed