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The History and Culture of Cambodia

The history of Cambodia is full of religious principles and magnificent art which encloses a distinctive Khmer style that is a combination of local animistic beliefs and beliefs from the Indian religions Hinduism and Buddhism. These religions stepped into Southeast Asia during the early centuries AD along with the language Sanskrit from India. These religions and languages were introduced in Cambodia and gulf of Thailand through Nautical Merchants that visited the place from India and China and these religions were infused in the culture of Cambodia along with Chinese, Thai and Japanese impacts during various times. Overall Cambodia is a combination of Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese, Thai and Japanese cultures and the art and architecture has influences from all of these. 

Art & Culture of Cambodia

Amidst the 9thcentury AD and the 15th century, Northwestern Cambodia was a powerful empire that was quite affluent. Present day’s Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia were ruled by the Khmer Kingdom of Angkor named after the capital city and its main impact on the political and religious background was majorly from India. The court used the literary language of Sanskrit during those times while the commonly spoken language was Khmer. The place has enormous temples built during those times with the likes of Angkor Wat and Bayon at Angkor Thum, which are a reflection of the magnificence and grandeur of the art and architecture that prevailed in the kingdom. Cambodian art and architecture takes its main inspiration from the unmatched level of art, architecture, dance and music that was common during that period and laid great impact in the later periods.

Cambodian Art & Culture

The capital of Angkor kingdom was moved to Phnom Penh in the south during 15th century and the place became inconspicuous after that, which may be due to frequent invasions by neighboring Thai country. The monuments were covered rapidly by plantations and forest and the wealth, power and territory of the Cambodian monarchs deteriorated. Although, this independent state of Cambodia managed to survive till the 19th century with its capital near Phnom Penh and it was during this time that the most remarkable piece of Cambodian literature was composed, The Reamker, which is The Indian Ramayana in the Khmer language.

 

 

Cambodia came under France in 1863, which was when the temples at Angkor were rediscovered and preserved in the early 20th century. During 1970 to 1990 a civil war took place in the country due to which all the Cambodian Traditional monuments and cultural sites were endangered. The Khmer Rouge Regime was a communist that who worked against education and religion in Cambodia and banned all the traditional arts and literature in the country. In 1991 a peace treaty was signed by the combating parties and then the international organizations came forward to help Cambodian Government restore the heritage sites at Angkor and revive all the traditional art and crafts of Cambodia.

Type of Khmer Art & Architecture

Sculpture

Cambodian Art & Culture

Sculpture making or the stone carving skill in the ancient Khmer was adopted from the Indian culture initially which later evolved into a unique style known as the Khmer style. There sculptures were carved from stones by skilled artisans who were great craftsmen and were mostly of the Hindu Deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesha or other Gods and Goddesses. There were also crafted sculptures of Hindu Mythological monsters or demons like Naga-the serpent, Kala-the demon, Makara-the giant and mythical lions. Many sculptures were portrayals of stories of Hindu Mythology like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

 

In subsequent times, the Buddha statues and sculptures were fabricated and were enshrined in the temples. Angkor Tham in Bayon has the most stunning and magnificent Buddha statues of which, the four faced statue Bodhisatva Avalokiteshvara is the most prominent one which has been sculpted on fifty towers. Even though every statue has the basic characteristic which represents the God as a supernatural being as described in mythology or religious epics but the sculptor’s imagination reflects in its every detail. Some sculptures in the monuments are a depiction of prominent events in the history of Cambodia like war against invaders while some depict the everyday life of the common Khmer people in the carvings present in Angkor Thom.

Architecture

Cambodian Art & Culture

Houses in the ancient times in Khmer were similar to those that are built in rural areas of today’s Cambodia. They are elevated around two and a half meters above surface level built on piles of wood for support. They have wooden ladders and walls are crafted with bamboo, straws or dry leaves of coconut palm trees. The walls, floor and roof are all supported with wooden pillars that hold them upright.

Individuals having prominent position in the society lived in a more dignified house or palace that had different dimensions, sizes and layouts. These houses were built of strong wooden planks like teakwood, tiled roofs in the internal rooms and thatched leaves in the outer areas. While the common people were not allowed to put tiles on their roofs, dignified class of people differentiated themselves from them by having more robust houses.

As per the Hindu religion, Hindu Gods live in five sacred mountains with a central one named the Meru mountain and they are surrounded by the cosmic ocean. The Khmer temples are built in the same manner depicting the heavenly abode of the Gods with five towers namely prasats. The central tower or the Prasat symbolizes the Mount Meru and four small ones in each corner represent other four sacred mountains in the heaven. Some of the temples contain gallery connecting the towers while a trench on the sides of the temple are a symbol of the cosmic ocean.