Cambodia – Ecological Investments of the Ancients

Ruins of the stone structures
Ruins of the stone structures

Think Cambodia and images of ruins in the jungle, mighty stone faced temples and brilliantly carved terraces flood your mind. You think of trees and stone structures struggling to occupy the same place and of its crown jewel the massive Angkor Wat. But in all this grandeur of the ancient engineering there lies a strange paradox, how did the Khmer civilization which rose to such heights suddenly vanish? The answer to Angkor’s fall lies in Angkor’s rise.

As you land in Siem-Reap (the modern-day town nearest to Angkor Thom), you cannot but help notice vast tracts of richly watered ancient paddy fields. At first this sight seems like any ordinary rural East-Asian landscape but consider the fact that these fields have been around over a thousand years and one gets a whiff of ancient engineering. Truth be told, Cambodia or specifically the Khmer empire was nothing short of an engineering miracle.

In fact Angkor was the largest pre-industrial civilization with over a million people residing in the city. The main urban area spanned over a 1000 square feet and was surrounded by many suburbs. The city featured intricately carved temples, the grandest which was the Angkor Wat. Scores of people migrated to this prosperous land. To feed this burgeoning population, Angkor’s rulers devised an extensive water management system that allowed them to have up to 4 paddy crops a year (To see the magnitude of this achievement compare it to the fact that in modern day Cambodia they only harvest one crop a year). This system included a complex network of canals, tanks and reservoirs and ponds in which they harvested rainwater.

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom

To see these engineering wonders one need not travel far from Angkor. To the west of Angkor lies the West Baray – a massive manmade lake spanning roughly 17 square km. Built in the 17th century the Baray (i.e. reservoir in Khmer) served as a source of water for year-round agriculture. This feature of rain-harvested tanks is also seen in many of the temples including Angkor-Wat. The Khmer also ingeniously changed the course of the Siem-Reap river that flows down from the Kulan mountains in the north to feed their thirsty paddy fields.

While this helped create the most technologically and militarily superior kingdom of its day, new research by GAP (The Greater Angkor Project) and Damien Evans an archeologist from Sydney University shows that this quest for taming nature might have proved costly and caused an environmental disaster that ultimately led to Angkor’s downfall.

As Europe entered into the Renaissance era, this massive urban habitat roughly the size of Los Angeles got swallowed up by the jungle. This could have been caused by the Khmer’s over-engineering of their environment. Patterns seen in the land-use modification were so massive that it could have led to a host of ecological problems including deforestation, overpopulation, top-soil degradation and erosion. This pattern according to Evans’s research may not be isolated just to Angkor but may have been the cause for many other ancient urban spaces to have collapsed. What was once an engineering marvel and a representation of our supposed invincibility over nature, is today a mass of ruins devoured by the unforgiving nature that has healed itself in these years. The story of Angor Wat reinforces our belief in the adage, “There is enough on Earth for man’s need, but never enough for man’s greed”

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom

Article Enrichment

802 AD               Founding of the Khmer empire.
802-50                Reign of King Jayavarman II,                                     founder of the Khmer empire
875-93                Building of Preah Ko
877-89                Reign of King Indravarman I,                                    builder of the first Angkor                                          reservoir, Preah Ko and Bakong
889-910              Reign of King Yasovarman I, who                              moves the capital to Ankgor and                                 builds Lolei and Phnom Bakheng
893-925              Building of Bakheng Temple
928-42                Reign of King Jayavarman IV, a usurper who moves the capital to Koh Ker
944-68                Reign of King Rajendravarman II, builder of Eastern Mabon, Pre Rup and Phimeanakas
947-65                Pre Rup built
965-1010            Kleang temple built
967-1000            Banteay Srei built
968-1001            Reign of King Jayavarman V, who oversaw construction of Ta Keo and Banteay Srei
1002-49              King Suryavarman I expands the Khmer empire to its greatest extent
1010-80              Construction of Baphuon temple
1049-65              Reign of King Udayadityavarman II, who completes Baphuon and the Western Mabon
1066-1100         Angkor divided, with several contenders for the throne
1112-52              Reign of King Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat and Beng Mealea. He extended Khmer influence                           to Malaya, Burma and Siam (Thailand) and distinguished himself religiously from former kings through                              his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu (to whom Angkor Wat is dedicated).
1100-75              Construction of Angkor Wat
1117                  The Chams of southern Vietnam, long annexed by the Khmer empire, rise up and sack Angkor, burning                           the wooden city and plundering its wealth
1177-1230         Construction of Bayon Temple
1181                  King Jayavarman VII defeats the Chams
1181-1219          Reign of King Jayavarman VII, who defeated the Chams and builds Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta                           Prohm. Upon his death, the empire begins to decline.
1351                  Thais sack Angkor
1431                  Thais sack Angkor again
1432                  End of Khmer empire. Angkor abandoned to the jungle. Buddhist monks care for it over the following                             centuries.
16th cent           Khmer court return briefly to Angkor, restoring Angkor Wat as a Buddhist shrine
16th cent           Portuguese travellers encounter Angkor and call it “the walled city”
17th cent           A Japanese pilgrim draws a detailed plan of Angkor Wat, although he mistakenly recalls it was India
1864                  Cambodia becomes a French protectorate
1860s                “Rediscovery” of Angkor by the French (although it was never lost)

Author: Akshad Viswanathan
Akshad works with Yahoo! Inc and completed his studies from Pune university. He loves quizzing, specifically Biz-quizzes. His other full time activity is reading, lots of it.

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