The Chams once ruled a Hindu kingdom called Champa whose influence extended through what is now southern Vietnam and Cambodia. This monument was built between the seventh and twelfth centuries CE.

Cham tower overgrown by vegetation south of Hai An.

The Chams once ruled a Hindu kingdom called Champa whose influence extended through what is now southern Vietnam and Cambodia. This monument was built between the seventh and twelfth centuries CE.

This damaged brick and stone Cham tower stands overgrown by vegetation in a rural area south of Hai An, Vietnam. Tall arched forms are characteristic of these monuments built by ethnic Chams between the seventh and twelfth century CE.

Maritime trade between India and China led to the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas to many parts of coastal Southeast Asia during the first millennium CE. Chams once ruled a Hindu kingdom called Champa whose influence extended through what is now southern Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Champa kingdom competed with the Hindu Khmer kingdom centered in Angkor (now in Cambodia) as well as with the Chinese-influenced people of northern Vietnam. Similar buildings dating from roughly the same time period and Indian influence can be seen in Cambodia as well as in Java and southern Sumatra, Indonesia, where the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Srivijaya ruled by 700 CE.

Chams, now relatively small ethnic minorities living in both Vietnam and Cambodia, speak an Austronesian language related to Malay, Indonesian, and Philippines languages. Like most other coastal Malays, they adopted Hindu practices before 1000 CE, but then turned towards Islam when trade and political patterns changed between 1500 and 2000 CE. In Vietnam today, ethnic Chams are divided into separate Hindu and Muslim communities.

Cham tower seen through an archway in Po Nagar complex at Nha Trang

Built by the Chams, this Hindu complex is named after Po Nagar, a local goddess of rice farming.

Here, a Cham tower with ascending smaller levels and rounded corner towers is seen through an archway in the Po Nagar complex at Nha Trang in southern Vietnam. Tall arched forms are characteristic of these monuments built of brick and stone by ethnic Chams between the seventh and twelfth century CE.

This building is called the Mandapa, signifying that it is an entrance building or meditation hall. Dated to the early 800s CE, it is thought to be the earliest surviving structure at the Po Nagar site. Both Cham and Vietnamese worshippers still use this site where the remaining buildings are each dedicated to a different Hindu deity. Only four towers of at least seven temples remain standing of the original complex.

Po Nagar images sometimes are depicted in the form of Uma, the ten-armed wife of the Hindu god Siva. Po Nagar also became a popular goddess with many ethnic Vietnamese who settled in the region. They dress statues of Po Nagar in Mahayana Buddhist robes.

Detail carving of dancing Hindu deity and musicians on Cham tower at Nha Trang

A Hindu deity dances to the music of a flute in this relief carving at Po Nagar.

The central figure resembles dancing female divinities (each called an apsaras) that were said to be created for the entertainment of the main Hindu gods. They often are recognizable from their filmy skirts and spiked crowns, although the number of spikes in the images may vary.

According to Hindu scriptures, these dancing divinities, whose name means “moving in water” in Sanskrit, were the first beings to emerge from the Churning of the Sea of Milk in the Hindu myth of creation.

Eighth century Cham stone statue of standing Hindu god Ganesha at Danang Museum

This statue of Ganesha, the Hindu god of intellect, wisdom, and good fortune, was carved by the Chams in the eighth century.

The statue, located at the Danang Museum, portrays Ganesha standing erect with his elephant head and human body. Barefoot but dressed in a fine draped tunic, Ganesha holds a bowl in his left hand

View through parallel stone doorways into central temple area at Banteay Srei

The Khmer ruled what is now Cambodia for a thousand years, beginning in about 800 CE. Their temples, like this one at Banteay Srei, often portray the ruling king as a god, with shrines within a monument that models the design of the cosmos and heavens.

Khmer kings promoted the idea, known as devaraja, that there was an intersection of the ruling king and a validating god, usually the Hindu god Siva. Banteay Srei, shown here, is a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Siva that was built during the tenth century CE. It was constructed by Yajnyavaraha during the reign of two Khmer kings whom he served as councillor: Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V. The name Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women.”

Banteay Srei is noted for the small scale of its buildings and their exquisitely fine carvings. Because the sandstone used here was of a more durable variety than the stone used at the main Angkor sites, it allowed for a precise, wood-like style of bas-relief carving, which also has retained greater preservation over the centuries. The Banteay Srei site also contained many free-standing statues of deities and guardian spirits. Most of the original statues are now removed, either by thieves or for museum preservation.

The style of the buildings, abstract motifs, and bas-reliefs depicting Hindu epic scenes is described by Southeast Asian art historians as partly archaic, but also sometimes progressive in terms of where classical Khmer temple art would lead. Overall, Banteay Srei is considered a small but precious jewel among the Angkor kingdom temples.

This view is aligned to look through parallel stone doorways into the central temple area. The smallest inner doorway to the center temple tower is so small that adults must crawl to enter it.

Ornately carved central tower entrance at Banteay Srei Temple with kneeling guardian statue

The door behind this guardian statue at Banteay Srei is a false door, for deities only

This statue guards the entrance to an ornately carved central tower at Banteay Srei Temple. The false door behind the statue is made of stone; the original doors used by Khmer worshippers were made of wood and long ago deteriorated in the humid, tropical weather.

The statue of the male guardian nature spirit (known as a yaksa) is missing its right arm. Many of the original Angkor area temple statues are safely stored in museums with replicas on display at the outdooe temple sites. In small niches to the sides of the door are female deities (known as devata) who signify fertility and good blessings.

Guardian deity above monster on low relief carving at Banteay Srei Temple

This Hindu deity and monster guard the Khmer temple at Bantreay Srei.

The half-kneeling deity is a guardian diety, and the protective monster is known as a kala. The male guardian figure is posed like an auspicious and nature spirit (known as a yaksa) who often is seen as a guardian of wealth. Swirling floral scroll designs surround both figures.

Moat, guardian lion statue, and causeway into temple buildings at Angkor Wat

A carved stone lion statue stands on guard near a causeway over the huge water reservoir and moat surrounding Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex at the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor.

Angkor was the royal capital of the Khmer empire from 802–1431 CE. Angkor’s long-lasting prosperity was based on the local abundance of three resources: water, fish, and the rice crops grown on soil nourished by annual rains, rivers, and controlled water reservoirs. The area’s unique source of water is the “Great Lake,” Tonlé Sap, which connects to the Mekong River and multiplies in size after the annual monsoon rains.

These natural resources allowed the Khmer population at Angkor to reach an estimated one million inhabitants. The “footprint” of Angkor’s stone monuments spans about eighteen by eight miles. During its peak, Angkor’s influence extended far, into what are now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Malaysia.

Water, with its life-giving and purifying qualities, is central to Khmer cosmology and all varieties of Hindu religion. The moats surrounding the temples of Angkor were envisioned as earthly models of the ocean that surrounds the world. A Sanskrit inscription compares the moats and reservoirs at Angkor with tributaries of the sacred Ganges River in India.

The ruler who oversaw the building of Angkor Wat was Suryavarman II. He ruled the Khmer empire by 1113 A.D. and began an ambitious building and imperial expansion project. Angkor Wat’s stone buildings, built within nested square walls, took over thirty years to complete.

The sandstone for Angkor’s temples was quarried from a mountain range some twenty miles northeast of the royal city. The task of transporting the stones would have been enormous, involving weights comparable to the construction of the larger pyramids in Egypt. The stones used were carefully “dressed” so that they would fit together perfectly without the use of mortar.

Despite their brilliance as stone carvers, the Khmer never mastered the engineering principles of staggered block joints and vaulted arches, as used by the Egyptians and Romans. Instead, the Khmer often piled stones directly on top of each other so the joints lined up, and later split apart easily. They also built “corbel” or “false” arches above walls, which did not distribute the stones’ weight well. Such building practices led to a more rapid crumbling of Khmer stone structures over time.

Ultimately, it was the ascending Siamese kingdom, based in what is now Thailand, that sacked Angkor in 1431 and ended the kingdom’s regional power.

Although the Angkor Wat site originally was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu and most of its images are from Hindu scriptures, the temple later became used as a shrine for Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the contemporary Khmer people of Cambodia (as well as majorities in Thailand and Burma) although it is influenced by earlier local ideas and practices, as well as the Hindu antecedents of Buddhism.

View from causeway into Angkor Wat with tiers rising to five central towers

Four of the five central towers at Angkor Wat form a mandala, a geometric design of a perfected world.

Many Hindu and Buddhist Southeast Asian temples were designed as a mandala, usually with square nested walls and passages leading past deity images towards a high central tower.

This view from the main causeway over the moat toward the west face of Angkor Wat shows how the monument’s tiers rise upward to the five central towers. Four of the towers are set in a perfect square around the center one that symbolizes Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. Mount Meru’s five peaks are conceived as surrounded by mountain ranges and oceans, represented architecturally by the outer walls and moats. At Angkor Wat, the sacred monuments rise in tiers toward the center tower, with higher towers at every corner of the concentric squares.

The fact that the main central tower of Angkor Wat faces west, symbolizing death in Southeast Asia, when virtually all other Khmer temples face east to the rising sun, has suggested the idea that Suryavarman II intended the monument to be his tomb as well as a temple. Other scholars have suggested that the western orientation is connected with the temple’s dedication to Vishnu, or with astronomical measurements designed into the temple complex.

View outward over walled complex from top of central tower at Angkor Wat

The view from the top of Angkor Wat’s central tower encompasses the temple complex and the tropical forest beyond

This elevated image over the stone roofs, moat, and high walls towards the tropical forest suggests how awesome the sight of this temple complex must have been for rural Southeast Asians (or other foreign visitors) living around the tenth century CE, a time when Europe was in its Medieval period, or “Dark Ages.”

Two dancing female deities with spiked crowns carved in low relief at Angkor Wat

Female deities with spiked crowns dance for the entertainment of the gods.

The asparas in mirror image stances balance on one bent leg in active positions typical of classical Southeast Asian dances. One hand is held above the head and the other in front of the chest with their wrists and fingers stretched backwards towards the sky. The dancing nymphs’ feet always are positioned sideways with toes bent backwards, and their hair usually hangs in a few braids below their crowns. They wear wrapped skirts and jewelry, but no top garments, which was customary for both women and men in many areas of tropical Southeast Asia prior to European contact.

Angkor Wat is known for hundreds of images of these divine nymphs, who usually are posed alone, but sometimes are clustered in groups. Bas-relief carvings on the central temple walls at Angkor Wat illustrate scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two epic tales from India that were important to classical kingdoms, philosophy, and art throughout Southeast Asia. Both epics include heroes, such as Rama and Krishna, who are earthlyincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, as well as animal deities such as Garuda (a bird) and Hanuman (a monkey).

In contrast to the intricately carved outer wall, the interiors of the stone temples are usually bare. Small holes on some walls along with inscriptions describing the grandeur of Angkor, suggest the idea that there originally were interior murals, possibly of bronze, which long ago were removed and re-forged.

When the French assumed rule over the Angkor area in the late 1800s, they marvelled at the ruins and debated their origins. Many of the puzzles were solved by translating inscriptions on stone slabs at Angkor, and other stones resting as far away as Laos.

Inner temple hallway lined with stone statues including Buddha at Angkor Wat

Throughout Southeast Asia, carved stone or wood deity and ancestor statues often were (and are) dressed with real clothes that are replaced periodically at ritual events.

This arched inner temple hallway at Angkor Wat is lined with stone statues including a tall Buddha, seen towards the middle here. Several of the statues, even a headless one towards the front, are wrapped diagonally across their chests with gold or orange sashes

Mythic statues line causeway to south gate of Angkor Thom or Great City

Mythic statues line the causeway over a moat leading to the south gate of Angkor Thom, literally called “Great City.”

The images represent a Hindu myth of creation called the Churning of the Sea of Milk. On one side of the causeway, fifty-four guardian deities (called devas) pull the head of a mythical serpent or “naga.” On the other side, fifty-four images of demon gods (called asuras) push the tail of the serpent. The whipping motion of the serpent’s body was said to churn the ocean and recreate the cosmos anew. The dancing female deities (each known as an apsaras) were the first beings to emerge from the sea of creation.

Angkor Thom was a fortified city built from the early eleventh to the late twelfth centuries A.D. during the reigns from Suryavarman I to Jayavarman VII. Because it was built over a long time by successive kings, it has two city centers and differing architectural and sculpture styles. Angkor Thom, located just north of the Angkor Wat site is the largest building complex in the Angkor area.

The Bayon Temple complex within Angkor Thom was built under the direction of the Mahayana Buddhist ruler Jayavarman VII, who ascended to the Khmer kingdom’s throne at Angkor in 1181 CE. He erected the site for Buddhist worship, although it later was renovated and used as a Hindu temple. Various forms of Hindu and Buddhist worship were practiced side-by-side and successively in the ancient royal courts of Southeast Asia.

The bas-relief carvings on the outer walls of the Bayon towers depict heroic historical tales as well as scenes of everyday Khmer life. Jayavarman VII was a capable military commander who repelled attacks by the Champakingdom before becoming the Khmer king and undertaking a massive effort to construct stone temples and other monuments.

Face on top of south gate tower of Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

This “face tower” at Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom represented the Buddhist Khmer king Jayavarman VII as a god

Four faces, looking toward the cardinal directions, are carved on the sides of fifty-four standing towers at Bayon Temple. The preservation of many of the towers, however, is poor so it is difficult to know exactly how all the towers were carved. Over 200 giant smiling faces remain, but there may once have been between one and two hundred towers, each with four faces. These structures are known as “face towers.”

The faces depicted on the Bayon towers clearly resemble faces on known portrait statues of Jayavarman VII. Given his Buddhist leanings, it is thought that the huge faces portray him in semi-divine form as a boddhisattva, an enlightened being conceived in Mahayana Buddhism who postpones entering Nirvana in order to remain on earth helping others towards salvation. Boddhisattvas are somewhat like Mahayana Buddhist saints.

Carved stone reliefs of Garuda support the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom

Carved stone reliefs of Garuda, a Hindu mythical bird who transports the god Vishnu, appear to support the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom

This high stone platform now called the Elephant Terrace (because of its elephant carvings) is believed to have been the base of King Jayavarman VII’s audience pavillions. Because the pavillions for the king’s guests likely were made of wood, only the stone platforms have survived.

Tangled roots of tree grow over building at the Ta Prohm site at Angkor

The octopus-like roots of a tree grow over a building entrance just before the inner moat at Angkor’s Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was built as a double-moated, royal monastery during the reign of Jayavarman VII at the end of the twelfth century. As a Mahayana Buddhist, the king dedicated the monument to his mother envisioned as a “bodhisattva” or saint of compassion. The images of Buddha himself were removed from the temple by Jayavarman VII’s successor, Jayavarman VIII, who was a Hindu.

When French explorers first discovered the overgrown buildings at the ancient capital of Angkor in the late 1800s, much of the area was completely covered by forest. In particular, the roots of strangler figs, kapok, and banyan trees aggressively encompassed the Angkor structures.

This small site was deliberately left unconserved by French archaeologists to create a sharp contrast with their painstaking reconstruction of the temples in the Angkor Wat complex. At present, the temple is only conserved to prevent further building collapses and to clear passage for visitors. Even these two goals require considerable labor and forest management.

Huge tree roots covering buried doorway of Preah Khan Temple at Angkor

The temple of Preah Khan, which means “Sacred Sword” in Khmer, was built at the site of Jayavarman VII’s victory over Cham invaders in 1181 CE

The building complex functioned as temple, monastery, and university. The original carved images in the complex were both Hindu and Buddhist although most of the Buddhas were effaced by subsequent Hindu rulers, probably including the Hindu Jayavarman VIII.

The floorplan of Preah Khan is similar to that of Ta Prohm, also built by Jayavarman VII in the late 1800s. Preah Khan, however, is in a better state of preservation and includes more exceptional stone statues and architectural features such as rounded columns.

Like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan deliberately has been only partially restored. The site includes both conserved buildings and others that seem wildly overrun by the encroaching tropical forest. Areas where the forest appears to have taken over are stabilized from continued erosion and kept safely open for visitors. Conservation at Preah Khan is managed by the World Monuments Fund.

Learn more about .

Three men including two Buddhist monks seen through doorway at Angkor Wat

These Buddhist monks in saffron-colored robes are part of a revival of Buddhism that has taken place in Cambodia since the 1970s

Prior to European colonial rule in the 1800s, Theravada Buddhist monks served as major councillors to ruling Southeast Asian kings. It was the king’s job to protect the people and the monasteries, and to rule wisely. It was the monks’ job to bless the king and help the people to make merit and move towards enlightenment. It was the commoners’ job to support the king and feed the monks, who remained pure by not killing plants or animals for food.

During the Khmer Rouge Communist regime between mid-1975 and late 1978, many Buddhist monks in Cambodia were killed and local temples were desecrated or destroyed. Up to two million people, nearly a third of Cambodia’s population were killed or starved under the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule.

Since the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese army in 1978 and coalition governments formed, efforts have been made to restore temples, train new monks, and revive Buddhist practices among the younger generations.

The color of the robes indicate that these are Theravada Buddhist monks. The current majority religion in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka is Theravada Buddhism.

Two guards with machine guns who escort tourists to Banteay Srei Temple

These young men made a living by escorting and protecting foreign tourists visiting Banteay Srei Temple in 1997

Cambodia became awash with weapons and burdened by distrust after its civil wars in the 1970s, which were linked to the Vietnam War. After the wars, the growing population experienced high rates of unemployment and poverty as well as trauma. Many young men turned to security or paramilitary careers where the lines between private protection, crime, and government corruption were very thin.

Hiring private guards contained elements of bribery, as it was designed to prevent anyone, including them, from robbing or harming the foreigners.

Recent efforts have been made to increase and improve Cambodia’s tourism industry in a joint effort to protect the sites around Angkor, and to improve the nation’s standards of governance, sustainable economy sectors, and job opportunities.

Three female palace dancers wearing silk costumes perform in Phnom Penh

Classical Khmer dances with roots in ancient Hindu and Buddhist court traditions have been partly revived since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Here, three female palace dancers wearing silk costumes perform in Phnom Penh. The young women dancing in unison have their left feet raised with upward toes, their left arms gesturing forward, and their right hands on their hips. Each one wears a differently-colored, tight silk blouse, wrapped silk leggings, and an assortment of precious metal belts and jewelry. They are dancing on a patterned carpet in a shaded interior courtyard.

The classical Khmer dances of Cambodia, which share similarities with court dances of Thailand and Indonesia, have roots in ancient Hindu and Buddhist court traditions influenced by early historical contacts with India. In these kingdoms, royal palaces were the center of refined arts and architecture. The beauty of these arts suggested to surrounding rural populations that their kings and courts were models of divine perfection and knowledge on earth. Many dances are based on scenes from Hindu epics that teach traditional philosophy and values to the masses.

Court dances and dancers were suppressed and killed during Communist Khmer Rouge rule from mid-1975 to late-1978. Post-Khmer Rouge government and international efforts have been made to train new young dancers and revive Cambodia’s classical dance traditions.