The Rise of the Ancient Khmer Civilization: From Fu-Nan to Jayavarman II


Long ago, the modern countries of Mainland Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—shared a common historical trajectory. This shared history can be traced back to the ancient Khmer people, who once dominated the Mekong River valley. The Khmer emerged as a political entity in the early centuries AD, with ancient Chinese records referring to their land as Fu-Nan. This name is believed to derive from the ancient Khmer word “phnom,” meaning “mountain.” Fu-Nan was described as a powerful kingdom located at the mouth of the Mekong River.

The Khmer civilization experienced several rises and falls over the centuries. The first significant era of their dominance began in the early centuries AD, when they established themselves as a formidable force in the Mekong River valley. This period saw the Khmer people engage in extensive trade and cultural exchanges with neighboring regions, including China and India.

However, the civilization faced numerous challenges, including internal conflicts and external invasions. One of the most notable external threats came from the Śailendra Dynasty of Java, whose military campaigns in the 8th century AD had a profound impact on the region. The Śailendra army’s ferocious attacks devastated the coasts of Vietnam and Cambodia, leading to significant upheavals in the local power structures.

Amidst the chaos of the 8th century, a legendary figure emerged in Khmer history—Jayavarman II. His story, shrouded in myth and historical debate, marks a turning point in the Khmer civilization. According to ancient inscriptions and historical texts, Jayavarman II was born around the time of the fragmentation of the Chenla Kingdom, the precursor to the Angkor Empire.

Jayavarman II’s early life remains a subject of speculation. Some historians suggest that he was captured during the Śailendra military campaigns and taken to Java, where he was exposed to the sophisticated political and cultural practices of the Javanese court. This period in Java likely influenced his later efforts to unify and elevate the Khmer people.

The reasons behind Jayavarman II’s return to Khmer lands are multifaceted. George Coedes, a prominent historian, posits that the political climate in Java was becoming increasingly unstable, prompting Jayavarman II to seek opportunities back in Cambodia. Additionally, the Khmer lands were experiencing a power vacuum, offering a ripe opportunity for Jayavarman II’s ambitions.

Upon his return, Jayavarman II embarked on a mission to unify the fragmented Khmer territories. He established major cities such as Indrapura, Hariharalaya, and Amendarapura and constructed massive water channels in Tonle Sap (the Great Lake). His efforts culminated in the establishment of his capital at Mahendraparvata, a city that would become a symbol of Khmer unity and power.

One of Jayavarman II’s most significant contributions to the Khmer civilization was the establishment of the devarāja cult. This religious-political institution positioned the king as the earthly embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription, dated 1052 AD, provides crucial insights into this transformative period.

Jayavarman II sought the blessings of a Brahmin named Hiranyadama to ensure the independence and unity of the Khmer lands. The Brahmin conducted the devarāja ceremony on Mount Mahendra, invoking sacred texts to establish Jayavarman II’s divine kingship. This ceremony not only solidified Jayavarman II’s rule but also declared Khmer independence from Javanese influence.

The establishment of the devarāja cult had profound implications for the Khmer Empire. It created a unifying religious and political ideology that reinforced the authority of the Khmer kings for centuries to come. Jayavarman II’s legacy as the founder of the Angkor Civilization is cemented in the monumental architecture and sophisticated irrigation systems that characterized the empire.

The rise of the Khmer Empire under Jayavarman II marked the beginning of a golden age for Southeast Asia. The empire’s influence extended across the region, fostering cultural and economic exchanges that enriched civilization. The grand temples of Angkor, including the iconic Angkor Wat, stand as enduring testaments to the ingenuity and vision of the Khmer people.

In conclusion, the ancient Khmer civilization’s journey from the early days of Fu-Nan to the unification under Jayavarman II is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the Khmer people. Jayavarman II’s vision and leadership laid the foundation for an empire that would leave an indelible mark on the history of Southeast Asia.