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Presumed Portrait of Jayavarman VII

Jayavarman II: Self-Proclaimed God-King of the Khmer Empire


Jayavarman II is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Khmer Empire, a powerful state which ruled much of mainland Southeast Asia from the 9th century AD until the 15th century AD. The Khmer Empire was preceded by the Chenla Kingdom, and during Jayavarman’s time, was marked by constant infighting between the various local rulers.

By conquering the various lords, Jayavarman succeeded in reunifying the Chenla Kingdom. Additionally, outward territorial expansion was also carried out by this ambitious ruler, hence making the Khmer Empire a formidable entity on the Southeast Asian mainland. To top it all off, Jayavarman proclaimed himself as ‘deva-raja’, which means ‘god-king’, and is claimed to have turned the cult of the ruler into the official state religion.

Inscriptions of Jayavarman’s Life

There is little that we can be certain of regarding the life of Jayavarman. The information that we have about this deva-raja is derived from inscriptions. Many of these were made some centuries after Jayavarman’s death, and they sometimes contradict each other.

For example, the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, written in 1052 AD is commonly regarded as the ‘standard biography’ of Jayavarman’s life. Yet, the events of Jayavarman’s life as narrated in this inscription are not found elsewhere. Moreover, two inscriptions from the late 8th century AD are said to shed light on the Jayavarman’s early activities as a ruler, prior to his founding of the Khmer Empire.

Sdok Kok Thom, Thailand.

Sdok Kok Thom, Thailand. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Location of Java

According to the ‘standard biography’ of Jayavarman’s life, the founder of the Khmer Empire was originally from a place called ‘Java’. Although he is said to have likely been of Khmer descent, Jayavarman is thought to have been in ‘Java’ as a captive or an exile. The location of this ‘Java’ is a subject of debate, and it is commonly thought to be a reference to the island in modern day Indonesia.

Nevertheless, there are some questions with this interpretation. For example, stories of Indonesian / Javanese conquest in the region of modern Cambodia during the 8th century AD are said to be non-existent in the Indonesian / Javanese historical records. One possible explanation for the appearance of ‘Java’ in the inscription is that it was a legend created during the 10th and 11th centuries AD, a period which saw the rise of important new trade centers in East Java.

Topography of Java. Created with GMT from publicly released SRTM data.

Topography of Java. Created with GMT from publicly released SRTM data. (Public Domain)

Proclamation as Deva-raja (God-King)

The ‘standard biography’ then claims that Jayavarman returned to Cambodia, perhaps as a vassal of the Javanese. Jayavarman is said to have begun to gather support in the central part of the country before moving on to the area known today as Roluos, which is 20 km (12.42 miles) to the southwest of what is now known as Angkor, and establishing his capital there.

Whilst one source states that the date to Jayavarman’s return is unrecorded, another claims that it took place around 790 AD. Jayavarman was not exactly a subservient vassal of the Javanese, and in 802 AD (or later), he defied his overlords, declared independence, and was proclaimed deva-raja.

The cult of Devaraja enabled Khmer kings to embark on grand-scale project, such as to build Angkor Wat.

The cult of Devaraja enabled Khmer kings to embark on grand-scale project, such as to build Angkor Wat. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The two inscriptions dating to the late 8th century AD provide an alternative version of event. The name ‘Jayavarman’ can be found on these inscriptions. It is likely that this Jayavarman is the same person as the man who founded the Khmer Empire. According to these sources, the future god-king started his military activities in the southeastern part of Cambodia, before moving north to Kratie, and then setting up his capital in Roluos. This is the version favored by scholars, who suggest that Jayavarman was not a vassal king sent from a distant land, but a local ruler who had been living in Cambodia prior to his rise to power.

According to tradition, it was in 802 AD that Jayavarman was proclaimed deva-raja on Phnom Kulen. This was a religious ceremony borrowed from Hinduism. By transforming into a god-king, Jayavarman asserted his divine kingship, and claimed absolute authority over his people and his realm.

A ruined Khmer temple in Phnom Kulen.

A ruined Khmer temple in Phnom Kulen. (CC BY 2.0)

Alternatively, the more precise Khmer name of his new title was ‘kamrateng jagat ta raja’, which may be translated as ‘lord of the world the king’, ‘lord of the world of the king’ or ‘lord of the world of the realm’. It has also been stated that the ritual invoked not a god of Hinduism, but one from the traditional Khmer pantheon.

Furthermore, it has been said that the term deva-raja is mentioned only in the Sdok Kak Thom inscription, and that the people who wrote it were only the ones in charge of the sacred ritual, thus exaggerating its importance.

Jayavarman is thought to have died around 835 AD, and was succeeded by his son, Jayavarman III.                  

Featured image: Presumed Portrait of Jayavarman VII (Public Domain), Archers mounted on elephants (CC BY-SA 2.5).

By Ḏḥwty

References, 2016. Chronology Of Cambodian History, Jayavarman II. [Online]
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Cambodia-Travel, 2011. Birth of Angkor (802 - 834 A.D). [Online]
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Golzio, K.-H., 2016. Considerations on the Chronology and History of 9th Century Cambodia. [Online]
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National Palace Museum, 2016. From Jayavarman II to Suryavarman I. [Online]
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Vickery, M., 2004. Jayavarman II. In: O. Keat Gin, ed. Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, pp. 694-695.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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