The Khmer (Angkorian Empire) at War
Kings such as Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII commanded large mostly peasant armies and rode to war with mighty royal war elephants in their retinue. Their armies fought battles at sea in large fleets as well completing amphibious landings and carrying out raiding voyages for centuries on end. The Angkorian king’s attempted to balance warfare and diplomacy equally paying tribute to the Song Dynasty (Chinese) monarchs whose armies were busy fighting the Mongols seemingly everywhere during the period whilst at the same time fighting many “foreign” wars throughout the region to build a great Cambodian empire.
The most important of these Southeast Asian conflicts falls between the reigns of the two most celebrated Angkorian warrior-builder kings of this era, King Suryavarman II and King Jayavarman VII. Between each of these great warrior kings the Angkorian dynasty fought many battles and waged a great deal of warfare between 1113-1220 AD, of which sadly only very little is known. The amazingly well preserved temple carvings are the best surviving clues to help us understand how the Khmer waged warfare.
Map of the Southeast Asia, primarily what is today Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, & China
King Suryavarman IIThe most famous of the Angkorian kings is most certainly King Suryavarman II. Known principally for ordering the creation of the great Hindu temple Angkor Wat. Though the temple which would not be completed until after his death it is still the most lasting and certainly the most iconic testament to his reign. Dedicated to Vishnu the Hindu god known to followers of the religion as the preserver of the universe, Angkor Wat was not just an impressive engineering and architectural marvel but it became the capital for the great King Suryavaraman II later becoming the royal temple for succeeding Angkorian kings. This was a spiritual place that was defensible as well. The ornate walls and ‘bas reliefs’ within chronicled King Suryavaraman II’s many battles with the Cham in life, the warrior king leading his men atop an elephant in the thick of the fighting. Angkor Wat became his tomb in death. The temple is pictured on the national flag of Cambodia and is unquestionably the most iconographics tourist destination in the country to date. During his reign Suryavarman had numerous other monuments built including Thommanon, Beng Mealea (the lotus pond), and the Banteay Samre which was dedicated to Vishnu as well.
Suryavarman ended fifty or more years of unrest and civil wars in the Khmer empire by defeating a number of rival claimants, principally Harshavarman III and Dharanindravarman I, to take control over a majority of the empire sometime around the year 1113 though he was probably at war with other rival claimants in the frontier regions of the Kingdom of Khmer for long after. He was likely in his early to mid twenties when he was crowned by the respected Hindu priest Divakarapandita (b.1040-d.1120), a powerful brahman who served numerous other Khmer kings before him. Spirituality most definitely played a role in inspiring Suryavaraman’s many conflicts with the Champa kingdoms.
During Suryavaraman II’s reign the Khmer empire's armies fought against the Thai kingdom and later against the Vietnamese Dai Viet kingdom from 1123 until 1136. The Dai Viet kingdom had won their independence on the battlefield against the Han Chinese in 938 at the Battle of Bach Dang River. In the year 1128 King Suryavaraman II led 20,000 of his soldiers and elephants into Dai Viet territory but was defeated at the Battle of Nghe An. This would become just one of many defeats his armies would suffer trying to subjugate the Vietnamese to the northeast. In the same year he sent a fleet perhaps as large 500-700 ships to raid along the Gulf of Tonkin. The Khmer empire fought the Mon people to the northeast also in what is today Burma and in all probability they clashed with Chinese armies in the frontiers of both their respective empires.
The Khmer at war with the Thai at sea in the 12-13th centuries
Suryvaraman’s army was perhaps as large as 70-90,000 fighting men and non-combat servants when allied with neighboring states or principalities including at times the Champa, their longtime enemies. Siamese (Thai) mercenaries bolstered the royal ranks and local chiefs most certainly mustered their tribes to battle once given the royal order. These peasant soldiers fought predominately in the dry seasons when rice was not being cultivated. Often a thousand or more elephants went to war in the kings’ royal armies when the campaign began. These animals fought in battle formed into squadrons protected by infantry and noble cavalry. Other elephants were armed with ballistas (large chinese style crossbows) which were one of the earliest forms of mobile artillery. Most were given royal and/or Hindu/Buddhist spiritual invocation before battle though their most important role may have been as beasts of burden. They cleared paths in the jungle and helped to carry back plunder from the campaigning season as well.
King Jayavarman VIIKing Jayavarman VII (b.1123-1220) reigned from 1181 until his death sometime before 1220. He was the son of King Dharanindravarman II who ruled the Khmer Empire from c.1150-1160. Little is known of his early years but in about his mid 30’s he settled in Cham territory where he later led campaigns in support of the Angkorian king Yasovarman II (r.1160-1166), either his brother or perhaps a first cousin. Yasovarman II survived at least two major rebellions before being overthrown by a warrior named Bharata Rashu Samvuddi who took the regal name of Tribhuvanadityavarman (three suns) upon ascension, the usurper reigning from 1166-1177 until he was overthrown following two invasions lead by the Cham King Jaya Indravarman IV in 1177 and 1178. A warlike man in his own right, the King of Champa, Jaya Indravarman allegedly fought in battle using a chariot. His descendants would later fight the Mongols under Kublai Khan (b.1215-1294) many years after his death.
King Jayavarman VII from a painting based on a period sculpture
King Indravarman attacked from land in his first invasion of the Khmer Empire but was stymied and forced to withdraw. When the Cham came a second time they traveled on war cogs up through the Mekong Delta into massive Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in all of Southeast Asia and the location from where they came ashore and launched their invasion of Cambodia. It was in this second invasion where the Khmer empire capital at Yaśodharapura was destroyed and King Tribhuvanadityavarman killed.
Following the sacking of the capital and the plundering of Angkor Wat (along with many other Hindu sites) the Khmer empire was subsequently occupied by the Cham. This military occupation lasted until Jayavarman VII liberated the empire and was crowned as king in 1181. It formed just a small part of the Great Khmer-Cham War of 1167–1191. Indeed from 1190-1191 a Khmer puppet prince ruled the Champa Kingdom until a rebellion ousted him. Several other attempts to fully subjugate the Cham would fail as miserably in the later reign of Jayavarman VII.
Jayavarman was in his late fifties by the time he took the crown but he quickly embarked on a dual campaign of rebuilding the Khmer’s cultural greatness, first by creating new monuments in honor to Buddhism, a religion which was sharply on the rise during his reign. Angkor Thom, the “Great City”, became the new capital and the greatest testament to the reign of Jayavarman VII. Other beautiful monuments were built including the Banteay Chhmar temple and Bayon, where an amazing relief depicts a smashing rout of strangely enough, the elephant armies of Jayavarman. Perhaps this was some sort of Buddhist karmic tribute or merely just a chronicle of the many wars fought during his reign. The king died at the age of ninety sometime between 1215-1220.
Relief carvings at Angkor Thom created in the late 12th or early 13th century
Suggested Further Reading
The Armies of Angkor: Military Structure and Weaponry of the Khmers by Michel Jacq-Hergoualc'h
The Ancient Khmer Empire by Lawrence Palmer Briggs & Robert von Heine Gelderen