Southeast Asian art and architecture

Khmer Art

The late 8th cent. saw the disintegration of Chen La, and beginning in the early 9th cent. the Khmer empire of present-day Cambodia began to flourish. Indravarman (877–89), the first Khmer king, began construction of Angkor, a remarkable temple-city which utilized a grid system of canals and large reservoirs to control the river (see Angkor for descriptions of Angkor, Angkor Wat, and Angkor Thom). The temples and palace complex derived much of their architectural style from Indian sources, but much of the style of carving on the deities and supporting figures is uniquely Khmer, with voluptuous figures and serenely smiling faces. So richly decorated were most of the monuments that entire building complexes become a sculptural whole. The empire spread and its wealth increased into the 11th cent.

The most famous of Khmer monuments is Angkor Wat (or Vat), a vast temple-complex built in the early 12th cent. under Suryavarman II. It is an enclosure built of numerous shrines and courtyards the entirety of which represents the cosmic order in architectural sculpture. The Champa kingdom invaded Angkor in the 12th cent., and although it was reclaimed by Khmer kings it no longer had the same splendor. Angkor Thom and Bayon, built in the early 13th cent. under Jayavarman VII, shows the movement away from grace and lyrical carvings toward a more monumental style. From the 15th until the 18th cent. most of the art of Cambodia was wood sculpture, which due to climatic conditions has with rare exception not survived. Later works mostly follow the inspiration of Thai sculpture.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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