Buddhist Temples in Cambodia

Arrival of Buddhism


Buddhism arrived in Cambodia some time during the 5th or 6th century C.E, this was determined with an archeological discovery of a Ghandara-Style Buddha head found at the Wat Kompong temple dating back to that century(Harris 2005: 5). Buddhism’s arrival is believed to have been the result of a population movement out of India across the Bay of Bengal (Harris 2005: 5). This movement is thought to be some form of mission trip; however archeologist and historians are lacking the archeological evidence usually appearing as art influences in order to confirm the theory (Harris 2005: 5). However, after its arrival in Cambodia, Buddhism began to flourish in many major cities, particularly the city of Funan (Harris 2005: 5). With the introduction of a new religion many small changes begin to appear in the local art and architecture. These  changes are signs of a process know as syncretism taking place; syncretism is a process where religions are mixed in order to adjust to new cultures. These mixtures can occur with any form of the religion from ritual practices to religious doctrine interpretations. As the popularity of Buddhism spread syncretism between it and the existing culture and religion became more prominent. At first this transition was minimal accruing with both the Mahayana and Hindu styles (Harris 2005: 5-6). Eventually, around the 7th century syncretism between Hindu and Buddhism became so prominent that archeologists had trouble determining which religion artifacts were representing; a style known as Prei Kmeng (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 36). But it wasn’t until the 12th or 13th century that Buddhism was officially labeled the “state” religion (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 104).


Why were they built?

Bayon_Angkor_SpiegelungMany of these temples were built surrounding the arrival of Buddhism were built as a complex style known as mountain, or pyramid, complexes (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 58). These mountain temples consisted of multiple levels built together to form a “mountain”  (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 58). As the mountain temples were being built over time the symbolism inside the temple showed syncretism between Mahayana, Hindu and Buddhism, as Buddhism became more popular the amount of syncretism changed (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 58). Majority of these symbols however represented the Hindu faith, since Hinduism was the primary religion when all of them where originally built. These symbolizes include the five tiers representing the five levels of Mt. Meru, as well as cosmic symbols for Mt. Meru (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 59). These temples still showed many of the sacred spaces where used for Khmer rituals to serve for ancestral and ancient king worshiping practiced by the Khmer (Mazzeo Antonini 1978: 104). The other major theory Angkor_Temple_and_Forest_(1502399071)involving the mountain pyramids is the theory that the temples, Angkor Wat specifically,  were built with the purpose as a tomb (Corfield 2009: 8). This theory was formulated with the symbolism that the temple was designed in a concept more common in Indian tombs, Angkor Wat was built in relation with the west (Current World Archeology 2011).  A tomb having western relevance is not that uncommon in many cultures around the world, specifically representing the setting of the sun and end of day. Unfortunately, there has not been any archeological evidence to support the theory that any of the mountain temples were built as tombs.


Modern Relevance

Ta_Prohm_(12663945213)All of the ancient temples built during the early years of Buddhism’s arrival were Hindu, though Buddhist influence was incorporated overtime. And, with time, Buddhism has now become the primary religion of Cambodia; so most of the temples have been converted to be used as Buddhist Sacred Spaces. This was done with the replacement or Banteay_Kdei_2addition of Buddhist statues and rituals. Unfortunately many of these temples underwent sever damage due to previous invaders and still receive damage today during border conflicts (Turton 2015). This damage, along with pillaging and illegal excavation, is all being reduced now that many of the temples have been added to the “World Heritage Sites” list in 1992 (Rowan and Baram 2004: 122). When this occurred some temples, specifically Angkor Wat, were immediately placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list to assist in saving and reducing the amount of damage temples received (National Geographic 2015). With effort and restoration Angkor Wat was removed from the “World Heritage in Danger” list in 2004 (National Geographic 2015). However, these heritage sites are still being closely monitored and restored from high amounts of tourism and Buddhist pilgrims visiting the locations daily (National Geographic 2015).

-Sarah Maisonet


“Angkor,” National Geographic. Accessed November 16, 2015, http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/world-heritage/Angkor/

“Angkor Wat: Temple of Boom,” Current World Archeology. Last modified November 7, 2011, http://www.world-archaeology.com/features/angkor-wat-temple-of-boom.htm

Corfield, Justin. The History of Cambodia. Greenwood Press, 2009

Featured Image (banner) provided by Sam Garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Harris, Ian. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. University of Hawai’i Press, 2005

Mazzeo, Donatella and Antonini, Chiara. Monuments of Civilization: Ancient Cambodia. Grosset & Dunlap, Inc, 1978

Rowan, Yorke and Baram, Uzi. Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past. Altamira Press, 2004

Turton, Shaun. “In event of gunplay, mind the temple” The Phnom Penh Post, last modified September 5, 2015, http://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-weekend/event-gunplay-mind-temple




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