Throughout Cambodia's history, religious principles guided and inspired its
arts. A unique Khmer style emerged from the combination of indigenous animistic
beliefs and the originally Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These
two religions, along with the Sanskrit language and other elements of Indian
civilization, arrived in mainland Southeast Asia during the first few centuries
ad. Seafaring merchants following the coast from India to China brought them
to the port cities along the Gulf of Thailand, which were then controlled by
the state of Funan in Cambodia. At varying times, Cambodian culture also absorbed
Javanese, Chinese, and Thai influences.
Between the 9th and 15th centuries, a prosperous and powerful empire flourished
in northwestern Cambodia. The Khmer kingdom of Angkor, named for its capital
city, dominated much of what are now Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The kingdom
drew its religious and political inspiration from India. The literary language
of the court was Sanskrit; the spoken language was Khmer. Massive temples from
this period, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon at Angkor Thum, testify to the
power of Angkor and the grandeur of its architecture and decorative art. The
unparalleled achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance during this
period served as models for later cultural development in Cambodia.
Angkor faded into obscurity after the capital moved south to Phnom Penh in the
15th century, probably due in part to frequent invasions by the neighboring
Thais. The jungle rapidly grew over the monuments. In the centuries that followed,
frequent wars reduced the territory, wealth, and power of Cambodian monarchs.
However, an independent state with its capital near Phnom Penh survived until
the 19th century. The most important work of Cambodian literature, the Reamker
(a Khmer-language version of the Indian myth of the Ramayana), was composed
during this time.
France, which began administering Cambodia in 1863, rediscovered the temples
at Angkor and worked to preserve them beginning in the early 20th century. Cambodia's
traditional culture and the monuments of Angkor were endangered between 1970
and 1990 due to civil war. The Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which opposed and
mistrusted religion and education, banned all of Cambodia's traditional arts
and its written language. Since 1991, when Cambodia's warring factions signed
a peace accord, international organizations have helped the Cambodian government
restore the sites at Angkor and revive Cambodia's traditional crafts.
Courtesy of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in London,