Emperor Asoka of the Maurya Dynasty

Emperor Asoka of India sent Buddhist missionaries to countries like China, Burma (now known as Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka. Most of these countries accepted some form of Buddhism, and their art and architecture was greatly influenced by Indian art. In Indonesia the Temple of Borobudur is one such instance. In Cambodia the great Temple of Angkor Wat is a magnificent example of this influence exerted by India.

A hundred years ago nobody in the modern world knew of Angkor. How had this happened? For different reasons, the city of Angkor had been left empty and, after a few centuries the jungle grew over the temple and the city, hiding them from view. Cambodians forgot about it. Old Chinese history books spoke of a great temple in Cambodia but no one knew where it was, since no one lived in that forested area any longer.

A source of great national pride, Angkor Wat has been depicted in Cambodian national flags since 1863

One day in 1850 a French missionary saw some old ruins in a jungle and he wrote a description of them. In 1860 an Englishman named D O King visited what he could of the ruins, and wrote an article about them. But the credit for discovering the famous old temple goes to Henry Mouhot, a French scientist who went into the jungle and lived for three weeks in the ruins of Angkor. He studied them. Scholars took notice of this newly discovered city and so the restoration of the city and of its greatest building, the temple of Angkor Wat, began.

Little by little the jungle was cleared away. The rooms and statues of the temple were cleaned. Mud and earth were swept out. The lovely temple, and several others, emerged for the first time after centuries of being hidden beneath undergrowth and trees.

The northwest tower of the inner gallery at sunset

Angkor immediately became a tourist attraction. Scholars, historians, archaeologists, diplomats and military men began to travel to Angkor to see the fabulous stone city. The monuments are being restored and preserved even today.

The Khmer Empire

Angkor was part of the great mediaeval Empire of the Khmers. The Khmers had originally come from Indonesia, where the great Buddhist temple of Borobudur has resemblances to the art they developed later in Cambodia. After settling on the mainland of South East Asia, the Khmers grew more powerful. Their religion shifted between Buddhism and Hinduism, which had also spread to those regions from India. Angkor was a massive city, although today much is lost. But the great temple remains more or less intact, and many other temples and buildings bear witness to the glories of that civilization.

King Suryavarman II

Angkor became powerful during the reign of King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. Angkor Wat began as partly a temple to Vishnu as well as a place of worship for Mahayana Buddhists. The city also had many other great kings, of whom perhaps the most famous was Jayavarman VII. He was strongly Mahayana Buddhist and under him the country of Cambodia prospered. The temples of Angkor Wat were enlarged and made even more beautiful. Jayavarman thought that his old religion, Hinduism, had brought him ill fortune, so he turned to Buddhism. Angkor Wat became a fully Buddhist shrine.

The long galleries of the temple are decorated with historical scenes. Figures and mythological scenes from the life of the Gods are carved into the stone walls of Angkor. A picture of Suryavarman and one or two other kings can also be seen in the carvings.

Aerial view of Angkor Wat

Given its size, and the carefully crafted consistency of design, the temple of Angkor should not be compared to other structures like the Aztec buildings of South America, the Acropolis of Athens, the Taj Mahal of India or the Gothic churches of Europe. We must remember that Angkor Wat is original and unique. There is no other building like it anywhere in the world. It is a part of the cultural heritage of all mankind and it remains a very special place.


Grammar and Vocabulary

  1. Give in your own words the meaning, as used in the passage, of the words or phrases that are highlighted.
  2. To what do the pronouns or other words in italics refer?
  3. Divide the proper nouns in this passage into those that name people, those that name places, and those that describe a special type of place or person. Which proper nouns are used as adjectives? Are there any proper nouns that name things?
  4. Identify the different clauses, including one noun clause, in the first three paragraphs of this passage. What is the subject of the last clause of the third paragraph?
  5. Find in the 6th paragraph a sentence that includes two adjectival clauses? What do these describe, and what words are used to introduce these clauses?

Comprehension and Further Activities

  1. What countries belong to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)? Which of these countries was two countries earlier, that have now reunited as one country? Which of these countries recently gave independence to a much smaller country it had conquered a few decades earlier/ Mark all these countries on your map.
  2. Of the different countries of South East Asia, which are predominantly Buddhist, which Christian and which Muslim? What are the different forms of Buddhism that are dominant in the mainly Buddhist countries? In which island, that is part of one country, is Hinduism still prominent?
  3. Find on a map the main river of South East Asia. Through how many countries does it flow?
  4. Which European countries owned the different countries of South East Asia during the colonial period? When did these different countries regain their freedom?
  5. Write a letter from one of the first Europeans to find Angkor, describing to a friend or relation what he saw and his feelings on seeing this.
  6. Write down briefly in your own words the main point of each of the paragraphs in this passage. Which paragraphs deal with the background to the building of Angkor, which with the history of its discovery, and which with the temple itself?
  7. Find out about two temples in Sri Lanka that blends Buddhism and Hinduism and write a brief description about one of them.