The “Terrace of Elephants” at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
Beginning in the 9th century the Khmer empire, which was based in what is today northwestern Cambodia, began to gather power and territory in mainland Southeast Asia. It would grow to be one of the largest empires in Southeast Asian history, and at the height of its power the empire’s influence reached beyond the current boundaries of Cambodia and into present day southern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, stretching into the Malay Peninsula. Over the course of several centuries, the Khmer kingdom built nearly one thousand temples, shrines and monuments stretching across a significant portion of mainland Southeast Asia. The largest concentration of structures is located on the northwest tip of the Tonle Sap, or great lake, near the present day provincial capitol of Siem Reap. Among these temples is the largest religious structure in the world: the temple known as Angkor Wat.
In this lesson, students will learn about Angkor Wat and its place in Cambodian, and Southeast Asian, history. Students will attempt to “read” the temple, in a way which resembles the reading of a primary document, to gain insight into this history. In addition, this lesson can also supplement world history lessons which focus on the migration of ideas and religions, such as the movement of both Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia.
In this lesson students will be “reading” a structure as they might a primary document. The temple of Angkor Wat contains a wealth of information if students begin to scrutinize and to “question” the monument. Students should begin by looking deeply at the temple, noting information such as its size and the materials it is made from. They should then read the historical information that will give the structure a context, and will also provide more insight into the structure itself. Finally, they should use the information they have gathered from looking at the temple and from reading about its context as a foundation for asking questions. For example, a student might note that the temple is enormous. He or she should then ask: How many people did it take to build? How long did it take to complete? The answers can be used as clues in the search for a more complete conception of the ancient Khmer empire.
Some of the questions students will pose will have answers that can be confirmed. For example, scholars generally agree that the building of Angkor Wat took more than three decades to complete. However, it may not always be possible to confirm specific answers. Even where it may not be possible to confirm a specific answer, it will still be possible to glean a more complete view of the Khmer kingdom. For example, it is not possible to say exactly how much wealth the Khmer king would have had access to in order to build such a monument, however, the gilding and jewels decorating the walls of the temple indicate that the size of the kingdom’s treasury was substantial.
This lesson has been designed to supplement both World History lessons on the history of Southeast Asia and the migration of Hinduism and Buddhism from India to other points in Asia.
Please note: The area that is today officially known as the Angkor Historical Park, which contains numerous temples and shrines, is often simply called “Angkor” or “Angkor Wat.” However, the title Angkor Wat specifically refers to only the temple known by that name. The word wat is the Khmer word meaning temple, while the word Angkor comes from the Sanskrit word nagara, meaning city.
Students should focus on issues such as what the access to precious materials says about the Khmer Empire and its access to valuable resources and goods. In addition, an important point of discussion is the harnessing of this tremendous labor force needed to build Angkor Wat. The construction took more than three decades, and could not have been completed without the widespread use of corvée labor. The ability to draft and control thousands of corvée laborers gives an indication of the strength and power of the Khmer kingdom.
Many Cambodians visit the temple today not only because of its status as a sacred Buddhist site, but also because Angkor Wat is seen as an important historical site. It is no coincidence that every Cambodian flag since the country gained independence from France in 1953 has had the silhouette of Angkor’s towers at its center. An example of the current Cambodian flag is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
For beginning students: ask students to choose their favorite view of the temple from the photographs of Angkor Wat available through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource SARAI. Students should write a short essay about the image they have selected explaining what the picture shows, and connecting it to what they have learned about the temple in this lesson.
For advanced students: ask students to write a short essay explaining how “reading” the temple confirmed and expanded upon one or two pieces of information they received from reading the history. Students might write about how the written history stated that the kingdom was very powerful and had control or influence over a large area and its people. In viewing the temple, this was confirmed by its size, as it could only have been built by a large number of people working together.
Students should include in their short essay a section about a theory which they developed by combining what they had learned from the written sources with their scrutiny of the temple. This essay might focus on any number of theories or ideas, such as the tremendous rice harvest that would have been needed to sustain such a kingdom for hundreds of years, or that Khmer society probably had artisan guilds in order to create miles of bas-relief sculpture. While there does not have to be a strict control on what theories students write about, it is essential that they are able to create a solid argument defending their theory, and that they show how the images of the temple support their theory.
2 class periods