UNSUNG HEROES: SURYAVARMAN II OF CAMBODIA

Heroes from forgotten history series

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Suryavarman II of Cambodia

Let us take a ride back to the 11th century to look at the journey of a great ruler and earnest devotee, Suryavarman II, and take a plunge to know our legacy.

  • King at 17

Suryavarman II was a King of the Khmer Empire. It was an era when the empire was weakening and control was being lost. It is remarkable what he has been able to achieve and spread in such a tumultuous period. Even as a young prince, he sought to gain power as a rightful heir to the throne. With competition from the lineage of Harshavarman III and the distant royalty, he assumed power in 1113 AD. This was a king educated in sacred rituals and a combined knowledge our heritage with practical tactics. One could predict that great things were lying ahead. His name “Suryavarman” is a combination of the Sanskrit words “surya” and “varman” which stand for “the sun” and “the protector” respectively. He was seen as the protector of his folks for the times to come. 

  • The Vaishnav Emperor

He had to wear the hat of the Khmer Emperor at the age of 21. His efforts were to consolidate and reunite the empire. He organized massive military activities in order to acquire the same. These however, were not very successful. There were massive attacks against the Chams. He even organized agendas against the Dai-Viet with the support of Champa. More than twenty thousand soldiers were marched with seven hundred vessels into the coast. Even though these attacks did not see any benefits for the empire, they were a remarkable demonstration of an organized and strenuous military effort. He tried to assume good relations with the neighboring regions of china. In his reign, art and architecture saw a tenfold growth. 

Suryavarman was a devout vaishnav. Being the dutiful Vishnu bhakt, he was one an unusual Khmer King to bring Vishnu devotees together to the religious life at court with the precedence of earlier Shiva devotees. He spent his entire life in worship and devotion to Vishnu which is prominently evident in the architecture and scriptures form this era. Suryavarman was an ardent believer of the “Ek-patni-vrat” which stood for having one wife or significant other for a lifetime. In the age of kings and prominent rulers, most of them took to a polygamist lifestyle where they had many marriages. His married life has not been well documented but he was known to strongly believe in this idea of absolute devotion to one. 

The king was an ardent admirer of art and architecture. This can be marked as a period in the history of the Indian heritage that saw the building of art pieces and monuments with sustainable techniques that they are preserved to be witnessed even to this day. He was a patron of jewelery which promoted such workmanship. He was known to wear diadems, anklets, bracelets and armlets. This led to a passionate discovery of art in the region. His era was one where folks lived in serenity, comfort and peace.

The beautiful Cambodia built by SURYAVARMAN II
  • Built the Angkor Wat 

King Suryavarman II was a religious reformer and influencer who adopted values from Hindu deities like Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. His religious and spiritual path was guided by his Guru Divakarapandita. The king became so influenced with Vaishnavism that he declared it to be the official religion of his Empire whereas his predecessors had been into Buddhism. The King was extremely religious. It was also known to be a temple builder since he sponsored the creation of numerous temples in his lifetime.

In the early 12th century, King Suryavarman II built the Angkor Wat temple in Siemreab, the capital of the Khmer empire. He dedicated this temple to Lord Vishnu. The temple was one of the largest religious structures for centuries. Walls and a moat surround this magnificent temple.  The temple includes sculptures that portray Suryavarman as Lord Vishnu where he is often shown reviewing his troops, addressing audiences and also performing various other functions. This shows how much of an influence Lord Vishnu had on his life. Unfortunately, the construction of this temple was completed after his death but he was such as ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu that the temple, after his death, became his tomb.

Suryavarman was posthumously named Paramavvishnuloka meaning ‘he who has entered the heavenly world of Vishnu’. His unforgettable brain child Angkor Wat could only be completed after his death. A sculpture at Angkor Wat captures his image and makes him and his remarkable reign immortal in the eyes of the generations to come.

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