Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Khmer

The people of Cambodia are the descendants of the Khmer empire.

What Country did they live in?

Rice paddies in Cambodia. Rice has been grown by the Khmer in Cambodia for thousands of years.

The Khmer people lived in the country today known as Cambodia. Cambodians to this day introduce themselves as Khmer. At its largest the Khmer kingdom extended into what is now Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

How did the civilization rise and fall?


Little is known about the origin of the Khmer people before their arrival in south east Asia. But legend says that a race called Mon-Khmer used to live in eastern India, which is now present day Bangladesh. Traces of Mon-Khmer culture and vocabulary still exist in the Bengali vocabulary. The oldest Khmer settlement in Cambodia was established around 1000 BCE. From the 1st to 6th century CE, Cambodia was the part of the south Asian kingdom, Funan. The first kingdom of the Khmer people was built by King Jayavarman II and later he was succeeded by his son Jayavarman III. During the reign of these two monarchs, the Great Angkor kingdom of Cambodia was built. Later in 1431 Angkor was captured and destroyed by the Siamese (current day Thailand). After this, the French claimed Cambodia as a colony. Independence from France was granted in 1953. This was followed by the establishment of a totalitarian government intermixed with episodes of anarchy and feudalism.

Angkor Wat is a huge stone temple built by the Khmer.

What did their buildings look like?


Khmer people lived in houses made of bamboo and wood. These houses were built so that they were raised off of the ground on poles. Much of area around the Mekong river where the Khmer lived flooded during summer monsoons. This type of house was very practical and kept the inhabitants dry.

During the Angkorian kingdom the Khmer also built many fine stone temples. The Khmer were accomplished stone workers. One of the most famous of these temples is Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat, first constructed in the twelfth century, is the largest religious structure in the world. It has five large domes which are shaped like flower buds surrounded by terraces. Most of the temple is built from sandstone blocks. Carved reliefs in the walls show various religious scenes. The temple is surrounded by a moat.

What did they eat?

Crabs are a traditional food of the Khmer.

Archaeological findings prove that Khmer people's diet consisted of fish and rice in 1000 BCE. For many hundreds of years the Khmer have used irrigation to bring water to their rice paddies. There are also stone carvings dating back hundreds of years showing large fisheries. It wasn't just fish and rice though, the Khmer also ate other water creatures including crabs, frogs, shrimp and snails. They also grew a variety of vegetables and fruits. The coconut has been an important addition to the Khmer diet.

According to accounts by a visitor from China during ancient times, the Khmer ate soup from bowls made from woven leaves. Still today, a Cambodian meal almost always includes a soup, which is eaten with the other courses. Fish is the nation's mainstay, and dried fish are used in many dishes. Soups are sometimes made with coconut milk. 'Salad' dishes are flavored with coriander, mint and lemon grass - three flavors which find their way into many Cambodian dishes.

What did they wear?


Men wore Sarongs and women wore Sampots. Both garments are a kind of loose fitting skirt gathered at the waist. Both men and women were generally bare from the waist up. Bas relief sculptures show both men and women wearing elaborate beaded necklaces, ear-rings, bracelets, anklets and elaborate head-dresses.

An example of Khmer writing.

What did their writing look like?


The Khmer script developed from the Pallava script of India. The oldest inscription in Khmer dates from 611 CE. It is engraved in stone. Khmer is written left to right like English or Latin. The symbols it uses are more complex than the letters used in English. Some of the symbols have hooks and loops as well as dots and flowing lines.

Khmer writing uses symbols to represent consonants and vowels. Khmer has fewer symbols for vowels than the language has vowel sounds. Because of this, most vowel signs have two possible pronunciations, depending on which consonant is being used.

What did they believe?


The Khmer practiced a number of religions as well as the variety of belief systems. The Khmer Empire's official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism.

This religious diversity is reflected in the Khmer of today as well. The descendants of the Khmer have religious beliefs and practices which combine the tenets of Theravada Buddhism with ancestor-spirit worship, astrology, and shamanism. The wat (Buddhist temple) is the center of religious life for many Khmer. When sick they often consult a kru khmae (shaman/healer) for herbal medicine and spiritual healing. Khmer beliefs also rely on astrology, a remnant of their Hinduism. A fortune teller, called hao-ra, is consulted before major events like beginning an important journey or determining the proper location for building new structures.

Are some of them famous even today?


Prince Norodom Sihanouk won Cambodia's independence from France. Pol Pot was an infamous dictator, and killed more than one million people by execution, starvation and in forced labor camps during his rule of Cambodia. Photographer Dith Pran had a book and movie made about his life called The Killing Fields. He helped chronicle the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime.

What is left of them today?


Many Cambodians are descendants of the Khmer, and the Khmer language is the official language of Cambodia.