Koh Ker, the lavish Khmer capital that only served twenty years

A superb heritage took shape in the Indochinese peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
24 March 2024 Sunday 10:25
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Koh Ker, the lavish Khmer capital that only served twenty years

A superb heritage took shape in the Indochinese peninsula during the Middle Ages. Born from the mixing of aboriginal cultures with two influences from India, first the Brahmanical and then the Buddhist, this syncretism had its greatest exponent in the Khmer Empire. It, which flourished from the 9th century onwards, shone from the 12th century and was finished by the 15th century, left dazzling vestiges in Cambodia, the heir state of what was its nucleus, as well as in other countries in the region.

Some remains are notably visible. This is the case of Angkor Wat, whose silhouette even stars on the Cambodian flag. Other sites, however, are almost secret, despite being open to the public. Koh Ker stands out among them. Hidden in the middle of the jungle, far from current cities and with areas located between rice fields and mined bamboo forests (a poisoned gift from the Cambodian civil war and the Khmer Rouge), its own discovery could not have been more unexpected.

Its ruins were glimpsed in the jungle at the end of the 19th century by a party of French hunters. Paris had recently established the Cambodian Protectorate. However, he soon sent scientific explorers. The first, the archaeologist, linguist and also colonial administrator Étienne Aymonier, remembered precisely for having rediscovered the historical Khmer and Champa kingdoms.

Aymonier recognized the most visible structures of Koh Ker in the 1880s and 1890s. Returning to the French capital, he published his observations, eminently architectural, sculptural and epigraphic, in his classic Le Cambodge, which appeared in three volumes between 1900 and 1904. By that time, he had been replaced in the field work by Étienne Lunet de Lajonquière, who delved into the investigation of the monuments, inscriptions and an important road, and pointed out the unique character of the art of the place in Khmer culture.

Unfortunately, both pioneers indulged in the old colonial custom of plundering the site. Tons of statues and reliefs were chartered to Paris to expand collections such as those of the Guimet Museum, not counting the transfer of pieces in later years to the National Museum of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to avoid new plundering, but with the same result of emptying the place. Furthermore, clandestine looting intensified for decades and ended up stripping the enclave of its rich sculptural legacy.

Meanwhile, after the campaigns of Aymonier and Lajonquière, the interwar period revalued the importance of Koh Ker. The excavations of Henri Parmentier in the 1920s and 1930s and the epigraphic studies published from 1937 (until 1966) by Georges Coedès corrected the chronology considered in the investigations at the end of the century. On the other hand, Parmentier, who doubled the number of monuments and inscriptions found, and Coedès, who coined the concept of “Indianization” of the region, managed to substantiate with evidence interpretations about the place already ventured by Aymonier and his successor.

One of these conclusions was that the jungle citadel had been one of the four capitals that the Khmer Empire had in its half millennium of existence. Mahendraparvata and Hariharalaya reigned in the 9th century, before splendor. Angkor would take over until XV, but, briefly in X, this honor fell to a rival or, at least, alternative center. These were Chok Gargyar ("koki forest", after a tree typical of South Asia) or Lingapura ("the city of lingas", small temples in honor of Shiva), the names received by Koh Ker during its imperial rise of 928 to 944.

Estimated by Aymonier, confirmed in inscriptions by Coedès and corroborated with aerial photos by Parmentier, Chok Gargyar's hegemony turned out to have been as limited in time as in space. The place, of fleeting state relevance, never reached great dimensions. It even seemed to have parts half done. All this had an explanation with a face and eyes: Jayavarman IV.

He was a Khmer monarch who, even today, why he decided to plant his royal estate far from Angkor is still debated. Several historians see him as a usurper, something not unusual, since almost half of the Khmer emperors came to power illegitimately. Others propose that he was born in Koh Ker, populated long before his grandiose redesign. The fact is that the sovereign planned and materialized an entire separate capital from which he governed Indochina for two decades.

After a conflictive succession since 910, Jayavarman IV would have moved to Koh Ker in 921, before being crowned and beginning the official capital of the site seven years later. When he died in 941, his heir, Harshavarman II, tried to maintain the status of the settlement, but died prematurely in 944. Then, his uncle and cousin Rajendravarman II, in addition to appropriating the throne, restored it to Angkor.

Centuries later, the site could not escape the storms of Cambodian history in the 20th century. The Japanese occupation during the Second World War, the Indochina war for independence, a long civil conflict and, finally, the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge aggravated the deterioration of the site with destruction and pillage. It was no coincidence that the laborious pacification of the country starting in the 1990s translated into valuable progress for Koh Ker.

The place was inscribed in 1992 on the tentative list of World Heritage of Humanity. Three years later, APSARA was founded, the government authority that safeguards the Khmer legacy of the Angkorian period in Cambodia. And since 1998, security and services have been optimized in the specific area of ​​Koh Ker. This evolution has accelerated in the 21st century.

An official protection project developed from 2001 to 2005 under the umbrella of UNESCO has contributed to this. This has included the privatization of the tourist management of the site and the construction of a 90-kilometer highway to link it with the provincial capital. Two years later, a royal decree declared Koh Ker a cultural protection property and historical site.

These and other initiatives have led to a true scientific renaissance. Not only archaeological teams from APSARA, but also French, Hungarian, Japanese and Australian teams have made important advances in the knowledge of the fascinating Khmer past at the site.

In 2006 and 2007, the official body led the first truly modern excavations. These were three tastings in the central area, led by Ly Vanna, which revealed how the Rahal – a baray, or typical Khmer pond – was built and unearthed pre-Angkorian pottery in a ceramic sequence five feet deep.

Five years later, the collaboration with the French School of the Far East also provided new evidence about the epigraphy, art and architecture of Koh Ker. At the beginning of this decade, local, Magyar and Japanese scholars produced relevant advances in topographical matters.

New technologies have been key in these works. ANSARA, the University of Sydney and the Hungarian delegation could not have drawn up a more precise archaeological map in 2012 than Parmentier's from 1939 without the assistance of a laser scanner that has made it possible to detect underground objects from aircraft. This without underestimating more conventional exams. Without going any further, in October 2018, Australian scientists confirmed what was expressed by radiocarbon applied to ceramic finds in 2015: the place has been inhabited at least since the 7th century and, after being the imperial capital, for seven more centuries.

This conclusion was confirmed when analyzing charcoal and pollen sediments. The fluctuating traces of fire and vegetation indicated a long and continuous human presence at the site, both in the past and in the present. Koh Ker, in fact, could have been inhabited as late as the 17th century. It was already known that Jayavarman IV had not raised Chok Gargyar out of nothing and that the departure of the court had not implied absolute depopulation either. But now, thanks to this paleoecological approach, it is known with the precision that only archeology can provide.

This text is part of an article published in number 612 of the magazine Historia y Vida. Do you have something to contribute? Write to us at redaccionhyv@historiayvida.com.