Jayavarman VII

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Jayavarman VII
King of the Khmer Empire
Statue of Jayavarman VII, Guimet Museum
Reign 1181 – 1218
Predecessor Yasovarman II
Successor Indravarman II
Consort Indradevi
Spouse Jayarachadevi (Queen's Sister)
Full name
Father Dharanindravarman II
Mother Sri Jayarajacudamani
Born 1125
Angkor, Khmer Empire
Died 1218 (aged 92–93)
Yaśodharapura, Khmer Empire
Religion Mahayana Buddhism
prev. Hinduism

Jayavarman VII (Khmer: ជ័យវរ្ម័នទី៧, 1125–1218) was a king (reigned c.1181-1218) of the Khmer Empire in present day Siem Reap, Cambodia. He was the son of King Dharanindravarman II (r. 1150-1160) and Queen Sri Jayarajacudamani. He married Jayarajadevi and then, after her death, married her sister Indradevi. The two women are commonly thought to have been a great inspiration to him, particularly in his unusual devotion to Buddhism, as only one prior Khmer king was a Buddhist. Jayavarman VII is generally considered by historians the most powerful Khmer monarch of all time.[1]

Early years[edit]

Jayavarman probably spent his early years away from the Khmer capital. Jayavarman is Sanskrit for Victorious Warrior, with "Jaya" being Sanskrit for "Victorious" or "Successful" and "Varman" being the word for "Warrior" or an expert in martial arts.

Defeat of the Cham and coronation[edit]

In 1177 and again in 1178, the Cham invaded Cambodia.[2] In 1178, they launched a surprise attack on the Khmer capital by sailing a fleet up the Mekong River, across Lake Tonlé Sap, and then up the Siem Reap River, a tributary of the Tonle Sap. The invaders pillaged the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and put the king to death, as well as taking the Apsara dancers. Also in 1178, Jayavarman came to historical prominence by leading a Khmer army that ousted the invaders. At the time, he may already have been in his 60s. Returning to the capital, he found it in disorder. He put an end to the disputes between warring factions and in 1181 was crowned king himself. Early in his reign, he probably repelled another Cham attack and quelled a rebellion of the vassal Kingdom of Malyang (Battambang). He was greatly helped by the military skill of refugee Prince Sri Vidyanandana, who also played a part in the subsequent sacking and conquest of Champa (1190–1191). Javayarman expanded Khmer control of the Mekong Valley northward to Vientiane and to the south, down the Kra Isthmus.

Public works and monuments[edit]

Bronze replica of one of the twenty-three stone images King Jayavarman VII sent to different parts of his kingdom in 1191.[3] The Walters Art Museum.

Over the 30 some years of his reign, Jayavarman embarked on a grand program of construction that included both public works and monuments. As a Mahayana Buddhist, his declared aim was to alleviate the suffering of his people. One inscription tells us, "He suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own; the pain that affected men's bodies was for him a spiritual pain, and thus more piercing." This declaration must be read in light of the undeniable fact that the numerous monuments erected by must have required the labor of thousands of workers, and that Jayavarman's reign was marked by the centralization of the state and the herding of people into ever greater population centers.

Historians have identified three stages in Jayavarman's building program. In the first stage, he focussed on useful constructions, such as hospitals, rest houses along the roads, and reservoirs. Thereafter, he built a pair of temples in honor of his parents: Ta Prohm in honor of his mother and Preah Khan in honor of his father. Finally, he constructed his own "temple-mountain" at Bayon and developed the city of Angkor Thom around it. He also built Neak Pean ("Coiled Serpent"), one of the smallest but most beautiful temples in the Angkor complex, a fountain with four surrounding ponds set on an island in that artificial lake.

Ta Prohm[edit]

In 1186, Jayavarman dedicated Ta Prohm ("Ancestor Brahma" or " Eye of Brahma") to his mother. An inscription indicates that this massive temple at one time had 80,000 people assigned to its upkeep, including 18 high priests and 615 female dancers. The first Lara Croft film was shot in Ta Prohm as well as a few scenes from the movie Troy.

Jayavavarman VII was a great and generous king of Cambodia. He built 102 hospitals to treat all of his citizens. According to the Preah Khan inscription, he had two wives and four sons, as also noted on the inscription in Ta Prohm's temple.

Angkor Thom and Bayon[edit]

Angkor Thom ("Grand Angkor" or "Angkor of Dham(ma)") was a new city centre, called in its day Indrapattha. At the centre of the new city stands one of his most massive achievements—the temple now called the Bayon, a multi-faceted, multi-towered temple that mixes Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Its outer walls have startling bas reliefs not only of warfare but the everyday life of the Khmer army and its followers. These reliefs show camp followers on the move with animals and oxcarts, hunters, women cooking, female traders selling to Chinese merchants, and celebrations of common foot soldiers. The reliefs also depict a naval battle on the great lake, the Tonle Sap.


Shrine of Jayavarman VII

The historical record is a mixture of the incredibly precise (we know the exact date that a temple was consecrated) and more ambiguous texts and archaeological evidence. Thus, many of the dates marking the life and reign of Jayavarman VII are a matter of conjecture and inference. What is known is that King Suryavarman (Sun Shield) II, builder of the great Angkor Wat, died some time in the early 1150s. He was succeeded by Yashovarman II who was himself overthrown by Tribhuvanadityavarman (Protegee of the Three Suns) assumed to be an usurper. There is a minority view that the current biography of Jayavarman is imaginary and that the evidence could just as easily support the view that he was the usurper. One date that has been generally accepted is 1177 when the Chams, who had themselves been subjected to numerous Khmer invasions, took the city of Yashodharapura. Nonetheless, this date, not to mention the event itself, has been questioned by Michael Vickery, who doubts the reliability of the Chinese sources for this period.[4] A Cham king took the title of Jaya-Indravarman. In 1181 Jayavarman VII became king after leading the Khmer forces against the Chams.

Jayavarman died in about 1215, at an advanced age ranging from 85 to 90. He was succeeded by Indravarman about whom almost nothing was written. There is only one inscription about him, one that establishes he had died by 1243. This lack of praise and pomp caused David P. Chandler, in an influential article, to speculate that Indravarman may have been the Leper King of Cambodian legend and later records. Indravarman was succeeded further by Jayavarman VIII who, as thought, supported a Hindu revolt. Certainly there is evidence of mass defacings of Jayavarman VII's works. The niches all along the top of the wall around the city contained images of the Buddha, and most of these were removed. A statue of Jayavarman VII was found by excavators having been thrown down a well. Buddha images in Preah Khan were re-worked to resemble Brahmins. When Cambodia finally did become a Buddhist country, it followed Theravada Buddhism, not the Mahayana Buddhism as practiced by Jayavarman VII.


The history of the Khmer empire cannot be read in the manner of European patterns of kingship, inheritance or nationhood. The sons of a Khmer king did not necessarily inherit their father's thrones; Jayavarman VII himself had many sons, such as Suryakumara and Virakumara, who were crown princes (the suffix kumara usually is translated as "crown prince"), but neither any did not inherit the throne, except Indravarman II.[citation needed]

Jayavarman VII remains a potent symbol of national pride for present day Cambodians. As a Buddhist king in a Buddhist country, he is regarded with great respect. He built and repaired many 'firehouses' across the Empire, which are thought of as places for travellers to rest and many buildings which are now called "hospitals" in translation. This has contributed to a legend of the Buddharaja, the King-Buddha, who exercised compassion in ruling. This view of Jayavarman and his reign is supported by some beautiful sculptures of him in meditation.[citation needed]


  • Jean Boiselier: Refléxions sur l'art du Jayavarman VII., BSEI (Paris), 27 (1952) 3: 261-273.
  • Georges Coedès: Un grand roi de Cambodge - Jayavarman VII., Phnom Penh 1935.
  • Georges Coedès: Les hôpitaux de Jayavarman VII., BEFEO (Paris), 40 (1940): 344-347.
  • Louis Finot: Lokésvara en Indochine, Paris: EFEO, 1925.
  • Paul Mus: Angkor at the Time of Jayavarman VII., Bulletin de Société des Études Indochinoises (Paris), 27 (1952) 3: 261-273.
  • Jan Myrdal/Gun Kessle: Angkor - An Essay on Art and Imperialism, New York 1970.
  • Philippe Stern: Les monuments du style de Bayon et Jayavarman VII., Paris 1965.

A fictionalised account of the life of Jayavarman VII forms the basis of one thread of Geoff Ryman's 2006 novel The King's Last Song.


External links[edit]

Preceded by:
Dharanindravarman II
King of the Khmers
1160 (as heir) –1219
Succeeded by:
Indravarman II
Preceded by:
Yasovarman II
King of the Khmers
Succeeded by:
Indravarman II