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The story of the rise and fall of Southeast Asia’s greatest premodern empire is known to us all in some shape or form. But the dominant narrative, that Angkor was abruptly abandoned after the city was attacked from the neighbouring kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431 CE, bringing about a cataclysmic end to the mighty Khmer Empire that had endured for more than 600 years, has been under scrutiny for some time. More light on this “doomsday” scenario has been shed by recent research* at the site, and specifically at the iconic temple Angkor Wat, which looked at events before and after that final fall. Many gaps still remain in our knowledge of how the Khmer Empire came to end, but it is becoming clearer that the temples that sat at the centre of capital life were not abandoned. At least not in one swoop.

Angkor’s final collapse did not take place over a short period of time. While conflict with Thai rulers was a recurring theme of life, it is no longer considered the definitive cause of Angkor’s end. Instead, Angkor more likely went through a prolonged and multifaceted decline. It went out not with a bang, but with a long, slow sigh that may have lasted over one hundred years.

The evidence for this conclusion is fascinating in itself. In the first instance, archaeologists have noted that the last major Angkorian temple was constructed in 1295 CE, 130 years before the royal court decamped. At the same time, the number of formal inscriptions also declined during this period. The last clearly dated Sanskrit inscription is from 1295 CE, and the last Khmer inscription, found in Bayon temple, can be traced to 1327 CE.

Temple constructions and their associated inscriptions are “elite activities”, suggestive of the vibrancy of court life. But these final works came about during the region-wide adoption of Theravada Buddhism, in place of Hinduism. With its community-based pagodas and different power structures, Buddhism transformed the nature and reach of court power. At the same time, trade with China was growing, making the better networked area around Phnom Penh a more attractive location for Khmer rulers.

It has been suggested by some that the prolific construction works of Jayavarman VII, the most famous of Angkor’s rulers, may have exhausted the Empire’s coffers. But, while acknowledging the role it may have played in sapping the Empire’s energy, it is questioned whether Jayavarman VII’s spending spree really brought about its demise.

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The climate also played a devastating role. Environmental studies have identified periods of great climatic instability around this time. In particular, two “mega-droughts”, lasting from 1345 CE to 1374 CE and from 1401 CE to 1425 CE, were compounded by periods of “mega-monsoons” which brought about severe flooding and may have destroyed Angkor’s essential water irrigation systems. Aside from that, such gross disruptions and flooding would have contributed towards making life increasingly difficult for Angkorian people living around the temples, including the elites.

Over time, different accounts have emerged of life at the temples and the ways in which various temples were occupied, vacated, continued to be occupied or reoccupied at various times. But this research team took a different approach, examining the areas within the enclosure and around the central temple of Angkor Wat. It is not known exactly who lived here as little evidence of their daily lives has been left behind, but it is thought that thousands of workers, dancers, court officials and religious specialists will have lived within these walls.

Some of the temples contain inscriptions attesting to the thousands of people who worked to support each one. For example, 79,635 people were required to maintain the temple of Ta Prohm, including 18 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,232 assistants and 615 dancers. The inscriptions go on to describe the temple’s inventory including a set of gold plates weighing 5 tonnes, 35 diamonds, 40,620 pearls, 4,540 precious stones, 967 veils from China, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols.

The researchers dug deeper than this for the objects of their study, rooting out burnt organic matter, primarily charcoal, so that they could radiocarbon date it and from there develop a chronology of when the temple was inhabited by those necessary to secure its functioning.

Their results found that these specific areas may have been inhabited even before the construction of Angkor Wat, and then during and succeeding the period during which the magnificent temple — a reconstruction of Mount Meru — was built. However, the radiocarbon evidence points to a gap most likely from the late 12th or early 13th century to the late 14th or early 15th century. This population change coincides with these other changes taking place — disruption among the religious and social power structures and of the climate — rather than the invasion and occupation from the west.

The researchers point out too, that while while Ayutthaya (near Bangkok) constituted a separate regional power, the Ayutthayan royal court contained many Khmer officials and artisans. Khmer was the official language of the court’s written documents and the elite culture drew heavily on Angkor. They argue that the brief occupation of Angkor — which saw the integration of structures such as the reclining Buddha in Baphuon temple, among other sculptures — can be seen as another permutation of the Angkorian state and not a total collapse or colonisation.

Other evidence, such as microbial remains and ceramics, also point to ongoing occupation by a local population throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

Thus, while the sociopolitical elite saw the advantages of moving southwards, this move came at the tail end of a wide range of transformations, some internal, some entirely beyond their control. However, what is also clear is that the temples were not in fact abandoned en masse.

*Alison K. Carter, Miriam T. Stark, Seth Quintus, Yijie Zhuang, Hong Wang, Piphal Heng, and Rachna Chhay with the support and contribution of the Apsara Authority, among others. Their research was published in PNAS June 18, 2019 116 (25), pp 12226-12231. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821879116