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Cambodia (Kampuchea), Arts and Culture

Throughout Cambodia’s history, religious principles guided and inspired its arts. A unique Khmer style emerged from the combination of indigenous animistic beliefs and the originally Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These two religions, along with the Sanskrit language and other elements of Indian civilization, arrived in mainland Southeast Asia during the first few centuries ad. Seafaring merchants following the coast from India to China brought them to the port cities along the Gulf of Thailand, which were then controlled by the state of Funan in Cambodia. At varying times, Cambodian culture also absorbed Javanese, Chinese, and Thai influences.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, a prosperous and powerful empire flourished in northwestern Cambodia. The Khmer kingdom of Angkor, named for its capital city, dominated much of what is now Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The kingdom drew its religious and political inspiration from India. The literary language of the court was Sanskrit; the spoken language was Khmer. Massive temples from this period, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon at Angkor Thum, testify to the power of Angkor and the grandeur of its architecture and decorative art. The unparalleled achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance during this period served as models for later cultural development in Cambodia.

Angkor faded into obscurity after the capital moved south to Phnom Penh in the 15th century, probably due in part to frequent invasions by the neighboring Thais. The jungle rapidly grew over the monuments. In the centuries that followed, frequent wars reduced the territory, wealth, and power of Cambodian monarchs. However, an independent state with its capital near Phnom Penh survived until the 19th century. The most important work of Cambodian literature, the Reamker (a Khmer-language version of the Indian myth of the Ramayana), was composed during this time.

France, which began administering Cambodia in 1863, rediscovered the temples at Angkor and worked to preserve them beginning in the early 20th century. Cambodia’s traditional culture and the monuments of Angkor were endangered between 1970 and 1990 due to civil war. The Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which opposed and mistrusted religion and education, banned all of Cambodia’s traditional arts and its written language. Since 1991, when Cambodia’s warring factions signed a peace accord, international organizations have helped the Cambodian government restore the sites at Angkor and revive Cambodia’s traditional crafts.

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