The Khmer people left a lasting legacy not only in Cambodia, but also through Southeast Asia. At its peak, the great Khmer empire covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. The origins of the empire and its civilisation are now called the Pre-Angkor period which spans from the 2thcentury till the 9th century. The Khmer artisans started to create the first qualitative sculptures from the 6th century onwards.
During the Angkor period, from the 9th till the 15th century, many different prominent kings reigned this empire and promoted the building of temples and statuary. The cult of Devaraja or God-King established in the 9th century, which provided the religious basis of the royal authority of the Khmer kings. The two monuments of Angkor, Angkor Wat and Bayon, bear testimony to the Khmer empire’s immense power and wealth, art, religion, culture and architecture.
Under the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, the two most important religions of India, Khmer artists created temples, stone inscriptions, objects used during religious ceremonies, social infrastructure and sculptures, most of them representing divinities. Art and culture was also heavily influenced by India, due to long established sea trade routes with that subcontinent. They didn’t copy Indian art, but created a new art style that matched with their own vision of beauty. Their duty consisted in the combination of Indian iconography with local aesthetic norms. Studies of the inscriptions allowed historians to date the monuments; by comparing the monuments to statues, these statues could also be dated. Monuments and their attributed statues lend their names to particular styles. During the Post-Angkor period (15-19th century) the building and statuary comes to an end, inscriptions become rare.
Most of the Khmer sculpture is freestanding and can be completely circumambulated. The materials used for sculpture include sandstone, bronze and more recently wood.
Studies regarding important aspects such as the hairstyle, headdress, jewellery, body shape and clothing are necessary for a complete understanding of the statuary and facilitate dating the pieces. Particularly the sampot (cloth around the lower body, worn both by women and men) has a lot of different features depending on the time period. The different gods and goddess could be identified by the amounts of arms and their typical attributes.
One of the most remarkable achievements of Khmer art was the development of portraiture towards the end of the 12th century. The depiction of a real royal individual in the form of a Buddhist deity, just as Jayarajadevi like Prajnaparamita, was common in this Buddhist kingdom. In Cambodia, the bodhisattva figure became the godly model used by Jahavarman VII to claim the divine right to rule. While the king was practicing this cult, the adherents celebrated in the main time the cult of the king.