A Brief History of Cambodia's Hindu Heritage

The ancient Khmer art of shadow puppets tells scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Hindu Ramayana
The ancient Khmer art of shadow puppets tells scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Hindu Ramayana | © Marissa Carruthers

Modern Cambodia is made up of about 95 percent Theravada Buddhists, with Cham Muslims, Christians and tribal animists making up most of the remainder. However, it hasn’t always been this way, with Cambodia’s roots steeped deep in Hinduism. Read on to discover more.

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While Buddhism may prevail across Cambodia today, Hinduism was once one of the Khmer Empire’s official religions. A visit to Angkor Archaeological Park pays testament to this fact, with 12th Century Angkor Wat standing as the world’s largest Hindu temple. It is also one of only a few globally that are dedicated to Brahma.

A scene from the Hindu legend, Churning of the Milk Ocean, can be seen on the walls of Angkor Wat

Hindu iconography can be found throughout many of the temples in the park, which have provided historians with evidence of the Kingdom’s religious history. These include Khmer versions of Ganesha and Hanuman, as well as bas relief carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana, which is called the Reamker in Cambodia and still features heavily in traditional performances.

Cambodia’s Hinduism can be traced back to the Funan Kingdom which ruled between 100BC and 500AD. During this period, kings worshiped Vishnu and Shiva. When the Khmer Empire came to power, Hinduism remained the dominating religion until Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1218).

The ancient Khmer art of shadow puppets tells scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Hindu Ramayana

Considered by many historians to be one of the most powerful Khmer monarchs, Jayavarman VII held strong Buddhist beliefs, being only the second Khmer king of that religion. As the mastermind behind the grand city of Angkor Thom, he built the iconic Bayon temple – the famous multi-towered temple that contains 216 gigantic faces that some say resemble Jayavarman himself and the last state temple to be built at Angkor – as a primarily Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Buddha.

During the reign of Jayavarman VII in the mid-13th Century, the Khmer Empire switched back to Hinduism. Several alterations were made to Bayon temple, today it contains both Hindu and Buddhist iconography and references, reflecting the change in state religions.

Bayon temple shows both Buddhist and Hindu iconography

However, the gradual shift to Buddhism had started, with Jayavarman VII sending his son to Sri Lanka for 10 years to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and study Theravada Buddhism. This, combined with Buddhist missionaries travelling from Siam, Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka helped influence the change to the widely spread Theravada Buddhism that continues to be practiced in Cambodia today.

While Hinduism is no longer the ruling religion in Cambodia, its influences remain. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh houses a sword said to have been presented to the royal family by Hindu deity, Indra. The National Museum of Cambodia is also home to a series of Hindu statues.

Royal Palace, Samdach Sothearos Blvd (3), Phnom Penh

National Museum, Preah Ang Eng St. (13), Phnom Penh

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