THE ANGKOR VIHARA PROJECT:
EXPLORING THERAVADA BUDDHIST MONASTIC CONSTRUCTIONS AT ANGKOR THOM, CAMBODIA
The Angkor Vihara Project, co-directed by PhD Candidate Andrew Harris and Archaeology Centre Director Edward Swenson, explores religious transformations at the great city of Angkor Thom, Cambodia during the later period of the Khmer Empire (14th-17th centuries). Prior to the 14th century, religion in Cambodia was dominated by the construction of enormous temple complexes including Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. These monuments were commissioned to honor Khmer kings and were dedicated to Hindu deities or the Supreme Buddha of the Mahayana tradition. Following the end of the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism began to replace the Hindu and later Mahayana court religions. This major transition is reflected in notable changes to religious architecture and a shift away from the worship of god-kings to more inclusive forms of monastic worship. The architectural revolution defining Khmer Theravada Buddhism is exemplified by the numerous “Buddhist Terraces,” distributed throughout the earlier walled city of Angkor Thom. The terraces formed the laterite stone foundations that supported wooden monastic structures (vihara), the precursors of temple architecture that continue to dominate Cambodia’s religious landscape to this day.
French investigations in the early 20th century mapped approximately forty vihara substructures in Angkor Thom, identifiable by their tiered landings and ordination boundary stones called sima. Intensive survey by the Angkor Vihara Project (2017-2019) has identified an additional thirty-three Buddhist Terraces within Angkor Thom and the surrounding countryside based on earlier maps, GIS, and LiDAR data. PhD candidate Andrew Harris is presently clearing select vihara of vegetation in order to map the monuments, identify associated surface artifacts, and create 3D reconstructions of the surviving buildings. He is also undertaking test-pit and large-scale excavations to study construction phases and develop a more refined chronology of the establishment and occupation of the different vihara. The research stands to make an important contribution understanding how place-making shaped major political and religious transformations in pre-modern Southeast Asia.