Battle between the Khmer and the Cham

Battle between the Khmer and the Cham.  In the 12th century A.D., the Khmer fought a succession of wars with the Cham, the people of an Indic civilization whose capital of Vijaya was located in what is now Binh Dinh Province of central Vietnam.  Bas reliefs carved into the grey sandstone wall of the outer enclosure at the Bayon, the state temple of the Angkorian monarch Jayavarman VII, depict historical conflicts between the Khmer and the Cham.  The photos below are of scenes depicted in the bas reliefs of the Bayon.

Champa at war

The medieval Cham seem to have been a bellicose lot, and were followed by a reputation as fierce corsairs and raiders.  As early as 280 A.D., the Chinese governor of Tongking (the area near modern Hanoi in the northern part of Vietnam) complained of their constant raiding.  The people of Lin Yi (the Chinese name for the Cham kingdom located in the area of modern Hue in central Vietnam until about the 8th century), he noted, were organized into numerous tribes that banded together for mutual aid and that took advantage of the rugged terrain of their homeland to avoid having to submit to China.  Later Chinese writers, including the diplomat Zhou Daguan who visited Angkor in 1296 A.D., reported that the King of Champa used to have his thugs ambush unwitting travellers for purposes of collecting their gall bladders, on the theory that human gall conferred ferocity on those who drank it or bathed in it.

Other Chinese writers have left us brief descriptions of the Cham fighters themselves.  One such writer characterized the Cham as “warlike and cruel.”  They were, he said, armed with bows and arrows, sabers, lances and crossbows.  Yet another writer describes a troop of Cham imperial guards who fought with bows made of bamboo, crossbows, and javelins, who wore breastplates made of rattan, and who rode elephants into battle. 

Despite the ferocity of its warriors, however, Champa frequently found itself on the losing end when it went to war, especially against its neighbors to the North: first the Chinese governors of Tongking, and then, from 938 A.D., the newly independent Viet (ancestors of the modern Vietnamese).  The downfall of Champa was that it persisted in alienating its northern neighbors with raiding and piracy and that it occupied an enviable strategic location along major trade routes, as a result of which it was able to accumulate vast riches making it an attractive target for plunder.

For example, around 420 A.D., a man known to the Chinese as Yang Mai took the throne of the Cham kingdom of Lin Yi.  Promptly, he initiated hostilities with the Chinese territories to the North.  Cham fleets sailed up and down the coasts of northern Vietnam plundering and pillaging.  In 446 A.D., a Chinese army marched south, defeated Yang Mai’s elephant warriors in battle, and brutally sacked his capital city.  It is said that upon beholding the sufferings of his people, Yang Mai died of grief.

Unfortunately, such events were to repeat themselves again and again in the history of Champa.  Late in the medieval period, weakened by constant hostilities, Champa was gradually overrun by the Viet.  In 1471 A.D., a Viet army sacked and razed Vijaya, ending Champa’s status as an independent nation.

Conflict between Angkor and Champa

The medieval Khmer, too, fought intermittently against the Cham, at first against the forces of a southern principality known to the Chinese as Huanwang and centered in the area of modern Nha Trang in Vietnam.  Some of these armed conflicts are documented on stone steles still extant in Cambodia and Vietnam.  A Cham inscription found at Po Nagar (a temple near Nha Trang) sings the praises of a Cham general named Semati Por, who in 810 A.D. invaded Cambodia and achieved a great victory.  Another stele laments that about 950 A.D., the Khmer invaded the region of Nha Trang and stole the gold statue of the goddess at Po Nagar.  A Khmer stele boasts of the Angkorian king Rajendravarman that his brilliance burned the enemy kingdoms, beginning with Champa.

By the middle of the 12th century, warfare between the two peoples was the rule rather than the exception.  By that time, the southern Cham principality of Huanwang had ceased to exist, and the capital of Champa was located at Vijaya (Binh Dinh) in central Vietnam.  In 1145, the Khmer King Suryavarman II, the founder of Angkor Wat, led an invasion into Champa and occupied Vijaya.  His troops also ransacked the temples at My Son, the ruins of which can still be visited farther north near Da Nang in central Viet Nam.  In 1149, however, the Cham King Jaya Harivarman repulsed the invaders and restored the capital.

Jayavarman VII’s campaigns against the Cham

In 1177, a Cham army under King Jaya Indravarman IV undertook a punitive expedition into Cambodia, sacking the Angkorian capital of Yasodharapura and killing the reigning king.  The expedition was successful in part because it proceeded by means of a surprise naval attack from lake Tonle Sap.  A Khmer prince, however, was able to rally his people and to defeat the invaders in a series of battles on land and lake.  In 1181, the victorious prince ascended to the throne as King Jayavarman VII, the eventual builder of the walled city of Angkor Thom and the temples of Bayon, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm.   After restoring the Angkorian state, and putting down a rebellion in the western part of the kingdom in 1182, Jayavarman went on the offensive, capturing the Cham capital of Vijaya in 1190, in 1192, and again in 1203, and bringing large portions of southeast Asia under Khmer hegemony.  Ironically, Jayavarman’s field marshall for the assault on Vijaya in 1190 was himself a Cham prince named Vidyanandana.

Jayavarman VII was undoubtedly a great military leader and warrior.  However, from the inscriptions and statues that he has left us, it is apparent that he preferred to think of himself not as an avenger of past wrongs or a devastater of foreign lands, but as a munificent and humanitarian ruler.  In an inscription on the foundational stele at Ta Prohm (a stele is a stone pillar engraved with inscriptions commemorating and explaining the dedication of the temple), Jayavarman used the third person to boast of his military accomplishments and to vaunt his magnanimity toward the defeated foe: “Having gone to Champa,” the stele reports, “he captured the king of that country in battle, and then let him go.  Having heard that his conduct was an ambrosia, the enemy kings took that ambrosia into their clasped hands and poured it over their heads, thus seeking to assuage the burning produced by the fire of his glory.”  Just as Jayavarman’s military deeds were a fire that scorched his enemies, his generosity to those whom he had defeated was like a poultice capable of assuaging the pain caused by that fire. 

From 1203 to 1220, Champa was effectively a province of the Khmer empire.  According to the stele at Preah Khan, of the 121 Houses of Fire (resthouses for travellers) constructed by Jayavarman VII along the highways of his kingdom, 57 could be found along the route that linked Angkor with Vijaya.  During this period, also, the cultural and artistic influence of Angkor on Champa was particularly strong.  This influence is exemplified by the resemblance between the Garuda guardians on the walls of Preah Khan and the Cham Garuda sculptures belonging to what has come to be known as the Thap Mam Style.

Bas reliefs at the Bayon

The bas relief depicted below in the top two rows of photos shows a clash of Khmer and Cham forces.  Both armies consist mainly of foot soldiers wielding weapons such as clubs and spears.  Each side is supported by elephants, and the Khmer army includes Thai auxiliaries.  The bas relief shows the Khmer and Thai routing the Cham after a rather one-sided battle.

Other bas reliefs from the Bayon are represented in the bottom two rows of photographs.  Among the battle scenes at the Bayon, the dominant motif is that of a troop of Khmer fighters overrunning their Cham opponents, but other themes are in evidence as well: land battles in which the Cham appear to be winning, military units including Chinese soldiers with beards and topknots, naval encounters between Khmer and Cham, and civil strife between groups of Khmer.  No doubt, all of these scenes depict events from the reign of Jayavarman VII, who earned at least one naval victory over the mariners of Champa, and who quelled a rebellion in a Khmer city shortly after ascending to the throne.

The Khmer army

From the bas reliefs it is possible to glean a picture of the Khmer armed forces around 1200.  This picture is not entirely consistent with the description of the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who observed the Khmer troops in 1296.  According to Zhou, “The troops go with bare bodies and feet.  In the right hand, they hold a lance, in the left a shield.  The Cambodians have neither bows, nor arrows, nor ballistas, nor breastplates, nor helmets.  It is said that in the war with the Siamese [Thai], they made everybody fight.  They have neither tactics nor strategy.”  By contrast, the army depicted in the bas reliefs of the Bayon includes many warriors who are not naked, but who wear protective clothing on their upper bodies; it includes some archers; and it also includes some heavier weapons such as ballistas.  Clearly, then, the army described by Zhou is more primitive than the army depicted in the bas reliefs.  Both depictions may be accurate, however, since the Khmer military seems to have reached its zenith under Jayavarman VII, and the army of 1296 may have been more of a citizen militia decimated by constant warring with the Thai.

Related pages of this site: 5 Bayon (the temple at which the bas reliefs can be found depicting the late 11th century wars between Angkor and Champa); 11 Towers of the Bayon (gigantic stone representations of the conquering King Jayavarman VII under the guise of the benevolent bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara); 18 Art of Champa (self-representation of the Cham as preserved in the museums of Viet Nam).


The Khmer forces advance, supported by an elephant.� The Khmer are portrayed as wearing jackets but no headgear, and as having long earlobes presumably lengthened by the use of earrings.

From the othe side advance the Cham,�their upper bodies covered by�tunics, wearing distinctive headgear consisting in helmets and scarves, and carrying small shields in addition to their weapons.

The Khmer forces are supported by auxiliaries, possibly Thai, who are also accompanied by war elephants.� The Thai have distinctive impractical headgear that serves to differentiate them from the Cham.

(closeup of the previous picture) Thai auxiliaries fighting on the side of the Khmer attack the Cham.� In the center, a Thai warrior bearing a spear and shield overpowers his hapless adversary.

The Khmer, too, get the better of their opponents.� In the center, a beefy Khmer strongman holds a cringing Cham soldier in a headlock while preparing to administer the coup de grace.

(closeup of the previous picture)� The weapon wielded by this Khmer champion appears to be either a thin club or a short speer. His clothing consists in only a loincloth, a necklace, and some kind of harness.

Cham warriors disembark from a warship the prow of which bears a carving of Garuda as its figurehead.� To the left, Khmer civilians appear to be fleeing the invaders.� This scene may represent the Cham invasion of Angkor from Tonle Sap�in 1177.

Here is another battle between Khmer and Cham fighters.� As usual, the Khmer are winning, though the Cham warrior on the right is holding his own.� No doubt, had Cham artists depicted the same events, they would have portrayed their own as the victors.

A Khmer officer gives orders from horseback.� He uses a bridle, but neither saddle nor stirrups.� The bas-reliefs show that both the Khmer and the Cham had horses, but not enough to form a regular cavalry.� Elephants appear more frequently than horses.

At the end of the 13th century, Zhou Daguan claimed that the Khmer lacked bows and other missile-hurling weapons.� This bas relief, however, seems to prove that as of the beginning of the century, the army of Angkor did include archers.

The Cham army, too, included units of archers, such as these.� They appear to be providing covering fire for other soldiers fighting in front of them, by firing their arrows at a high arc so as to hit enemy troops on the far side of the Cham front rank.

Zhou also reported that the army of Angkor lacked ballistas.� The army depicted at the Bayon, however, did have such advanced weaponry.� Here, a Khmer soldier operates a heavy crossbow or ballista from the back of an elephant.