Mahendraparvata, often referred to as the ‘lost city of Cambodia,’ holds significant historical and cultural importance as an early capital city of the Khmer Empire. While knowledge of its existence has been known for decades, the lack of archaeological evidence has kept it shrouded in mystery. However, thanks to an ambitious research campaign utilizing airborne laser scanning (Lidar), an international team of researchers has recently identified and mapped the city, shedding new light on this remarkable site.
Mahendraparvata, dating back to 802 AD, predates Angkor Wat by approximately 350 years. It was established during the reign of Jayavarman II, who is regarded as the founder of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman II consecrated his reign on the sacred mountain of Mahendraparvata, known as Phnom Kulen today. The city served as one of his three capitals, along with Amarendrapura and Hariharalaya. While the Phnom Kulen highlands were explored in 1936 by Philippe Stern, where he discovered temples and Vishnu statues, the area remained remote. Jayavarman II eventually moved to Hariharalaya, where he passed away in 835 AD.
In a groundbreaking paper, archaeologists and historians publish the most definitive identification of Mahendraparvata, previously hidden on the Phnom Kulen plateau. This extensive urban network, dating as far back as the 9th century, has largely gone unnoticed until now. By combining Lidar technology with ground-based surveys, the team managed to overcome the challenging forest coverage and reveal an engineered city of immense complexity and sophistication.
Mapping the Lost City
Over a period of several years starting in 2012, Lidar survey flights were conducted to create a detailed map, revealing thousands of previously unknown archaeological features. Despite centuries of encroachment by nature, Mahendraparvata’s urban plan was meticulously preserved. The city covered an extensive area of approximately 50 square kilometers and displayed a grid-like pattern in its layout, including linear axes that connected various elements of the anthropogenic landscape.
Significance and Legacy
While Mahendraparvata’s existence might not have endured for centuries, its cultural and religious significance has transcended time. The Khmer Empire eventually shifted its capital to Angkor, possibly due to more favorable agricultural conditions in a less challenging environment. However, the ancient city’s impact on the region remains profound, as it played a crucial role in the empire’s establishment and development.
Unveiling a Hidden Legacy
The discovery and mapping of Mahendraparvata offer a new perspective on the early days of the Khmer Empire. Researchers now have a better understanding of the urban planning and engineering prowess of this ancient civilization. The detailed features, such as ponds, reservoirs, canals, roads, temples, and even rice fields, reveal the extent to which the Khmer modified the landscape to create a thriving city.
Preserving the Past
While the unearthed city lies concealed beneath layers of vegetation and dirt, ongoing efforts to preserve and study Mahendraparvata will contribute to our knowledge of the Khmer Empire and Southeast Asian history. The research team’s use of advanced technology and methodology has not only led to these remarkable findings but also provides a roadmap for further exploration in the region.
The discovery and mapping of Mahendraparvata provide a priceless insight into the history of the early Khmer Empire. Through the use of Lidar technology, researchers have finally unveiled the complexity and expansive nature of this forgotten city. The cultural and historical significance of Mahendraparvata continues to this day, highlighting the enduring legacy of the Khmer Empire and Southeast Asia’s rich heritage.