Classic Angkor: society
Having traced the path of the Khmer Empire, Coe now takes us through the society of the Empire in The Life and Culture of Classic Angkor. After a survey of the sources (Pp131ff), we start at the top with the imperial compound, which probably had so many people resident (“bureaucrats, servants, slaves, guards, religious specialists and others … including a sizeable corps of pages”) as to resemble a small city. Khmer society lacked a hereditary nobility: instead, royal officials were appointed (mostly from the major landholding families). Membership of the royal family was only recognised out to the fifth degree and entailed “little authority except that conferred by the monarch”. The appointed officials had the title khlon (in the C19th, they were known as okna).
This bureaucratic class was enormous, and existed on all levels of administration from the capital down to the smallest village (p.134).Caste was never adopted in Khmer society: the notion of varna was used to grade folk at the royal court, but membership was allocated by the king. The king:
seems to have combined the secular, military role of a Kshatriya with the religious functions and ideology of a Brahmin (p.134).The virtue of being able to pick and choose which parts of Indian culture and civilisation one found useful: the monarchs being the dominant pickers and choosers.
As for the peasant farmers (about 80% of the population in most agrarian societies), such rice farmers were:
subject to regular corvee labour and to occasional military service, and obligated to provide goods and services to the religious foundations, to landlords, to the mandarin bureaucracy, and to the king. Many of these laboured on the estates of large landholders, while others were attached to specific temples; and some were dedicated to providing the palace with certain types of products. Some of these sound like serfs, but little is known about serfdom in ancient Cambodia (p.134).Where wealth comes from control of labour rather than (plentiful) land, some form of bondage is likely: if they were forbidden to leave without permission, then they were serfs. Either way, it seems likely that labour service was how land rent was paid.
Which leads to the issue of khnum “usually translated as ‘slave’”. In the C19th, outright slaves were of two sorts:
1) debt slaves, a theoretically temporary category, and 2) slaves for life, who were far less numerous, and who were either those who had been sold by their parents during childhood, or aboriginal Mon-Khmer tribesmen captured in the eastern highlands (these were treated abominably by the Khmer majority). The Classic inscriptions describe three kinds of slaves: 1) slaves legally acquired, 2) slaves who are inherited, and 3) religious slaves (p.134).. Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan says of the full slaves:
If young and strong, slaves may be worth a hundred pieces of cloth: when old and feeble, they can be had for thirty or forty pieces (p.134).This being a barter economy based ultimately on control of labour. Indeed, it seems likely that khnum actually described “obligated provider of labour”:
The reality is that while khnum could never be aristocratic or bureaucrats (no individual khnum ever belonged to the varna), the term covered a wide spectrum of society from peasant commoners to the most abject tribal chattels living in degradation on the ground floor with the animals (p.135).The ultimate font of authority was the raj (Sanskrit) or stach (Old Khmer). He was executive ruler, chief judge and law-giver. He had to rule through agents, who had their own kin and other networks: a clear limitation on his power, a limitation that varied with the “vigour” and circumstances of particular monarchs. There are few surviving portraits of monarchs, who lived in the centre of thousands of servitors. A teenage prince would have a Vrah Guru, a Brahmin teacher entrusted with his instruction according to the classic Indian texts (Pp135ff).
The empire was divided into provinces (likely 23 at its height) that were divided into villages (sruk or grama):
At every level there were mandarin bureaucrats (khlon, ‘chiefs’) representing the central administration, and who ensured that revenues (rice, goods, corvee labour, and the like) flowed smoothly upwards through the system. Most or all of these were appointed by the king (p.141).The village headman (khlon sruk) was a royal agent: the village elders (mavrddha) represented the village.
An ambitious individual from a prominent family could by a tract of unoccupied land or obtain it from the king, then found a new (sruk with royal approval (p,141).The incomes of many villages could support wealthy landholders: one C12th monastery within Angkor (Ta Prohm) received the revenue of 3,140 villages. Since Classical inscriptions were overwhelmingly religious in nature, knowledge of the religious hierarchy is much more extensive than that of the secular hierarchy. The latter included a corps of travelling royal inspectors (p.142).
As for law and order:
As in the rest of the Indic world, the Angkor state and empire were governed by rules laid down in the Code of Manu, a great compendium of Brahman law probably composed in the fourth century BC. Of course, modifications had to be made to a legal system that had been devised for the rigid four-caste system of Vedic India. … The Khmer king was the defender of law and order in Cambodia. His law courts, present on every administrative level right down to the village, instituted criminal proceedings against transgressors and guaranteed the integrity of landholdings and the settling of boundary disputes. Not even religious institutions such as temples were immune, since they as well as private individuals could be sued over land.Much of the countryside is likely to have been largely controlled by such. Zhou reports there was an annual census in the 9th month: if control of labour is central, then keeping track of it would clearly be important.
In theory, the king owned all land in the empire, but in practice he did not … his main function was to serve as umpire in unresolved land disputes, and to sanction transfers of rights to religious foundations and private individuals (p.144).
The economy was an agrarian rice economy. Since the only surviving writings are on stone, there is a great deal that is not known. Including the actual function of the baray, the vast water features regularly constructed by rulers (they covered millions of square metres with volumes of millions of cubic metres). Coe reports the competing scholarly positions (Pp145ff), though recent evidence has confirmed they were used in irrigation.
Zhou was Chinese commercial attaché, so an authoritative contemporary source on such matters:
Because it was generally the women, not the men, who had charge of trade, Chinese merchants … took care to get a Khmer wife (p.149).According to Zhou:
In small transactions barter is carried on with rice, cereals, and Chinese objects; fabrics are next employed, and, finally, in big deals, gold or silver is used (p.149).Zhou’s list of trade goods is reproduced: unsurprisingly, the list of Khmer exports is rather shorter than the list of imports (a common situation when production is dominated by primary products).
As for taxes:
The Classic Khmer state was an immense revenue-gathering machine, and every individual in Cambodia except religious functionaries, priests, monks and slaves was subject to taxation, which was paid in kind, since there was no system of coinage. The king was the supreme receiver of taxes—there was a Khmer formula that went svey vrah rajya, ‘he eats the kingdom’ … but officials at every level participated in the system … The king also benefited by revenues from his immense landholdings, as well as from at least part of the booty gained from military victories.The religious exclusion was deemed a metaphysical exchange.
There seem to have been taxes on everything – on land, on rice, on salt, wax and honey, and so forth. Land taxes were based on paddy size and productive capacity … Payments could be made in all kinds of goods, including not only rice but also slaves, buffaloes, elephants and especially cloth (p.150).
Drawing on Hindu precedent, Brahmins were excluded from taxation by virtue of the theory that they transferred one sixth of their spiritual gains to the king, a notion that was extended to exempt the great private religious foundations, themselves the recipients of vast revenues from land grants (p.150).There appears to have been a considerable network of roads and bridges as well as use of horses, elephants and carts. Elephants travel around 24-40 km a day, and consume vast quantities of water—supplying the royal elephant herd must have been part of the purpose of the baray. Elephants and two-horse chariots were used in war (Pp151ff).
Wooden buildings do not survive, so inference from stone construction is required. Of such there is a vast amount, all mortarless. Khmer civilisation produced amazing sculpture, not a single piece of which is signed. Many aspects of Khmer civilisation remain little studied (Pp155ff). Zhou Daguan is the main source on daily life in Angkor and there is a clearly an element of exoticism in his descriptions (not to mention projection). He seems to have been particularly struck by the sexual openness of Khmer society, especially the women.
The region’s humidity is not kind to much of human creation:
No costumes, dress or textiles of any kind have survived from Classical times (p.175).Zhou describes strict sumptuary laws in C13th Angkor. Sculptures depict no one with upper body covering except warrior kings and soldiers, who often have jackets or bodices ending above the waste. Coe takes us through the (limited) information on aspects of daily life (Pp184ff).
The scholarly debates on Khmer history are interwoven into Coe’s narrative. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz developed the notion that the Indic states of SE Asia were theatre states where display was the purpose; that, in his words, ‘power served pomp, not pomp power’ (p.179). Zhou’s quoted descriptions vividly describe massive ritual and ceremonial display centred on the monarch (Pp179ff). The history of modern totalitarianism suggests that display can very be much an aspect of power: of manifesting and expressing a converging set of expectations based on the prestige and dominance of the ruler—given that much more intensity if the ruler is seen as the conduit through which grand cosmic purpose flows.
Coe notes that:
There never seems to have been a time in Cambodia’s history when Khmers were not fighting each other, or waging war on foreign enemies (p.185).This is hardly surprising, since there was such an enormous, concentrated extraction of surplus to fight over. It does mean there is a great deal of sculpted pictorial material on Khmer warfare, which Coe takes us through. Zhou was less impressed, saying “generally speaking, these people have neither discipline nor strategy” (p.187). It very much seems to be the warfare of “biggest wins”, with little evidence of a dedicated warrior class, rather than paid officers mobilising (possibly conscripted) peasants. Such a mode of warfare encouraged imperial dominance: the universal monarchs would have had little interest in creating a warrior elite that might be difficult to control.
There are over 1,200 surviving inscriptions from ancient Khmer, almost all in the early Kingdoms and Khmer Empire periods. Those in Sanskrit tend to be in poetic form. There was much concern for the cosmological, including astrological but no evidence that literacy extended beyond a small elite: on the contrary, the vast pictorial displays very much are what would impress and communicate to largely illiterate peasants (Pp188ff).
Coe notes John Miksic division of SE Asian cities into the heterogenetic, found along coastlines and borders of ecological zones, with few public monuments, but intensive trade, entrepreneurship and high population densities and the orthogenetic:
… located well inland, and were correlated with the production of a surplus staple crop – that is, rice – which could be commandeered by the authorities. Stability and ritual were the prevailing order, and there were impressive monuments of a religious nature. There was no money and little evidence of large markets and significant trade. … overall population density was very low. From everything that we know about Angkor, it would appear to have been orthogentic (p.191).The old Thai capital of Ayutthaya (founded 1351, destroyed by the Burmese in 1767) was a “conscious clone” of Angkor. From this city, still little understood as a lived-entity but well-mapped as an archaeological one, the Khmer monarchs ruled an Empire that lasted as long as Rome’s (p.194) (at least the Western Empire).
In the final chapter, The post-Classic Period: Decline and Transformation, Coe takes us through the distinguishing characteristics of post-Classical Khmer civilisation and the many theories (but little clear knowledge) of how and why the Empire collapsed.
Post-Classic Khmer civilisation was marked by:
The monarch is no longer a chakravartin, but merely king of Cambodia.Clearly, the level of extractable surplus was much less. As Coe points out, the expansion of maritime trade gave Khmer monarchs could reason to move their capital to the “Quatre Bras” region “easily reached by junks coming up from the Delta” (p.197). Trade was “almost entirely in the hands of foreigners” (p.210): predominantly Chinese (and Japanese, before the Tokugawa bakufu closed off Nippon to the outside world) but also Malays, Arabs and various Europeans. The lack of a Khmer merchant class may well have seriously limited the standing of mercantile interests at court. The continuation of barter (i.e. the failure to adopt a coinage) probably limited the monarchy’s capacity to profit from maritime trade. While the continuation of monarchical domination of surplus extraction may well have helped foreclose the rise of a Khmer merchant class. (The monarchy displayed a remarkably cavalier attitude to Vietnamese migration into the Delta in the late C17th: this resulted in the subsequent loss of major direct access to oceanic maritime trade with the Vietnamese takeover of the Delta around 1700.)
The capital in various locations between the Great Lake and the Delta.
Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, with Pali rather than Sanskrit as its language.
Stone temple architecture and prasats replaced by wood-built viharas (‘pagodas’) and other monastic buildings.
State and ancestral temples in disuse; or converted to Buddhist worship and made the object of long-distance pilgrimages.
Predominance of the Sangha (Buddhist order of monks) in all aspects of life.
Middle Khmer replaces Old Khmer as the language of the people and the court.
Written royal chronicles, but few contemporary stone inscriptions.
Absence or abandonment of large-scale public works, such as the barays and the major canals in Angkor and elsewhere.
Strong development of maritime trade with China, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia.
Marked Thai (Siamese) influence in art, architecture, theatre and court life (p.195).
Coe concludes that:
… civilizations – like biological species – usually fall from multiple causes, not single ones. Alterations in the religious paradigm, military incursions, over-population and ecological collapse, and the shifting of trade routes and patterns, finished off the Classic, monsoon-forest cultures of both Cambodia and the Maya area (p.197).A civilisation is a system (or, if you like, an interlocked network of systems): if any key part starts to unravel, interactions can easily widen the pattern of unravelling. Resilience in the face of stress can require openness of thinking at least as much as institutional responsiveness and centuries of success can easily close off both.
Coe summarises the sources available for the post-Classic period (p.197ff), examines Theravada Buddhism and its role in Cambodia (Pp201ff), the use of Angkor as a Theravada centre (Pp204-5), Cambodia’s precarious place between Thai and (particularly) Vietnamese expansion (Pp205ff), the course of post-Classic history until Cambodia became a French Protectorate in 1863 (Pp208ff), the operation of post-Classic life and administration (Pp213ff), trade and commerce (p.219), post-Classic warfare:
There was no standing army – in times of war, the patron was expected to muster a force of his clients, and place himself or an officer designated by the king at its head (p.219)post-Classic art (Pp220-1) and mental life (Pp222ff). This includes the Reamker, a reworking of the Ramayana to reflect Khmer culture and Theravada Buddhism. The chapter finishes with a one-page epilogue of Cambodian history from 1863 to the present, noting that Angkor’s five towers are on its flag, a descendant of its rulers is the monarch and Buddhism is again the state religion (p224).
Coe concludes with a list of rulers of Angkor and known pre-Angkor rulers (p.225) and a note on visiting Angkor (p.226).
Michael D. Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilization is a very accessible survey of a civilisation which did so much to set the patterns of SE Asian history and culture: one that managed great architectural achievements while remaining a barter economy.