Which is a bit like saying the Roman Empire was the forerunner of modern Italy. Khmer civilisation during its classic period (802-1327) was the seminal civilisation of mainland SE Asia, dominating modern Cambodia, southern Laos, the Mekong delta and central Thailand. Coe’s book is an excellent survey of the rise and decline of this civilisation.
Coe’s scholarly speciality is “the other great monsoon forest civilisation” (p.7), the Maya of Mesoamerica, a comparison that informs his treatment. He divides the trajectory of Khmer society into Early Farmers, Early Kingdoms, Classic and post-Classic (p.9) with a useful full-page timeline (p.10).
The Introduction deals with European discovery and engagement with Angkor and Khmer history (Pp11ff) concluding with a full-page explanation and potted summaries of the various periods: hunters and gatherers to c.3600-3000BC, early farming period to c.500BC, Iron Age to c.200-500AD, early kingdoms to 802AD, Classic 802-1327 and post-Classic 1327-1863 (p.20): or, to put it another way; foragers, farmers, chiefdoms, states, empire, aftermath.
The ruins of Angkor are vast: the first colour plate is a synthetic-aperture radar image of Angkor from the space shuttle Endeavour:
The entire urban complex covers about 1000 square km (386 square miles), and its core area c.200 square km (77 square miles). There is nothing else to equal it in the archaeological world (p.11).Coe then moves on to the geographical setting (Pp21ff) – the various black-and-white illustrations throughout the book and magnificent colour plates are helpful. So, for example, the picture of the massive Khong Falls (the modern day boundary between Laos and Cambodia) makes it quite clear why they “effectively block all boat communication between the lower and upper reaches of the river” (p.21), which makes the Mekong far less of a conduit for human traffic than it might be. The great waterway of Angkor was not the Mekong but Tonle Sap (the Great Lake) on the Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong.
Like much of Asia, Khmer was and is a rice civilisation. Khmer is one of the many Asian languages where the word for ‘food’ is ‘cooked rice’ (bai). Rice and fish are the basis of the economy (p.29), Coe taking us through the varieties of rice cultivation; dry rice, bunded field, flood-retreat and “floating” rice (Pp30ff).
Then it is on to peoples and languages (Pp33ff). A map of languages (p.35) makes it clear that linguistic boundaries do not entirely coincide with modern political boundaries. There is a significant Khmer borderland in Thailand and a minority remnant in southern Vietnam.
In modern Cambodia, there are some Tai (Thai, Lao) speakers along the upper Mekong, significant areas of Mountain Mon-Khmer as well as Mountain Cham and Cham enclaves. But language boundaries have also changed over time. The Mekong delta was Khmer until the late C17th, when the Vietnamese influx began, while the Tai peoples migrated down from Southern China in the C12th and C13th (displaying some similarities in their role vis-à-vis the Khmer Empire as that of the Germanic peoples vis-à-vis the Western Roman Empire). There is also the normal history of language mixing:
It is now generally recognised that Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language that shows the effect of long contact with Chinese in its vocabulary, in its use of tones, and its tendency to be monosyllabic (p.36).The animist-shamanistic Mon-Khmer mountain peoples have been traditionally despised by the Khmer and subject to slave raids. The Cham had a significant rival kingdom before being conquered by the Vietnamese in 1471: the Cham had been Hindu-Buddhist but converted to Islam from the C11th onwards (Pp36-7).
The Khmer script (the first inscription of which dates from 611) is Indic in that it is far more complex than a simple alphabet. The language itself tends to be very concrete, borrowing abstract terms from Sanskrit and, after the adoption of Theravada Buddhism, Pali (still the main source of neologisms in contemporary Khmer). We have about 1200 surviving rock inscriptions, most in Sanskrit, and religious: the surviving Khmer script, while still largely religious in context, tends to deal with more mundane administrative matters (Pp40-1).
Foragers, farmers and early kingdoms
The fourth chapter, The Khmer before history (Pp43ff), deals with foragers, farmers and chiefdoms, the latter apparently the result of the advent of iron tools and weapons and increased social differentiation:
Onto this Iron Age ‘basement culture’ was to be grafted a belief system that had its origins over two millennia ago in the plain of India’s Ganges River, laying the foundation for what was eventually to become the civilisation of Angkor (p.56).Moving on to the early kingdoms period (Pp57ff), Coe notes that the region known as ‘Indochina’ has culturally far more that comes from India than China: the exception being ‘Tonkin’ or the Red River valley (i.e. the proto-Vietnamese), which was sinicised.
Ironically, there are almost no Indian texts on the region (apart from reference to risky-but-high-return trading opportunities) but several Chinese texts which, given the linguistic difficulties of transliterating from non-tonal polysyllabic languages (Khmer, Sanskrit) to a tonal monosyllabic language (Chinese), and Chinese disdain for ‘barbarian’ peoples, are more ethnographically revealing than historically so (p.57). Coe quotes at length from various Chinese reports on the Mekong Delta Khmer cities and societies:
They have neither rites nor propriety. Boys and girls follow their penchants without restraint (p.59)conveys the general tone. (The relative freedom of the sexes—and so sexuality—is a recurring comment on Khmer society by outside observers.)
The picture the Chinese chronicles give of a dominant state or states (‘Funan’, ‘Zhemla’) is contradicted by contemporary Khmer inscriptions, which indicate no dominant state or rulership. Scholars relying more on the latter (i.e. contemporary) records have built up a picture of a series of Iron age chiefdoms which, as Chinese demand for luxury goods increased, coalesced in the Mekong delta into trading ports with local rulerships:
The chiefs of these palisaded settlements bore the Mon-Khmer title of pon, an office that was passed down matrilineally (passing from the deceased to sister’s son). The population of a core pon-dom formed its own lineage or clan, with its own deity whose representative was the pon himself …The earliest Khmer king whose existence is firmly historically established, Rudravarman, ruled the Delta pon in the first half of the C6th (p.62).
There was a hierarchy of pon, probably based on wealth and political influence. As early as the fifth century AD, superior pon started claiming kingship, taking on Indian names and titles … although Khmer names linger (Pp61-62).
This was the period in which Hinduism and Buddhism became firmly established in the region, particularly amongst the Khmer. Indian traders operated from the Red Sea (linking with the Roman Empire) to the Mekong Delta (thereby linking to Chinese trade). Buddhism spread easily along trade routes, being both a congregational and proselytising religion, comfortable with trade. That Brahmanism also spread was more surprising, since it is highly agrarian in its origins and structures (p.62).
It is less surprising if one considers that what actually spread was worship of the Hindu gods, particularly Vishnu and Shiva—figures of awe, power and prestige—and Brahmin status and learning. The caste system never established itself in Khmer society (p.63), except as a vehicle for court language. To put it another way: what spread was those parts of Vedic Brahmanism that were most compatible with royal status-seeking and Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism. Even better, the Indian states and principalities were not expansionist outside India, so Khmer rulers could pick and choose which aspects of Indianisation suited them: coins, for example, never took on, the Khmer lands remaining a barter economy until the arrival of the French in the mid C19th (Pp62-3). The archaeology of the Delta has been much disrupted by the violence of its C20th history (Pp64ff).
Being a barter economy was another similarity with Pharonic Egypt and Mayan Guatemala—barter societies whose rulers produced great monumental architecture. As the Khmer lands were barter societies, they lacked mechanisms to transfer obligations across time, with (given the hot and humid climate) particularly poor ability to store produce over the longer term. One can see the appeal to Khmer rulers of great projects that soaked up surpluses in ways the kings controlled: hence the constant building by the rulers of the later Khmer empire of yet new “temple mountains”, complexes and artificial lakes.
By the early C7th, political power seems to have shifted from the maritime cities of the Delta to inland cities controlling rice surpluses. Societies became more stratified, kings became more powerful, the pon title faded away, temple foundations spread. This is the period when the first Angkor site, Angkor Borei, was established, linked to the Delta by a long canal, with considerable striking Hindu and Buddhist sculpture based on lively reinterpretation of Gupta styles. Coe takes us through the archaeology of this and other Khmer sites from the period (Pp68ff). Several page inserts take the reader through the central points of Hinduism (Pp80-4) and Buddhism (Pp85-8).
Then it is on to the classic Angkorean period of Khmer Empire. Coe lists the defining characteristics (even though some also pre-dated or post-dated the period) as being:
A universal monarch as head of an imperial state.With no serious geographical barriers to unity, the warring minor kingdoms eventually produced a warlord able to conquer them all. This was Jayavarman II (‘protected by victory’) known posthumously as Parameshvara (‘supreme lord’) whose crowning as universal monarch in 802 in a Brahmin rite is taken as the establishment date of the Khmer Empire (Pp97-100).
The capital of the empire almost always based in Angkor.
Hinduism and/or Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion.
Religious architecture primarily in stone (sandstone and laterite) rather than wood.
State and ancestral temples.
Workship of the linga.
Prasats (shrine towers) housing images of the gods, often arranged in quincunx and supported by stepped pyramids.
Massive and extensive public waterworks, including canals and vast reservoirs (barays).
A network of highways, causeways and masonry bridges.
Inscriptions in Sanskrit, as well as Khmer.
Iconography primarily Hindu, mainly derived from the epics and from the Puranas. (p.97)
An inset explains the somewhat chaotic dynastic succession processes in Cambodia whose tendency to fratricidal conflict was somewhat balanced by a tendency to select for competence (p.100). Jayavarman II established his capital at Hariharalaya (named after the deity that unified Vishnu and Shiva). His son Jayavarman III engaged in significant building in stone in the new capital, establishing styles that persisted through the history of the Khmer Empire including the building of an ancestral temple and a state temple, the last including a representation in stone of Mount Meru, home of the gods (Pp.101-2).
After a fratricidal conflict over the succession, Yashovarman I won and, after building 100 ashrams across his empire and embellishing further his father’s capital, moved to the capital to Angkor, where it remained for the next five centuries, except for “one brief lapse”:
There were probably several compelling reasons for this move – economic, socio-political, military and probably religious (undoubtedly he was advised by Brahmin gurus where and when this should take place), but suffice it to say that the Angkor region is strategically located about halfway between the hills of Kulen and the margins of the Great Lake, on the right bank of the Siem Reap River – not only an abundant source of water for whatever hydraulic schemes the ruler might be contemplating, but also a waterway as holy to the Khmer as the Ganges still and is to Indians (p.103).A two-page map conveys the scale of what was eventually constructed on the site (Pp104-5). There was much construction:
Each of the major chakravartin who ruled the Khmer Empire felt it necessary to build important public waterworks, an ancestral temple, and a state temple, usually in that order (p.107).Hence, given the resources at their command, the architectural splendours that so impress to this day in Yashodharapura (‘Glory-bearing City’). One of Yashovarman’s waterworks was 7.5km (4.7m) by 1.8km (1.1m): one estimate is that it must have taken 6 million man-days to build its embankments alone (p.107). In an agrarian barter economy, labour service cannot be “held over”: it must be used each year or lost.
Kings followed kings, until Jayavarman IV (reigned c.928-41) moved the capital to Koh Ker (Chok Gargyar), 90km (56m) to the NE. Why, we do not know. As the site provided easy access to sandstone, the monumental and other statues of this interlude have produced many of the admired masterpieces gracing various collections around the globe. After a period of weak rule and disintegration, Rajendravarman II (r. 944-68) moved the capital back to Angkor and reimposed imperial rule on the breakaway rulerships. He built Banteay Srei, a Shivaite complex that gets its own two-page insert (Pp110-1). He and his son and successor Jayavarman V (r. 968-c.1000) were both pious Buddhists, but Mahayana Buddhism is a tolerant and syncretic faith (p.112).
Then followed a 9 year civil war, won by Suryavarman I (r.1011-49), who demanded of 4,000 officials an oath of loyalty (that if one broke it one would be “reborn in the thirty-second hell as long as the sun and moon shall last”) that was still being used by the Cambodian crown in C20th. Suryavarman also required it be sealed in blood.
The wealth of the Khmer Empire rested on extraction of surplus from rice-growing peasants. Goods and labour service sufficed for the needs of its monarchs: particularly as the surplus was “soaked up” in uses controlled by the monarchs—notably huge building projects. This did, of course, mean that the Khmer Empire’s history was dominated by using and fighting over that surplus—foreign invaders attempting to loot the products of that surplus or acquire surplus-generating territory, internal rebels seeking to gain control of the surplus in their region, usurpers seeking to gain control of the surplus for the entire empire.
The succession of kings continued, marked by grand building projects, revolts and wars. Rulers of such power had to be praised. One inscription tells us of Undayadityavarman II (r.1050-1066 ) that:
He excelled in seducing women to his will by his beauty, warriors by his heroism, sages by his good qualities, the people by his power, Brahmins by his charity (p.114).The ‘cult of personality’ is a perennial feature of autocracy for, when loyalty is compulsory, how does one successfully signal loyalty? Playing the game of excessive public flattery is a form of signalling that has some costs involved, so is more reassuring. Various kings succeeded to rule of the Khmer Empire. Some were successful, some less so; some favouring Buddhism, some Shiva or Vishnu. Success and grand building projects tended to go together. So, Suryavarman II (r.1113-c1150) extended the empire, defeated the Cham enemies, invaded the Vietnamese realm based on the Red River by land and sea repeatedly (if unsuccessfully) and built Angkor Wat, which gets its own multipage insert (Pp117-121).
A Cham invasion threatened the continuity of the Empire, but Jayavarman VII (r.1181-c.1215):
arguably not only the greatest of all the Khmer kings but also the greatest personage in Cambodian history (p.122)restored the power of the Empire, crushingly defeated and conquered the Cham, avidly promoted (Mahayana) Buddhism and engaged in the normal grand building projects: including the grandest of all, Angkor Thom (Pp122ff).
Rulers after Jayavarman VII found keeping the Cham within the Empire proved too hard (though the Cham later succumbed to the Vietnamese). At some point in the C13th, there was a massive (royal) reaction against Buddhism, since every single Buddhist sculpture in Angkor was smashed or defaced while Angkor was “re-Hinduised”: this was iconoclasm on a massive scale and a manifestation of religious intolerance previously foreign to the region. Meanwhile, chiefdoms of the Tai people migrating down from Southern China began to put pressure on the Empire’s northern frontiers. In the early C14th, the Empire rapidly declined. The last Sanskrit inscription was carved in 1327, which is taken to be the end of the Khmer Empire. But not, of course, of Khmer civilisation, which transmuted into something different. In particular, it became overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist, the first Pali inscription being carved in 1309 (Pp128ff).
Rulerships are based on patterns of expectations, incorporating particular framings (such as religion). Stress can lead to shifts in those patterns that can encourage the adoption of new framings. Alternatively, shifts in those framings (such as religious changes) can themselves cause stress that may undermine expectations rulership relies upon. With our limited information, it is very hard to see whether the shift to Theravada Buddhism was a response to stress, a cause of stress or both.
This review will be concluded in my next post.