Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Civilization of Angkor (1)

Charles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor is very much focussed on the rise, achievement and decline of the civilisation of Angkor: of what led to the creation of the amazing constructions of Angkor. As Higham writes, the book:
sets the supreme architectural achievement of the civilization of Angkor in its historic context (p.4).
Higham precedes his narrative with a timeline interposing events from Anglo history with Khmer history from 2300BC to 1600AD—so 410, the year of the Roman abandonment of Britain, becomes “the fall of the Western Roman Empire” (Pp xiii ff).

We start with the European discovery of the ruins of Angkor, their amazement on the scale, the lack of belief that they were created by the local Khmer people and the contemporary (1296) report of the Chinese visitor Zhou Daguan (Pp1ff). Higham then provides a general description of Angkor:
Angkor is the name conventionally given to the cities and the associated monuments that lie between the Tonle Sap and the associated monuments that lie between the Tonle Sap and the Kulen Hills. The name derives from the Sanskrit nagara, meaning ‘holy city’ (p.4).
New temples were built there for seven centuries or more from about AD 700 (and included a reservoir 8km x 2.5km).

As Higham notes:
Illuminating an extinct civilization is a demanding and challenging endeavour … This is particularly the case for the Western scholar where the civilizatioin of Angkor is concerned, because the people, the religion, the environment, indeed virtually all aspects of its life and culture are alien (Pp4,6).
The sequence leading up to the establishment of Angkor Higham sets out as being Iron Age (starting 500BC), the formation of the earliest state around AD 150 in the Mekong Delta which declined “due largely to changing trade patterns” (p.6), then several rulerships competing for power AD 550-800 culminating in the establishment of the Angkor royal centre.

Rulership in context
To put this process in wider context, Higham examines three key questions:
What is a state, how does it come into being, and how is it maintained (p.6)?
Higham provides a brief summary of anthropological understanding of chiefdoms:
in which leaders dominate a social web where individuals are related by kinshipo [which]… usually involve a central settlement in which the chief resides, and one or two categories of smaller, dependent settlements. The chief is usually distinguished by symbols of status, and will often be accorded elaborate mortuary rites (p.6).
From these evolve states in which:
although kinship ties remain, people are also identified by their class within a complex social network … one comprising the ruling elite. The royal tier will usually be accorded a divine origin and the ability to communicate with the gods. There are four levels of settlement hierarchy from the capital down through provincial settlements to villages. The king will live in a palace, and play an important role in rituals. His court absorbs surplus production from a much larger sustaining area than in a chiefdom, and high-ranking members of the court are recognized by special titles, offices and symbols of status. The regulation of labour and the appropriation of surplus production is essential in the support of the administrative machinery for an enforceable legal system, an army, full-time priests and state temples (Pp6-7).
In other words, a state is a chiefdom on steroids, while a chiefdom is a proto-state. Both are about rulership and control of surplus, but a state operates on a greater scale that involves considerably greater social complexity.

To illustrate the processes by which a state can evolve from chiefdoms, Higham goes through the C18th-C19th history of the Yao people of Malawi as:
the recorded course of their development is so similar to what we think might have occurred in the Mekong Delta (p.7).
The Yao started off in villages where a group of sisters appointed their oldest living brother as village headmen. These villages rarely exceeded 50-60 people as:
this social system encouraged young aspiring leaders to leave and found their own settlement (p.7).
Contact with Arab traders seeking ivory and slaves in exchange for beads, cloth and metal wire radically changed this. As the headman traditionally managed trade and distributed its benefits, an upsurge in trade increased their standing while the demand for slaves “engendered much tension among the Yao and their neighbours”. Male slaves were sold, female slaves increased the headman’s retinue:
The transition from village headman to great chief was swift, happening in the space of half a life span. As the emerging chiefs expanded their domains and increased their power through trading for guns, so they adopted the exotic manners and customs of the Arab traders. This enhanced their prestige in the eyes of their followers. Some accepted Islam, and changed their names … They began to use Arab writing to keep their records. As towns developed from villages, it became necessary to grow more food, and irrigation was brought to their fields (p.8).
Swap Islam for Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, swap Arabic for Sanskrit, and this looks remarkably what happened in the Mekong Delta: including that the process was chosen by the headmen, not imposed from outside.

Higham examines the process of Indianisation, and the key ideas of Hinduism (Pp9-11). Followed by the role of rice (Pp11-12). As he notes:
States are fuelled by the energy supplied by agricultural surpluses (p.11).
Having summarised the key issues, Higham moves onto the prehistoric periods in South-East Asia (2300BC-AD 400) (Pp13ff).

Archaeology is beginning to greatly expand our understanding of prehistoric South-East Asia. These societies:
were vigorous and powerful. They engaged in distant maritime exchange, and their leaders organized large-scale water control measures. They maintained specialized bronze and iron workshops, and were recognized in death with rich burials, which would include gold and silver jewellery and hundreds of bronze ornaments (p.13).
Rice farmers and farming arrived in the region about 4300 years ago, setting in train the normal supplanting of foragers and foraging. As Higham notes:
The pathway to civilization required the energy provided by rice agriculture … the adaptability of this marsh grass, its nutritional value especially when it is consumed with fish, the degree to which the landscape can be modified to expand it production, and the relative ease with which it can be stored. Rice is the solid rock on which South-East Asian civilizations were founded (p.14).
Higham takes us through the interaction between human society and geography (including the importance of the monsoon), the development of the local Bronze Age (1500-500BC), helped by good local supplies of tin, and then the Iron Age:
the Iron Age ancestors of Angkor lived in large communities in which some individuals, both men and women, were interred with opulent grave goods and much ritual. Iron was employed not only to increase agricultural efficiency but to forge weapons of war. Salt processing reached an industrial scale; specialists were able to produce for their leaders outstanding ceramic vessels and ornaments of bronze, glass, gold, silver, carnelian and agate. There was increased competition and conflict, as skilled and intrepid navigators engaged in international trade. Iron Age chiefdoms were now poised for the transition to the state (p.22).
Evidence of trade between the Iron Age communities of central Thailand and India dates back to at least 380BC (p.23). Chinese sources claim South-East Asian ocean-going ships 50m in length and weighing over 600 tons by the C5th. Chinese dynastic records include a report from emissaries Kang Tai and Zhu Ying to the Wu emperor about a state they call Funan operating in the Mekong Delta in the C3rd. Archaeology at a site named Oc Eo confirmed many of the activities in the Chinese reports and a local coinage (which does not seem to have persisted). Oc Eo was linked by a canal with Angkor Borei, a walled city of about 300ha, 90km to the north. The city wall is 2.4m wide and 4.5m high, with a moat of 22m in width—so a considerable construction. There were also water reservoirs—or baray—whose function remains the subject of much scholarly debate (Pp24ff).

Rising complexity
Higham takes us through the archaeological evidence, including early Sanskrit inscriptions. He observes that no prehistoric sites have been found in the Delta, presumably because of the regular flooding. With the development of flood retreat rice farming (where water is stored and released during the dry season) it became able to support substantial populations (including urban centres). Nevertheless, the social and political structures that grew up (including significant specialisation) were clearly dependant on the benefits of maritime trade. How centralised political structures were is unclear (the large canals suggest political centralisation). The rise of Java from the C5th as the maritime connector between China and India massively undermined the Delta, leading to the shrinking and abandoning of urban centres due to loss of trade (Pp29ff).

A C13th Chinese compilation includes description of a C7th Khmer ruler of some power and magnificence. This period seems to be one of competing rulerships, where inland rulers may have achieved varying levels of dominance. Inscriptions reveal various dynasties (one of which seems to have three generations of ruling queens) with fluctuating areas of control. Inscriptions also reveal a mixture of appointed and hereditary (pon) titles with a court-centred social hierarchy. Management of temple foundations, including what appears to have been significant levels of trade (including of assets), seems to have been a path to wealth. This was a barter economy:
there was no system of coinage. Goods were valued by reference to the weight of silver, or quantity of rice or the length or quality of cloth (p.48).
This did not preclude sophisticated economic transactions:
There are records of assets being exchanged through individuals through the aegis of the temple management. On occasion, we find that land was mortgaged, as it were, to a temple in return for silver or cloth, and the product of the land was assigned as a form of interest payment (p.49).
Inheritance was indirectly matrilineal (through sister’s son), though one major dynasty shifted to patrilineal succession along with its assumption of the style of gods while another, for three generations, had direct matrilineal (mother-daughter) succession. Higham argues that direct succession better promoted intergenerational asset accumulation. Jayavarman I was the first king recorded to have divine honours in his own lifetime, an act which went with royal authority superseding those of pon in control of assets. Now the king, not temples, would be the final arbiter of assets and land use. The centralisation of authority from 720-770 coincides with a drastic reduction in the number of inscriptions, limiting our knowledge. Higham summarises the period 550-800 as one where states emerged, conflict was recurrent and a “thin veneer” of Indianisation was adopted over local patterns and worship (Pp50ff).

From about 800 to about 1000, the aforementioned patrilineal dynasty with divine honours ruled a substantial empire as universal kings. This kingdom, Kambujadesa, was a agrarian surplus rulership which controlled the Delta, the lowlands around the Great Lake and the agricultural lands to the west. It engaged in increasingly substantial temple and baray construction.

The first king of this universal rulership, Jayavarman II, established the tradition of having himself consecrated king-of-kings in an elaborate ritual:
The court was projected at the centre of the kingdom and a representation of heaven, but was sustained by the agricultural surplus. The inscriptions are filled not only with references to the elite aristocrats and their meritorious acts, but also contain details of land ownership, field boundaries and the duties of retainers. We find many references to slaves, but it would be wrong to regard this as a slave-based society. The rural populace donated part of their time and labour to maintain the local temple. Thus part of their production, be it rice, butter, honey, cloth or livestock, was directed to the capital. Our knowledge this, the first dynasty of Angkor, comes from the inscriptions, reservoirs and surviving stone or brick temples. On the one hand, we encounter a dynasty of kings who built on an increasingly massive scale and extended their power through elite aristocrats to the sustaining populace. On the other hand, we find endemic instability rooted within disputes in a dynasty that had no clear rules to govern the succession, and the constant problem of maintaining control over the provinces (Pp53-4).
The concentration of control over surpluses naturally created a target for attempted seizure.

How Jayavarman II came to power is unclear, though sites with relevant inscriptions provide indications of the extent of his power. A map (p.55) usefully charts where inscriptions associated with various rulers have been found. For details about events of Jayavarman II’s reign we are dependant on inscriptions dated about 260 or more years later. Higham takes us through the archaeology, how little is known about his son and successor Jayavarman III then the building, and unclear lineage, of his successor Indravarman I, who describes himself as a great warrior. His son and successor Yashovarman I also described himself as a great warrior and built on an even grander scale (Pp54ff).

The inscriptions of Yashovarman’s reign show royal control over the allocation of land, with a social hierarchy radiating from the king:
The key element in this great architectural achievement is the control of labour … It may be that the same people who worked on the buildings during the dry season would return to their duties in the rice fields with the rains. … The state superstructure … fundamentally relied on the agricultural surpluses, a situation that illustrates the importance given to land tenure and agricultural production (p.69).
Inscriptions from the reign of his sons and successors Harshavarman I and Ishanavarman II tells us of an official in charge of collecting the rice taxation and grants of exemptions from service.

This review will be concluded in my next post.

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