Saturday, August 20, 2011

A History of Cambodia (1)

I mentioned to a friend that I was interested in why Buddhism and won out over Hinduism in South-East Asia, when matters had gone the other way in India. She loaned me David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia (2nd edition) which a Quaker friend who had worked in Cambodia had told her was the best history of Cambodia.

And a fine history it is too.

The Introduction sets out several themes of Cambodian history: from the mid C18th onwards, the effect of its location between Thailand and Vietnam; the relationship of C20th Cambodia to its past; the “pervasiveness of patronage and hierarchical terminology in Cambodian thinking”; and the inertia of a largely peasant society:
Until very recently, alternatives to subsistence agriculture and incremental social improvements of any kind were rarely available to most Cambodians and were in any case rarely sought, as the outcome could be punishment or starvation. In the meantime, crops had to be harvested and families raised as they had been harvested and raised before as they had been harvested and raised before (p.2).
This social inertia encouraged a myth of “changelessness”.

Given my interests, this caught my eye:
the spread of Theravada Buddhism (and its corollary, Thai cultural influence) diminished the importance of the brahmanical advisers to the kind and broke down the influence of brahmanical families who crowded around the throne looking for preferment. In Angkorean times, these families controlled much of the land and manpower around Angkor through their connections with royally sponsored religious foundations. As these foundations were replaced by wats (Buddhist temples) the forms of social mobilization that had been in effect at Angkor diminished in importance; so did extensive irrigation. The two or three annual harvests of rice that had been reported at Angkor diminished in importance came to a halt. The elite undoubtedly grew less numerous as a result (p.3).
That brahmin power and wealth depended so much on royal patronage would clearly be very important in explaining how a series of Buddhist dynasties and kingships replacing Hindu ones would lead to religious change.

It is striking to learn that Cambodia’s population at independence was four times the size it had been when the French originally took over (p.5).

Continuity seems to be the main theme in Cambodian economic history: a peasant subsistence economy based particularly on wet rice with a persistent technology and, prior to colonisation, exports largely limited to what grew wild in the woods—notably rhinoceros horn, hides, ivory, cardamom, lacquer, and perfumed wood (Pp6-7).

People who knew how to make pots lived in caves in north-western Cambodia as early as 4200BC. Skulls and human bones from c1500BC suggested they looked much like modern Cambodians, given recent infusions of Chinese and Vietnamese bloodlines. Khmer is likely a very old language, dating back in its local origins thousands of years. A certain conservatism:
perhaps, is characteristic of a subsistence-oriented society, in which experimentation can lead to famine and in which techniques of getting enough to eat are passed from one generation to another (p.10).
Likely continuing elements in Cambodian life and thinking across thousands of years are:
the village games played at the lunar new year; the association of ancestor stones (nak ta) with stones, the calendar, and the soil; the belief in water-spirits or dragons; the idea that tattoos protect the wearer; and the custom of chewing betel, to name a few (p.11).
. But lots of continuity does not mean there has not also been considerable change.

Indian Asia
The first set of revolutionary changes being Indianisation; the adoption of aspects of Indian life and thinking over a thousand years of Cambodian history, likely starting around two thousand years ago. Cambodians came to dress in Indian styles, eat with fingers and spoons, carried goods on their head, wore turbans and skirts, use Indian forms and styles of musical instruments, jewellery and manuscripts—living and acting more like Indians than like their neighbours the Vietnamese. One scholar suggested it was a matter of a common “monsoon culture” converging on Indian models (Pp11-12). Up to about 500BC:
India provided Cambodia with a writing system, a pantheon, meters for poetry, a language (Sanskrit) to write it in, a vocabulary of social hierarchies (not the same thing as a caste system), Buddhism, the idea of universal kingship, and new ways of looking at politics, sociology, architecture, iconography, astronomy, and aesthetics (p.12).
Cambodia was thus very much part of “Indian Asia”.

This being a process of neither conquest nor colonisation, Cambodia’s relationship with India lacked the angst that characterised Vietnam’s response to China. It seems to have been very much a process of Cambodians adopting what worked for them; the caste system never took root in village life and its use at court seems to have been more a ritual respect for Indian traditions than anything more substantive (Pp12-13).

For the first few centuries, written sources about Cambodia are almost entirely Chinese, and so filtered through Chinese framings. Remains of a port active in C2nd and C3rd—which include Roman coins and Indian artefacts—suggest trade between and with India and China, likely including warehousing facilities. The port likely declined in the C4th and would have been a useful conduit for Cambodia exports of forest products, such as elephants, feathers, wild spices and the products listed previously. How developed or centralised a political authority underpinned this is still an open question (Pp14ff).

A crucial feature of social dynamics is that:
People, rather than land per se, are needed to cultivate wet rice. … as well as the low density of the population in the entire area (always excepting Java, Bali, and the Red River Delta in Vietnam), it is easy to see why throughout Southeast Asian history overlordship and power were so often thought of and pursued in terms of controlling people rather than land. … territory per se (mere forest in most cases) was never as important as people.
Indeed, the notion of alienable ownership of land, as distinct from land use, does not seem to have developed in traditional Cambodia. Land left fallow for three years reverted to state control. The king, theoretically at least, was the lord of all the land in the kingdom, which meant he could reward people with the right to use it. Many of the Cambodian-language inscriptions from the Angkorean period … dealt with complicated quarrels about access to land resources (Pp.16-7).
Land-controlling, land-dispensing kings whom brahmin families were dependant on, plus no caste system for brahmins to administer, left them in a much weaker position than their Indian equivalents. If the kings switched to Buddhism (particularly Theravada Buddhism), then the brahmins had little or no basis for social power.

It is likely that, in the first 8 centuries A.D., Cambodia was divided into lots of small states with a local king and elite, operating both as Indian “universal” kings and local Cambodian chieftains, their power resting on their perceived ability to provide protection, both practical and divine (Pp17-8).

In this period, Hinduism and Buddhism both flourished in Cambodia, operating similar notions of merit and reward across a chain of lives. Localized religious cults seemed to have stressed community welfare:
for without communities to perform the work, irrigated rice cannot be grown (p.19).
A concern that, at least one location (Ba Phnom) included an annual human sacrifice to a consort of Shiva at the beginning of the agricultural year, this continuing to occur as late as 1877 (Pp18-19).

If land use was granted by royal authority, and private landownership was unknown, then genealogies mattered less:
Because genealogies were not maintained in Cambodia, except among the elite, the nak ta, or ancestor people, had no family names. They became the symbolic ancestors of people in a particular place, or by dying in a place they came to patronize its soil. Nak ta in inhabited sites could be spoken to and tamed; those in the forest or in abandoned places were thought to be more powerful and more malignant (p.19).
There is much similarity with the kami of Japanese Shinto. But a similar sensibility pervades animism generally and feeds easily into polytheism. Chandler is surely correct to suggest that Hinduism was more likely to adopt and blend with such sentiment than confront it. Indeed, the nak ta could become gods during periods of high Indianisation while the gods could blend back into ancestors when such receded (Pp19-20).

The first dated Khmer-language inscription was incised in 611, the earliest Sanskrit one being carved in 613. For centuries, the two languages served different roles: Sanskrit spoke in prose and poetry to the gods, Khmer (always in prose) to the people. Sanskrit was the language of poetry, praise and merit; Khmer of the founding of temples and temple administration (such as how many slaves were attached to a particular place, inventories, duties and protective curses). Recording land grants on stone provided recognition and protection while curses sought to protect the same. Sanskrit was the language of those few “rescued from the mud” as Khmer was of those whose rice-growing labour supported all (Pp21-2).

Chandler then tackles the vexed issue of what knjom (usually translated as “slave”) meant. Wherever land has been more plentiful than labour, bondage has been a normal social mechanism to extract a usable surplus. But how much, in Cambodian usages, we are talking of slaves—full property who were bought and sold—or some sort of bondsperson or “serf”—bound to a place, is not entirely clear from the available evidence and may have varied considerably (Pp23ff).

It is likely the region remained a welter of small principalities. Indian notions:
seem to have played a prominent role in molding and directing these societies, perhaps because ideas of this hierarchical kind were useful in legitimizing the extraction of surpluses more or less by force (p.27).
Or, at least (if one accepts a recent critique of the notion of legitimacy) providing a common framework for expectations.

Having set out the themes of Cambodian history and its beginnings, Chapter 3 moves on to Kingship and Society at Angkor, the most architecturally dramatic period of Cambodian history. Conventionally dated by historians as 802-1431, Chandler points out that Khmer-speaking peoples had inhabited the Angkor region for centuries; that the royal city was briefly re-occupied in the 1570s; that Buddhist statuary continued to be placed there every century to the C19th; that the latest inscriptions date from 1747; and that:
When the Angkor complex was “discovered” by French missionaries and explorers in the 1850s, Angkor Wat contained a prosperous Buddhist monastery inside its walls, tended by more than a thousand hereditary slaves (p.29).
(Though ‘bondsfolk’ is likely a better translation of knjom in this instance: as for any shock to our sensibilities about Buddhism or monastic life, there were Christian monasteries in Western Europe supported by bondsfolk up until the late C18th.) Still, the dates are useful because:
they mark off Cambodia’s period of greatness. At various times in those six hundred years, and only then, Cambodia—known in its own inscriptions as Kambuja-desa—was the mightiest kingdom in Southeast Asia, drawing visitors and tribute from as far away as present-day Burma and Malaysia as well as what were later to be Thai kingdoms to the west … these periods of systematic domination were infrequent and relatively short (p.29).
One gets the distinct impression that Southeast Asian rulership was more fluid, and embedded in less dense and resilient institutional networks and connections, than was the case for Latin Christendom in the same period. There was also clearly no warrior class even vaguely equivalent to knights, samurai, azadans, mamluks, or even iqta or similar: these are not medieval societies in any useful sense of that term.

It is also worth noting that the notion of ‘tribute’ was likely often a particular way of framing trade relations (such appears to be a feature of Chinese history, for example).

Even during the Angkorean period, the historical sources are seriously limited (Pp29ff). Historical inference has to be gleaned from inscriptions, made for particular purposes and often referring to events decades or more earlier. The likely third Angkorean ruler (Indravarman r.877-889) followed what seems to have been (or became) a conventional pattern of building: irrigation works, followed by honouring of his parents and capped off by creating a temple-mountain (Pp37-8).

His son, Yasovarman (r.889-c.910) created the royal city at Angkor (Yasodharapura as it was known until the C14th) and was the first of the grandiose temple builders, bespeaking ability to command considerable labour resources (Pp39ff).

A succession of kings either rejected or (more commonly) extended the Angkor complex. Chandler examines Angkorean kingship through the prisms of the king’s relationship with Shiva, their public role as hero of Indian epic and their connection to everyday life (Pp46ff). While Cambodia stopped short of importing the Indian caste system, the vocabulary of varna provided a way of framing the radiating patterns of patronage through which kings ruled (p.48).

Manifesting the fluid religious framings, the largest Angkor complex—Angkor Wat—was dedicated to Vishnu (Pp49ff). Chandler suggests that Angkorean rulership was, in its close relationship between water management, priesthood and temple foundations, was much like that of Pharoanic Egypt and Mayan Guatemala (Pp53-4).

Jayavarman VII, who was crowned in 1181, shifted the dominant model from Hindu to Buddhist kingship. Where Hindu kingship focused on the king as the fount whose approval all sought, Buddhist kingship celebrated the king’s merit manifested in his compassion for his subjects:
Put very starkly, the difference … resembles the difference between a monologue that no one overhears and a soliloquy addressed to an audience of paid or invited guests. A “Hindu” king’s rule was an aggregation of statements—rituals, temples, poems, marriages, inscriptions and the like—and his grandeur and godliness. A Buddhist king made similar statements, but he addressed them, specifically, to an audience consisting of his people. This made the people less an ingredient of the king’s magnificence … than objects of his overwhelming compassion, an audience for his merit-making and participants in his redemption (p.58).
Jayavarman VII’s dramatic break with the past seems to have been connected to the traumatic Cham invasion of 1177 and 1178. Having defeated the Cham in battle prior to his coronation, he spent his reign of about 30 years essentially turning Cambodia from a Hindu kingship to a Buddhist society. He seems to have been a man in a hurry, imposing his personal stamp on Cambodia more than any other ruler before modern times (Pp58ff). Chandler notes some ominous parallels in:
his break with the past, his obsession with punitive expeditions, the impetuous grandeur of his building program, and his imposition of a national religion rather than his patronage of a royal cult (p.69).
The only feature of Angkorean life:
singled out for praise by Democratic Kampuchea was precisely the full-scale mobilisation of the people that Jayavarman VII, but very few other kings, managed to carry out (p.69).
He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism. Over the next 50 years, Mahayana Buddhism gave way to Theravada Buddhism as the dominant Cambodian religion. While we know that missionaries from the Mon-language parts of Siam, Burma and Ceylon played a role, the reasons for the shift are unclear, though the lack of inscriptions at Angkor during this period imply an interaction between political and religious upheaval (Pp68ff).

A Chinese traveller, Chou Ta-Kuan, wrote an account of his visit to Angkor in 1296-7, by far the most detailed picture of everyday life and appearance at Angkor. Brahmanism, Shaivism (whose followers Chou calls ‘Taoists”) and Theravada Buddhism co-existed. The former seem to have been largely an official class while Shaivism was clearly in decline—monastic Shaivism disappeared entirely after Angkor was abandoned, though Indian cults persisted. Chou was struck at how accessible the king was, with his twice-daily audiences (Pp71ff).

This review will conclude in my next post.

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