Monday, December 26, 2011

The Civilization of Angkor (2)

This is the second part of my review of Charles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor. The first part is in my previous post.


"Sun Kings"
Jayavarman IV, the son of Indravarman’s daughter Mahendradevi who married his aunt, Jayadevi, half-sister of Yashovarman, took power. He built a rival centre at Chok Gargyar/Lingapura from whence he ruled. Higham provides statistics that illustrate the enormous scale of construction under these various rulers. Jayavarman IV was succeeded by his son Harshavarman II, whose brief rule was marked by conflict. He was succeeded by Rajendravarman, his uncle and first cousin, who moved the capital back to Yashodharapura (Pp70ff).

Inscriptions tell of the power and authority of provincial leaders, preceded by eulogies to the king. Acts of merit were delineated. Land boundaries and taxes in kind are set out: the latter usually rice, but also other goods of use to the court. Temple foundations included having assigned workers (Pp76ff). That this was a form of bondage is expressed by an inscription stating that a worker born in such temple lands had escaped and, when caught, had his eyes gouged out and his tongue removed, his family being exclusively assigned to the temple (p.79). In the aristocratic families, headship would pass down to sister’s son (p.84).

This was system based on a court with central officials, regional officers and aristocratic landholding families, often descended from supporters of founding ruler Jayavarman II and who intermarried with the royal dynasty. The administrative hierarchy tended to get more complex over time. The king stood at the apex of a legal system that was used by the elite to resolve disputes (typically over land). The service of “slaves” (those with various levels of bonded service) was sold or exchanged. Reservoirs, channels and canals were constructed. Temple foundations, with assigned land and workers, were a major part of the surplus extraction-and-use system. The last king in the first dynasty of Angkor, Jayavarman V, came to the throne as a 10 year old boy: after a period of regency arrangements, he took the throne in his own right. At his death, there was a prolonged civil war that brought a new dynasty to power (Pp79 ff).

Weaving through inscriptions setting out the (contradictory) stated histories of aristocratic families provides some glimpse into a period of civil war and competing kingships which was brought to an emphatic ritual end in 1011 when Suryavarman I held a great ceremony of allegiance where a large number of officials swore undying allegiance and service. The period of civil war seems to have been highly destructive and disruptive and be followed by much re-building (including starting the largest of the baray at Angkor) and widespread assertion of rights over land. His successor Udayadityavarman II was also an extensive builder, though his reign was marked by insurrections. In 1066, Udayadityavarman II was succeeded by his brother Harshavarman III, before another dynasty took the throne (Pp91ff).

A new dynasty
In 1080, Jayavarman VI was ritually enthroned, first of a new dynasty of rulers (ancestors of the current royal family) who seems to have come from the upper Mun valley (in modern Thailand). Inscriptions continue to record land grants and other favours to supporting families and donations to temple foundations. One such inscription records that the land purchased and donated was purchased with cattle, silver, bronze and tin vessels, gold rings, cloth, elephants, vehicles, salt, rice and goats. The donor also gifted workers and built a reservoir (Pp110-2).

Jayavarman VI was succeeded by his brother Dharanindravarman I c.1108, who appears to have been a somewhat ineffectual ruler. He was overthrown and killed by his grand-nephew Suryavarman II who was ritually consecrated in 1113 and set about re-uniting the empire, accepting submissions and building on a monumental. He was the builder of Angkor Wat, which makes him one of the great builder-rulers of history. Higham takes us through the enormous scale of the construction and the labour resources it must have taken (Pp107ff).

Suryavarman II’s reign was followed by a series of short reigns, internal strife and a devastating Cham invasion that included a sack of Angkor. The ruler who defeated the Cham and re-unified the Khmer empire was Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Khmer ruler-builders, the builder of Angkor Thom and the Bayon. His massive building effort was a particular boon for scholars since he covered his buildings with carved battle and life scenes rather than mythological ones. From the pinnacle of his success he also showered his guru with extensive gifts. The inscriptions reveal the scale of some of the temple foundations (Pp120ff). One had:
Eighteen high priests and 2740 officials lived and worked there, together with 2202 assistants, which included 615 female dancers. In total, 12,640 people had the right to lodge within. Feeding and clothing this multitude involved the provision of rice, honey, molasses, oil, fruit, sesame, millet, beans, butter, milk, salt and vegetables, all these quantities being scrupulously listed for appropriation from the royal foundations and warehouses. Clothing was also required, and even the number of mosquito nets is set down. Assigned to supply the temple were 66,265 men and women, a figure rising to 79,365 if you include Burmese and Chams. The inscription then provides an inventory of the foundation’s assets: gold and silver vessels; 35 diamonds; 40,620 pearls; 4540 precious stones such a beryl; copper goblets; tin; lead; 512 silk beds; 876 veils from China; cushions; and 523 sunshades. There were musical instruments to ‘charm the spirit’ and, with nightfall or for rituals, there were 165,744 wax torches (Pp126-7).
All sustained by an empire built on a barter economy, without any coinage.

An empire that provided healthcare. The foundation was responsible for 102 hospitals (each of which had two doctors and their assistants, two dispensary workers, two cooks, water heaters, specialists in preparing medicines and other attendants, including those who prepared offerings to the Buddha) across the kingdom, to which 81,640 men and women from 838 villages were assigned to supply with rice, clothing, honey, wax and fruit: supplies which included 1960 boxes of salve to ease haemorrhoids (p.127). Another temple had 5324 villages housing 97,840 people assigned to its services (including 1000 dancers). Jayavarman VII was also recorded to have constructed 121 rest houses for travellers (p.129). How much his building program was continued by his successor Indravarman II is unclear. Like his father, he did display a preference for Buddhism. His successor, Jayavarman VIII, whose reign began in 1243, was an ardent Shivaite who destroyed or transformed “every image of the Buddha he could lay his hands on”. He was replaced in a palace coup by his son-in-law Indravarman III in 1295-6(p.133).

In 1296, the Chinese commercial attaché Zhou Daguan visited the Khmer realm. The surviving volumes of his journals are the only surviving contemporary description of the Khmer Empire, which Higham summarises. His descriptions included reference to female palace guards. Higham points out that his description of a royal procession in 1296 was very similar to that from 1901 (Pp134ff).

Diminishing evidence
After Zhou Daguan archaeologists rely on a small and diminishing number of inscriptions. Various rulers ascended the throne, of whom we know little. The last Sanskrit inscription dates from 1327: the high quality of the verse suggests that scholarship was still thriving (p.139). Warfare became endemic as the power of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya increased in power—to the extent of sacking Angkor in 1430-1 after a long siege. Many statues of Buddha were moved to Ayutthaya. When it was sacked by the Burmese in 1569, they were taken to Pegu and then, in 1734, to Mandalay, where they can still be seen. The capital of Cambodia moved back to the Mekong valley, from whence it had moved seven centuries earlier, and Angkor Thom reverted to jungle (p.140).

Around 1600, the Portugese began to report legends of a rediscovered city, which was discovered by Europeans over the next few centuries: a process interrupted by war and Cambodia’s appalling late C20th history (Pp140ff).

The civilisation in summary
Higham concludes with a summary chapter on the civilisation of Angkor. He reprises the sequence by which the civilisation arose: the prehistoric Iron Age; the Delta state (150-550); state formation in the Mekong Valley (550-800); the capital at Angkor (800-1432). Higham notes that:
It is very difficult to pin down the status of the workers. Some could be bought and sold, some were war captives, while others may well have been in service to members of a noble family for generations and were assigned to develop a new foundation. Tied labour was not unusual in South-East Asia. As recently as the Ayutthaya period in Thailand, which ended in the eighteenth century, workers were tattooed to record their assigned place of work and to maintain a stable workforce (p.152).
His summary is an excellent consideration, showing a fine sense of what is, and is not, in the evidence (Pp 143ff).

High concludes with a comparison of Angkor with other “archaic states” (Pp162-6). Particularly in revealing the processes of state formation:
Robert Carniero, for example, has advanced six conditions for the emergence of a state from preceding chiefdoms. They revolve round the power to defeat neighbours and incorporate them in a larger polity; the power to enslave prisoners; the power to take tribute; the ability to provide a corps of fighting men; and ability to place supporters in control over conquered territory. There is considerable support for these propositions in recent instances of state formation assembled by Kent Flannery. The ritual and physical control of trade is a further variable, which recurs in many cases, while Henry Wright has noted how early stages in state formation are characterised by ‘chiefly recycling’: the ebb and flow of social complexity before the transition to the state has occurred. (Pp162-3).
There are also questions of patterns of expansion and contraction in state power.

Higham notes that rice, strong draught animals and iron technology are obvious differences with the jungle civilisations of Mesoamerica, but that there were considerable other similarities. There is also the issue of what role irrigation and water control played in state formation:
A further widespread feature of early trends towards state formation is the existence of drainage and agricultural improvement to maintain the loyalty of followers (p.164).
As trade, and so the Delta, declined, the shift in power towards the riverine flood plains saw:
two diametrically opposing forces at work. The first involved high chiefs, overlords or kings attempting to control land and labour through force and the projection of a sacred persona. This was offset by other local leaders pursuing independence and their own push for regional hegemony (p.164).
That looks like the same process to me—the struggle to control surplus (production beyond subsistence). Hence the cyclic rise and fall of overlords: a process that, as Higham notes, was also seen in the Near East the Americas.

As part of this process:
One does not need to look far to find evidence for growing social inequality. The very names are sufficient evidence; on the one hand, the Sanskrit title of the king meaning protégé of the great Indra, and on the other hand, workers with Khmer names meaning dog, stinker, black monkey and arse (p.164).
Which raises the question of what role successful kings played, what was their authority based on? He notes one scholar’s recent analysis that Mayan rulers were not much concerned with intensifying agriculture or trade beyond that which supported what they did care about—playing out and demonstrating their role as intermediaries with the divine. Higham holds there is insufficient evidence to support royal control of irrigation as being central to royal power and authority, which suggests more the role of divine intermediary: a suggestion that the scale and form of architecture, and the content of many inscriptions, support. None of which abolished the need to control distant provinces and protect borders: something the rulers of Angkor did with varying success.

But with enough success to produce seven centuries of rulership and dramatic construction which continues to be deeply symbolic to modern Cambodia.

Approaching an unfamiliar civilisation
The Khmer Empire, the civilisation of Angkor, is unfamiliar to most Western readers. In considering an unfamiliar civilisation, there are helpful questions to consider. For example, what is like, or unlike, other civilisations? For example, I am struck by the lack of fortifications: there were a few walled cities, but there seems to have been very limited use of fortification. This is in stark contrast to the Buddhist lands of the Tibetan cultural region, where fortified dzongs, palaces and monasteries are the dominant form of architecture.

But in the dry and cold Himalayan highlands, it is easy to store food for long periods and very hard to either “live off the land” or otherwise supply forces to sustain a siege. The geography also generates strategic “choke points”. Fortification is a very cost-effective strategy. In the hot, humid, teeming-with-life plains of Khmer civilisation, storing food for lengthy periods would be more difficult, sustaining a siege, or even just avoiding fortified points, much easier. Fortification is a much less cost-effective strategy. Walling one’s capital is about as far as it would be worth going.

Nor did it develop a self-aware horse-mounted warrior class such as the azadan of Zoroastrian Iran, the knights of Latin Christendom, or the samurai of Japan. This was in no useful sense a “medieval” society. On the contrary, it was a classical autocracy.

The centralised control, the monumental architecture, the importance of temples and religious institutions, the lack of coinage, means the civilisation of Angkor has a lot of overlap with Pharonic Egypt. Which also works in reverse: the similarities and differences then reflect back on one’s understanding of the civilisations that are more familiar.

Ironically, there is one aspect of medieval Latin Christendom which does seem to have an analogue in the Khmer Empire, the institution of serfdom. Scholars of Khmer history seem to have difficulty understanding how many graduations in forms of human bondage there can be between outright chattel slavery and freedom: something medieval scholars could explain quite readily.

The civilisation of Angkor was one capable of enormous and sustained building projects, with complex economic activity, including trade in assets, that had no coins. It was a barter economy. It had various mediums of exchange, various stores of value but, as far as we can see, no single unit of account. Certainly no medium of account: so no money in any useful sense of the term. A useful corrective example to presumptions and congenial “just so” stories about money: only one way in which studying Khmer civilisation is enlightening. Particularly in such a comprehensive and useful text as Higham’s The Civilisation of Angkor provides.

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