Sunday, December 11, 2005

Cambodian History 101

The history of Cambodia offers insights into a vibrant, vigorous and cosmopolitan South East Asian civilization that selectively adopted Indic concepts on its own terms for its own purposes. The Indianized Khmers were once the foremost power in mainland South East Asia. Hinduism and Buddhism flourished in a symbiotic fashion. The Khmer empire included the southern half of what is today Vietnam and stretched to the borders of Burma and Malaysia. I am intrigued at the interplay of Cambodia and India in classical times. I will simplify and shorten the historical narrative to provide a hint of the grandeur of Khmer tradition.

The early kingdoms of Funan, Chenla and Champa in Indo-China in the first millennium of the common era were the precursors of the Khmer empire. The Cambodians adopted Indic traditions in the 1st century CE via the mercantile settlements that arose on the coastline of what is today South Vietnam. These ports were situated on the lucrative trade routes between India and China. The Hinduized Kingdom of Funan, reportedly established by the Brahmin Kaundinya, dominated Indo-China between the 1th and the 6th centuries CE. The Saivite, Vaishnavite and Buddhist traditions thrived. With the decline of the port of Funan, the Khmer moved up the Mekong river to establish the Kingdom of Chenla. This led to the development of wet rice agriculture where autocratic kings legitimized their rule through hierarchic social concepts borrowed from India. Jayavarman II unified the Khmer in 802 CE forming the Angkor Empire. He declared himself the Devaraja or God King and embarked on a campaign of military expansion. A succession of strong kings followed until the 1200s CE. This led to huge investments in a hydraulic civilization, a massive program of temple construction unparalleled in Asia and sheer military activity. Periods of tumult alternated with successful efforts at empire building and increased overseas trade.

The Khmer were a people stimulated, enlightened and disciplined by the adoption of Indic concepts, developing fast, picking up new ways and new ideas from the people they traded with and conquered. It was a time of civilizational efflorescence where the Sanskritic and the Kampuchean re-defined the other. The ruling dynasties were Hinduized while Sanskritic concepts governed administration. Cambodia adopted Indic traditions of administration, aesthetics, architecture, calendar, court ceremony, economy, jurisprudence, literature, religion, statecraft and theater. The Khmers conquered neighboring states and profoundly influenced them. Theirs was a centralized hydraulic civilization where the King's control over water resources and the rice surplus led to extensive long distance trade and commercial prosperity. Successive kings invested their monetary surplus in a huge and expensive campaign of construction, one that was legitimized by Brahmanic ritual.

For example, the temple of Banteay Srei, dedicated to Shiva and constructed in 967 CE by a courtier to King Jayavarman V, is noted for its intricate three dimensional stone carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Suryavarman, a devotee of Vishnu, in turn commissioned the construction of Angkor Wat in 1112 CE in honor of Vishnu. This is the largest religious edifice in the world. The artistic workmanship is unparalleled with scenes from the battle of Kurukshetra, the Battle of Lanka, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, and the Battle between the gods and the demons carved in fine detail on its wall panels. The stupendous temple towers dominate the surrounding countryside flanked by paddy fields, palmyra palms and banyan trees. In 1181 CE, Jayavarman VII adopted Mahayana Buddhism and commissioned the construction of the Bayon in the city of Angkor Thom dedicated to Avalokiteshwara.

The Khmer empire had reached its zenith in the 12th century CE. It dominated mainland South East Asia. However, the agricultural economy was subject to strain with deforestation due to increased rice cultivation, the consequent silting of the man-made water ways and the need for increased maintenance of the complex irrigation system by a centralized bureaucracy. The military campaigns, the expensive program of construction and huge public works contributed to a fiscal deficit. The peasant population had become exhausted with the turbulence of conflict. The elaborate court ceremony had exhausted its capacity to provide meaning to a tired people. The Khmer populace gradually adopted the simplicity of Theravada (Hinayana) or southern Buddhism in the 13th century. Cambodia was transformed into a Theravada Buddhist kingdom thereafter. This happened to coincide with a period of decline.

The Vietnamese in the east and the Thai thenceforth annexed large swathes of Kampuchean territory. The Thai took over the present North East Thailand and Laos. The Vietnamese expanded their kingdom to include what it today the southern half of Vietnam. The much reduced Khmers became pawns in a Thai-Vietnamese chess game. Thailand grew powerful with its own adoption of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century. It incorporated Khmer classicism wholesale into its historical fabric where the Khmer imprint on Thai high traditions is discernible. Cambodia itself was eclipsed into a relative backwater, a situation from which it has unfortunately not emerged to this date. It continues to be overshadowed by its two more powerful neighbors whose policies helped define its sad history in the 1970s and 1980s.


Sri Lankan said...

The presence of Indian culture in S.E. Asia cannot be compared to the arrival of the Europeans to America or Africa where the colonizers encountered a less developed native population. It was easy to implant their own customs, habits, laws and even the English language, religious and social establishment. These people had little of their own.

The Indians however did not encounter such communities in indochina. Instead they met a sophisticated people that had traits in common with the civilization of India. Paddy cultivation and the use of copper in S.E Asia predated the encounter with India. The Hindu-Buddhist civilization transplanted into these areas could be recognised in the epigraphical and archaelogical documents. Perhaps the only difference between it and the Sanskritization of south India is that the former was spread by sea while the latter was spread by land. Osmosis rather than conquest explains the culture transfer in both cases.

Jaffna said...

Sri Lankan,

You are correct that the introduction of Indic civilization in South East Asia took place peacefully in the first millennium. Moreover, it was "demand-driven" rather than imposed. I would add that trade was the conduit. In some ways, this was similar to the transfer of Chinese civilization to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. And the contrast with the imposition of European culture in the Americas and Africa stand out.

However, I would differ with you on another point. There were sophisticated cultures in the Americas and Africa prior to the European colonial interlude. There were the Aztec, Inca and Maya empires in the Americas. Spanish colonialism was responsible for the extermination of the pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas. The Spanish conquistadores largely annihilated the indigenous peoples.

Likewise, in pre-colonial Africa, the Ashanti had their own political constitution, the Bakongo their own script, the Mashona built the great stone castle in Zimbabwe while the pre-Islamic empire of Mali Songhai was built on the lucrative trans-Sahara trade in gold and salt. The European slave trade in the colonial era (not to mention the earlier Arab slave trade) decimated entire villages. A pretty sad picture.

Best regards

Anonymous said...

Angkor is a splendid place. We loved traveling there. Informative background info. Thanks.

Sukhinder said...

Jaffna, Very illuminating piece on Cambodia. Did not know the extent of Hindu influence there. Liked your earlier article on Burma. Can you do a similar piece on Thailand?


Blog Archive