Destiny Thwarted: Two thousand years of Cambodia – Naresha Duraiswamy

Angkor Wat

BrahminCambodian history illustrates the interplay of economics and ideology in defining the fate of a nation. A vibrant South East Asian empire that selectively adopted Indian civilizational norms and institutions expanded over a 1,300 year period before it witnessed a steady 700 year decline. – Dr Naresha Duraiswam

Background: The Indianized Khmers and their predecessors were the foremost power in mainland South East Asia between the 1st and 13th centuries of the Common Era (CE). Hinduism and later Buddhism flourished. The Khmer Empire included the southern half of what is today Vietnam, North East/North Thailand and Laos. It stretched to the borders of Burma and the Malay peninsula. The civilizational interplay of Cambodia and classical-era India should be of interest to any student of Hindu history.

The early kingdoms of Funan, Chenla and Champa 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 maritime trade centers in what is today Vietnam. These ports were situated on the lucrative trade routes between India, the Indonesian archipelago and China. The Hinduized Kingdom of Funan, reportedly established by the Brahmin Kaundinya, dominated Indo-China between the first and sixth centuries CE. There were trade links with the Gupta Empire and later the Pallava Kingdom. Indonesian influence was significant. The Saivite and Vaishnavite Hindu traditions had left their imprint.

Deva Raja Jayavarman II (c. 772-850) founded the Khmer EmpireThe Khmer subsequently moved up the Mekong river in part to avoid Indonesian naval domination. The expansion of irrigated wet rice agriculture complimented the earlier maritime trade. Authoritarian kings legitimized their rule using social concepts borrowed from India. Jayavarman II unified the Khmer in 802 CE forming the Angkor Empire. Having declared himself a Devaraja or God King, he embarked on military conquest. A succession of strong kings followed until the 1200s CE. The consolidation of the state was linked to the economic surplus and religion. There were huge investments in irrigated agriculture, temple construction and the military. Periods of tumult alternated with empire-building. Cambodia traded with India, China, the Indonesian archipelago and Mon dynasty Burma. An era of unparalleled prosperity had emerged.

Civilizational Momentum: Kampuchea was a hydraulic civilization. A centralized bureaucracy administered a vast irrigation network. The King’s control over water resources and the agrarian surplus resulted in immense wealth. Successive rulers invested their resources in a huge and expensive campaign of construction, one that was legitimized by Brahmanic ritual. The capital of Angkor may well have been the largest pre-industrial city in the world with an urban area of 1,150 square miles and a population of a million. This was a time when the biggest towns in Christian West Europe did not exceed twenty five thousand residents. Angkor may have also been the world’s busiest city at that time situated at the center of a vibrant overland and riverine trade network.

A Kala image at Banteay Srei Shiva TempleThe temple of Banteay Srei, dedicated to the God Shiva and constructed in 967 CE by a courtier to King Jayavarman V, was noted for its intricate three dimensional stone carvings depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Suryavarman II commissioned the construction of Angkor Wat in 1112 CE in honor of the God Vishnu. This remains the largest religious structure in the world to this day. The artistic workmanship is sophisticated 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 demons carved on its wall panels. The Hindu epics were portrayed in stone, literature, theater and dance. The temple towers dominated the surrounding countryside flanked by irrigated paddy fields, palmyra palms and banyan trees.

The assimilation of Indic concepts stimulated the Khmer people. It was a time of civilizational efflorescence where new traditions and ideas were adopted. The ruling dynasties were Hinduized. Cambodia adopted Indic traditions of administration, aesthetics, architecture, calendar, court ceremony, economy, jurisprudence, literature, religion, statecraft and theatre. The Dharma Shastras, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Saivite Tamil hymns left their imprint. The Khmer alphabet was derived from the Pallava grantha script. The Cambodian new year coincided with the start of the Hindu solar calendar.

First Buddhist King Jayavarman VII of CambodiaThe Khmer empire reached its zenith in the 12th century CE. It annexed neighboring states and controlled mainland South East Asia. It dominated the South China Sea. In 1181 CE, Jayavarman VII adopted Mahayana Buddhism and commissioned the construction of the Bayon in near by Angkor Thom dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara. The Mongol army invaded soon thereafter. Kampuchea was able to buy them off with its enormous wealth. But its military prowess had begun to decline.

Change and Cataclysm: The unceasing military campaigns and the expensive program of temple building and public works led to a fiscal deficit. The increased taxation drained the peasant population. Deforestation linked to increased rice cultivation and construction undermined the irrigated agriculture economy. It silted the man-made water ways and disrupted the complex irrigation system. The land witnessed an ecological and infrastructure breakdown. The elaborate court ceremony centered on the Brahmanic concept of the God King or Deva Raja had exhausted its capacity to provide meaning to a tired people.

The Khmer populace adopted the simplicity of Theravada/Hinayana or southern Buddhism in 1295 CE under Indravarman III. Sinhalese influence was felt at a time when Sri Lanka itself had come under attack from Magha of Kalinga. The Pali canon supplanted the Sanskrit texts. Buddhist iconography was retrofitted into parts of Angkor Wat at a subsequent date. Sri Lanka helped transform Cambodia into a Theravada Buddhist land. Was this loss of Hindu civilizational momentum due to the disruption of trade and intellectual links with India given the Turkic invasions of the Indian south? Or was it due to the start of the gradual Islamization of the ports of Sumatra and peninsula Malaya on account of Bengali, Gujarati and Arab traders in the aftermath of the Chola decimation of the Sri Vijaya maritime confederacy? Or were there other factors at play? Had Hinduism lost the capacity to renew itself in changed South East Asian circumstances?

What is clear however is that this civilizational shift coincided with Cambodia’s period of terminal decline. The dark ages had commenced. The Thai in the west and the Vietnamese in the east annexed large swathes of Kampuchean territory. The Thai annexed the present North East Thailand and Laos. Thailand, unlike Cambodia, had become a vibrant power with its adoption of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century CE once again under Sinhalese influence.

Buddhist monks visit the Preah Vihear temple on the border between Thailand and CambodiaWhile the Thai also assimilated the Hinduized Khmer classicism, they continued with their incursions, plunder and annexation of Khmer territory. The Thai state sacked the Cambodian capitals in 1432 and 1594. Tens of thousands of Khmer peasants, scholars and artists were marched back to Thailand as slaves.

The Vietnamese meanwhile expanded southwards to incorporate what it today the southern half of Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, originally Khmer. The much reduced Khmers became pawns in a Thai-Vietnamese chess game. Thailand and Vietnam agreed to a joint suzerainty of Cambodia in 1845.

Cambodia was relegated to a backwater. It continues to be overshadowed by its two more powerful neighbors whose policies helped define its sad history in the 1970s and 1980s when millions perished. The Khmer often retreat into an anti-Vietnamese and anti-Thai zenophobia as witnessed in the recent emotive dispute over control of the classical-era Saivite Hindu Khmer temple of Preah Vihear on the Thai border.

One only hopes that the 700 year period of decline will reverse itself and Cambodia were to reclaim its past grandeur and enlightenment. May Vishnu of Angkor Wat revive that deeply fractured and traumatized land. – Sri Lanka Guardian, 3 April 2014

Banteay Srei Shiva Temple at Angkor Thom, Cambodia

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  • Google ground view of the temples HERE

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