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March 2, 2010

The Legacy of Angkor


Angkor, the great medieval city located near the Tonlé Sap (the "Great Lake") in northwestern Cambodia, was abandoned by Khmer rulers in the fifteenth century in an effort to find a capital that could be more easily defended against the expansionistic Thais. In the ensuing centuring - called the first "dark age" of Khmer history (the second being that instituted by the Khmer Rouge under Pol pot) - Angkor become a ruin, destroyed as much by the inexorable expansion of nature as by the destructive acts of humans. Although it was never really lost to Khmers, who recalled the past glories of Angkor in folktales, it ceased to be the cultural center of Khmer civilization after the fifteenth century.

In 1860 the French explorer Henri Mouhot made his way to ancient ruins surrounded by jungle in the vicinity of the Tonlé Sap. Mouhot has sometimes been wrongly credited with having discovered Angkor, but his description of the ruins in his Le Tour du Monde did awaken the outside world to one of the great architectural wonders of history. Mouhot's "discovery" ushered in a period of interest French interest in Angkor, an interest that led the French government to support, through that Ecole Francaise d'Extrême-Orient, archaeological and historical researches into the character of Angkorean civilization. In the twentieth century, the colonial government of Indochina also contributed considerable funds toward Angkor's reconstruction.

The research and reconstruction undertaken by the colonial government not only contributed significantly to worldwide awareness of the uniqueness of the great civilization that khmers had developed, but also sharped the historical consciousness of the Khmer themselves as a nation. Angkor become, and remains today, the preeminent symbol of Khmer national identity.

Angkorean Civilization

Although myths place the founding of Angkorean civilization in the ancient past, historical records per mit the dating of its beginning in the early ninth century A.D. A king known to posterity as Jayavarman II (c. 802-850) erected his capital near the Great Lake, from which he and his court could obtain a regular supply of fish to eat with the rice produced in the fertile fields irrigated by the lake. Jayavarman II gained the support of the populace, apparently because the rituals of his court were seen as essential to ensuring the fertility of the land. He began what is known as the cult of the devaraja (the "god-king") by identifying himself with the Hindu god Siva and representing the potency of both god and king in the from of a phallic image known as a linga. All subsequent kings of Angkor also equated themselves through ritual and the monuments with a sacred power, sometimes Hindu, sometimes Mahayana Buddhist.

Angkor, which is a Khmer version of the Sanskrit term nagara ("city"), was in fact a succession of sacred cities that served as the capital of the rulers of an empire from the ninth o the fifteenth centuries. Each pyramidal-shaped structure or temple that we so associate with Angkor was a re-creation in stone of the cosmology by which the Khmer rulers ordered their lives and that of their subjects. Through such buildings, the rulers of Angkor sought to bring the world of strife and struggle into harmony with ultimate order. The identification of the kind with a Hindu (or Buddhist) deity become complete at the time of the King's death. The shrine he had built during his lifetime become, after his death, his immortal body. Members of the royal family and the aristocracy emulated the ruler by erecting many more shrines in the capital and provincial centers.

The culmination of the pyramid-temple form, which represents in stone and space he sacred center of the universe, Mt. Meru, was realized in the twelfth century with the construction of unquestionably the most well-known monument at Angkor, Angkor Wat. Although the name Angkor Wat means "pagoda of the capital," it was not, in its original conception, a Buddhist temple (wat), but was, rather, dedicated to to god Visnu.

The cult of Visnu did not survive for very long as the exclusive religion of Angkor. King Jayavarman VII (1181 to the early thirteenth century), the best remembered king of the Angkorean period, sought (apparently form his wife's influence)religious inspiration from Mahayana Buddhism rather than from Hinduism. This inspiration did not lead Jayavarman VII to make a radical break with the architectural and inconographic traditions that had preceded his reign. His city, Angkor Thom, still centered on a representation of the sacred Mt. Meru, but he added new Buddhist elements to his shrine. Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon (temple mountain) has basreliefs. These are not, however, scenes from the lives of Visnu or Rama; rather they are scenes from the world of humans, the most important of the worlds in the Buddhist realm of feeling and desire, Aside from their religious meaning, these murals tell us much about life in Angkor at the time. The higher elevations of the shrine represent the realm of the gods, a realm dominated by the Bodhisattva, Lokesvara, whose compassion for all humans can assist them in achieving ultimate salvation.

The images of Lokesvara that dominate the Bayon have long captured the attention of visitors. Pierre Loti, in his Pélerin d'Angkor, wrote: "I looked up at the tree-covered towers which dwarfed me, when all of a sudden mu blood curdled as I saw an enormous smile looking down on me, and then another smile on another wall, then three, then five, then ten appearing in every direction." The faces represent not only the Bodhisattva alone; they are also of Jayavarman VII, who has become the Buddharaja, the king who is also a Buddha. The images looking in many directions were indicative of Jayavarman VII's control over a vast domain. While Jayavarman's authority may have been extended over a larger territory than his predecessors, the Angkorean world had long included much of what today is not only Cambodia, but also most of northeastern and much of central Thailand, central and southern Laos, and southern Vietnam.

The account of Chou Ta-kuan, a Chinese envoy to Angkor at the end of the thirteenth century, reveals that much of the populace as well as many in the elite adhered to that form of Buddhism known as the "Way of Elders," Theravada, although the Chinese themselves termed it Hinayana (the "lesser vehicle") in contrast to their own from of Buddhism, Mahayana (the "greater vehicle"). With the adoption of Theravada Buddhism, much of the rational for the monumental architecture of Angkor disappeared since people found greater appeal in the rituals performed in small shrines by Buddhist monks than in those performed by kings and priests in large temples.

As the rational for Angkorean civilization was undermined, so too did the military power of Angkor decline. In the fourteenth century a number of new states were formed by Tai-speaking peoples in what is today Thailand and Laos. Although the Tai from Ayutthaya attacked and defeated Angkor in the fifteenth century, it is more appropriated to see Ayutthaya as one of a number of successor states to Angkor - including also those of Lan Xang (Laos) and Phnom Penh - rather than as an aggressor intent on destroying Khmer culture. The court of these new Tai kingdoms, like that of Phnom Penh, derived most of their ideas about statecraft from Angkor.

The Politics of History

Although Thais and Lao lay some claim to the heritage of Angkor, it is the Khmers for whom Angkor holds the greatest historical significance. The various parties to the conflict that has so torn apart the country of Cambodia in the past two decades disagree about many things, but they have all looked to Angkor as the wellspring of Khmer identity. The national flags of the kingdom of Cambodia under Prince Sihanouk, the Khmer Republic headed by General Lon Nol, Democratic Kampuchea under Pol Pot and in its reincarnated form as a coalition of the Khmer rouge, the Khmer Peoples National Liberation front (under Son Sann), and followere of Prince Sihanouk, and the People's republic of Kampuchea (now the State of Cambodia) under Heng Samrin and Hun Sen all display an image of Angkor Wat, albeit somewhat different in each case. Today, the icon most likely to be encountered in an office in Phnom Penh is not a picture of a revolutionary hero but a painting, photo, or carved image of Angkor Wat. Similarly, at events involving Khmer refugees, images of Angkor Wat are likely to be very much in evidence.

The consensus - signified in the images on their flags and in other forms - among of Khmers that Angkor is the preeminent symbol of their civilization has not prevented the extremely destructive fratricide that has taken place in Cambodia since 1970. Beneath the consensus lie fundamentally different interpretations of what aspects of Angkorean civilization should be retained in contemporary Khmer culture.

For Prince Sihanouk - when he was still ruling the country - Angkor represented the triumph of his predecessors, the Angkorean rulers, in creating a great civilization based on the idea that the kings themselves embodied the sacred essence of the state. Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and other great monuments of the Angkorean complex were known to have been at once cult centers and funerary monuments dedicated to the cult of the "god-king" - that is, a king who was also the incarnation of a Hindu god or the Buddha. According to this view of Angkor, the populace supported the Angkorean kings by paying taxes and performing the Angkorean kings by paying taxes and performing the heavy labor needed for constructing and maintaining the large monuments because they believed that the "god-kings" were able to bring order to a chaotic world. Sihanouk also added to this the idea, adopted after the end of the Angkorean period, of the righteous king, the king who is widely acclaimed because he ruled in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. The royal interpretation of Angkor thus sees Khmer civilization as one that achieves its highest development through acts spread to the populace by a just king seeking to be compassionate, in a Buddhist sense, toward his subjects.

The Khmer Rouge also sought to assert a Khmer identity that embodied the glory of Angkor, but its Angkor was not a civilization in which the world was to take pride, but was seen, as the historian Chandler has written , as having been created as "a purely national event." Under the Khmer Rouge almost no outsider visited the famous ruins. The Khmer Rouge also turned the royalist interpretation of Angkor on its head: the rulers of Angkor, like all kings, were the corrupt products of feudalism. As such, as a monarchy had no place in a revolutionary Cambodia. Angkor still remained relevant, however, as a symbol of what the power of the people working collectively could accomplish. Under the Khmer Rouge the idea of collective labor was raised to the level of the sacred. Angkor was evoked, in Chandler's words, "to demonstrate that ordinary people, when mobilized in vast numbers by the state can do extraordinary things." Although the Angkorean legacy was the only part of the Khmer past to be given any positive value by the Khmer Rouge, this legacy was itself of only limited significance. The new society to be created by the Khmer Rouge was, in the words of the national anthem of Democratic Kampuchea, to be "more glorious than Angkor."

The legacy of Angkor has been reinterpreted anew in the wake of the installation of a Vietnamesebacked government in Phnom Penh and the creation of a coalition of Khmer Rouge, Sihanoukist, and republican factions with support in refugee camps in Thailand and among refugees living elsewhere. In the immediate aftermath of the Vietnamese push into the country, the area containing the Angkorean monuments become a battlefield. There was some damage to the monuments. Although how much will only be know when all monuments (not just Angkor Wat and those of Angkor Thom) are open to outside inspection. The greatest loss was in the form of the many images, basreliefs, and other Angkorean artifacts that were stolen and then sold on the international art market (mainly through Bangkok antique shops). When I visited Angkor in May 1989, I asked our local guide about the theft of Angkorean antiquities. Although be laid the blame on the Khmer Rouge, an official of the Phnom Penh government quickly added that refugees fleeing the country, Vietnamese, and "even our own people" has also been involved. To those who have been left very little in the upheavals of the past 20 years, the temptation to gain what would seem an immense fortune through the sale of Angkorean antiquities must have been, and still must be, extraordinarily difficult to resist.

Following the displacement of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Heng Samrin's new government established control over most of the Angkorean monuments; this government also reassessed the significance of the legacy of Angkorean civilization. In 1984, on the fifth anniversary of "liberation," Heng Samrin said, "The architectural works of Angkor, While a brilliant proof of the matchless skills and creativeness of Kampuchean working people, intellectuals, and artists (have) cost the people untold misery and countless lives of forced labor and caused the exhaustion and decline of the country for centuries." No longer was Angkor to be taken as a symbol of what the people's labor could create. This rather negative view of Angkor has given way in subsequent years to a pre-Khmer Rouge interpretation of Angkorean civilization as a source of national pride. The Phnom Penh government has sought to reclaim the Angkorean legacy in the form of artistic, musical, and especially dance forms whose antecedents can be seen in the basreliefs.

In the past few years, the Phnom Penh government has sponsored renewed restoration efforts - undertaken at Angkor Wat by an Indian team and at the Bayon by a Polish group - and the reopening of Angkor to a limited number of tourists. Both acts resituate the Angkorean legacy as part of world civilization. These efforts within Cambodia find echoes among Khmer refugees in camps in Thailand and among Khmers in the United States and Europe who link themselves to the Angkorean legacy through dance, music, and art. Some, like the owner of a restaurant in Virginia with whom I talked last year, already anticipate a time when they can organize tours from the United States of Angkor.

Despite the fundamental agreement between the Phnom Penh government and those associated with the noncommunist resistance that Angkorean civilization is the source of a distinctive and valued national identity for Khmers within an international community, these parties and their backers have failed to find a means to effect national reconciliation. In the renewed conflict that has occurred since the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces in May 1989, Angkor appears likely to become a battlefield once again. And if the Khmer Rouge should once again emerge triumphant from the new conflict - a distinct possibility unless there is strong international support for excluding it from any new government - Angkor could become a symbol not of national pride but of totalitarian oppression.


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Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.