From the 1st century AD, Peninsular and Insular Southeast Asia has become the setting of a huge Indian influence. Practically, this Hinduisation consisted in new religious systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism, a new conception of the state and the introduction of writing.
The opinions of the specialists differ on the origins of Hinduisation: whether they be the opening of new sea routes, or the necessity to stock up with gold or other motivations.
One thing is sure: one of the earliest Hinduised kingdoms of the region, Funan, was born in the 1st century AD and existed until the 6th century AD.
It is precisely in this period that the South East Asian scripts were born and we can follow their development until today.
More than a century of research showed that the earliest SEA writing systems originated in a South Indian script used to write Sanskrit language.
A Hinduized Phnong
Everything begins by carving Sanskrit inscriptions in SEA and the oldest inscription in the peninsula dates back to the third century AD : The Vo Canh inscription discovered near Nha Trang, now central Vietnam.
In a rather short time this Sanskrit script was used to write three languages spoken in the peninsula: the Mon language spoken at that time in Eastern Burma and in the Central part of what is now Thailand, the Cham language of the kingdom of Champa for which the territory roughly corresponded to what is today Annam and northern coastal Cochinchina in Vietnam and, finally, Khmer language.
The oldest known Khmer inscription was found in Angkor Borei, now in Takeo Province. Angkor Borei may have been one of the capitals of the kingdom of Funan.
The Angkor Borei inscription, listed as K 600, can be exactly dated to the year 611.
The word Phnong, which is the name of the main ethnic group in Mondulkiri province, is also used in Khmer to designate the not so politically correct concept of savage.
When the French scholar Georges Coédès writes that “Khmer is a Hinduised Phnong”, it is not at all a term of abuse, but a striking expression to describe the considerable distance between a tribal way of life and the then Hinduised Khmer world : religion, centralized state and, of course, script.
In the following centuries, comparatively to Cham and Mon languages, Khmer written production can be characterized by an exceptional continuity. Let’s simply consider that we can follow the evolution of Khmer language and writing from the 7th century to the present day without interruption. In short, this amounts to say that Khmer cultural space is an essential key to the understanding of the past on the Southeast Asian peninsula.
Old Khmer and Sanskrit
At this stage, one has to guard against the usual wandering error by being conscious that Khmer does in no way come from Sanskrit, even if as a consequence of Hinduisation, Sanskrit exerted a considerable influence on the lexicon of old Khmer and the neighboring languages.
This deeply rooted prejudice apparently goes back to the first period of the French protectorate. This prejudice may have rooted in the attitude of the first French explorers who were very choked by the contrast between the “great ruins” and the state of decadence of the then Khmer country.
Yet, Georges Groslier was very soon the tireless advocate of the Khmer patrimony: Angkor Vat may well be the greatest Hindu temple in the world, its architectural conception took its roots in Hindu religion, but as a whole the result is nevertheless unfailingly Khmer.
As far as the language is concerned, no one can seriously challenge the fact the contemporary Khmer is directly derived from old Khmer pre-Angkor inscriptions. More than that: an 8th century Khmer text will be, at least partly, understandable to any knowledgeable Cambodian, whereas the Old English version of Beowulf would hardly be understood by modern English speakers?
Cambodian space owns also a fair number of inscriptions in Sanskrit language of which the content is very different from the Khmer inscriptions.
What is at stake in the 2 languages is very different. Sanskrit, as the language of Hinduism, is a vehicle of highly abstract literary, historical and philosophical texts. Sanskrit inscriptions are in no way rooted in the territory where they were carved: without exaggerating, one could say that similar themes can be found in Java, Champa or Cambodia Sanskrit inscriptions.
The situation of Khmer inscriptions is totally different: of a far less degree of abstraction, they are entirely rooted in Cambodian realities: the building of temples, religious foundations and offerings, and as a matter of fact, they present a major interest for reconstructing the history of the Khmer land.
Epigraphy as a profession
Everything began in the end of the 19th century. What was then at stake was to construct the framework of a Khmer culture and the history of Cambodia.
The Angkor temples forest may talk to the esthete, not to the historian. The latter’s requirements consist in interpreting, dating, reconstructing, explaining sequences of events and for all that, texts are needed.
There exist of course many travellers’ accounts, generally Chinese, which are very valuable sources full of precious information, but the inscriptions were to play the decisive part to reconstruct Cambodian ancient history.
A fantastic adventure followed where researchers like Louis Finot, Etienne Aymonier, Au Chieng and Georges Coédès won fame.
Georges Coédès published in Hanoi in 1937 the first volume “Inscriptions of Cambodia” which was eventually followed by six other volumes published in France, the last one in 1966.
The Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) was to play a key part in this adventure and its journal (BEFEO) began publishing, translating and commenting on inscriptions as early as 1904.
An endless activity
Cambodian inscriptions make you feel dizzy: new inscriptions are still regularly found and they are very far from having been translated and commented upon.
The implications of this fact are obvious: Cambodian general history may well be known, but there remain very many obscure points which will only be made clear when the inscriptions are deciphered. Thus there is a strong chance that a book about pre-Angkor or Angkor Cambodia written 20 years ago may be simply refuted by the discovery or the deciphering of an inscription.
This has already been the case for a classic of its kind like Georges Coédès’ “History of hinduized kingdoms” or Laurence Briggs’ “The Khmer Empire”.
During the meeting dedicated in 1999 to Georges Coédès in Bangkok, Michael Vickery, the author of the most recent and comprehensive survey about Pre-Angkor Cambodia “Society, Politics and Economics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia”, declared abruptly but not without reason that: “To study nowadays Cambodian history with Coédès would amount to do geography with Ptolemy”.
The historical aspect of epigraphy is one well established thing, but the inscriptions were sometimes going to play another part.
The content of an inscription (temple, foundation, offerings...) is one thing, the nation-states’ later political use of the inscriptions is something else. The principle is as old as the world and could be summed up as follow: “I was here before you” and for that, there is nothing better than the perpetuity of the inscriptions.
An epigraphic western: The Ramkhamhaeng case
In 1834, Mongkut, a Buddhist monk discovered an inscription that, according to him, had been carved in 1292.
The inscription being written with letters very much like modern Thai letters, it was immediately considered as the first text ever written in the Thai language and not by just anybody but by the king Ramkhamhaeng himself, who became de facto the inventor of the Thai script. From then on, the inscription was named after him.
Till then the very existence of this king was not too clear and he was even considered as legendary. Even today we are not entirely sure about the time of his birth or death: 1279 – 1298 or 1239? – 1298 or 1239 – 1317... Well, we are not going to quibble about such insignificant details. Didn’t a good old religious tradition teach us that to make a saint from someone it’s better to wait for his death to avoid further disappointments, and it is even better that he had never existed.
Mongkut’s story didn’t stop there as he became the king Rama IV and ruled over the kingdom of Siam from 1851 to 1868.
It’s under his rule that the Ramkhamhaeng became a major element of the Thai national patrimony.
For the history of writing which has the arduous task to reconstruct the conditions of the evolution of the various scripts, the influences and the borrowings, the Ramkahmhaeng is an incredible challenge: the only case when a very much developed script literally came out of nothingness, nothing before, nothing after!
The problems begin
In 1986, one of the most famous Thailand art critics, Piriya Krairiksh, put forward the opinion that the inscription, according to him carved by Mongkut – Rama IV himself, only dated back to the 19th century.
Michael Vickery, whose greatest quality is certainly not mercy, followed close behind him in the 1987 Canberra conference on Thai studies, did it again in a 1989 article and, in 1991, he summarized his major points which were to be published in a 1995 issue of The Journal of the Siam Society.
His article is based on a very deep analysis of the language, script and context: the context of the Ramkhamhaeng is not 13th century Sukhotai and the question to know if this script could have been invented by a genial king is at best meaningless: “There are certain questions and criticism which I shall not attempt to answer, and which I think are unanswerable, not because they are weighty, but because they are outside the realm of scientific discourse within which historians and linguists must work. For example, I shall make no attempt to counter arguments of the type, "why couldn't a great genius, such as 'Ram Khamhaeng' devise from nothing a perfect writing system?" This question is unanswerable. We cannot say in a scientifically provable way that a great genius could not have done that, but all we know about the development of such cultural items suggests that if not impossible, it is extremely improbable”, Vickery wrote.
Till then, the polemics had been restricted to academic discussions summed up by John Chamberlain’s book “The Ramkhamhaeng controversy” which was published in 1991.
Academic discussions of this kind may allow expressing reservations, but they will never result in a total calling into question.
That would be an incredible loss of face: one would have to rewrite the parts of historical books where it is told about the Ramkhamhaeng, to take out of the Thai language handbooks the sentence according to which “modern Thai script dates back to 1292 and was invented by king Ramkhamhaeng”, without talking about the traditional universally celebrated Gelb’s and Février’s handbooks about the history of writing. The icing on the cake would be to expose the trick of Rama IV’s, a revered king.
An American academic offered a pedagogical example: “imagine that tomorrow we are told that our constitution is a fake”.
Things could have only got that far, but something else was to happen.
In 2003, The Ramkhamhaeng was submitted by the Thai government for the registration on the world patrimony list.
This had many consequences such as total dissociation between the decision of the Thai government taken on purely political grounds and the choice of many Thai intellectual not to overlook the debate.
The debate is highly interesting because it teaches a lot about the maturity of Thai academic.
The Preah Vihear affair revealed a Thailand that yielded in to xenophobic temptation. Here, there is nothing of the kind because the demarcation line is between Thai.
The authentic of the Ramkhamhaeng is not essential. But there is a strong uneasiness resulting from the will to conclude politically the discussion about a rather doubtful case.
Thai academics’ pride has been deeply hurt when for instance the politician Boworsak Uwanno accused them to “destroy national unity” just because they put forward doubts about the authenticity of the inscription.
It is precisely this kind of uneasiness that Mukhom Wongtes analyzed in her excellent book: “Intellectual Might and National Myth: A Forensic Investigation of the Ram Khamhaeng Controversy in Thai Society”, it is a remarkable indictment of the Thai political community meddling tendency and the necessity for the intellectual to keep its independence.
For more than a century, Angkor Wat has been beyond any reasonable doubt equated with the quintessence of Cambodian culture.
In September 1862, when Cambodia was not yet under the French protectorate rule, Admiral Bonnard went to Udong at that time King Norodom I’s capital and then to Siem Reap. This was the first time that a high ranking French official wrote a report on the famous ruins that we now know as Angkor.
Bonnard wrote: “Legend, history and religion of this vanished people are here, showed to the eyes of the skeptic who won’t be able anymore to deny that today’s poverty-stricken Cambodia could once and can still feed a great artistic and industrious people”.
What has to be remembered from Bonnard’s words are: the vanished people, the poverty-stricken Cambodia and the great artistic people. The next coming Angkorian adventure was already in embryo.
At that time, as France intended to extend its influence in the region far beyond its small Cochinchina colony, the Protectorate regime (1863 - 1953) over Cambodia was soon going to be a reality.
A few months later, it was Admiral de la Grandière’s turn to come to Siem Reap. Admiral de la Grandière was the military Governor of Cochinchina (the first French colony in the Far East). That was the opportunity used to first officialize the “great ruins.” It has to be noted that the Angkor temples were still at that time on Siamese territory and were only going to be retro-ceded to Cambodia in 1907. De La Grandière quietly visited the ruins as if they were part of Cambodian territory.
Anecdotally, the French journalist from the newspaper Le Courrier de Saigon made confusion in understanding “mines” instead of “ruins”(the 2 words rhyme in French). A biting answer was to come from a Singapore English language newspaper which worried about the French ambitions in such a rich region. This was all the more surprising since there never were any mineral mines in the region! In any case the pitch was given once for all.
For the highest glory of Angkor
After the 15th century in Cambodia, if Angkor was considered by the Khmers living in its neighborhood as an important religious site, it was certainly not viewed as a symbol of national pride.
Almost immediately after the establishment of the protectorate regime (1863 - 1953), Angkor was to epitomize the official vision of Cambodian history as stated, for example, by Penny Edwards, “Angkor was remade as both the embodiment of Khmer national essence and an irretrievable, unachievable, and impossible moment of cultural perfection”.
For the French protectorate, what was at stake was no less than providing the Kingdom of Cambodia with a new ideological structure of which Angkor Wat would be the key element.
From then on, Cambodian history would have to consist of a two-part narrative: past glory and present decay: Angkor Wat as the symbol of greatness par excellence and decadence.
The French Protectorate for its part was only too eager in volunteering to help Cambodia recover its ancient greatness. Without oversimplifying, the deal may be expressed in the following way: Angkor Wat is the proof Cambodia had a once glorious history followed by a terrible decline. The French Protectorate was there to help Cambodians recover their past glory. The proof may be seen in the fact that France rediscovered Angkor Wat and was restoring it.
Everything was planned and not even the smallest detail was neglected. For instance the “discoverer” of Angkor was in reality father Bouillevaux around 1850, at least 10 years before Henri Mouhot. Bouillevaux even published about Angkor in 1858 his “Voyage dans l’indochine 1848 – 1856”. Unfortunately, Father Bouillevaux was not such an exciting writer and his writing did not come easy. Bouillevaux was invited by the French Superior Resident and was politely but firmly asked to forget his “discovery”. From then on, Angkor would officially have been discovered by Mouhot.
The colonial exhibitions of Marseille (1924) and Paris (1931) played considerable parts and according to Penny Edwards: “In addition to proclaiming France’s dominance in Indochina, and the vigor and valor of France’s conservation efforts vis-à-vis the stasis of indigenous races, Angkor acted as a crucial signifier of Khmer difference. France’s projection of Angkor Vat as the key emblem of Indochina fostered Khmer national pride and aroused Vietnamese indignation”
And it worked beyond all expectations. For more than a century, Angkor Wat has been beyond any reasonable doubt equated with the quintessence of Cambodian culture. All the Cambodian regimes that followed independence from France in 1953 tried hard to defined adequate stylized representations of Angkor Wat on their various flags, not to mention the Khmer Rouge who went even further by mentioning Angkor Wat in their national Anthem. The same way colonial ideology depicted Cambodian history was adopted by Khmer nationalist scholars of the Buddhist Institute and the newspaper Nagaravatta in the 1930s without the slightest hesitation and this common representation of Cambodia in greatness and decline still plays the part of a prerequisite to any discussion about Cambodian history to this day.
Behind the mythical towers: Cambodian history
The chronology of Cambodian history itself is more a chrono-ideology with a pivotal role offered to Angkor. Thus we have a history-writing syndrome in which Angkor is seen in its relation to pre-Angkor and post-Angkor. The result is often comical: in many books, the pre and post Angkorian periods consist of only a few pages, while the core of the book is of course about Angkor. An example taken at random comes from the book “Les Khmers” (The Khmers) by Bruno Dagens. “Les Khmers” is in fact an interesting and well documented introduction to Angkor, but not to the Khmer people. As we close the book we wonder if there were Khmers before and after Angkor.
Cambodian people need history; they don’t need to hear that they belong to a people who were once great, but by a strange law of nature, were afterwards reduced to decadence. This tendency to reduce Cambodian history to a series of Angkorian certainties really weakens not only Cambodian history, but also its teaching and the lessons which could be learnt from it.
As an ethnic group, the Khmers didn’t wait for Angkor to exist, but they are amongst the first inhabitants of the Southeast Asian Peninsula. If we analyze the current ethno-linguistic map of Peninsular South East Asia, we can notice one essential fact: the various languages pertaining to the Austro Asiatic linguistic group, of which Khmer is a major member, display a compact distribution from South Yunnan to Central Malaysia and from Eastern India to the South China Sea.
On the other side the presence of the other ethno linguistic components in the area can be dated to around the 8th century BC for the Cham and around the 10th century AD for the Thai. The data indicates that the Khmer were amongst the first to be here.
To this fact should be added another one. The Khmer language exerted an incredible influence on the neighboring languages. For instance, according to Professor Varasarin a considerable part of the modern Thai lexicon comes from Khmer. She could extract more than 2,500 words and classify them into 200 semantic categories. It shows that almost all the fields of the Thai lexicon were influenced by Khmer language. Other more distant languages are also stuffed with Khmer words, amongst others Nyah Kur, a Mon language spoken in what is today Central Eastern Thailand. Another example is Thavung, an Austro Asiatic language spoken in Northeast Laos.
A language doesn’t borrow words for the mere sake of borrowing them, but techniques were borrowed along with the words and this mere fact reveals the influence Khmer civilization exerted in the peninsula.
Even the question of the language spoken in the Kingdom of Funan (1st – 7th century AD) or the very nature of that civilization is but too obvious. This is a part of Khmer national heritage that should not be overlooked at a time when history has been mobilized in the region to back the most questionable thesis.
From swaying to valuing hieratic quality
Angkor is but one moment of the Khmer civilization. To be convinced of it, you just need to indulge yourself with a little visit of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The building itself is not entirely Angkorian. Georges Groslier, who completed it in 1920 based its architecture on the combination of two stylistic conceptions: the base is definitely Angkorian, that is heaviness, square columns, whereas the top intended to make use of Buddhist motives, just like the ones we can find on the roof of any Theravada Buddhist pagodas. The result is astonishing as this pagoda-style roof lightens the whole structure and provides it with the impression of floating. The museum was built to shelter the innumerable objects of art because Cambodia is by far the most important archeological site of the region. These objects of art were found continuously almost everywhere in the country. But the decision to build the National Museum was finally taken after the March, 1907 treaty when Siam retro-ceded Siem Reap Province with all the Angkor temples, to Cambodia.
Most of the visitors, Khmer or foreigners know Angkor and are, for the most part, prone to associate Khmer civilization with Angkor. However, you get a big surprise when you realize that the differences between the statues that were carved before and after 802 AD.
Statues in Phnom Da from the second half of the sixth century and those of Isanapura, also known as Sambor Prey Kuk, 615 – 635 stand in stark contrast with the first statues of Vishnu sculpted after the capital had been transferred to the Angkor region by King Jayavarman II in 802 AD.
Phnom Da and Sambor Prey Kuk displayed a set of very human characters with a very refined and precise anatomical conception. They all express motion and allow a dynamic investing of the surrounding space. One fundamental aspect is the swaying at the level of the hips, to the right or to the left, because it allows drawing a diagonal line to which corresponds the orientation of the other parts of the body: feet, knees, shoulders and head, somewhat like the part the chiasmus played in Greek sculpture
This stands in contrast with what happens to Khmer statues by the beginning of the 9th century. The swaying is henceforth a mere formal feature reduced to the hips and no longer contributes to the general structure of the statue. These statues are characterized by stiffness: no more anatomical precision, no more motion.
Ironically, Western art followed just the opposite path: from hieratic stiffness to the expression of life and motion.
The reasons for these considerable variations in time are numerous: the fact has been often evoked that the statuary is the most politically sensitive part of Khmer art. The carving of stiffer statues often corresponds with a political tendency to centralize power. The problem does not lie in what should be preferred; it is a mere question of taste and there is no universally acknowledged objective way of analyzing artistic quality.
The problem lies elsewhere: more than two centuries before the capital settled in the Angkor region, the artists of two Cambodian kingdoms, in the South and in the Northwest, were able to give birth to statues of an almost unrivaled quality in Southeast Asia.
Again and again, it appears that there is more than one door leading to Khmer civilization.
The unity of Angkor
In a somewhat popular approach to Khmer history, the term unity has acquired a considerable importance as the Angkorian period is very often presented by Khmer people as the time of unity par excellence.
That time is very seriously seen as a kind of lost paradise yet untarnished by personal rivalries, where the common good was supposed to prevail over the tyranny of individual ambitions.
Every culture generates its own mythology and, as we all know, the myths are always hard to die.
Instead of talking of unity between people, we may seriously question the accuracy of the unity of the so called Angkorian period.
Angkorian time or Angkorian Empire is a general term used to talk about the period between 802 AD, the time Jayavarman II settled his capital in the Angkor region, and 1431, the time when the kingdom was invaded by the Siamese army and the king Ponhea Yat fled westward to settle his new capital.
During this period of more than six centuries there were as many changes as there were between the so called Angkorian period and the pre 802 or post 1431 periods.
The only expression of unity pertained to geography: the Angkor region where the capitals stood during this period. This assertion can even be further challenged if we consider that Koh Ker, Jayavarman IV’s capital from 930 to 944 AD, was located at more than 80 miles from the current town of Siem Reap.
It is for instance impossible to reduce to unity the remarkable diversity of styles in the Angkor region: let’s think that in the 10th century, only 23 years separate the gigantism of Koh Ker pyramid from the intimacy of Banteay Srey.
One big problem is about the reign of Jayavarman VII. This king has an uncommon proclivity to controversy.
One of his best known statues represents a bare forehead, a broad and opened face with the eyes reduced to the line of the eyelids: an overall equilibrium and harmony which suggest quietness and inner joy. That would make us easily forget that Jayavarman VII was one of the most formidable conquerors and that under his reign the Khmer Empire reached its greatest dimensions.
An essential event occurred in 1177. The Cham fleet sailed up the Mekong River, the Tonle Sap and the Siem Reap River, the Cham troops landed, attacked and plundered Angkor. The reaction was very quick. The future Jayavarman VII counter-attacked, defeated the Cham invaders and was crowned as king in 1181.
From the time he was crowned, Mahayana Buddhism became the official religion of the Khmer Empire. Beside the numerous statues of the Buddha meditating on the Naga, at the same time statues of the former Hindu gods were erected. Thus, with the shift from Hinduism to Buddhism, the axis of the world was no longer Angkor Wat but had also shifted to Bayon.
This has to be explained and we had no difficulty to find a version of the standard explanation in M. Giteau’s “Histoire d’Angkor”: “By seizing Angkor, the Cham had brought the proof that the town was not invulnerable, even if it was an earthly representation of the divine world. There was therefore a necessity to find a superior protection”.
Such a consideration preserves the thesis of unity: well it went wrong, so let’s find another religion which could act as a better shelter and let’s go on.
The reality is certainly something else.
On the one side, if Hinduism had been till then the official religion of the empire, there are many doubts to express about its ascendancy on the people because it had no real clergy. Everything indicates that the people’s religion had for many years been Mahayana Buddhism.
Moreover, at the end of the 12th century, the population of Angkor is estimated to have reached a million and such a concentration of people presupposes the emergence of various social needs the Hindu religion would have certainly not been able to fulfill. In any case, it is difficult to keep the thesis of unity between a power system and the people.
The most fascinating thing is that numerous authors couldn’t and still can’t admit that a totally new conception was at work. It is incredible to read what Maurice Glaize wrote about the Bayon: “The Bayon is the only temple to have two concentric galleries sculpted with bas-reliefs; the internal gallery is complete in its ornamentation and was almost exclusively reserved for mythological subjects of Brahmanic inspiration, while the outer gallery, accessible to the mass of the faithful, was dedicated both to scenes of everyday life and to certain historic episodes processions and battles - from the reign of Jayavarman VII”.
We would be very pleased to know where exactly are the “mythological subjects of Brahmanic inspiration.” Glaize, and he is far from being alone, acts as if it was impossible to escape from the hypnotic power of Angkor Wat Hinduism.
The most comprehensive and fascinating survey of the internal gallery of the Bayon has been realized by Ms Phalika Ngin and is available on her website www,phalikan.com or will be soon available in her book: “The Ancient Secrets of the Royal Triad Decoded”.
Angkor as myth; Angkor as history
Angkor Wat is an architectural masterpiece of harmony and the biggest Hindu temple in the world, India included.
More than that, the very notion of a mountain temple is based on Hindu conceptions, but the mountain temples were only materialized in Cambodia: Angkor Wat and Baphuon and not in India. Bruno Dagens had noted earlier that if the iconographic program is Indian, its translation into reality is Khmer and for that reason “Khmer temples are more Indian than Indian temples.”
On the other side, between the Indian iconography and the Khmer artist’s chisel there is a considerable distance which may explain that even in the earliest statues, the representation of Vishnu’s or Shiva’s face is very remote from the Indian codes.
The question of religion is equally important. Khmer civilization is the only one in peninsular Southeast Asia to have sequentially experienced Hinduism, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism as state religions and to have integrated them in a more popular religious approach.
This leads us to an essential consideration: Khmer civilization is not transcended by Angkor in general or Angkor Wat in particular.
On the contrary, Angkor is but one moment of this cultural adventure which existed before 802 and did not stop existing in 1431.
It would be high time to construct a Cambodian history which would pay homage to the extraordinary richness and diversity of the Khmer land.