Ozymandias and Angkor

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 21, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Siem Reap

Most books about Cambodia fall into two incongruous categories: books about Angkor Wat and the civilization that spawned it; and books about the Khmer Rouge and the catastrophe they began. Imagine if most books about Italy were about either the temple of Jupiter and the Roman Empire or the Fascists and Mussolini: it would be tempting to connect the two distant dots. This is not difficult for fascism, whose name and symbol were taken from the Roman fasces. And the Khmer Rouge, seeking a return to the glory of the Khmer Empire, revered Angkor Wat. Both the fascists and the Khmer Rouge ultimately choked on their atavistic chauvinism, but not without adding to the world's limitless bluster and stacks of supernumerary dead.

According to Charles Higham's studied volume The Civilization of Angkor, one of the first Europeans to see Angkor Wat believed that it had been built by the Roman Emperor Trajan (c. 53-117 AD), as it seemed beyond the abilities of the savages in their midst. Even some of the savages were incredulous. One Marcello de Ribadeneyra, a Portuguese missionary, wrote in 1601 that the local people attributed Angkor to "foreigners." Others have gushed that its otherworldly structures must be the work of some enlightened, extraterrestrial race.

We can hardly fault the missionaries their ignorance, at least in this regard, for there was a well-worn trade route between China and the Roman Empire, especially for the transport of silk. Globalization is nothing new. Higham maintains that the Cambodians in the era 150-500 AD were "acquainted with Roman coinage", in part because Angkor itself lacked a formal currency: the word for tax was related to the word for rice, the civilization's sine qua non. Angkor also contained ornaments depicting "a bearded Roman, of undoubted Mediterranean origin." Finding a Euro in Yogyakarta isn't such a big deal.

Southeast Asia tends to be given short shrift in the standard histories, which emphasize China, Mesopotamia, or Egypt instead. In fact, says Higham, "the prehistoric societies of South-East Asia were vigorous and powerful." And the Mekong, like the Yangtze, Tigris, or Nile, was a fount of humankind.

Angkor owed a lot to India, but not, says Higham, as much as you might think:

"The use of Sanskrit for elite personal names, some titles, major centres and deities has given the false impression that the states of Chenla [AD 550-800] were deeply penetrated by Indian religions and philosophy. On the contrary, an Indic veneer covered local cults and deities, and the change of names was more a self-interested use of the exotic to enhance personal prestige."

The Siamese also adopted fulsome Sanskrit surnames, and of course the kings of Thailand's Chakri dynasty all have the name Rama, after the Indian god-hero.

The "Indic veneer" of Angkor was nonetheless plain. Jayavarman, a common name of the god-kings, derives from the Sanskrit jaya ("victory") and varman ("shield or protector".) The surya of Suryavarman, the principal builder of Angkor Wat, means sun. Angkor contained a land dubbed Kurukshetra, after the setting of the Indian epic Mahabharata. And a Khmer city was called Lingapura, literally "phallus city"!

Ah, yes: the linga, symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. The Khmer kings were ardent linga builders, and even their corncob-shaped temples (called, suggestively, prang) could be seen as phallic. But take comfort, girls. Bantay Srei, one of Angkor's most fabulous complexes, means "the citadel of women"; and Higham writes of Angkor palace guards, women "armed with swords and shields" - a nice contrast with the comely and bare-breasted apsaras, or celestial dancers.

Despairing over the endless wars of modern times? Take a dose of history. Human beings have always found a singular delight in the spilling of blood. The only difference between the ancients and us in this respect is that we are good pretenders. We pretend that war is a chore. To the ancients, war was glory. An inscription dedicated to King Jayavarman I (c. AD 635-680) reads, "In combat, he was a living incarnation of victory, the scourge of his enemies, lord of the land inherited from his ancestors, and conqueror of yet more lands." In some parts of the world such hyperbole still causes hearts to flutter and maidens to faint, but a "civilized" leader must disavow all bloodlust before the letting of blood. How much more refreshing and honest for him to thump his chest and declare himself "the scourge of his enemies"!

Speaking of scourges, when the Khmer Rouge began to plow their innocent countrymen under the earth like so many seeds of Cadmus, some observers expressed surprise. The Cambodians seemed like such nice people. And they are. But they are no exception to humanity's predisposition to violence. Higham tells of eyes being gouged out, noses removed, lips and hands severed, feet and heads crushed, people "suspended upside down from trees and beaten." The Khmer Rouge (and the twentieth century generally) demonstrated only how modern weapons streamline the process.

What was Angkor Wat for? Higham doesn't know, and scholars don't agree. Arguably the god-kings built for the usual reasons - for the heck of it, or for posterity. Angkor Wat is believed originally to have been golden in color, its beauty quite literally as blinding as the sun or the surya of Suryavarman. Little could he have suspected how jungle would swallow and rain erode and vandals dismember his life's work. Higham writes that the invading Siamese absconded with some Angkor statues, which the Burmese then stole. Today they can be found in Mandalay. The sticky hands of colonialism deposited still other statues in France. Even the Khmer joined in the desecration. A devotee of Shiva and an enemy of Buddhism, King Jayavarman VIII systematically destroyed Buddha images created by his predecessors. And bullet holes can be blamed on the bad aim of the Khmer Rouge.

The restoration of peace in Cambodia has meant the renewed restoration of Angkor Wat, "often described as the largest and finest religious monument ever completed." Still, Higham's patient sifting through the ruins of this civilization makes one grimly contemplate the fate of our own. One recalls the hallowed lines of Shelley's "Ozymandias": "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

- The End -

Review of Charles Higham's The Civilization of Angkor, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001.

Other books on Angkor

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