18/12/16 – My Dissertation…zzzzz – Part 1: The Origin Story

DSC_0455.JPGATV013 – A Wild Buddhist Terrace Appears!

As Christmas fast approaches, all I can think about is my sweet escape from wintery Toronto in sixteen short days. On Thursday I did my last grocery run for my apartment at St. Clair and Dufferin (consisting of the equivalent of a nuclear bunker’s worth of canned tuna, ravioli and some fruit), which I’m moving out of indefinitely on January 1st. It was a somewhat bittersweet, passing the usual suspects hobbling shelf-to-shelf with enormous carts bulging with discount food like a bunch of No Frills zombies, and I can’t thank Toronto’s urban planners enough for deciding to plop a cheap grocery store right near my apartment. I ended up keeping all the money I saved for this research trip like a responsible adult…or…because Beer + Grad School are dangerous bedfellows I saved some, spent a bunch to get my two laptops repaired and updated, and went out a bit more this semester.

Because you’re only 27 once…365 days once…I don’t get why people say “you only [blank] once” when 90% of the time they know you’ve done this or been this way before…

 I took my new Garmin Montana GPS (thank you U of T, because that was not in my own budget) out for a spin last week to practice local mapping, but what I’ve realized is that it’s way easier to plot points on a GPS than to use it as a substitute for a tape measure. So, when I went to map a statue in Queen’s Park and tried to plot waypoints every 20cm, I found that there were so many points that I physically couldn’t see the statue when I uploaded the points to BaseCamp (the computer software Garmin uses to make us pretend we’re explorers and astronauts). So I started plotting trees around U of T instead. Then fire hydrants. Then bus stops. And on Christmas Eve I’m mapping Santas. You heard me – I’m mapping the gratuitous number of blow-up Santas that have turned the road two blocks from my parents’ house into “Kringlewood”.

IMG_7307-e1450461007568.jpgIt’s beginning to look a lot like your children forced you into this (Image Courtesy of JillLubinski.com)

But all this GPS practice, GIS mapping, photogrammetry, even the month of mapping and photogrammetr…izing cave-temples in China prior to actually getting to Cambodia is all going towards preparing for the research I need to be most focused on for the next six months: my PhD Dissertation.

Rather than give the long, drawn-out PhD Proposal version that turns my advisors lethargic, my parents comatose, and my friends staring blankly and nodding way too much to actually be listening (well, at least my girlfriend listens…or pretends to…), I think a better way to explain this might be to give my PhD topic a proper Origin Story. It worked structurally for “The China Project”, combining a history/archaeology lesson, my own perspective, and a description of the project, so I think I’ll do it again here. With more detail, because I am supposedly a flawed expert on this. So this is Part 1 of 3 of “My Dissertation…zzzzzz”.

Uhhhhh…damn, didn’t think of that…

76061_1to1_MF_BATMAN_336.pngHere’s an Origin Story: He’s writing the PhD U of T deserves, but not the one it needs. So the SSHRC Grant cronies in Ottawa screwed him. Screwed him bad. Like Bad-man. I mean Bat-man. Yeah, that’s right. I’m Batman.

And this is why one-dimensional Lego characters don’t write blogs. Moving on.

In April 2015, the University of Toronto awarded me $4500 as part of a Pilot Research Program to go to Cambodia and figure out the barebones topic around which I would base my PhD project. It was the ultimate carte-blanche, and I admittedly also used the money to go to Thailand to visit a few ancient kingdom sites (Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, as described in Part 3) and present a paper based on my MA Dissertation in Singapore (since disproven by a  C-14 date from an iron slag taken from the Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom – I’ll get there in Part 3 as well), but that was fine so no one in the U of T bureaucracy got mad. I was a bit wary going back to Cambodia, though, considering the last time I traveled there I was completely unprepared and my brain melted, but this time I was going back in May and the rainy season wasn’t set to begin until the end of June – I had time. It was still stinking hot, though, and getting off the plane I had this awful feeling of continuity – it was the MA research all over again. More seclusion, more depression, more mental melting, and this time for six weeks instead of two-and-a-half.

Thankfully, to my pleasant surprise, the label of “PhD student” means a lot more than a Masters, so I was way less isolated academically on this trip than the first (for more on that miserable Summer 2012 trip to Cambodia and Kuala Lumpur check out the podcast I recorded in November here (RFC#007)). This time around my advisor, Ed Swenson, had set up a meeting with the previous director of the EFEO in Siem Reap, Dominique Soutif (known in this blog hereafter as Dom), but both of them asked me to do some preliminary research on potential topics (beyond the usual “I wanna be an archaeologist and discover temples woooo”) before I came to see him. I already had a small side-projecton the go cataloguing all the Theravada Buddhist statues at Angkor Wat, but another archaeologist had beaten me to the punch a few weeks earlier – it was just an excuse to delay working, to be honest – so I marched into the EFEO Library to get some research done on Angkor Thom after spending two days needlessly cataloguing the 16th century Hall of 1000 Buddhas (Preah Poan).

DSC_0228.JPGPreah Poan, Angkor Wat – Cambodia is the most devoutly Theravada Buddhist nation on earth, and also likely the biggest culprit of lopping the arms off statues of Vishnu and turning them into buddhas.

Angkor Thom, which in Khmer literally means “Big City”, is the last of a succession of Khmer capitals built in the same region. The Khmer Empire was founded in 802 CE at a site called Hariharilaya, now known as the Roulos Temple Group and located southeast of the modern city of Siem Reap, by the Hindu King Jayavarman II. His successor, Yasovarman I, moved the capital north to the Angkor region (its current location) and renamed it Yasodharapura in the late 9th century, which until 1431 was where all Khmer imperial power radiated from. When I say “radiated”, I mean that the Khmer Empire, like most ancient Indic states, was not as concerned with external boundaries and borders as it was with a strong, religiously-inclined center. In most cases, each Khmer king was an embodiment of a Hindu god, most often Shiva, and his power is thought to have been generated from the esoteric ritual activities undertaken at a large state temple-complex constructed during his reign (besides for the usual things like military conquests, trade, and taxation). These “state temples” are obviously identified from inscriptions found scrawled across the temple door-jambs, and cities are thought flourished around them.

DSC_0327.jpgFoundation Inscription, Prasat Kravan Temple, Angkor – written in Old Khmer script in the Sanskrit language.

So when Yasovarman I decided to move the capital to the Angkor region, he had to build a new temple there to “cosmically renew” the landscape and channel divine power into his ruling hand. So he built Phnom Bahkeng atop an extinct volcanic plug, which is today the prime spot where tourists line up in the hundreds to see the sun set.

DSC_0347.JPGPhnom Bahkeng, Angkor – the line goes up the steps and around the block.

DSC_0345.JPGBut monks get to cut in line, of course.

Now, the Khmer Empire was not a continuous unbroken dynasty of kings – even though each king had a period of rule that is marked and dated, he is thought to have had to compete with a number of princes who controlled regional estates to win the right to total imperial dominion over Cambodia. You don’t get this sense from inscriptions, though – most of what you find in the written Khmer record are records of royal lineage, military victories (not defeats, unless you usurped your predecessor), temples patronized, rituals undertaken, and prayers to the Hindu Pantheon. So, everything we know from inscriptions is a smattering of what actually was going on in the region during the Khmer Empire. But because colonial French epigraphers (inscription-readers) and architects had the first go at the archaeology of Cambodia in the late 19th – mid 20th centuries, this is still what kids are taught in school.

One king was an exception to that, or is thought to be. After the Vishnu-incarnate Suryavarman II (1102 – 1150), the king who commissioned Angkor Wat…

DSC_0211.JPGYeah, yeah…obligatory shot of Angkor Wat (aka Vishnu’s Juggernaut)

…died, the Khmer Empire was plunged into a civil war, and at one point Angkor was conquered by the Cham people of southern Vietnam. The end of the resulting celebrated rebellion agains the Chams brought the ascent of the all-famous King Jayavarman VII (r. 1181-1220 CE) who soon became the undisputed ruler of a united Khmer Empire (or so say the hundreds of inscriptions he left behind). Jayavarman was a Mahayana Buddhist – the main difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism being the number of lifetimes each takes to break the life cycle and the intensity of worship and religious construction/devotion involved – so he was tasked with completely cosmically renewing the Hindu landscape. He therefore commissioned the construction of Angkor Thom, a 3x3km walled city covering much of old Yasodharapura and incorporating older monuments such as the Royal Palace and the Baphuon Temple into its layout and design.

Cosmically, this city was constructed to represent the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an event in Indic Mythology in which devas and asuras (gods and demons) pushed and pulled the naga (serpent) Vasaki through the ocean of milk, with Vishnu in his turtle avatar form (gods essentially can transform into whatever the hell they want in Indic mythology) forming the churning post. This created the elixir of life, which is thought to have been a staple of Khmer coronation ceremonies. Jayavarman VII saw himself as the incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and thus he likely went through one.

DSC_0471.JPGSouthern Entrance, Angkor Thom, with both devas and asuras pulling nagas towards a gateway shaped like Jayvarman’s head.

DSC_0544.JPGBayon Temple, Angkor Thom – I’ll save the whole “Face-Towers-Are-Surveillance” thesis for another entry.

The Bayon Temple, within the original architectural layout of the city, formed the churning post, and thus while it was the Mahayana state temple, it incorporated all gods, goddesses, buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, and demons into its pantheon. Thus, Jayavarman VII appeased the old Hindu and Brahman elites, and embarked on an enormous building project across the Empire through the construction of temples, roads, and hospitals to incorporate all mortal and celestial beings under the umbrella of Mahayana Buddhism. But this unity was short-lived, and did not last much longer than his reign – the 13th century was a tumultuous period defined by the re-establishment of the the old Brahman elites under Jayavarman VIII (r. 1243 – 1295 CE), the vandalism of many of Jayavarman VII’s Mahayana monuments, and a rampaging Mongol horde taking down every single Southeast Asian empire except for the Khmers. To an extent, the tradition of Hindu temple-building continued as well, with the Shaivaite Mangalartha temple erected in 1295 CE at Angkor Thom. Mangalartha was the last Khmer temple to ever be dedicated with a foundation inscription.

And that’s where my research begins/began/is beginning. In 1296 CE, a Chinese diplomat named Zhou Daguan (or Mongol – it was Kublai Khan’s court he was representing) came to Angkor Thom to either scout out the Great Khan’s regional opponents or witness the coronation of Indravarman III (r. 1296-1308), and declared that “worship of the Buddha is universal”.

What the hell?

Also, following 1295, no more temples were constructed, and according to the last Khmer inscription (written in Khmer characters but in sanskrit language) from 1327, in 1308 Indravarman didn’t die – he abdicated his throne to live in a monastery. Something was changing. Theravada Buddhism had slowly become the religion of the state, patronized by all future Khmer kings, and administered not by Brahmins or Mahayana priests, but by saffron-robed monks.

DSC_0216.JPGWho apparently let Kublai Khan know about Indravarman’s coronation via Instagram… 

Academics have traditionally equated the lack of new temples constructed at Angkor, absence of votive/royal inscriptions, the discontinued identification of kings with Indic Gods, the expansion of Vietnamese and Siamese power in Southeast Asia during the 14th and 15th centuries, and the abandonment of Angkor in 1431 by the Khmer monarchy for a series of new capitals in proximity to the Mekong River Delta to a sharp decline in Khmer power. This, meanwhile, is often thought to have gone hand-in-hand with the adoption of Theravada practice (besides for more compelling evidence in the form of a bout of empire-wide bubonic plague, an overexploitation of the enormous irrigation system that kept Angkor going, regional climate change, or simply a change in geopolitics). Temples, it is easy to suggest, may have been devalued in favour of monasteries, rule therefore became less centralized, control over provincial territories and regional princes decreased – there’s no real proof for any of it but there’s also no real proof against it.

So I decided to find some.

url.jpgBecause desperately looking for evidence to prove deductive reasoning is such a great idea…

My first thought, sitting in the EFEO library in Siem Reap three hours before my meeting with Dom, was that the Khmers built everything in wood during the Theravada Period. Okay, sure, stone temples stopped being constructed. But what am I saying here? That the Khmers never used wood prior to Theravada Buddhism to build anything? That every village hut was actually a large stone house during the Hindu Period? EEENNNHHHH! WRONG!!!

url-1.jpgThat also netted me a 3/10 on the Robert De Niro WTF Face Scale.

This was the biggest fallacy I’d created for myself during my MA: that stone construction was entirely substituted for wood from 1296 CE onwards. Stone (in this case sandstone) was considered a sacred building material, only worthy of divine constructions, and only temples, royal terraces (the substructures of wood buildings), and walls were constructed using stone. Laterite was used for other solid structures (and the inner core of many temples), but the rest was wooden. Houses, palaces, even battlements were made of wood before and after the Khmers stopped building temples. So there’s that idea out the window.


What about evidence for wooden construction across all of Khmer history? Post-holds, post-moulds in stone temples? Wooden beams? Burnt things to carbon-date? Local habitation during the Theravada Period as compared to that in the Hindu and Mahayana Periods? Yay, anthropology!

Wait…none of these wooden remains have ever been found because they’re in a $@#!-ing jungle with the humidity of a sweat-lodge! We have no Khmer history books or chronicles because the things have turned into mulch in the monsoon! And what on earth does comparing variations of inexistent local architecture constructed in wood have to do with analyzing the religious transition to Theravada Buddhism?! You can’t make something out of nothing, so NOPE!


As I remember it, and I’ve heard when people have these personal eureka moments they remember them very clearly, it was forty-five minutes until I had to go up to Dom’s office. I had no idea what I was going to say or tell him, and I knew if I didn’t have a concrete research question that he was going to come back to Ed and say “so this is the kid you’ve talked up all year? Really?” It’d look bad on both of us, as it had been me who’d been so hasty and eager to schedule our meeting after losing out on my Hall of 1000 Buddhas/Angkor Wat statue project.

Flipping through countless books in English and French, desperately trying to find something to give him, trying to assure myself that I was not going to be a victim of Impostor Syndrome before I ever started trying to be an impostor, I came across a basic coffee table book. Ancient Angkor by Claude Jacques, photographed by Michael Freeman. Okay, whatever, I haven’t looked at this one yet. Within it, though, was a tiny map of Angkor Thom and all the structures within it.

IMG_0244.jpgThe very first map I ever used to find monuments, wandering through the woods with a jpeg on my phone and no compass like a boss (Jacques and Freeman 2008) – I still found six of them!

It wasn’t much to work with, but the temples were digitally drawn in jet-black and other structures were visibly outlined as rectangular/square boxes, making it way more detailed than the map I used in 2012 to help get myself around (a typical tourist site map). Those other unlabeled structures, though…I’d never seen them before, I’d never seen anything drawn onto maps of Angkor except for the temples. There were three around the Bayon, and I’d seen those ones before in passing: they were monasteries built on old, decrepit-looking rectangular brick substructures that still housed their ancient colossal Buddhas. Many times I’d worried that the monasteries might fall over because of the weakness of their foundations.

DSC_0191.JPGWhat eventually became ATV003, in Khmer known as Preah Ang Thep, with, as promised, a colossal Buddha.

A professor at SOAS had written in an article that these substructures were likely the remnants of Mahayana Buddhist “ritual performance platforms” (whatever those might be), not Theravada monasteries, so I just took them as supporting structures that had been re-appropriated at some point during the early 20th century when monastic groups moved back into the ancient capital after the French deforested it. However, as I read further during my remaining 25 minutes, it became clear that these substructures had always been Theravada Buddhist, constructed during a later period between the 13th – 16th centuries, and that so many others were built at Angkor Thom but had been apathetically overlooked by French archaeologists because…well…temples are way cooler than the tiered substructures of tiny monastery buildings.

DSC_0535.JPGPhimeneakas Temple, Angkor Thom


DSC_0481.JPGATV010, Preah Pithu, Angkor Thom

Yeah…if I was a 19th century French archaeologist discovering Angkor Thom for the first time, I think I would’ve gone for the temple first, too.

What that then proved to me was that stone construction never stopped at Angkor, and because people, monks, or kings were still creating religious infrastructure out of stone at the central capital there was no real decentralization of religious power. Or at least it didn’t seem like it. But I might have actually stumbled upon a really significant project, one I have yet to find any thorough literature exploring (excluding one article from 1918 which I’ll touch on in the next entry), and one that might prove a thing or two about the 140 years of Khmer history that has so far gone completely unaccounted for!


Dom had me wait for another 15 minutes as I gathered my thoughts, but after an hour talking to him in a mix of his fluent English and my poor French I essentially got the green light from the EFEO to start investigating what I later learned were called “Buddhist Terraces” by archaeologists. It wasn’t an official green light, per se, and for the record you’re not really allowed to take notes at Angkor without a permit (Andrew said sheepishly, five years too late…), but it was the unofficial validation by an archaeological organization of this off-the-cuff PhD project that has since defined my life and steered my research in a variety of directions. It felt great, I emailed both advisors excitedly, wrote rigorously in my Travel Diary, prepped my notebook, hiking boots, and SPF60 sunscreen to cover that pasty-ass skin of mine, and got ready to head into Angkor Thom the next day.

DSC_0350.JPGI caught a wicked sunset on top of Phnom Bahkeng hill first.

I now had a topic. And that is this PhD’s Origin Story.

Andrew Harris

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