This entry is my attempt at a very niche history lesson and also to help me figure out what on earth I’m looking at. My first three days of informal survey (over the span of six – it is tough walking five miles through the woods every day) have been incredibly successful deep in the jungle of the Northeast Quadrant of Angkor Thom, but I keep reading articles that make me question my pre-perceived chronology (I thought I was looking at 14th – 15th century but now it’s seeming more like 16th every day). Much more experienced hands in this field than me constantly change their minds, and I realized I’ve been reading 2000s literature when I should’ve been reading stuff only from the 2010s, and even then things change all the time! So you have to keep up, and this is my attempt at trying to figure out what on earth was happening between the 14th – 16th century at Angkor and whether I really need to stress out about who built where, or fixed what, or built a Buddhist Terrace when. It’s all about analyzing monastic spaces and how they transformed the pre-existing ritual landscape, right? – the C-14 dates are my Postdoc proposal 😀 😀 😀
Academics in my field have often tended to draw a very deep line in the sand between Angkorian (802 – 1431 CE) and post-Angkorian (1432/4 – 1863 CE) history, art, architecture, and even civilization when studying the Khmer Empire. Usually, these two periods are described as being separated by an attack by Siam on Angkor Thom in 1431 which drove the Khmer kings southward a year later to Phnom Penh to reap the rewards of trade and taxation on the Mekong Delta (or just because Siam was getting scary-powerful at this point), which was in turn was prefaced by a long decline which paralleled the state’s unclear adoption of Theravada Buddhism.
It makes sense that we’d think like this: first, in 1861, the French explorer Henri Mouhot found a rather oblivious and passive agrarian and monastic population living amongst the ruins of their ancestors at Angkor who had little to no idea where the epic monuments of the Khmer came from. Most, if not all, had fallen into a state of dire disrepair, and others were straight-up forgotten and were only cleared and reoccupied when EFEO servicemen began their investigation of the ancient city in the early 20th century. When Mouhot asked the Cambodian monks who on earth had constructed these great monuments, he was greeted with little more than a shrug. He proclaimed, thus, “it must be the work of giants”. So, a bit of a disconnect? Maybe.
Second, as the French colonial historians and epigraphers began to interpret the hundreds of inscriptions they found on temple steles and door-jambs under the leadership of the famous epigrapher Georges Coedes, they found evidence of an obvious Khmer Golden Age from the 9th to the 13th centuries. They also acknowledged a dramatic decrease in inscriptions overall after the end of the 13th century, a language-change from sanskrit to Pali in the early 14th century, and a complete dead era of any internal historical records from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century. You can blame part of the Khmers writing their chronicles on palm-leaves and living in a jungle climate, but it is kind of a serious drop-off for a civilization that left behind so many votive inscriptions that epigraphers have been able to put together a rough history based on only those…aaaand some external accounts but those are just a regional survey, really.
The text language also changes between the last inscriptions in the 15th century and those in the mid-16th – Khmer inscriptions were primarily written in Indic languages (sanskrit, Pali) in Khmer characters. After the 16th century whoever was writing the inscriptions just said “screw it” and started writing words in Khmer language.
There are still so many inscriptions to be translated sitting in the Angkor Conservation Office in Siem Reap, and we found one last year at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay (it’s unclear whether it’s dated), so that inscription drop-off could be proven completely false in the next 20-30 years as we’re able to access more of them.
Third, and this is the most important point for my research, with the last foundation inscription of a temple coming from 1295 CE, there’s an assumption that no new temples were constructed at Angkor or elsewhere in the Khmer Empire after the early 14th century – they were either augmented (there’s evidence of chisel-marks around door frames – could’ve been hacked off by angry Thais or Brahmans?), renovated, or had a nifty little Buddhist Terrace dropped on or around it like in the case of West Prasat Top.
We have loads of evidence from the 16th century (the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, the Cambodians took the capital back briefly in the 1450s, and then the Thais sacked it again a bit later and then just left it there) at the temples of Angkor Wat, Phnom Bahkeng, and the Bayon that Theravada Buddhists worshipping the Future-Buddha Maitreya (aka the Jesus before Jesus) were actively repairing things, setting up monasteries, and possibly even conducting some of their kingdom’s administration there. SOAS professor Ashley Thompson describes 16th century Angkor as a “Buddhist Cosmopolis” where ceremonial religious power was drawn from the temples of their “august ancestors” while the kings still administered day-to-day affairs from their 16th century capital of Longvek. This is most likely when all of the Buddhist Terraces I study were constructed en-masse, but I’m still hoping they were built in the Angkorian Period because…well…scholarship has indoctrinated me to find that more exciting.
So basically people were still there in some capacity and the royals well-aware of the Angkorian kings…huh…okay, so why do we think there was some sort of civilizational transition in the 15th century? People suddenly stopped carving things into doorposts for their rich patrons and stopped building Hindu temples when all signs point to them now being Theravada Buddhists?
Well, there is still the fact that no one’s found a stone-covered temple or shrine at Angkor physically dedicated after 1295 CE. This has often been used to show the disassociation of the tradition of Khmer kings being incarnated as God (Shiva usually), and thus (or as a result of) his inability to muster massive labor forces and control elites who would aid in the patronage of larger temples. Wooden buildings of worship are thought to have replaced stone ones, and Buddhist Terraces were in turn concluded to have carried wooden long-since-disappeared superstructures. These buildings could also house more worshippers as well, unlike giant temple-mountains whose main shrines could only fit one or two Brahmans. Inclusivity of religion and government according to our colonial friends = civilizational weakness, and thus the argument was born that Theravada Buddhism was soft and egalitarian and led to, or was a result of, the decline of the Khmer Empire in relation to its neighbours (who were ironically also Theravada? Holes begin to form really quickly here…).
This was a narrative that, as the French colonials attempted to subdue Cambodia’s religious power within monasteries by completely reassembling the sangha at the end of the 19th century, would prove advantageous geopolitically: make sure our vassals know they’re not the Khmer Empire, they never were, and they never will be.
But here’s the flaw in that argument: besides for being driven by colonial power and extreme bias, wood buildings were ever-present while these giant stone ones were being constructed (as Christophe Pottier so nicely pointed out to me one day in Bangkok – we both laughed really loud when I even dared to suggest otherwise). People lived in wood and thatch houses for thousands of years in Cambodia and not one damn scholar batted an eye until they realized that stone Hindu/Mahayana Buddhist temples ceased to be erected at some point. Even the superstructure of the Royal Palace was built out of wood!
Stone in excess was only used for religious buildings (the home of their Gods), statues, altars, terraced structures, carvings, and substructures/basements/staircases constructed to stabilize the wooden structures above; all but the latter relate to displays of religion. These substructures, of which Buddhist Terraces are an important one, were constructed in stone regardless of the materials of the superstructures above. So stone construction never ended at Angkor (see the Oudong stupas in my second-to-last post), it just changed. Different religions require different parameters for worship, and if those giant temples with tiny shrines and doorways can’t fit your congregation, you build something new.
And fourth and last, I’ll be honest, the post-Angkorian art, or even post-Bayon Period (after 1220-ish CE) kind of pales in comparison to what was produced between the 9th – 12th centuries. THAT I’ll give them. If you walk down halls of the Third Enclosure of Angkor Wat, for example, you come to an odd corner in the Northeast Quadrant amongst the brilliant bas-reliefs that adorn this 12th-century temple and find something a little…shoddy.
The story from the Thai chronicles is that in 1431, King Ramathibodi I (popularly known as U Thong) sacked Angkor Thom, plundered the city, sowed the fields with salt, destroyed the canals, burnt the Royal Palace down, and took the riches, Brahmans, dancing-girls, and craftsmen back to his capital at Ayutthaya. Makes me wonder if there was anyone left who knew how to carve in 1546 when the bas-relief above was completed at Angkor Wat, or whether it was a bunch of amateur craftsmen who were driven by fervour alone to serve their king, Ang Chan (r. 1516-1566), once he’d resettled at Angkor in the 1530s-1540s (a Spanish account will tell you 1550-1551). Whatever the reason, these bas-reliefs are an echo of the ones in the galleries beside them.
The statues and Buddhist figures match a similar artistic move away from “classical” Khmer artistry, but their quality doesn’t decline per se – rather, these pieces look more like the artwork of the cultures surrounding them (Siamese Thailand, Vietnam, and even Laos). Here’s an example at what is thought to be a later Buddhist high-relief at Preah Pithu Temple X:
Art-history in this sense has become our go-to in classifying different statue and temple styles in different artistic periods. Khmer scholars in the early 20th century did this by identifying all the religious statues that appeared to match the styles of the bas-reliefs and statuary still glued to temples, and then in turn matched those up with the foundation inscriptions at the temples where they found them.
So, for example, if you have a temple dedicated to Shiva with a 9th century inscription, and you can identify the image as Shiva at that temple from various indicators (that you’d know in advance from studying Khmer or even Indian sculpture), but you have another image of Shiva from a different temple dedicated in the 10th century, and the face, body shape, or headdress is different, you’ve got two different artistic styles and you can create two different artistic periods that would match the rule of various documented kings. If you see an image like that at a temple without a foundation inscription, meanwhile, you can speculate on the date of the temple’s construction using the image catalogue you’ve created from those original two temples. It’s not a perfect science, but it usually works out because a civilization like the Khmers tended to mass-produce statuary in the exact same image, form, and style during the time period in which a specific state temple was being constructed.
For example, there’s Preah Ko Style, Koh Ker Style, Phnom Bahkeng Style, Baphuon Style, Angkor Wat style, and Bayon Style (or Period).
The issue we run into after the Bayon Period (known as the post-Bayon Period as noted above) is that you can no longer tie art-history domestically to any new temples because a) there were no new temples b) Zhou Daguan notes in his 1296 account that Buddha images in monasteries were constructed in plaster and c) there is absolutely no consistency of stylistic attributes the post-Angkorian Period. There is definitely consistency in the types of Buddhas…
But in terms of style and chronology, the only real indicators of time can be found cross-culturally from Thailand and Vietnam (plus most of the post-Angkorian statues found at Angkor were unlikely carved on-site and brought as reliquary deposits from elsewhere during the 16th – 19th centuries), and like I said before it’s tough to compare them positively to what came in the Angkorian Period.
Or if they were post-Angkorian at all!!!
So that’s a kind of glimpse into my mind right now as I’m trudging through the jungle 3-4 times a week in the Northeast Quadrant of Angkor Thom, following my GPS, and I come across a line of bricks like this:
Or this pile of altars and statues…
I’ve done enough research through the Proposal process to know what I’m looking for, but every time I think I’ve got it figured out (i.e. last year’s preliminary survey) something new pops up. It’s not a bad thing, of course, because there is a huge degree of uniformity, but it certainly makes things interesting. And are these structures Angkorian or post-Angkorian? Most signs point to the latter, but because my project is looking more at the transformation of space in relation to the transition of religion, it doesn’t entirely matter at this point as long as I can establish there was a religious transition through architecture (which I have thus far and will continue to validate). Time periods will matter at some point, but not yet. So I get to have fun for a little while longer until the EFEO comes knocking with the criticism that without a chronology my data is useless.
They love when their dates are set in stone (haw haw haw…wait, I think I made that joke in an earlier entry).