Craig A. Lockard is Ben and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In his new book, Southeast Asia in World History, he looks at Southeast Asia from ancient times to the present, paying particular attention to the region’s role in world history and the distinctive societies that arose in lands shaped by green fields and forests, blue rivers and seas. To read more excerpts from books in the New Oxford World History series click here.
The largest and most powerful Golden Age state was the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia, established by King Jayavarman II in 802. The name Angkor derives from the Sanskrit term for “holy city,” and Jayavarman considered himself a reincarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and fertility. Jayavarman himself had lived many years at a Hindu court in Java before returning to Cambodia, indicating the widespread contacts among Southeast Asian states. His successors consolidated the kingdom and conquered Dvaravati, a heavily Indianized and largely Buddhist Monk state in central Thailand. One of the greatest Angkor kings, Jayavarman VII (who ruled from 1181 to 1219) was a devout Buddhist who boasted of his compassion for his people. He expanded the empire, commissioned important artworks, built roads and sturdy stone walls, and sponsored the construction of monuments and temples. His main legacy was the Bayon temple, which featured towers with large carved faces, probably of the egocentric king himself.
Angkor’s kings bragged about their achievements, and royal engravers gushed as they described on a monument King Yasovarman I in the late ninth century: “In all the sciences and in all the sports, in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he was as clever as if he had been the first inventor of them.” Angkor flourished for half a millennium. At its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the kingdom was a loosely integrated empire controlling much of present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Southern Vietnam. Angkor carried on an active trade with China, with many resident Chinese merchants. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese ambassador in Angkor in 1296, left vivid descriptions of the society and its leaders. In a report back home, he outlined the system of justice presided over by the king: “Disputes of the people, however insignificant, always go to the King. Each day the king holds two audiences for affairs of state. Those of the functionaries or the people who wish to see the king, sit on the ground to wait for him.”
Zhou Daguan also observed a spectacular royal procession of the Angkor king, Indravarman, in 1296:
When the king goes out, troops are at the head of the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing flowered cloth, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe…Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields, the king’s private guards, and carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold, come next. Ministers and princes are mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas. After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback and on elephants. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant’s tusks are encased in gold.
The well-financed Angkor government supported substantial public services including hospitals, schools, and libraries…Some kings were noted as avid patrons of knowledge and the arts. One wrote that having drunk the nectar of knowledge, the king gives it to others to drink. Theater, art, and dance reflected Hindu values and stories…By the twelfth century the bustling capital city, Angkor Thom, and its immediate environs had perhaps as many as 1 million people, much larger than any medieval European city but comparable to all but the largest Chinese and Arab cities of that era. This was clearly one of the major urban complexes in the preindustrial world. The magnificent temples still standing today and a remarkable water-control network testify to prosperity and organization.
Many stone temple mountains were built by thousands of conscripted workers as sanctuaries and mausoleums, designed to represent the Hindu conception of the cosmos. At their center was a replica of Mt. Meru, where Hindus believe that the gods dwell…The temple complex Angkor Wat was the largest religious complex in the premodern world, built by some 70,000 workers in the twelfth century, and surrounded by a four-mile-long moat, dwarfing the magnificent European cathedrals and grand mosques of Baghdad or Cairo. The reliefs carved into stone at Angkor Wat and other temples provided glimpses of daily life, showing fishing boats, midwives attending a childbirth, festival jugglers and dancers, the crowd at a cockfight, men playing chess, peasants bringing goods to market, and merchant stalls According to Zhou, women operated most of these retail stalls: “In this country it is the women who are concerned with commerce.” Khmer society in this era was matrilineal, and women played a much more important role in the family, society, and politics than in most other places in the world. Women went out in public as they like, and Chinese visitors were shocked at their liberated behavior.
Some royal women at Angkor were noted for intellectual activities or service to others. Jayarajadevi, the first wife of King Jayavarman VII, took in hundreds of abandoned girls, training and settling them. After her death the king married Indradevi, a renowned scholar who lectured at a Buddhist monastery and who was acclaimed in a temple inscription as “naturally intelligent…very pure…the chief teacher of the king.” Women dominated the palace staff, and some were even gladiators and warriors. Women were also active in the arts, especially as poets…
In addition to building temples, drafted workers also constructed an extensive hydraulic network of canals and reservoirs for efficient water distribution, demonstrating some of the most advanced civil engineering in the premodern world. With the help of plows pulled by oxen or water buffalo, Khmer farmers brought a moderately fertile region into astonishing productivity…Although some scholars are skeptical, according to Chinese visitors, the Khmers may have had the most productive agriculture in history, producing three to four harvests a year, wheras elsewhere in the world only one or two was normal. Only a few premodern peoples, such as the Chinese and Balinese, could even come close to matching Khmer farming capabilities…