Subtle origins of Indo-China

Angkor and the Khmer Civilization
September 19, 2003

Michael Coe made his reputation as an art historian, archaeologist and anthropologist with a series of studies of the Maya civilisation of Central America published over the past half century. But his second major scholarly interest - and perhaps his first love - stemming from a youthful visit to what was then called Indo-China, is the Khmer civilisation, in particular the great complex of Angkor.

On his return to the US from Southeast Asia in 1954, he had intended to begin graduate work at Harvard University with a comparative study of these two civilisations. "But by good fortune, I remained in the Maya field," he notes in his introduction to Angkor and the Khmer Civilization , "since several decades of sheer horror subsequently engulfed the Khmer people and their land". Under Khmer Rouge rule, in 1975-79, an estimated 15 per cent of the people were slaughtered and Angkor was out of bounds for nearly a generation to any but the most intrepid of visiting professors.

All the Coe trademarks familiar to readers of his books on the Maya are evident in this excellent book, a beautifully illustrated survey of the field for the general reader, which is part of the long-established series Ancient Peoples and Places.

It is thorough, with frequent quotations from leading authorities. It is alive to present-day reality, with constant references to modern Cambodian life. It draws apt comparisons with other civilisations, notably Indian, Chinese and Mayan, but also Egyptian and European, which show the breadth of the author's knowledge without overstating the parallels. It displays a strong, reliable and independent-minded aesthetic response, which allows the non-specialist to feel which works of Khmer art are superior without getting bogged down in a mass of material chiefly of interest to specialists. By no means least, it is readable and lively - for example:

"The hearts and minds of the Khmer may have been in India, but their pocketbooks were in China" - without sacrificing caution to the urge to popularise. Such caution is especially necessary with the Khmer civilisation because there are gaping holes in our knowledge; manuscript sources are essentially non-existent; and archaeology in Cambodia is rudimentary compared with that of Central America.

Thus, writing of the collapse of what he terms "Classic" Khmer civilisation (borrowing a term from Maya studies) in the 14th century AD after five centuries of florescence, Coe remarks that there are as many theories to account for its downfall as there are for the mysterious downfall of the Maya cities after about five centuries in the 9th century. The Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII, who built Angkor Thom ("Great Angkor") and many other leading buildings, may have overextended himself. There may have been a devastating outside invasion from neighbouring Thailand. The warlike Khmers may have "got religion" - in this case Theravada Buddhism (the current state religion of Cambodia) - and lost their taste for battle. They may have caused their intricate water supply and irrigation systems to silt up by denuding the surrounding forest slopes of cover. Or perhaps the inland location of Angkor meant it was increasingly bypassed by the growing coastal trade in the "age of commerce". Coe concludes: "But, as we know from the far-better studied demise of the Classic Maya, civilisations - like biological species - usually fall from multiple causes, not single ones." He favours a combination of all the above reasons.

His subtle approach is perhaps most evident in his handling of the interaction between Hinduism and Buddhism, both in its Mahayana and its Theravada forms. The rulers of Angkor were chiefly Hindu in their beliefs and iconography, but they showed deep respect for Buddhism and Buddhist art. The 12th-century Angkor Wat, the greatest of their temples, was dedicated to Vishnu, a Hindu god, even if it is today an active Buddhist temple. Its finest sculpture, the murals in the ground-floor galleries, depict scenes from the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana . But as Coe nicely observes, the Reamker (the Khmer name for the Ramayana ) "is not just an echo of the Indian epic, but a total reworking of it, reflecting Khmer, not Indian, culture, and with a fervently Theravada Buddhist content. Ram (Rama) is not only an avatar of Vishnu, but also a Boddhisatva and simultaneously a Buddha, an upholder of the DharmaI the actions and language of all personages in the Reamker - the gods, humans, demons, and animals of the original epic - reflect the teachings of the Buddha."

Coe's book performs a valuable service for anyone wanting to appreciate the complexity of Angkor and the Khmer civilisation that produced it. Despite the excessive price tag, it is an irreplaceable background read for serious visitors to Angkor, complementing the fine guidebook written by the Angkor specialist Claude Jacques with photographs by Michael Freeman.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Angkor and the Khmer Civilization

Author - Michael D. Coe
ISBN - 0 500 02117 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £.50
Pages - 240

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