The Hindu Temples in Southeast Asia (Their Role in Social Economic and Political Formations)

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Item Code: NAD636
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Author: Sachchidanand Sahia
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788173054280
Pages: 394 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.5 inch X 9.0 inch
Weight 1.87 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

Many thousands temples, built within a time span of about thousand years, before the fourteenth century, stand as witness to the creative genius of different communities of Southeast Asia. They also testify to the cultural dialogue between India and Southeast Asia centered on the architectural and planning experiences as coded in the Silpasastra texts of India.

The present monograph looks at the Khmer temples of Hindu inspiration spread over mainland Southeast Asia both at the level of ideology and praxis, and attempts an integrated account of their symbolical as well as functional aspects. In the selection and regrouping of temples for the present study, the three of temples for the present study, the three key words—social, economic and political formation—have been the driving motive. The temples or the group of temples which explicate their role in these basic formations of human civilization have, therefore, been taken up in this monograph.

This monograph offers a chapter devoted to various aspects of temples in the Khmer mainland of Sountheast Asia. The first chapter examines the evolution of temples in the region from the open-air sacred spaces. The following chapter sees the temple as an architectural search for the temple as an architectural search for the centre, analyses the ideology of Meru and presents 13 examples of temple mountains. The temple's catalytic role in the formation of village and city forms the theme of the next two chapters. The temple-based process of the formation fo temple-based process of the formation of capital and mens of production concerns the following chapter. The vital role of temple in manpower mobilization for agricultural expanision has been closely examined in the succeeeding chapter. The next chapter examines the interlink between water and architecture with a particular reference to the hydraulic debate. The temple as a sanskritzing agent forms the theme of the last chapter. This narrtative has developed from a synchronic and simultaneous reading of verbal and visual languages.

About the Author

Sachchidanand Sahai is an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University (1962). He did his research in the University of Paris, Sorbonne (1065-69) under the supervision of eminent French savant George Caedes and produced a pioneering doctoral thesis, published as Les institutions politiques et I’ organization administrative du Cambodge ancient, Paris: EFEO, 1971. His other publications-The Phra Lak Phra Lam (1973), The Ramayana in Laos (1976), The Krishna Saga in Laos (1908), The Rama Jataka in Laos (1997) – are based on a first-hand study of original palm-leaf manuscripts in the old Laotian language. India in 1872 as seen by the Siamese (2001) reconstitutes the unwritten chapter of Thai history relating to King chulalongkorn’s visit to British India in that year. The Mekong: Space and Social Theory (2005), The Bayon of Angkor Thom (2007), a co-authored book Ta Prohm: A Glorious Era in Angkor Civilization (2007) and Preah Vihear: An Introduction to the world Heritage Monument (2009), and Sivapada in Khmer Art: Rediscovering Angkor in the Footprints of Shiva (Bangkok: White lotus, 2011) are his other publications.

As Founder of the Southeast aSian Reviw, Sahai has edited and published thirty-two volumes ofthis journal since 1976. In 1981, he fou8nded the International Conference on Thai Studies. Sahai held the Chair of Southeast Asian Studies at the magadh University, Bodh Gaya (India) and worked as the Pro Vice Chancellor of the university in 2001. He has also worked as Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (2003-2006); Research Professor at Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, New Delhi (1980-90); and Visiting Professor of Asian civilization at Sisavangvong University, Vientiane (1970-73).

Recipient of French government Scholarship, Fulbright post-doctoral Fellowship, Visiting Fellowship at Australian National University and Maison de Science de I’ Homme (Paris), Pravasi Bhartiya Samman and Padmashri Award (2012), Sahai is currently Advisor, Apsara National Authority, Siem Reap (cambodia).


The present-day geopolitical divisions of Southeast Asia into as many as 10 post- colonial nation-states do not correspond to the cultural and political realities of the region during the first 1400 years of the Christian era. A country-specific architectural study confining itself to one of these nations, risks superimposing ancient realities over modern spatial configurations, and creating ‘arbitrary frontiers’ which do not correspond to the past geo-cultural situations. Kambujadesa was one of the geopolitical entities of mainland Southeast Asia during the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. The present-day Cambodia, parts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam roughly formed Kambujadesa. The Khmer architecture played an important role in creating and sustaining this geopolitical reality. The coastal nation-state of Vietnam was the theatre of at least two major geo-political and cultural entities—Dai Viet and Champa in the pre-colonial era. The Cham architecture, indeed, forms part of the modern Vietnamese legacy. But historically, ethnically and culturally, it cannot be treated as Vietnamese art. Before the rise of Pagan in the eleventh century, a number of influential geo-political and cultural entities operated over much larger areas than the present-day Burma. In the past, the Mon civilization spread over Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Once influential in the region, neither the Champa nor the Mon is any longer a nation-state.

The ocean-based Malayo-Polynesian world of Southeast Asia, represented by the nation-states of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Brunei, presents an even more complex cultural scenario where the current political frontiers are not of great help in the study of the cultural heritage. The Javanese, Balinese and Sumatran art traditions form integral part of the Indonesian heritage, but each one relates to its unique geo-political and cultural realities.

Innumerable Temples

Several thousands of temples, built within a time span of about a thousand years, before the fourteenth century, stand witness to the creative geniuses of different communities of Southeast Asia. They also testify to the cultural dialogue between India and Southeast Asia centered on the architectural and planning experiences as coded in the silpasastra texts of India. By 1911, Lunet de Lajonquiere published three volumes of his descriptive inventory of monuments of Khmer origin spread over Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These volumes contain preliminary descriptions of as many as 909 monuments, majority of which are of Brahmanical inspirations.1 Many Cham temples are spread along the coastal region of South Vietnam below Hue. A large number of temples are spread over the island of Java, ranging from the archaic open air temple in west Java to the most sophisticated temples in central and eastern parts of the island. A multi-volume publication by Pierre Pichard offers architectural descriptions of over 4000 temples in Burma. These temples are dedicated to numerous Brahmanical and Buddhist cults.

Selection And Focus

No descriptive or analytical account of Southeast Asian temple architecture can include more than a minute percentage of innumerable examples. Unless the basis of such severe selectivity is clarified, the validity of the account cannot be assessed. A descriptive account soon becomes unmanageably bulky and self-defeating, therefore inevitably incomplete and partial. A systematic selective account is more meaningful and no more dangerous if the basis of selection is made clear.

Selectivity is dictated by the linguistic, archaeological and sociological training of the researcher in question. A first-hand study of the architectural heritage of entire Southeast Asia requires proficiency in at least a dozen languages of Asia and Europe.

In the selection and regrouping of temples for the present study, the three keywords— social, economic and political formations—have been the driving motive. The temples or the group of temples which explicate their role in these basic formations of human civilization have, therefore, been taken up in this monograph.

The land- and ocean-based Southeast Asia is too expansive for critical study. I have, therefore, confined myself to the Khmer mainland Southeast Asia, conditioned by my personal formation as a researcher. With my five years of training at Sorbonne (1965-69) and fluency in French, I have directly accessed the French writings on Indo-China which roughly correspond to the area identified for this study. Over hundred years of the research publications of the École Francaise d’Extrême-Orient, spanning over more than one hundred years (1900-2006), constitute only a fraction of this vast French literature.

In the chosen area of research, some 909 temples of various denominations, built from sixth to thirteenth centuries, stand as archaeological vestiges to be examined and analyzed. Many more temples were recovered from the deep forests after the publication of the third volume of Lajonquière in 1911. In course of my several field studies in the past decades, I have personally examined at least one-third of these temples. While reviewing the relevant data from 2003 to 2006, I made two field trips to examine some of these temples and to get on-the-spot answers to a number of questions raised in this monograph.

Inscriptions in Sanskrit and Khmer languages literally cover most of these temples. About 1250 inscriptions have been so far discovered. At least three generations of French scholars—represented by Etienne Aymonier, Auguste Barth, Abel Bergaigne, Louis Finot, George Coedès (1877-1966)—offered 1004 inscriptions fully deciphered, transcribed in roman script and translated in French. Saveros Pou, Claude Jacques, and Chiraphat Prapandvidya have published or analyzed inscriptions discovered after 1960s. The data contained in these Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions have been analyzed here for developing this narrative.

To keep the narrative focused, the Buddhist monuments have not been taken in the purview of this study. Writings on the Buddhist monuments of Southeast Asia, such as the famous Borobudur, already form a massive corpus. However, a number of temples studied in this monograph are not exclusively Hindu or Buddhist. The famous Angkor Wat, originally built as a temple for Vishnu, has been appropriated since the sixteenth century for the Theravada Buddhist cult. The Bayon was supposed to be built as a Mahayana Buddhist temple by Jayavarman VII. One of his successors used it for the cult of Shiva. Currently, it is used for the Theravada Buddhist worship.

In brief, the area chosen for this research extends from Oc Eo in South Viethnam to the pre-Angkor and Angkor sites in Cambodia, then passes through the monuments of the northeast Thailand concentrated along the valley of the Mun River and finally reaches Wat Phu in South Laos. Art historical studies of mainland Southeast Asia generally focus on the structure of the existing monuments and offer a functional analysis of the architectural elements. These visual objects have been mostly described as seen by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ visitors and critiques. No serious attempt has been made to interpret these temples in the actual words of those who visualized, patronized, or funded these monuments. No analysis has been made so far about the human taskforce deployed to shape the enormous stone pieces into bewildering structures. The least has been said about the artists and artisans whose minds and hearts gave an aesthetic value to these buildings. No attention has been paid to those delicate, dexterous and nimble fingers which carved the intricate designs and exquisite bas-reliefs.

I have made a beginning, however imperfect or partial it might be, to collate and correlate the verbal and visual sources and to “read” the temples from the texts inscribed on their body. Architectural studies generally interpreted the temple without using the text written on them. Epigraphic studies decipher the text without deciphering the lithic codes.

This narrative has developed from a synchronic and simultaneous reading of verbal and visual languages.


Cosmological symbolism and spiritual purpose of these architectural projects have been generally overemphasized at the cost of their practical goals. Hocart rightly argues against the prevalent dichotomy of religious and utilitarian: “Temples are just as utilitarian as dams and canals, since they are necessary to prosperity; dams arid canals are as ritual as temples, since they are part of the same social system of seeking welfare. if we call reservoirs ‘utilitarian’, it is because we believe in their efficacy; we do not call temples so because we do not believe in their efficacy for crops.”2

The present monograph looks at the Khmer temples of Hindu inspiration spread over mainland Southeast Asia both at the level of ideology and praxis and attempts an integrated account of their symbolical as well as functional aspects. True, the temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain. They mark the centre of the universe. They represent the spiritual quest of humanity. They symbolize the human effort to transcend the mundane. But they also mark the centers of the real world formed by villages, cities and kingdoms revolving around them. They are neck-deep in the matters of material wealth, production, education and many other aspects of material well-being of the society that creates them.

In writing this monograph, I have tried to avoid a monolithic paradigm construction, which pleads for a unique approach to a given field of enquiry. I have argued that the temple could not be treated as a fixed entity in stone with a petrified single meaning. As a non-verbal text, it could be, and, in fact, it has been subjected to different interpretations according to the changing time and space. It has also been used as an effective means of place-making and a powerful agent of Sanskrit zing at the hands of those who commissioned them in a purposive way.

The study of temples in Southeast Asia could be illuminated by the Marxian paradigm of modes of production controlled by the Khmer elite through the institution of temple which ensures that the surplus product is extracted and distributed according to the specific property relations and the class order. The mode of production theory as the theory of a trajectory helps us to understand the process through which temples are instrumental in the emergence of human settlements of villages and cities as a consequence of growing concentration and unequal distribution of production, power and people in mainland Southeast Asia. Following an integrated approach, the monograph looks at the temple both as a provider of spiritual gains and as a producer of material wealth.

As an architectural creation, the temple encloses a defined space, marking the nucleus of a village or a city that develops around it, for its sustenance. A vast space outside this enclosure constitutes the perimeter of the temple which is virtually produced by the temple itself. The temple encloses a limited physical space as an architectural creation, but it unfolds or rather ‘produces’ an ever-expanding symbolical, imagined and actual space within its perimeter as a meeting point of divine beings of the heavenly realms and mortals of the earthly villages and cities.

The Political Process

The temples, which form the basis of this study, are an integral part of the political process in mainland Southeast Asia, represented by the origin, evolution and decay of the Angkor polity. The temples shaped the Khmer empire and they were, in turn, shaped by the Khmer empire, guided by invisible relationship of interdependence. In historical terms, this political process is usually seen in three phases of linear progression: Funan, Pre-Angkor (Chenla) and Angkor. Funan is supposed to have flourished as a great empire during the first six centuries of the Christian era with its centres in the Mekong delta in South Vietnam and South Cambodia. In the later half of the sixth century, a powerful vassal kingdom based in the region of Wat Phu in South Laos or around Sambor Prei Kuk (Iãnapura) in central Cambodia challenged the power of Funan, declared its independence and absorbed the territory of the Funan kingdom. This pre-Angkor kingdom, known as Chenla in the Chinese annals, was split into two parts—Water Chenla and Land Chenla in the eighth century according to Chinese sources. But recent researches show that it was actually fragmented into many small principalities. After one hundred years of political fragmentation, the kingdom of Angkor emerged as a unifying political force in the region of the Great Lake of Cambodia in the beginning of the ninth century. The Angkor Empire flourished up to the middle of the fifteenth century when its downfall was heralded by the attacks of the Siamese kings of Ayuthya, located near Bangkok.

The earlier opinion about Funan as a unified polity representing a far-flung empire has been questioned in recent writings. It is now considered as ‘a group of allied ports’ like Srivijaya, of which the most important was probably on the Cambodian or adjacent Vietnamese coast. It was a maritime society along a trade route linking China, Southeast Asia and India. The ethnic identity of the population of Funan is unknown, since no local language document of this kingdom has been found. Except a few Sanskrit inscriptions, only the Chinese annals tell us about its existence. Yet, it is generally agreed that the Funanese were the ancestors of the Khmer. The Kaundinya dynasty, to which the kings of Funan belonged, is mentioned in a Sanskrit inscription of Funan (K 5) found from the Mekong delta in South Vietnam. Since the later pre-Angkor and Angkor kings claim their origin from the Kaundinya dynasty of Funan, it is believed that the Funanese were also of the Khmer origin.

According to Chinese sources, a certain Hun-t’ien from a foreign land conquered the woman ruler of Funan, married her and established his rule over the kingdom. Hun-t’ien has been identified with the brãhmaiza Kauiidinya and his wife with the NagI Somã. It is supposed that this new dynasty was founded in the later part of the first century AD. The historicity of Kauii4inya-Soma may be debated or dismissed. However, the combined testimony of the Chinese annals, the Cham epigraphy and Cambodian inscriptions leave little scope to deny the migration of a brãhmaiza of the clan of Kaundinya to mainland Southeast Asia. The migration of the brahmaizas from the Gañgã valley to different parts of India and to the distant lands outside India is part of the social and economic history of the region. Among the migrant bra hmanas, the clan of Kaundinya figures prominently in India. The Khmer inscriptions mention a number of migrant brãhmaizas in mainland Southeast Asia, besides the brdhmaizas of Kaundinya clan.

The Chinese annals say that the direct descendants of the Brãhmaia Kaundinya ruled till the beginning of the third century when the royal power passed into the hands of Fan Shih-man, the great general of the kingdom. Though this line of Kaundinya extinguished, the later rulers claimed their descent from the lunar dynasty of Kaundinya-Somã, such was the legitimizing force of the tradition. Fan Shih-man is credited with the building of a great Funan Empire. It is supposed that the title fan, borne by this general and his successors, is a Chinese transcription of Sanskrit varman. The next king Fan Chan sent an envoy to India. The Funanese envoy reached the mouth of the Ganges at the end of more than a year. He traveled deep in the country and reached the capital of a prince who may have belonged to the dynasty of the Murundas. The Indian prince, greatly surprised at this visit from so distant a land, sent to Funan a return embassy from his court with the present of four Indo-Scythian horses.

In AD 357, a certain Chu Chan-t’an ruled the kingdom of Funan. The title Chu indicates that he was an Indian—his name is transcribed in Sanskrit as Chandan, and the records indicate that he usurped power.

About the beginning of the fifth century or a little later, a second Kaundinya, a brdhmaiza of Indian origin, came from a neighboring realm and became the ruler of Funan. According to the Chinese annals, he changed all the rules according to the customs of India. The Chinese dynastic histories also tell us that a Jayavarman of Kauii4inya dynasty was ruling over Funan from AD 478 to AD 514. Two Sanskrit inscriptions of his reign record establishments consecrated to the cult of Vishnu. Rudravarman, the last king of Funan, is mentioned in the Chinese annals and in a Sanskrit inscription at Ta Prohm of Bati.

No inscription has so far dated any existing monument in the Funan period. On circumstantial evidences, Parmentier assigns nine brick temples to this period.

In the end of the sixth century AD with Bhavavarman I and his younger brother Chitrasena-Mahendravarman, the political centre shifted from the coastal region of South Vietnam to the inland region of Cambodia, inaugurating a new phase of pre-Angkor ascendancy. Their conquests led them to the Dangrek region of the northeast Thailand as well. Isãnavarman (AD 616-635), the third king in this phase, is known for his magnificent capital city of Iãnapura, identified with the temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk in the region of Kompong Thom. Between 635 and 713 Bhavavarman II, Jayavarman I and a women ruler Jayadevi are known to have ruled. Jayavarman I appears to have opted for centralization of the pre-Angkor administration. He promoted merger of the property of a number of temples during his rule. Jayadevf was ruling in the region of the Western Baray at Angkor in 713, complaining about the vagaries of times. After her rule, the fragmentation of the kingdom of Chenla followed. It has been convincingly shown that the Chinese picture of division of Chenla in two blocks does not correspond to the reality. As a result of fragmentation, several small principalities vied with each other for supremacy.

With Jayavarman 11(802-835), the centre of political gravity shifted to Angkor. In 802 he inaugurated a new phase in the history of mainland Southeast Asia by establishing the Tdntric cult of devaraja on Mount Kulen to liberate Kambujadea from the subjugation of Java. Surprisingly, no inscription from his reign has been recovered so far. Nor is there any contemporary inscription for his son and successor Jayavarman III (835-877). Inscriptions of later kings tell about these two rulers of Angkor. It is believed that Jayavarman II began the tradition of building temple-mountain from where political control was exercised ritually over a major part of mainland Southeast Asia.

Indravarman I (AD 877-889) built the magnificent temple-mountain of Bakong around the village of Roluos and launched important public works. His son Yaovarman (889- 900) shifted the capital from Roluos to Angkor, built around the natural hillock of Phnom Bakheng, crowned by a temple-mountain from where Siva presided over the destiny of mainland Southeast Asia.

Yaodharapura, his Angkorian legacy, was perpetuated for the next 500 years. Yaovarman’s reign was followed by the unremarkable and relatively brief reigns of two of his sons.


Preface v
Acknowledgements xv
Abbreviations xvii
List of Illustrations xviii
1 Temple: Open Air to Built-in Space 1
2 Temple as Architectural Search for the Centre 29
3 Temple and Village Formation 135
4 Temple and City 161
5 Temple and Capital Formation 197
6 Temple and Manpower Mobilization 218
7 Water and Architecture 244
8 Temple as Sanskritizing Agent 271
Conclusion: Temple as a Text 335
Appendix 343
Appendix 1: List of Kings of the Khmer Mainland Southeast Asia 343
Appendix 2: The Angkor Monuments in Chronological Order 345
Bibliography 347
Index 353
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