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Researchers Look Closer at Ancient Angkor

Ancient Khmer art and culture have characteristics distinct from India, though some ideas appear to have been borrowed from the tradition, a Canadian archeologist told guests in Washington last week.

Speaking to a small conference at the Freer-Sackler Art Gallery, Mitch Henderickson, director of the Industries of Angkor Project and researcher at the University of Sydney, said he found no evidence after seven years of research indicating that temples or architectural structures like Angkor Wat had been built in India.

“In the past it was interpreted as a direct diffusion of Indians and Indian ideals into Cambodia,” he said. “It has only been, say, in the last 10 years that we have truly understood how Brahman and Buddhist ideals have been brought into Cambodia and whether the actual Brahman or monks were giving the ideas.”

Some architecture and arts were now thought “uniquely Khmer,” he said, “because there are no temples in India that are built in the same way. They don’t follow the idea of building a ‘baray’ with a ‘mebon’ in the center, which is the representation of Mount Meru in the Sea of Milk [epic]. There’s nothing like that i​n India. So, the idea is that now we realize that Cambodia took the ideas that they wanted and modified them to suit the purpose and goals of the rulers and kings.”

Henderickson said Angkor was the biggest industrial site in the world at that time. His findings show that the Khmers had infrastructure spanning their empire.

Roads started from modern northern Cambodia and reached northern Thailand and southern Laos, spreading south to present-day Kampong Thom province. Every road was accompanied by ponds and rest-houses to facilitate people’s travel and transportation.

Irrigation systems were established as water sources for agriculture.

Evidence now pointed away from such structures being built by King Jayavarman VII, he said, and now indicated they were done by King Suryavarman I.

An ancient text he had studied “doesn’t say [Jayavarman VII] built roads, it doesn’t say he built bridges, and it doesn’t say he built the ponds, but we have all the evidence in the landscape,” Henderickson said. “And we also know that the Khmers were expanding across this territory 200 years before Jayavarman VII. So, it is more realistic to think that the road system that we see today is the product of Suryavaraman I, and possibly an earlier king.”

Cambodia is much loved for its ancient architecture and culture, but much remains unknown. Tourism is the second-highest outside earner for the country, after garment manufacturing.

The remnants of the Khmer empire continue to draw tourists from abroad, while capturing the imagination of local visitors, but the country continues to lose its heritage to looters and grave robbers.

There are two kinds of looting, said Dougald O’Reilly, a colleague of Henderickson who also attended last week’s talk, said: temple looting and looting of ancient cemeteries.

“The second one is mostly driven by people poverty,” said O’Reilly, who is also an archeologist and is the director of Heritage Watch, a non-profit group that seeks to protect Cambodia’s artifacts.

“The international market is a driving force, so people who are poor, they need to make money, and they are encouraged to loot by people who are middlemen in this trade,” O’Reilly said. “So, often we have Cambodian and Thai people asking villagers if they have antiquities, etc.”

People who feel guilty looting temples may not feel the same way about ancient cemeteries, he said.

Heritage Watch has a variety of programs, such as publishing comics and children’s books, a Heritage Friendly Tourism Campaign that encourages tourists to buy products from businesses that are “heritage friendly.” A

The organization hopes to educate local people to understand the importance of Cambodia’s cultural past, which attracts tourists—and income.

“Cambodia really represents the best of the best in heritage,” he said. “So, people come there for heritage, but at the same time it has been chipped away and destroyed at rather alarming rate. If Cambodia wants to build a sustainable and a long term tourism industry, it’s crucial that they preserve and protect not only the monuments but also the ancient sites.”

Scientists need these sites to understand how Angkor came to be, and what happened to it, he said. “But if these heritages are lost, we can’t answer these questions.”