Angkor 4

With inexorable willpower at the service of mania the Khmer kings called into being whole populations whose only ultimate function, whether directly or indirectly, was the furtherance of their insatiable cult. In the early period, the economic basis of this efflorescence was the inland sea of Tonlé Sap, close to which all the successive capitals had been situated and which contained, and still contains, so many fish that when i n the dry season the waters sink to their low level, the oars of boatmen are impeded by them. The Tonle Sap provided food for the whole populace through the exertions of a few fishermen, and the king saw to it that all the spare hours were occupied with profitable labour. An agricultural people, efficiently tilling fertile soil – and one is reminded of the pre- Columbian Mayans – can live fairly comfortably on an aggregate of forty or fifty days’ labour a year. Inevitably, however, some organising genius comes along to make sure that the spare three hundred days are occupied in impressive but largely wasteful undertakings.
With the flying start provided by the Tonle Sap the kingdom was expanded in all directions, covered with rice-fields, nourished by a brilliant irrigational system and linked up by a network of roads, with elaborately equipped staging points providing shelter for the buffaloes and elephants used as beasts of transport, as well as their masters. The great building king, Jayavarman VII, in addition to his religious founda¬tions and influenced perhaps by the fact that he was a leper, established one hundred and two hospitals. He did not omit to furnish on the great stele of Prah Khan the most detailed catalogue of the medicaments with which they were stocked. It was a huge piece of organisation, controlled finally by a vast machine of state, with its Domesday Books and its army of accountants, to keep track of the activities of every single man in the interests of the maximum production. One can be quite sure that there was a police force and that the minds of the young were carefully moulded by the priesthood to fit them for the efficient fulfilment of their duties. The Khmer Empire was nothing if not totalitarian.
A great deal of unnecessary mystery has been made about the down¬fall of the Khmers, followed by the abandonment of Angkor. It has often been attributed to spectacular Acts of God. The facts, simple enough, are related by the Chinese traveller Chou Ta-Kouan, who visited Angkor when its decadence was already well advanced, and when, partly because the sandstone quarries were exhausted, even the building mania had petered out. It seems that the Khmers, attacked in retaliation by the Siamese, had been obliged to apply the principles of total war. ‘They say,’ said Chou Ta-Kouan, ‘that in the war with the Siamese, all the people were forced to fight.’ One notes that Ta-Kouan speaks of compulsion, and suspects that if any were spared conscription it would have been those tens of thousands of temple servants who ministered to the royal cult. If the report is true that the Khmer army was several millions strong, it must have been by far the largest in the world of its day. But these peasants torn from their rice-fields and forced into uniform fought with little enthusiasm and the wars dragged on until final defeat.
In the meanwhile the irrigation systems were allowed to fall into ruin and the rice-fields on which the enormous, swollen population de¬pended, quickly reverted to forests. The highly productive paddy-field system was progressively abandoned in favour of that present scourge of Indo-China, rice-cultivation in ‘rays’, which involves the annual burning of the forest. It was a method, since it occupies the minimum of labour, which must have been tempting to a nation at war, but results are poor and decrease rapidly, and ultimately it results in the sterilisation and exhaustion of the soil. The process of decline, once under way, could not be halted, and defeat was made absolute by the victor’s introduction of the primitive apostolic Buddhism of the ‘Little Vehicle’, the religion of withdrawal, of renunciation, of tranquillity; which was so utterly de¬structive to the perverted power-cults of the divine kings. It was the subtlest of Carthaginian Peaces. It is possible that the ruins of Angkor are in many ways more impres¬sive than the city itself was in its heyday. Time has wrought wonders with the sandstone, which must have been garish enough when freshly cut. And vandalism and the flailings of sun and rain have done much to mute that excessive symmetry, that all-pervading symbolism, that repetitiousness which I find so irritating in far-Eastern art. There is evidence of an obsession with the magic of numbers and of the dignify¬ing, under artistic forms, of primeval superstitions. One feels that the Khmer must have reasoned that if it was a good thing to erect one statue to Vishnu or of a Devata, then it was fifty times better to have fifty of them. Adepts of magic never seem to be convinced that their magical practices are completely and finally effective. The causeway which leads into Angkor Vat is, or was, flanked at exactly spaced intervals by pairs of nagas – seven-headed serpents. I do not find seven¬headed serpents particularly decorative, and much prefer the lions couchants of which there are many hundreds. However, they represent the serpent beneath which Buddha sheltered. They are, therefore, in essence, protective; and it is necessary to have as many as can be fitted in. I think that it is an aesthetic advantage that the majority of them have been broken and are missing.

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