Book Reviews

Angkor—Before and After:

A Cultural History of the Khmers

by
David Snellgrove

2004. 264 pp., 236 col. pl, 3 figs, 10 maps, bibliography, index, 290 x 210, Hardcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-041-9 $60.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-041-4



Book review by Dawn F. Rooney

(Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 92, 2004)

Angkor—Before and After
traces the Khmer civilization from its known origins to the present day in seven chapters and an epilogue. The text is illustrated with an impressive 243 quality photographs, which are almost all in colour and are conveniently integrated with the text. The British author, David Snellgrove, is a Doctor of Literature of the University of Cambridge, Professor Emeritus of the University of London, a Fellow of the British Academy and the recipient of a Royal Asiatic Society honorary award in June 2004. Snellgrove is a renowned scholar of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism and the author of several books, including Khmer Civilization and Angkor, which comprises extracts from his earlier book, Asian Commitment: Travels and Studies in the Indian Sub-Continent and South-East Asia . The author resides part-time in Cambodia and travels extensively within the country. To his credit, the octogenarian has visited most, if not all, of the sites mentioned in Angkor - Before and After. Snellgrove’s writing style of intermingling tales of his travels with his copious knowledge of the region adds a personal element to the book.
   The author acknowledges some inevitable overlap with his earlier publications. This new book, however, includes recent findings, new interpretations of previously published research and the text and photographs of temples in outlying regions are expanded substantially. The ‘Before and After’ Angkor sections of the book are particularly enlightening as they are periods of Cambodian history with little published information, partly because on-the-site research was not possible for over two decades due to civil war and its aftermath, but also because the majority of publications have focused on the Angkor period (AD 802-1432).
   Snellgrove correctly refers to main­land South-East Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia) as Indochina, but the term is more commonly associated with only three countries-Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam-that were administered by the French from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
   The first two chapters discuss Khmer civilization from its origins to the early ninth century. While the author accepts that Indian influences penetrated Khmer linguistics, written scripts, culture and religions, he also presents a convincing argument for indigenous origins of other aspects of the Khmer civilization, which contribute to counteracting the long-held theory that the Khmers were subsumed by the culture of India. He reports on a recently discovered and excavated Iron Age burial site in Banteay Meanchey Province, north-west Cambodia. A variety of bronze artifacts, ceramic vessels, beads and iron tools and weapons was discovered, which give clues to the social and economic conditions of the period. The site is believed to have been occupied in the early centuries AD, according to Dougald O”Reilly.
   Two examples of expanded text and photographs on pre-Angkor sites are Angkor Borei and Sambor Prei Kuk. Angkor Borei and temples in the environs are located south of Phnom Penh in Ta Keo Province, near the Vietnamese border. Recent research has determined that Angkor Borei may have been the centre of the early third century state identified as ‘Funan’ in Chinese annals. A canal connecting Angkor Borei to the trading port of Oc-eo, which was the dissemination point of Indian influence in to Cambodia, has been discovered. The author’s detailed coverage of the seventh century site of Sambor Prei Kuk, which was largely inaccessible until recently, is a welcome addition. The Hindu site, dedicated to the god Shiva, is located in Kompong Thorn Province east of the Great Lake, and served as the capital for Ishanavarman I (reigned c. 611-C.635).
   The identification of several temples at Angkor, which are located in the vicinity of the Western Baray and are dated before the early ninth century when the Angkor period began, are of particular interest and have attracted considerable research recently. Snellgrove has assigned the name ‘Baray Group’ to these temples on the basis that the construction of the vast Western Baray in the eleventh century contributed to the disuse of the earlier temples. The ‘Baray Group’ comprises the seventh century Hindu temple of Ak Yom, dedicated to Shiva (which may be the earliest example of a pyramid temple in the Angkor area), Prasat Prei Kmeng, Phnom Run and Prasat Kok Po.
   The remaining chapters progress through Khmer history chronologically and highlight kings recognized for their outstanding achievements. The author acknowledges that ‘in writing a cultural history of Cambodia one is bound by the very nature of the stone inscriptions’ because they constitute the only extant source that enables one to present a chronological genealogy of the Khmer kings and their reigns (p. 43). As such, the author correlates relevant inscriptions, genealogy and sculpture with specific sites throughout the text. These chapters draw on previously published information but also include details of recently accessible and little known sites such as the Kulen Mountain, Kabaal Spean (the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’), Beng Mealea, Koh Ker, Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, Preah Vihear and sites in Battambang province. Surveys of temples in this province have only recently begun after mine clearance was completed following the civil war. The associated ceramic finds in this province are of great interest as they provide material evidence of the period in which they were used. The author also discusses temples built on the Khorat Plateau, northeastern Thailand , which was part of the Khmer empire between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
   The type of irrigation system used at Angkor, the canals and interconnections and the function of the barays (‘man-made reservoirs’) are hotly debated topics in Khmer studies today. Snellgrove presents the prevailing views of several previously published scholars on the subject, but he does not mention the most recent findings of a joint project between the University of Sydney and the Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient (EFEO). Teams employing the use of radar ground-images and conducting extensive excavations in the environs of Angkor and around the barays have unearthed a wealth of information on this topic of irrigation and have also delineated the perimeters of the city of Angkor and determined some causes for its demise.
   Chapter Five focuses on the activities of two great Khmer kings-Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150), builder of Angkor Wat, and Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-c. 1218), builder of the royal city of Angkor Thom. Snellgrove concludes the chapter with an interesting assessment on the religious beliefs of Jayavarman VII. He installed Mahayana Buddhism, rather than Hinduism, as the state religion at the beginning of his reign and expressed its ideals in his architectural sites. The court rituals, however, remained Brahmanical. Jayavarman VII is noted for building 102 hospitals throughout the kingdom and 121 rest houses along the royal roads extending from the capital of Angkor to the provincial centres. The chapels at these sites were dedicated to the Buddha Master of Medicine (Bhaisajyaguru), who is considered part of the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, yet in this period he is depicted in the posture and hand position of a typical image of the seated Buddha, Shakyamuni, of the Theravada school. His right palm is turned outwards in the gesture of generosity, and he holds a begging bowl and a myrobalan fruit, a typical medicinal plant. Snellgrove, therefore, believes Jayavarman VII may have had the vision that Theravada, not Mahayana, Buddhism was the form that held promise for the future. And indeed it is the one practiced in Cambodia today.
   Even though the Khmer capital did not move southward from Angkor until sometime after 1432, the period ‘After Angkor’ in this book begins from the time of Jayavarman VII’s death, as no more major temples were built. Only one first-hand extant account from this period is known and it was written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese emissary who resided in Angkor for about one year, from 1296 to 1297. He kept a detailed diary of his observations and translations of Zhou Daguan’s notes are included in this book, which shed light on Angkor at the end of the thirteenth century.
   Chapters Seven through the Epilogue cover the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries and begin with a detailed historical summary of the period, which consisted of frequent internal wars and invasions from Thailand and Vietnam. In the late eighteenth century, Siem Reap (including Angkor) and Battambang provinces belonged to Thailand. A treaty of 1907 between France and Thailand returned the provinces to Cambodia, where they remain today. This section also includes a discussion of the Riemker, which is the Khmer version of the great Indian epic, the Ramayana, and how they differ. He identifies indigenous additions and changes and notes similarities between later versions of the Riemker and scenes depicted on the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat…
   Detailed endnotes, a glossary, bibliography, appendix and index complete the text. The content of this book surpasses the author’s previous publications on the subject and reveals Snellgrove’s individual style and his immense knowledge of Khmer civilization.

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