SHIVA, PHNOM BOK, ANGKOR (889-915,)
EKAMUKHALINGA (SINGLE-FACED SHIVA LINGA,) LOP BURI, NATIONAL MUSEUM, BANGKOK (11TH CENTURY)
The Devaraja Cult
This quandary has led historians to speculate that these temples may have existed primarily as ceremonial centers without a congregational or monastic function, similar to the Achaemenids’ Persepolis or the Zapotecs’ Monte Albán. The most obvious candidate for such a purpose is the abhisheka or “empowerment initiation” into the much-debated devaraja cult, instituted, according to the Sdok Kak Tham inscription (1053 C.E.,) by Jayavarman II in 802 on Mt Kulen. From a closer reading of the epigraphic evidence, it now seems likely that the devaraja did not refer to the king but a portable, perhaps wooden, linga or totem through which the king communed with the god during an occult ritual. This was performed on the upper terrace of his state temple mountain, perhaps a substitute for Mt. Kulen, by a brahmin from a specific lineage, (in the sense of gotra or clan rather than parampara or “guru lineage.”) These intentionally obscure inscriptions suggest the devaraja could have functioned like a Vajrayana yidam or personal deity, through whom the king "presenced" or envisioned his meta-physical or “subtle body,” an Ayurvedic and later Tantric concept mediating between his corporeal emanation and his non-manifest “divine essence,”“Buddha nature” or dharmakhana, vaguely equivalent to the “soul” or “holy ghost” in Christianity. This periodic entheogenesis allowed the king to transmit the darshan or blessing of an awakened god to his subjects and kingdom.
This tends to support the thesis that a primary attraction of Hinduism to the feudal regimes during the initial contact period was its concept of the chakravartin or “Lord of the Universe,” a Saivite epithet, which seems to have been syncretized with indigenous South Asian traditions of the king as an intermediary between his subjects and the gods, notably his own deified ancestors. This belief was reinforced by the ten avatars of Vishnu, the Dashavatara, (see appendix VI) the eighth of which, Rama, the eponymous hero of the Ramayana, was both a model of the ideal sovereign and a god in mortal guise. This interpretation is lent credence by the posthumous names adopted by all Khmer kings on the supposition that after death they would rejoin the deity of whom they had been an avatar, “channel” or protégé. Thus, a Khmer king did not just rule through divine right but through divine role as the human embodiment of his titular deity.
It seems logical that in many cultures, kings would tend to confuse themselves with deities and find mortality so out of character and unnatural that it surely could be circumvented. Some scholars have therefore hypothesized a funerary function for these temples, despite the lack of evidence anyone was ever buried there, to say nothing of the fact, that both Hinduism and Buddhism incinerate rather than inter their dead. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of precedents; the pyramids of Giza certainly demanded as much labor from the pharaoh’s subjects as the temple mountains of Angkor to assure their mummified remains a safe passage through the perilous underworld until they could reign again. Shah Jahan prepared the marble Taj Mahal for his wife (and its unbuilt onyx counterpart for himself) to be sure a proper Paradise awaited them on the Day of Judgment. Could Angkor’s temples have been, built in preparation for their sponsors’ posthumous apotheosis, “temples-in-waiting,” as it were? If they were primarily expressions of the reigning monarch’s pretensions to immortality, it might explain why these literally monumental efforts were so readily abandoned and forgotten. For example, the masons at Ta Keo seem to have dropped their chisels the moment its future occupant could no longer sign their paychecks; his successor tried to give this second-hand mausoleum to a brahmin who declined it, after which it went unvisited until a French naturalist stumbled across it 850 years later. If it was a cenotaph, the anomalous westward orientation of Angkor Wat might not just be a consequence of its dedication to Vishnu but because west is also the direction of death. In Pure Land Buddhism, the devout are borne at death directly to the “blessed Western Lands” by the Mahayana Buddha, Amida or Amithabha, whose avatar, the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara or Lokesvara in Khmer, just thirty year later, became the titulary deity of Preah Khan and one candidate for the Bayon’s face towers.
Temple Mountains in
“Mandala” or “Molecular” Polities
The lack of any obvious purpose for these temples has suggested to some that they were their own point: a demonstration of a ruler’s power to command the immense resources needed for their construction. In other words, their point was to make or mark a point, a center from which the king’s spiritual and temporal authority radiated, as the empire’s influence flowed along the roads from the capital to its peripheral outposts, remote temples like Phimai, Preah Vihear and Phnom Chisor, all oriented back towards Angkor. Obvious analogies would include Rome, to which all roads led as caput mundi and where all distances were measured from the millarium aureum in its Forum. Similarly, the mihrab in every mosque and every Muslim in his five daily salats or prostrations point along the qibla axis to Mecca. The need for such symbolic markers and their magnitude might, ironically, increase the more the actual lines of authority became frayed, attenuated and ambiguous. At least that is the contention of archaeologists John M. Miksic and Geok Yan Goh in Ancient Southeast Asia (Routledge, New York, 2017,) who argue that the “Eurocentric,” early modern model of a highly centralized state, directly administered by a bureaucratic apparatus with unquestioned loyalty to an absolute monarch, anointed by god and primogeniture, exemplified by the ancien regime in France, is inappropriate for the feudal context of Southeast Asia in the 1st millennium. (The problem would then not seem to lie in its "Eurocentrism" but its "modernity;" feudal France approximates their model; even the “Sun King” had his Fronde.) They propose, instead, a “mandala model” where sovereignty derives from recognition of a ruler’s authority as chakravartin, the current incarnation of dharma or divine law which rippled out in widening circles to more distant, paler manifestations of his authority - the regional nobility, the heads of local clans and magnates. A ruler’s power was therefore contingent on his recognition by similarly entitled, semi-autonomous elites, often from rival ruling families, and demonstrated through the unreliable payment of tribute and military service, rather than direct taxation collected by royal agents. The monarch, in turn, was obliged to manifest his legitimacy through munificence in the form of the construction of the region’s pre-eminent religious monuments and civic improvements. This pattern could be seen as paralleling Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of “molecular sovereignty” in which overlapping, semi-independent, administrative power centers, (“bureaucratic fiefdoms,” for example,) are locked in a more or less continual competition with each other and the central authority to maintain their autonomy.
In this perspective, Khmer state temples, barays, roads, bridges, rest houses, hospitals and regional shrines would be the explicit signifiers of implicit lines of a centripetal force binding far-flung dependencies to the capital, when in fact the suzerainty they signified so conspicuously was always drifting, fluid and provisional because exercised through quasi-autonomous feudatories. At the blurred perimeters of these mandalas, rival power centers vied to attract the allegiance of the most distant and hence least tightly bound local lords, while ambitious epicycles circling the center of a mandala always threatened to expand their orbits to become new suns. The Khmer Empire was, in fact, fraught with what appear to have been periodic contested successions and dynastic challenges from provincial centers in 928, 944, 1001-1010, 1080, 1113, 1165-1177, 1181, 1243 and 1295. This tendency was exacerbated by an ill-defined, avuncular line of royal succession which could always bypass a ruler’s sons in favor of his mother’s male relatives. These periods of instability would eventually end with the emergence of a dominant central authority - determined monarchs such as Rajendravarman, Suryavarman I, Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII - who could tame obstreperous, regional warlords, impose a standard code of law and levy fixed taxes collected by royal functionaries before they could be siphoned off by local oligarchs. With the passage of time, however, royal revenues would become depleted precisely as a consequence of the grandiose monuments and pious, tax-exempt religious endowments expected of a legitimate chakravartin, providing restive, rival dynasts an opportunity to start the cycle again, plunging the empire into protracted, internecine conflicts, such as those responsible for the sack of Angkor by the Cham in 1177 and by the Thai of Ayatthuya in 1352 and 1393, which led to the abandonment of Angkor and the removal of the capital to the comparative safety of Phnom Penh.