Photo for Analyzing Angkorian compassion through an

Photo: Piphal Heng

Piphal Heng, postdoctoral fellow at Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, offers an alternative approach to archeological research to explore how Angkor was led with compassion.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

A Materialist Approach

"Archeology provides a complementary data set to the field dominated by art history and history and Angkor is the best example of that," said Piphal Heng, a postdoctoral fellow Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University, in a colloquium on January 19, 2021 hosted by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. The colloquium was part of an "Archaeology of Kindness" fiat lux course taught at UCLA by Professor Stephen Acabado and funded by the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.

The conversation explored the political economy, religious philosophy and state infrastructure of the Angkorian period. Heng, whose research focuses on religious change, urbanism and sociopolitical organizational shift, presented an alternative to conventional studies on Cambodia through examining the material aspects of archeology. In his talk, Heng argued that "compassion" was instrumental in building, maintaining, and expanding Angkor’s power from 9th through 15th centuries CE.

Buddhist Rule

Founded in 802 CE, Angkor is known for its monumental architecture, large water reservoirs and canal systems, and complex transportation networks.

Heng focused mainly on the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 CE). Jayavarman VII embraced Buddhist principles, specifically from Mahāyāna Buddhism, evident by a triad of statuary, temples, and inscriptions that referred to liberation and enlightenment through compassion and wisdom. The Jayavarman VII inscriptions details the king's perspective on ruling power, "The suffering of men's bodies became for him the suffering of the soul, which is much more; for the grief of kings is the suffering of their subjects, and not their own."

Heng also described the Ta Prohm temple, Rājavihāra, which served as a religious university and was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's mother. All 439 religious scholars and 970 students living inside the compound received daily rations and were supported by a large staff of officials, attendants, dancers and medical workers.

Jayavarman VII clearly showed a commitment to compassion in his ruling through his state projects and construction of many religious temple complexes to house religious leaders and teachers, host learning centers, serve as community centers, and provide social services to Angkorian Khmers.

"Sanskrit inscriptions often provide an allegorical image of kings as charming and as conqueror and destroyer of enemies," said Heng. "The Jayavarman VII inscriptions stress the 'Buddhist compassion' by revealing his personality and philosophy."

An Archeology of Compassion

"For most of our history as archeologists working within archaeology as a discipline, we've been preoccupied with looking at conflict, warfare, abandonment, and collapse," added Stephen Acabado, moderator and associate professor of anthropology at UCLA. "Southeast Asia is not exempt from this tradition."

"How can archeology contribute?" asked Heng. "Can we instead have an archeology of compassion?"

Having looked at the spatial configuration of domestic and sacred spaces in his research, Heng argued the sociopolitical systems at the time, including state power, education, law, ethics, and public health, were intertwined with religious practices. He calls for researchers to challenge the dichotomy of secularism and religion.

"Religion was always involved with ideal leadership. To rule the empire effectively, you have role models that could be Vishnu in the form of different avatars or you can look at the mythology carved in Angkor," said Heng.

Heng believes in breaking archeological boundaries to be more interdisciplinary and reframing research questions to move beyond functional or symbolic analyses. He suggested shifting the research process to explore topics like the daily lives of different social classes or rulership through analyzing temples, statues and sites.

"The way to move forward is to look at modern comparative studies and cross-cultural studies, especially for Southeast Asia," said Heng.  


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Published: Thursday, February 4, 2021