Words across Space and Time: An Analysis of Lexical Items in Khmer Inscriptions, Sixth-Fourteenth Centuries CE

By Lustig, Eileen; Evans, Damian et al. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Words across Space and Time: An Analysis of Lexical Items in Khmer Inscriptions, Sixth-Fourteenth Centuries CE


Lustig, Eileen, Evans, Damian, Richards, Ngaire, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Most of the textual evidence of the Pre-Angkorian (pre-ninth century CE) and Angkorian (ninth-fourteenth centuries CE) periods in Khmer history is gained from about 1200 inscriptions. Although the majority of these inscriptions have been found within the area defined by modern Cambodia, and in particular near Angkor, they have a wide distribution across much of mainland Southeast Asia which probably corresponds with the limits of Khmer influence and authority during that time. Found mostly in sanctuaries, the inscriptions deal principally with religious establishments (foundations) and their support and administration. The texts are in Khmer or Sanskrit or both languages. The Khmer texts mostly contain political, bureaucratic or economic information and list founders, donors and donations of working personnel, land, animals and material goods. The Sanskrit texts, which are always in verse, primarily eulogise kings or officials and evoke gods.

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Until recent times, there has been little discussion of economic changes over time or the possibility of tracing these changes using the content of the inscriptions. Also, until recently there has been little research linking the various strands of economic life within Angkorian or Pre-Angkorian societies, and this deficit still exists to a large extent within studies of the Angkorian period. The economic circumstances of a significant section of the population--the people working for the temples--have also been little considered. With the texts written by and largely for the elite, it was felt that little could be learned about the roles of the lower classes, usually mentioned only in lists of temple personnel. For example, Etienne Aymonier refers somewhat dismissively to the 'interminable name lists' in inscription K. 183 at Koh Ker. (2) The detailed lists of durable temple offerings and barter payments have also been largely overlooked, and their potential has been explored by few researchers. (3) Nor has there been much discussion about the relationships between the rulers, the landowners, the temple foundations and the villages in the production and distribution of resources. The relatively limited research that has been undertaken on Angkor's economy thus far has, to some extent, seen the assertions and assumptions of one writer taken at face value by others, and much of the material on economic issues that had been published by the 1970s seems to have been reiterated; for example, Kenneth Hall's analysis of the Khmer economy seems to rely quite heavily and perhaps too uncritically on the works of others. (4)

Because early research interest in Cambodia was by Sanskritists, and because the temple writings, art and architecture were obviously related to those of India, Cambodian society was commonly assumed to be modelled on that of India. Approaches to the research were cultural-historical and interest usually focused on the Sanskrit parts of the inscriptions in order to determine a chronology, particularly of Khmer rulers. (5) George Cedes, for example, once commented that inscription K. 956 was only of great interest for its reference to a ceremony performed by Jayavarman II, even though it traces in detail the history of various lands and foundations and the families with which they were associated, thus providing an insight into the history of territorial organisation and a substantive link to an emerging archaeological record that defines Angkor as an inhabited space. (6) The value of this kind of approach, even for a small-scale qualitative approach that differs substantially from the methods detailed in this article, is clearly demonstrated in Christophe Pottier's study of the relationship between epigraphic accounts of Buddhist asrama at Angkor and the surrounding archaeological landscape. (7) However, to this day, some Khmer-language inscriptions remain untranslated, and within many translations lists of detailed information are omitted. …

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Words across Space and Time: An Analysis of Lexical Items in Khmer Inscriptions, Sixth-Fourteenth Centuries CE
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