Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia

By Robert Heine-Geldern | Go to book overview

The Capital as the Magic Center of Empire

In Southeast Asia, even more than in Europe, the capital stood for the whole country. It was more than the nation's political and cultural center: it was the magic center of the empire. The circumambulation of the capital formed, and in Siam and Cambodia still forms, one of the most essential parts of the coronation ritual. By this circumambulation the king takes possession not only of the capital city but of the whole empire. Whereas the cosmological structure of the country at large could be expressed only by the number and location of provinces and by the functions and emblems of their governors, the capital city could be shaped architecturally as a much more "realistic" image of the universe, a smaller microcosmos within that macrocosmos, the empire. The remains of some of the ancient cities clearly testify to the cosmological ideas which pervaded the whole system of government. Fortunately, a number of inscriptions and some passages in native chronicles may help us in interpreting archaeological evidence.

As the universe, according to Brahman and Buddhist ideas, centers around Mount Meru, so that smaller universe, the empire, was bound to have a Mount Meru in the center of its capital which would be if not in the country's geographical, at least in its magic center. It seems that at an early period natural hillocks were by preference selected as representatives of the celestial mountain. This was still the case in Cambodia in the 9th century A.D. Yesodharapura, the first city of Angkor, founded towards 900 A.D., formed an enormous square of about two and a half miles on a side, with its sides facing the cardinal points and with the Phnom Bakbang, a small rocky hill, as center. An inscription tells us that this mountain in the center of the capital with the temple on its summit was "equal in beauty to the king of mountains, "i.e. to Mount Meru.3 The temple on Phnom Bakheng contained a Lingam, the phallic symbol of Siva, representing the Devarāja, the "God King," i.e. the divine essence of kingship which embodied itself in the actual king. More frequently the central mountain was purely artificial, being represented by a temple only. This was quite in accordance with prevailing ideas, practically every temple in Southeast Asia, whether Hindu or Buddhist, whether built of stone, brick or wood, being considered as the image of a mountain, usually, though not invariably, of Mount Meru. In ancient Cambodia a temple was quite ordinarily referred to as "giri," mountain, and the many-tiered temples of Bali are still called Meru. The Cambodian inscriptions are very explicit with regard to such identifications. Thus, to give an example, one of them says that King Udayādityavarman II ( 11th century) "seeing that the Jambudvipa had in its center a mountain of gold, provided for his capital city, too, to have a golden mountain in its interior, On the summit of this golden mountain, in a celestial palace resplendent with gold, he erected a lingam of Śiva."


The Lay-Out of Angkor Thom

The actual ruins of Angkor Thom are the remains of the latest city

____________________
3
Although Brahman and Buddhist cosmologies usually ascribe to the world a circular shape, the "cosmic" cities of Southeast Asia, with rare exceptions, affect the square form. It would take too long to explain this apparent, but not very important discrepancy.

-3-

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Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Cornell University Southeast Asia Program ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Foreword v
  • Table of Contents vii
  • Macrocosmos and Microcosmos 1
  • The Capital as the Magic Center of Empire 3
  • The Capital of Burma 3
  • Cosmic Roles of King, Court and Government 5
  • Survival of Traditions 6
  • A Few Books and Articles Pertaining to the Subject 11
  • Cornell University Southeast Asia Program 15
  • Cornell University Southeast Asia Program 16
  • In Print 17
  • Out of Print 20
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