Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia

By Robert Heine-Geldern | Go to book overview

To this came the vagueness of the rules of succession. Sometimes the king himself chose his successor. Sometimes the ministers appointed a prince as king. Then again the queens unofficially but efficiently exercised their influence in favor of a prince of their choice. Often the crown simply fell to the prince who was the quickest to seize the palace and to execute his brothers. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that the empires of Southeast Asia from the very beginning were torn by frequent rebellion, often resulting in the overthrow of kings or even dynasties. The earliest reports we have, those from Chinese sources on the kingdom of Funan, reveal such conditions to have existed as early as the 3rd century A.D. If there was a long period of oppression and unrest, rebellion and its concomitant, dacoity, could become practically a popular tradition which it was difficult to eradicate. Such was the case, for instance, in Burma during the 13th and 19th centuries, and it is in the light of such a past that recent events in that country ought to be seen.


Survival of Traditions

In order to realize how deeply the populations of Farther India were affected by the cosmological structure of the state one need only think of the division of the Siamese people into the classes of the right and of the left which, not long ago, determined the services each person was obliged to render to the state. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the cosmo-magic principle as applied to the state really forms only part of a much wider complex and resulted from a conception of the universe and of human existence which regulated, and to a large extent still regulates, also the private lives of individuals. When in Siam and Cambodia people wore cloths of different color on different days of the week according to the color ascribed to the planet for whom the day is named, or when in Burma before any important undertaking they examine their horoscope and the lore of lucky and unlucky days, or when they kneel down for prayer on that side of the pagoda which in the cosmological system correoponds to the planet of the weekday On which they were born, they act on the same principle which governed the structure of their empires, their ideas of kingship and the ritual Of their royal courts. It is clear then that the cosmo-magic ideas, until a very recent past, had an extremely strong hold on the minds of the people.

Is all this a crumbling structure, giving way under the impact of modern civilization or may it still influence the political activities of the peoples concerned? The question is not easily answered. Information on this point is scarce. There are, however, a few indications.

We have it on the authority of H. G. Quaritch Wales that the people of Siam, around 1930, still held the ancient state ceremonies in high esteem, those ceremonies which to a large extent are governed by cosmological ideas. One may ask oneself, how much of this old tradition may have been at the bottom of the royalist rebellion of 1933.

In Burma the following cases may be considered as significant. In 1897, twelve years after the annexation of Upper Burma by the British, a Buddhist monk, U Kelatha, fell in love with a princess of the dethroned dynasty who promised to marry him if he became king of Burma. There

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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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