11: Khmer’s Indian Father


As seen, Khmer culture is a mixture of Indian and indigenous culture. This cultural mixture began as the world entered the Common Era. Further, the intermarriage of the Indian immigrants with the indigenous populations gave birth to the modern Khmer race. Eventually this cultural blend of the Khmer race led to the magnificent flowering of the Empire at Angkor.

How did the Khmer civilization begin?

What was the cultural foundation upon which this marvelous empire was built?

The Trunk of the Khmer Flowering

Historical sources suggest that the Empire at Angkor evolved from the kingdom of Chenla, which itself was derived from the kingdom of Funan. The Khmer race populated each of these kingdoms. In other words, the Khmer belonged to a series of kingdoms that existed in different locations. Rather than springing up on its own, the empire at Angkor was preceded by Khmer kingdoms based first in Funan and then in Chenla. The Khmer at Angkor were the most powerful dynasty in a thousand year old tradition.

In other words, the Khmer people populated and ruled the Funan kingdom, the Chenla kingdom, and the Empire at Angkor. Further, each of these cultures had major similarities. Even more importantly, the Khmer of Angkor felt that they were continuing and expanding upon a local tradition. They did not perceive themselves as invaders, who were civilizing barbarians or taming savages. Instead, they were proud to have revived the ancient kingdom of Funan. The founders of the Khmer Empire at Angkor consciously align themselves with the prestige of the Golden Age of Funan.

This discussion has implied that the Khmer efflorescence in Cambodia was based upon an unbroken chain of cultures from prehistoric times. First were the rice farmers and bronze artisans of the early Neolithic. Then came the Megalithic stone cutting and mountain building cultures that preceded the modern era. In turn, this prehistoric culture was followed by the Khmer kingdoms of Funan, Chenla and Angkor.

While this is a convenient explanation, it is an oversimplification of a greater picture. Nothing human - individual, tribal, or national, occurs in a vacuum. Because of the interconnectedness of life, we are all subject to influences from everything that surrounds us. The kingdoms of Southeast Asia are no exception to this rule.

The Indianized Kingdoms of the Khmer

What did these kingdoms/empires have in common?

First and foremost, they were all Indianized kingdoms.

What does this mean?

When Indian traders arrived in the region of Southeast Asia that we currently call Cambodia, they brought their political system. Prior to this point, individual tribes populated the Cambodian territory. With the influx of Indian merchants, a kingdom replaced this loose tribal structure. At the top of the political hierarchy was a king, who ruled the local chieftains. The French and English might call them princes and dukes. The Indians called them maharajas and rajahs.

While this type of hierarchical system tends to create privileged classes with a philosophy of elitism, it is also a more fit political structure. Organization into larger groups allows the smaller tribes to resist the predatory habits of other ‘kingdoms’ or ‘empires’. The hierarchy is inevitable as cultures attempt to protect themselves from enslavement by other cultures. In the violent political world of humans, size is related to strength. If enough people group together with common ends, they might be able to protect themselves from other groups of people with hostile intent.

Hindu culture from India was the factor that transformed the decentralized tribes in what is now Cambodia into a kingdom. There were so many regional differences between the numerous small communities that they had no sense of unity. The sense of national identity was found in Hinduism, especially its mythology - as we shall see. The king propagates the feeling of a unified culture to inspire the population to join together as one behind his leadership. Rather than using force to achieve this sense of national identity the Khmer kings initiated collective art projects, which culminated in Angkor. The Khmer seemed to be obsessed with creating art that would last forever. In contrast, many countries in the west, including Germany, Britain and the US, created fear and then a war to bind the nation together behind a common goal.

The Indianization of these kingdoms bonded the residents in a way that local traditions couldn’t. However, tribal customs remained strong in those Southeast Asian kingdoms that embraced Hinduism. In Thailand, Cambodia and Java, the Hindu traditions were limited to the royal courts, but did not spread to the countryside. This was probably due to the inherent elitism of Hinduism. Based as it was in the caste system, it was primarily the religion of rulers and priests. In contrast, in the countries that embraced Buddhism, such as Burma, even the local villagers were acquainted with the Jataka (Buddha birth stories), which adorned local temples. Again this probably had to do with the egalitarian nature of Buddhism, which stresses the potential of enlightenment for everyone.

How Indian culture came to Southeast Asia

Hinduism was the glue that bonded the Khmer dynasties together as Indianized kingdoms. But how did it get there?

Already at the outset of the Common Era, there was a commercial network stretching from the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean to China. India and Southeast Asia were in the geographic middle of this trade network. Southeast Asia includes both the mainland (Indo China) and the islands (the East Indies).

Initially the ruling classes of India - the warriors and the priests - didn’t participate in trade. It was beneath their class. Warriors didn’t have to barter for what they wanted; they just took it by force. Producing something useful and selling it was considered a sign of weakness. This warrior mind-set of looking down on the merchant class is still a major factor in global politics. This is evidenced by the Western imperialism that continues to exploit native populations through military force rather than negotiating in a congenial fashion. Hinduism, as the religion that rationalizes the barbaric behavior of the military class, actually banned trade and travel for the ruling caste.

Buddhism is the religion that emerged to address the needs of the merchant class in the cities. With their growing prosperity, they surmounted the barrier of ethnic purity and isolation erected by Hinduism. Buddhism taught that anyone could transcend ignorance and reach truth through the 8-fold path. Truth was not the exclusive privilege of the priestly class. Accordingly Buddhism, with its rejection of the caste system, became very popular among traders. By deconstructing the walls of Hinduism, Buddhism inspired Indian traders to travel to Southeast Asia to seek their material fortunes. Ironically, Buddhism professes a belief in non-materialism.

As a result of this elimination of a cultural taboo combined with the potential for great wealth from trade, waves of Indians migrated into Southeast Asia seeking their fortune during the first 5 to 6 hundred years of the Common Era. Initially, they came overland through Burma and Thailand. As the maritime technology improved, they came as sea traders. The Indian merchants settled at their favorite spots along the trade routes, which probably included the open-air marketplaces of native populations. As trade increased, the population increased and cities were formed.

Indian influence spread in the wake of this trade. Part of this influence included Buddhism, which stressed the importance of spreading light to those immersed in darkness. This attitude resulted in missionary activity by monks. Because of the geographical proximity with India, Burma became the main spreading center for Buddhism on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

The egalitarian Burmese never accepted Hinduism and its caste system. They rejected king worship and hereditary nobility. The Burmese influence spread into the Mon kingdoms of Thailand to the west. Buddhist monasteries were set up with the patronage of local kings. Eventually, the Burmese congealed into the Pyu kingdom of the upper Irrawaddy River. Pagan, the capital of this Burmese kingdom, became an international center of Theravada Buddhism. The Mon congealed into the Dvaravati kingdom of Thailand and the lower Irrawaddy River. In these western kingdoms, the king was considered to be the servant of Buddha, not his equal.

Hindu literature transforms Southeast Asian Culture

In contrast to the Buddhist influence in the western territories, the eastern territories of Southeast Asia, which includes the present day territories of Cambodia and Vietnam, embraced Hinduism. Why? No one really knows. We suggest two plausible reasons: their books and their water technology. First we will explore the influence of their books.

While one aspect of the Indianized state is political, i.e. the hierarchy of the kingdom, the other aspect is religious. The migration of Indian traders with their two books, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, revolutionized religious practices in Southeast Asia overall, but particularly in Cambodia.

The transformative power of literature is well-documented. Marshall McLuhan considers it a hot medium, in the sense that it inspires action. The Bible and Koran are just 2 of myriad examples of this kind. Leonard Schlain, in his book The Alphabet versus the Goddess, provides a plausible rationale for this phenomenon.

Schlain makes a strong point that reading tends to inherently encourage left-brain values because it is an exclusively verbal medium. In contrast, music and art might be combined with words, but are based in sound or sight. Broadly speaking left brain values are goal oriented rather than process oriented. They are inherently based in thought rather than experience. Word based consciousness is based in polarity, rather than assimilation.

To establish his point, Schlain recreates many historical examples of the effects of reading upon a culture. An avid reader and writer himself, Schlain hated what he found. He found that cultures that were infected with books became male dominated and misogynistic. His most startling example was the witch burnings of Western civilization. He claims that witch burning of the Middle Ages coincided with the availability of pamphlets and other types of literature for the masses due to invention of the Gutenberg press. This was just one of a multitude of examples.

However, don’t be alarmed. Reading this book will not incite any riots or violence towards women. The effects of reading are most dramatic only when a culture has first been infected. It is as if reading sends an entire culture or class into a trance. Once the trance has passed the individual or culture has developed a type of immunity from the written word. They have been inoculated against the disease. Or perhaps they’ve become habituated to its influence. For instance in the 21st century the printed word has been around for so long that relative balance has been reached. At least, we are not burning women at the stake.

Religious Novels, Ramayana and the Mahabharata, of Prime Importance

With the introduction of books into Southeast Asia, the chiefs and ruling classes were infected with Hindu literature. One effect of this trend was the rise of kingdoms and the other was the interest in Hinduism. While the philosophical books like the Vedas and Upanishads had limited influence, the Indian religious novels, especially the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, had a tremendous influence. The philosophical literature was accessible only to those who could read - the spiritual elite or the highly motivated. The stories had a much broader appeal. Both novels dealt with universal themes that anyone could relate to. Both novels presented plausible heroes and villains that could be held up as models of virtue and vice. Because stories have an emotional component, they are more easily assimilated into the individual’s psyche than are dry ideas. As evidence, human memory tends to retain stories better than philosophy.

Practically speaking, these stories were told and retold in myriad variations and settings with varying intent and emphasis. They were portrayed in drama, dance and the tangible arts. This was not possible with Indian philosophy. These well written stories dealing with universal themes were very inspirational to the Southeast Asian population. They were instrumental in unifying and motivating the Khmer to create the wonderful temples at Angkor. The sculptures that adorned the temples illustrate the characters and themes of the above novels .

Summarizing: during the initial centuries of the modern era, the Indianization of Southeast Asia was well under way. Kingdoms with centralized power began to pop up in areas that had previously been primarily based in smaller tribal units. Kingdoms with a larger cultural gravity absorbed tribes into their sphere.

With the influx of Hindu businessmen and traders came the Brahmin priests as well as minstrels to sing the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These stories were quickly assimilated and rewritten in the local vernacular. The traders dealt with prominent local chieftains and eventually infected them with the hierarchy. Feverish with ambition, these chiefs formed kingdoms of which they were the head.

The larger and more prestigious the kingdom, the greater the demands on the local population. The agricultural peasantry were eventually persuaded or coerced to grow three crops of rice a year to support the needs of the growing kingdoms. Previously, one crop a year would suffice for their individual needs.


Southeast Asia: “Instead of being coerced, we prefer to think that our entire extended community willingly devoted themselves to the greater good of our society, which included feeding the artisans that were building our magnificent temples.

We are so grateful to Father India for bringing his wonderful books to our section of the planet. The influence of his books on my people was considerable. As well as influencing the Khmer kingdoms, India’s books also had a huge influence on my other children.

In fact, Indian culture transformed our entire clan of cultures. Father India and his brothers married my Naga daughters to give birth to my Indianized races with their Indianized kingdoms. In addition to the Khmer on the east of my mainland, this transformative process also included the Mon, who inhabited the west, and the Austronesian speakers in the south, who live on the islands of Sumatra, Java, and Bali, as well as the Malay Peninsula. The Indian migrations in the 1st centuries of the modern era Indianized my entire world.

Because each of my Naga daughters is different, the cultures they spawned from their merger with the Indian brothers were equally different. However because their parents belonged to the same families, the Indianized kingdoms of my grandchildren had many similarities. Although different in some ways, they all had elements in common. As we’ve already discovered, one aspect of the Indianization of my many cultures was political - the tribal merger into kingdoms. Another was technological, related to irrigation and agricultural techniques. A third aspect was religious, the Hindu and Buddhist influence. This included India’s marvelous literature. I can’t stress how grateful we are to Father India for his many contributions to my peoples of Southeast Asia.

To gain a better understanding of India's own historical roots, check out the next chapter, Tamil's Tragic Story.


Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments