Nov 22, 2010


Cambodia History

  • Nov 22, 2010
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  • The Beginnings of Cambodian History
    No one knows for certain how long people have lived in what is now Cambodia, where they came from, or what languages they spoke before writing was introduced, using an Indian-style alphabet, around the third century A.D. Carbon-14 dates from a cave at Laang Spean in northwestern Cambodia, however, suggest that people who knew how to make pots lived in the cave as early as 4200 B.C. Another cave, near the ocean, was inhabited about a thousand years later. Presumably the first Cambodians arrived long before either of these dates; evidence of a more primitive, pebble-working culture has been found in the eastern parts of the country. Skulls and human bones found at Samrong Sen, inhabited since around 1500 B.C., suggest that these prehistoric Cambodians resembled Cambodians today, after account is made for recent infusions of Chinese and Vietnamese blood.
    Whether the early people came originally from China, India, or island Southeast Asia is still debated by scholars, and so are theories about waves of different peoples moving through the region in prehistoric times. But recent finds suggest that mainland Southeast Asia had a comparatively soph9isticated culture in the prehistoric era; some scholars even attribute the first cultivation of rice and the first bronze-casting to the region. In any case, it is likely that by the beginning of the Christian era the inhabitants of Cambodia spoke languages related to present-day Cambodian, or Khmer. Language belonging to the Mon-Khmer family are found widely scattered over mainland Southeast Asia, as well as in some of the islands and in parts of India. Modern Vietnamese although heavily influenced by Chinese, is a distant cousin. It is impossible to say when these languages split off from one another; some linguists believe that the split took place several thousand years ago. Unlike the other national languages of Southeast Asia, then aside from Vietnamese-Khmer is not a newcomer to the area. This continuity is one of many that strike students of Cambodia’s past. What is interesting about the cave at Laang Spean is not merely that it was inhabited, on and off, for so long – the most recent carbon 14 date from the cave is from the ninth century A.D. – but that the methods used to make pottery found at the earliest level, and the patterns incise on them, have remained unchanged for perhaps six thousand years. 
                The “changelessness” of Cambodian history was often singled out by the French, who in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw themselves as introducing change and civilization to the region. Ironically, this theme was picked up by Pol Pot’s revolutionary regime, which claimed that Cambodians were asleep or enslaved for two thousand years. Both points of view ignore a great deal of evidence; arguably, the revolution of the 1970s was the fifth Cambodia has undergone since prehistoric times. But pre-Revolutionary Cambodians were less contemptuous of tradition. “Don’t choose a straight path,” a Cambodian proverb tells us. “And don’t reject a winding one. Choose the path your ancestors have trod.” Part of this conservatism, perhaps, is characteristic of a subsistence oriented society, in which experimentation can lead to famine and in which techniques of getting enough to eat are passed from one generation to the next generation.

                We know very little about the daily lives of Cambodians in prehistoric times; we do know that their diet, like the diet of Cambodians today, included a good deal of fish. It seems likely that their houses, from an early date were raised above the ground and made accessible by means of ladders. Clothing was not especially important; early Chinese accounts refer to the Cambodians as “Naked.” After about 1000 B.C., perhaps, they lived in fortified villages, often circular in form, similar to those inhabited nowadays by some tribal people in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The Cambodians, like other inhabitants of the region, had domesticated pigs and water buffalo fairly early, and they grew varieties of rice and root crops by the so called slash and burn method, common throughout the tropics as well as in medieval Europe. These early people probably passed on many of their customs and beliefs to later inhabitants of the region, although we cannot be sure of this, for there are dangers of reading back into prehistoric and early Cambodia what we can see among so called primitive tribes or twentieth century peasants. We cannot be sure that these modern customs have not changed over time. Hairstyles, for example, changed dramatically in Cambodia as recently as the early eighteenth century, and in the 1970s they were changed again by the revolutionary regime.
                All the same, it is unlikely that certain elements of Cambodian life and thinking, especially in the countryside, have changed a great deal since Angkorean times (ninth to mid-fifteenth centuries) or even over the last few thousand years. These elements might include the village games played at the lunar new year; the association of ancestor spirits (Nak ta) with stones, the calendar, and the soil; the belief in water-spirits, or dragons; the idea that tattoos protect the wearer; and the custom of chewing betel, to name a few.
    Government and society in early Cambodia
                The first dated Khmer-language inscription from Cambodia was incised in A.D. 611, with the earliest Sanskrit inscription being carved two years later. There are some datable inscription, in both languages, from the seventh century, and these give us a picture of the way Cambodian society was put together. According to the inscriptions, Cambodian society was divided, informally at least, into those who understood Sanskrit and those who understood only Khmer. For several hundred years, Sanskrit was used in inscription that spoke directly to the gods. Khmer, on the other have, has always been the language of Cambodian men and women, those who were protected by the gods and descended, as gods did not, from the nak ta. Sanskrit inscription, in verse, praise the meritorious action of king and the elite, such as building temples financing monasteries, and offering gifts to brahmans, Some of the speakers trace or doctor their genealogies, as if to cash in on or invent ancestral merit; many praise brahmans at the expense of other segments of the society; and all are fulsome in praise of those in power. Much of the verse, according to Indianists, is highly polished, subtly worded, and well composed, comparing favorably with Sanskrit poetry composed in India at the time.

                Khmer inscriptions, on the other hand, are all in prose. They record the founding of temples and the details of temple administration, such as the numbers and names of slaves attached to a particular place. They also give inventories of temple treasures and list the dimensions of rice fields, orchards, and ponds in a temple’s jurisdiction. Many of them outline the duties of slaves and set the amount of taxes-payable in labor or in kind – levied to support the temple priests. Usually they close with a curse threatening people over many generations.
                A little too neatly, perhaps, the line between Sanskrit and Khmer separates the so-called Great and Little Traditions. On the one hand, there are wealth, poetry, intricacy, wordplay, priests, and direct access to the gods—i.e., a language that protects. On the other, there are poverty prose, straightforward catalogs, slaves, and the world of ordinary people—i.e., a language about what receives protection. Both set of inscriptions used the same sort of alphabet derived from India and, as a rule, were carved by the same masons. Presumably poets and priests, if they wanted to do so, could read them both. 

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