By Invitation

Angkor discovery: Between greatness and nostalgia

Through their complex monuments, the ancestors of today's South-east Asians are speaking and they have lessons on complexity to hand on.

We live in a peculiar time when many communities and nations the world over seem inclined to harp on long-lost glories, and pine for a return to some unreconstructed past when the world looked up to them as something special and superior.

That, in itself, beggars two simple questions: If these nations or communities were great once, was that greatness at the expense of other communities and nations that were subjugated by them, and thus rendered inferior, lesser or weaker? And if that was indeed the case, would it not be a good thing that such "greatness" - if it was gained at the expense of others - is lost today?

It was with that thought in mind that I greeted the news that a huge - and in all probability impressive - city-complex had been discovered around the vicinity of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. For a country whose recent history has been fraught with human tragedy and loss, such news would be welcome indeed; for Angkor Wat has become a totemic icon of the country, and is now a major source of tourist revenue earnings.

That the Angkor Wat complex has become a major tourist destination is more than justified: Anyone who has visited it would be impressed by the scale and magnitude of the place, and by the sumptuous artistic work that can be seen around them. The Angkor temple-complex was built in the 12th century at a time when the dominant belief system was Hindu, but subsequently it became a Buddhist complex; which also reflects Cambodia's - and South-east Asia's - complex and fluid past where cultures and belief systems often merged with one another and adapted themselves to the sociocultural realities of the region.


Angkor is truly a gem, and it deserves the accolades that have been showered upon it. Credit is also due to the people of Cambodia who have gone to great lengths to preserve the place that is now their national icon, for it is truly a treasure for all of humanity. In recent weeks it has been revealed that around the vicinity of Angkor lies the remains of what may be a huge city-complex, that has been buried for ages.


However, the story of Angkor's "discovery" by Henri Mouhot, and the manner in which Cambodian- Khmer identity was defined after that discovery, is also worth recounting here: It should not be forgotten that Angkor was "discovered" (or rather made known to the Western world) as a result of French colonial intervention in Indochina in the 19th century.

At that time the primary goal of the French explorers was to find a new trade route to China - via the Mekong River - that would have given them access to the Chinese market and also leverage over their other European rivals, notably Britain.

When the explorer-artist Louis Delaporte found himself in Angkor, he was stunned by what he saw. His drawings were among the first of Angkor done by any European then. It was he who helped create the legend of Angkor; and it was he who was responsible for elevating Angkor's status back in Europe. (Delaporte initially met resistance by art historians and curators, who were not impressed by his account of Angkor: Ironic though it may seem today, when Delaporte first showed his drawings of Angkor to European curators and artists, they found it to be dull and a poor imitation of the art and architecture of India and Egypt.)

The French colonial intervention in Cambodia - along with Vietnam and Laos - led to the creation of "Indochina", and it was the discovery of Angkor Wat that elevated that colonial enterprise - which was fundamentally all about profits and geopolitics - into something higher.

Thanks to the "discovery" of Angkor, the French in Indochina also began to see themselves not as colonisers and empire-builders, but as curators and custodians of a great and ancient civilisation.

Here lies the irony at the root of Angkor's discovery by the West: for the colonial government had appropriated Angkor as proof of an ancient, bygone civilisation that was once great, but no more. In other words, Cambodians - and by extension all Asians - were a once-great people whose glory had passed, and who now needed to be "civilised" by the West. While Angkor quickly became the iconic totem of Cambodia and Khmer culture, it also defined that culture as ancient, agrarian, feudal, mystical and unscientific: It was a double-edged discovery that both elevated and subjugated the Khmers at the same time.


Today we live in the age of modern nation-states, but it is pointless to deny that in so many crucial ways our world views, epistemologies and value systems have been shaped by modernity. Look at the map of South-east Asia and you will see that the long shadow of 19th-century colonialism still looms over us, in the way that our national boundaries were set during the colonial era a century ago.

But as modern post-colonial societies, we also behave like modern communities and do what modern people do: We appropriate our past, sometimes instrumentally, and we claim the past as ours - sometimes exclusively. (Though it should be noted that when Angkor - like other temple complexes such as Ayudhya, Pagan, Borobudur and Prambanan - was built, our ancestors could not have possibly anticipated the arrival of the modern nation-state as we know it today.)

Our histories are now national histories: histories of nation-states rather than histories of peoples or communities. And there is often that tendency to iron out the complexities of the fluid and hybrid past for the sake of a simple nationalist narrative that does not entertain fuzzy borders or ambiguous, multiple, overlapping identities and claims.

It is only appropriate that Cambodians are happy if a major new historical find has been discovered around Angkor Wat, and every effort has to be made to unearth it and protect it as well. But in the course of doing so, let us not fall into the trap of unreconstructed nostalgia for simple, happy stories of greatness too.

For the "greatness" of Angkor, I would argue, is that it shows how our ancestors - the precursors to modern-day South-east Asians - lived in a world that was complex, mobile, nuanced and challenging. When the first census was done in Cambodia in the 19th century, it was found that in Phnom Penh alone there was a myriad of communities living together: There were Khmers, but also Annamese, Siamese, Laos, Cham-Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Eurasians and later Europeans. In other words, the world had already arrived in South-east Asia, and that is a testimony to how globalised our region was - long before the word "globalisation" was coined and became fashionable as it is today.

That almost all of the major archaeological sites of South-east Asia reveal a plethora of diverse communities living, working and trading with each other is something that we need to reflect upon seriously today: For these were communities that seemed able to accept, accommodate and embrace diversity without having to ply through the convoluted route of identity-politics and constantly negotiate their differences.

If temples and mosques of different faiths and denominations could exist side by side in the past, it also means that communities that were culturally, linguistically and religiously different could live together. What does that say about our pre-modern ancestors, and how does that reflect upon us today?

Thus the news of the Angkor discovery should give us reason to celebrate together, but also pause a little in our march to the future: The importance of historical sites like Angkor lies well beyond the tourist dollar or how they lend themselves to pretty postcards and movie sets.

These sites are concrete evidence of alternative worlds and world views that were once real, and which we may have lost today.

In recovering our past, let us not fall into the trap of simple appropriation, but also learn some things about ourselves. Our ancestors may be gone, but in the complex monuments and structures they left us - that are complex in every sense of the word - they are still speaking to us, and they can teach us something.

  • The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Angkor discovery: Between greatness and nostalgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe