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part III - Freemasonry, Religion and Civilisation

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Angkor was the pinnacle of the Khmer civilisation in South-East Asia that began to flourish in about 1000 BCE and ended when the Thais invaded the region in 1431.


The setting


Angkor was the centre of the Khmer civilisation for six centuries. It is located in the jungles on the north western shores of the Tonlé Sap, a vast natural lake in the plains of central Kampuchea that are dotted with sugar-palms and seem to stretch endlessly in the quivering heat. The Tonlé Sap acts as an immense balancing reservoir for local monsoon runoff when the level of the Mekong River is rising and water is backing up during the annual snowmelt in Tibet. Water is stored in the Tonlé Sap during the several months of high flow and discharged throughout the dry season. Indochina and especially Kampuchea, like Egypt, has been called "the daughter of its rivers". The temples and monuments that constitute present day Angkor are the visible remnants of what once was the most extensive of all of the great city-temple complexes in the world. Angkor had a population of a million or more, but was never a city of stone palaces and public buildings. The palaces and public buildings were all built of timber, like the dwellings erected on pillars along the edges of the canals. Only the temples, monuments and irrigation structures were constructed of stone.


Angkor was an integrated series of temple cities, constructed by successive monarchs over several centuries. Each city incorporated a central temple and together with its associated buildings was located within a series of moats that received water from artificial lakes or barays, so that each seemed to float serenely on a tranquil sea. The water was supplied and controlled by means of an interconnected series of dykes, embankments and causeways that also provided access. Although each monarch erected one or more new temples, they were not built over nor did they supplant any previous temples, which continued in use. The intensely developed central sector was more than 25 kilometres square, but the total settlement was about four times that area. Because of its unique features, archaeologists have described Angkor as the "hydraulic city". To comprehend Angkor and appreciate its significance, one must be aware of the long and intimate association between freemasonry, irrigation and civilisation, as well as understanding how freemasonry and irrigation assisted in the development and spread of civilisation in South-East Asia.


Freemasonry,irrigation and civilisation


Archaeology has confirmed the vital role that freemasonry and irrigation played in the advancement of civilisation in the Mesopotamia and Egypt. The fertile plains formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia that are called the “fertile crescent” and the fertile valley of the Nile River in Egypt have long been referred to as the "twin cradles of civilisation". About 10,000 years ago, when nomadic hunter­gatherers of the Old Stone Age began to herd wild flocks and dry farm wild cereals in the uplands north of the “fertile crescent”, they took their first steps on the path to civilisation. When the herders began to congregate in small settlements about 8,000 years ago freemasonry was in its infancy. Dwellings and communal facilities were constructed of compacted earth, dry packed stone and later of mud bricks. Simple forms of irrigation also were introduced. The most recent archaeological investigations indicate that a similar level of growth was achieved in Egypt more than 7,000 years ago. The smelting and casting of copper in Mesopotamia began about 6,500 years ago, the kiln firing of bricks in Mesopotamia and Egypt began about 5,500 years ago, followed by the forging of tools capable of cutting and dressing stone about 500 years later. These developments, with a better understanding of irrigation and an ability to carry out irrigation works, all significantly enhanced the advance of civilisation.


Important though these advances were, they were overshadowed by the introduction of a calendar by the Chaldeans at Ur and the invention of a pictographic script by the Sumerians at Uruk, both in southern Mesopotamia, which took place in about 3200 BCE. By about 2800 BCE the script was modified to cuneiform and soon became the "lingua franca" of the Near East and Egypt, continuing in use for more than 1,000 years. The cuneiform alphabet came into use in about 1500 BCE and was adapted by the Phoenicians in about 1200 BCE, becoming the direct ancestor of all modern alphabets. The Egyptians introduced similar innovations independently and had devised their calendar by about 3300 BCE. The Egyptian hieroglyphs were introduced in about 3300 BCE, but unlike other pictographic systems they have always combined three different systems of writing. Each sign used in the Egyptian hieroglyphs represented a word or an idea and also a syllable, as well as a sound that could be used as a letter of the alphabet. Soon after 2800 BCE the hieroglyphs were modified as a cursive script in a form called hieratic. These events combined to establish an awareness of time and enable records to be kept and communications to be transmitted accurately, regardless of the distance between sender and receiver.


The calendar and writing were vital to the success of the trading facilities the Sumerians had established by about 3000 BCE, by sea to the Indus River basin and by land to Afghanistan and beyond. These trade routes were the beginnings of the great "silk routes" to China. It is significant that the development of extensive irrigation facilities in the Indus River Basin and the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan, along the Amu Darya River near Bactra, both began with technological input from Mesopotamian immigrants soon after the respective trade routes had been established. The success of civilisation in both of these regions depended heavily on irrigation. These irrigations techniques soon spread eastwards from the Indus River basin into India and northwards from Afghanistan into the Russian steppes. As the trading routes progressively extended eastwards, irrigation methods ultimately reached Southeast Asia and were used to great advantage by the Khmers. 


The origins of the Khmer Empire


Although very little is known of the origins of the original inhabitants on the shores of the South China Sea, the available anthropological data indicate that they were a mixture of Negrito, Melanesian and Indo-Chinese peoples closely related to the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands. Many centuries of isolation resulted in an autonomous evolution in each of the natural regions. More recently Indochina was also influenced by the infiltration of Mongolian elements from China, as a result of which the Indo-Chinese are often called Austro-Asian to indicate the mixture of peoples. The most ancient bones of man so far discovered on the peninsula of Indo-China were found among other remains at Tam­Pong and Tam­Hang in Laos. The bones have been dated to the period from 5000 BCE to 4000 BCE and have been assigned to the Lower Hoabinian Mesolithic culture that was first identified in the vicinity of Hanoi.


The people of Indochina first used metal in about 1000 BCE, which ushered in the protohistorical phase when both the metallurgical and the megalithic cultures began to flourish in the region. Of these the megalithic culture was the most widespread and became synonymous with the Khmers. Both cultures were established in Indochina before King Solomon built the temple at Jerusalem. Metallurgy was being used extensively throughout Indochina by 500 BCE. The workmanship was of a very high quality and many of the best examples were produced by the Dongsonian culture, which was restricted to the eastern coastal strip and specialised in bronze work. It was previously thought that waves of invading Khmers arrived in Indochina from India or Ceylon, but modern research and a comprehensive study of Indian records disproves this theory.


The Indianisation of Southeast Asia is now considered to have been a gradual process, the result of intensive Indian commerce and the quest for spices, gold and other precious metals, which was assisted by the spread of the Buddhist faith that counteracted the rigid caste divisions prescribed by the Hindu religion. Trade between east and west was fostered by the exotic tastes of the Roman Empire. Indian records substantiate the vital role played by India, as do the ancient ports along the navigation routes and the discovery of large quantities of imported objects in the lower levels of excavations at Oc-Eo, near the coast at the south eastern extremity of modern Kampuchea. During at least the first five hundred years of the Christian era, several waves of Indian traders arrived and settled in Indochina to establish ports and trading posts. Their persistence and ability to deal successfully with the locals is evidenced by their continuing presence.


The Khmer Empire was renowned for its remarkable irrigation achievements and its spectacular monumental and religious architecture, becoming one of the most impressive civilisations of Southeast Asia. Chinese chronicles provide evidence that the earliest Khmer kingdom was the active and prosperous realm of Funan, in the south west of the Mekong River delta. The Mandarin ideogram for Funan in ancient times was pronounced biu-nam, which is very close to the ancient Khmer bnam that is rendered as phnom in modern Kampuchean. The word means a hill or mountain, which was of great religious significance to the Khmers. The first capital of Funan was Oc-Eo, established in about 400 CE. The city was rectangular in the shape, about 3.5 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide, surrounded by a series of moats and embankments. Canals subdivided the city into ten rectangular sectors, the embankments forming the city's network of streets. Donatella Mazzeo and Chiara Silvi Antonini describe these developments in Ancient Cambodia, an excellent book in the Monuments of Civilization Series published by Cassell Limited.


The primary canal divided the city area of Oc-Eo lengthwise and extended beyond the city limits for many kilometres in each direction, collecting water from the Mekong's tributaries in the delta and draining surplus water into the sea. Four canals at right angles to the primary canal completed the subdivision of the city and provided water to individual allotments. In about 514 the capital was moved to Angkor Borei, about 80 kilometres to the north, which continued as the capital until about 600. Because Angkor Borei was a long way from the sea, it was connected to Oc-Eo and other centres by a series of navigable canals still visible from the air. The main navigation canal is constructed in two straight sections, one 35 kilometres long and the other 65 kilometres long, located to suit the course of the Mekong River and to avoid an intervening group of hills. The remarkable skills of the Khmer engineers are amply illustrated by their ability to determine the best location for the canal and to construct it accurately to line and level over such long distances.


In about 550 a member of the Funanese royal family, Bhavavarman, married a princess of Chenla and ascended to the throne of Chenla, another Khmer state to the north that included much of modern Kampuchea. As Bhavavarman I he founded his capital at Bhavapura on the northern shores of the Tonlé Sap. A series of events over the next three hundred years saw a partial unification of Chenla and Funan, but Chenla was later subdivided into Chenla of Land and Chenla of Water. During the eighth century there was a strong Javanese influence and possibly a Javanese conquest. In 802 Jayavarman II founded the Khmer kingship after which the capital was relocated several times in the Angkor region until the power of the Khmers was firmly established by Indravarman I in 877. Indravarman I established his capital at Roluos, on the northern shores of the Tonlé Sap Lake, about 10 kilometres southeast of Phnom Bakheng, where the city of Angkor was established about twenty years later. The Khmer Empire then flourished until the end of Jayavarman VII's reign in 1291, but his vast expenditure on public buildings and works exhausted the state’s financial resources and it was in serious decline by the end of the fourteenth century. The Khmer Empire dominated Malaysia, Thailand and Champa throughout the twelfth century, but after sporadic incursions over the next two centuries Angkor was captured by the Thais when they invaded the region in 1431.


Irrigation at Angkor


The Khmers developed their first irrigation system at Oc-Eo, near the coast on the fertile delta of the Mekong River, where a very important consideration was drainage to avoid waterlogging of the land. To overcome this problem, many of the waterways, storage reservoirs and irrigation ponds were constructed by building the enclosing earthen embankments on top of the natural ground surface, because the water level in the Mekong River rose sufficiently during the monsoon to enable the required volume to be diverted. The drainage channels were excavated below ground level to lower the water table in the wet season, as well as to ensure that the outlets from the paddy fields could drain off the irrigation water as and when required. The system depended on the seasons and therefore allowed only one crop to be planted annually. Navigable canals also were excavated into the ground, usually below the level of the dry season water table, thus minimising the need for additional water.


By the time Roluos was settled the Khmers were expert in the use of water for irrigation, making the best possible use of the comparatively infertile plains of Angkor. Their water intakes were placed considerably higher than the land they were irrigating and were suitably located to allow water to be conveyed under gravity by canals to intermediate storages, thence to the paddy fields through a system of sluices and narrow ditches. The land under irrigation was carefully subdivided to suit the terrain, each subdivision having its own small reservoir, which allowed accurate control of the water level in all plots within a subdivision and facilitated constant circulation and renewal of the water. The distribution systems in each of the several subdivisions also were interconnected, so that all of the elements of the irrigation system were integrated to ensure the optimum functioning of the whole. This enabled irrigation to continue throughout the dry season, allowing at least two crops of rice and millet to be grown every year. As the paddy fields were no longer in a delta area, but on the dry shores of a vast lake at a level considerably higher than its highest flood level, water conservation was an important consideration, especially as the number of permanent rivers available for water supply was limited.


To cope with these conditions and to service the ever-expanding irrigation areas, the Khmers found it necessary to install very large water storage reservoirs and extensive distribution systems. They minimised losses from seepage by excavating many of the water supply channels and reservoirs, instead of building them all above the ground as they had in the delta area. The first important and innovative work carried out by Indravarman I when he established Roluos was to excavate the main reservoir or baray, called Indratataka, which was parallel to the contours. The baray stretched about 4 kilometres along the contour and was about 1 kilometre wide, allowing the maximum quantity of water to be stored with the least possible excavation. The three main barays that were constructed progressively at Angkor in later years were similarly oriented. Two were 8 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide and a smaller one was similar to that at Roluos. The barays provided a total storage of some 70 million cubic metres of water. The remarkable skills of the Khmers as builders are evidenced by the fact that, even now, the stone walls of the barays 8 kilometres long deviate by less than a centimetre from their original alignment.


Cosmic symbolism


The irrigation and building works of the Khmers must be seen in the light of the cosmic symbolism that was part of their religious beliefs. Hinduism was the earliest known religion of the Khmers, but by 500 or earlier Buddhism had been firmly established alongside Vishnuism and Sivaism in Funan. A blend of these beliefs continued to flourish during the Angkor period, but Buddhism gradually gained the ascendency. However the cosmological ideas of Hinduism were retained, in which the mythical Mount Meru is regarded as the centre of the cosmos. Mount Meru is the pole of the cosmic forces and the abode of the gods, with an infinite number of other worlds superimposed on the earth, the heavens above and the hells below. All life, including that of the gods and the worlds, is believed to undergo periodic cycles of creation and destruction, each successive reincarnation reflecting the merits or sins of the earthly existence. Reincarnation continues as in Hinduism, until the time comes to return, as in Buddhism, to the state of non-existence consisting of a melting into the divine bosom of the Logos that is called the absorption, which is a nirvana purged of all desire.


The king was the principal supporter of the faith, but as the Brahmins used the king's power to maintain their own position the king was also its first victim. The Brahmins were careful never to overshadow, let alone supplant the royal prestige. The king was regarded as having divine power, delegated to him in the form of a linga through the mediation of the Brahmin, which the priest was reputed to have received on the top of a mountain. The linga was preserved in a shrine as the palladium or safeguard of the kingdom and the centre of the rites designed to ensure prosperity. Closely associated with the linga are the devaraja cult and the temple-mountain. Jayavarman II initiated the worship of devaraja, which is Sanskrit for god-king, when he proclaimed himself the universal sovereign and founded the Khmer kingdom of Angkor in 802. Traditionally the linga was placed on the top of a mountain as the earthly equivalent of Mount Meru, but in flat areas like Angkor a temple-mountain, in the form of a stepped pyramid, was substituted. The temple-mountain became the focal point of the city and the kingdom and was the only site considered worthy of the royal residence.


The Khmer city must be visualised in the light of this cosmic symbolism. Each city was an interconnected system of canals and waterworks that transformed it into a blossoming garden with a central nucleus of temples, palaces and government offices, surrounded by a vast area of intensively cultivated fields. The city was accessed by causeways and protected by ramparts and moats. With its walls and moats the city represented the world surrounded by a mythical chain of mountains and oceans. The temple at the centre symbolised Mount Meru, its five towers standing up like the five peaks of the sacred mountain and its terraces rising in tiers to represent the series of worlds. It was a ritual compass, the horizontal axes defining the four cardinal points and the vertical axis defining the zenith and nadir. It was a chronogram too, symbolically regulating the sacred cosmography and topography of the universe. An important ritual of the faithful was to walk round the building in a clockwise direction, passing in succession through each phase of the solar cycle, traversing space in step with time, as a reminder of the seasonal blessings the devaraja showered down on his people. Never has any civilisation represented the spiritual and material texture of its life more effectively than the Khmers in the construction of their temple-city


The temples


At first sight the temples look typically Hindu, but in fact they are very different. Early temples were built in brick, but laterite bases and sandstone superstructures without mortar were the usual materials. Roofs were corbelled stone arches. Statuary and bas-reliefs adorned most temples, supplemented by many lengthy religious and historical inscriptions, often in Sanskrit, the ancient language of north India that the Khmers used in a religious context and from which their alphabet was derived. The temples were not used for the congregation of worshippers, but rather for individuals to contemplate the mythical and spiritual themes depicted in the bas-reliefs and inscriptions and to remind them of their history and daily lives. Occasionally a temple also served as a mausoleum for the king who founded it. There are more than thirty important temples at Angkor, many of them vast and all of them intricate in design. Most temples are square, but some are included in a series of structures in an elongated arrangement. Whether the temple-mountain is alone or a component of a series, its axes are always coincident with the cardinal directions and its entrance nearly always in the east. It is not practicable to describe them in any detail without reference to plans and illustrations, but the features of some will be mentioned.


The Bakong at Roluos was the first great sandstone temple-mountain constructed at Angkor. It is surrounded by a moat 80 metres wide, crossed by causeways running east to west. The building is almost square, 67 metres by 65 metres at the base. It has five terraces and stairways, four axial pavilions and several minor sanctuaries. The temple of Banteai Srei is an elegant almost delicate structure of pink granite, hidden away in a beautiful glade. It is delicately ornamented and symbolises a celestial palace in which the God of Love protects and adores the slender, graceful and radiant goddess in the sanctuary.


The Angkor Wat, with its five multi-tiered towers, is regarded as the culmination of temple-mountain construction. It is a masterpiece of human genius, expressing to perfection the traditions, spiritual beliefs, history and day-to-day life of the Khmers. The covered outer enclosure is 485 metres by 330 metres, surrounded by a moat 100 metres wide, which is crossed by a causeway at the western end. Galleries of bas-reliefs respectively 215 metres by 187 metres and 115 metres by 100 metres enclose the first and second storey terraces. The third storey, which supports the central tower and sanctuary, is 60 metres square. The Bayon is the main temple of Angkor Thom. The central tower 45 metres high, with twelve surrounding towers and twenty-one peripheral towers. All towers have four faces looking to the cardinal points. A wall that is 8 metres high and 4 kilometres long completely surrounds the temple complex at Angkor Thom, which in turn is surrounded by a moat 70 metres wide.


The foregoing is only an outline of some of the more interesting structures in the city-temple complex at Angkor, giving some idea of its magnitude, complexity and beauty. Two books in particular give an excellent description of the development of civilisation and the growth of religion in South-East Asia, especially the significance and beauty of Angkor. One is a translation of a French original, Angkor, Art and Civilization by Bernard Groslier and Jacques Arthaud. The other is Ancient Cambodia by Donatella Mazzeo and Chiara Silvi Antonini, mentioned earlier. Both are profusely illustrated. Various atlases of archaeology also give interesting details of the ancient Khmer civilisation.

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