Reconstructing Angkor Wat through Fiction

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShrouded in mystery and lure, the Khmer city of Angkor is one of the most mesmerizing places in the world. Founded around the year 800 CE by Jayavarman II (c. 770-850 CE), Angkor was the center of the powerful Khmer kingdom, which dominated much of what is present-day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam until the 15th century CE. At its height, Angkor was one of the largest and most technologically sophisticated cities in the world, crowned by a stunning architectural achievement: the temple complex of Angkor Wat.

In this feature interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Mr. John Burgess — the author of A Woman of Angkor and former Washington Post foreign correspondent — about his new novel, the intricacies of ancient Khmer court culture, and why he has spent his life exploring the ruins of Khmer civilization.

JW: Mr. John Burgess, I welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and thank you for speaking to us about your new novel, A Woman of Angkor, which details the construction of Angkor Wat in the early 12th century CE.

You first traveled to Angkor Wat as a teenager and then worked for many years as a journalist covering events in Southeast and East Asia. Had you always wanted to explore ancient Cambodia through the lens of a novelist? What was it that finally prompted you to craft a piece of fiction set in the royal court of Suryavarman II (r. 1113-1145/1155 CE)?

JB: I did get Angkor in my blood with that first visit in 1969. In those days if you got up early, you could have Angkor Wat almost entirely to yourself. I remember taking a long walk alone there shortly after dawn one morning and being overwhelmed with the scale and majesty of the place.

AWomanofAngkorcoverBut the idea of writing a novel only came to me after a visit in 2002. I have long wondered what it would be to actually meet people of the ancient culture, the people who walked the same temple corridors, the same paddy dikes that we can walk today. Creating a few of them in fiction has somehow seemed a way to make their acquaintance.

JW: While reading A Woman of Angkor, I was captivated by the descriptions of everyday life in the ancient Khmer metropolis. At its height, Angkor’s advanced agricultural system facilitated an enormous growth in population, and the city became one of the world’s largest over time. What kind of research went into the composition of this novel? Was it arduous to craft a work of fiction covering a family of parasol-bearers and render an authentic portrait of ancient Khmer life and civilization? 

JB: Reading the classic histories was the start, but there are quite a few other sources to tap. Translations of stone inscriptions give a sense of the faith and political order of the times. There is a marvelously detailed account left by a Chinese traveler, Zhou Daguan  (1271-1368 CE), who visited Angkor in 1296 CE. And there are bas reliefs that show not only the royal court but daily life — you can see cock fights, markets, servants blowing on coals as they hustle to prepare food.

But there is also a lot to draw on just by keeping your eyes open in every-day Cambodia. Today’s society owes a lot to yesterday’s. The royal court in Phnom Penh still includes Brahmin priests, for instance. People go through life interacting with spirits as well as human beings and sometimes treat the two realms as not that much different. And every so often, the public becomes enamored with an elephant that is believed to have magical powers.

Combining all of these sources helped create in my mind a feeling for what the routines and reactions of the times must have been.

JW: A Woman of Angkor is the story of a family whose fortune changes quite suddenly. The main characters — Nol, a one-eared parasol-bearer and his wife, the deeply religious and beautiful Sray — carefully master the intricacies of court custom, becoming the dear friends of Suryavarman II.

Are the main characters based on any historical personages? From where did you find your inspiration with regard to the main characters?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJB: King Suryavarman, his father, and a priest who is mentioned briefly as crowning the king are historical figures. But there was a fair amount of filling in the blanks to do — we know very little concerning the personal lives of particular individuals of the times, even high-ranking ones.

The other characters in the story are imagined, with the knowledge that people like them existed. The inspiration for Sray, the title character, was an 11th century CE inscription that describes a woman named Tilaka: “Of great beauty and devotion, she had a divine nature that was not disputed.” I came across that quote in a history book and it stuck with me. There was so much in just that one sentence: a physical description, a description of character, and, with the words “a divine nature that was not disputed,” a suggestion that she was known in society and regarded as the real thing. The inscriptions tend to describe people in ideal, saintly terms, but the ancient Khmer people were real human beings too, and so I began to imagine a woman who was revered by society, who did her best to live up to the religious teachings of the time, but also had failings and things in her past to hide.

JW: I was wondering if you might explain the function of the Khmer parasol-bearer in greater detail; in truth, they were essential and ubiquitous at Angkor.

They are depicted on the elaborate bas-reliefs, which cover the walls of Angkor Wat, and if I understand correctly, a Khmer king could not be seen in public without at least one parasol-bearer.

JB: For a king, many more than one parasol! In the Angkor Wat bas reliefs, King Suryavarman is shown holding court with 14 parasols overhead!

WarriorinbasreliefatBanteayChhmartemplenoteparasolsWhenever a person of rank appears in the bas reliefs, there are parasols. Military commanders are even shown going into battle with parasols overhead, in the same way that medieval European warriors had pennants flying. Parasols gave shelter from sun and rain but they also functioned as symbols of rank, wealth, and divine protection. Zhou Daguan describes a system in which officials of different ranks were allowed four, two, or one parasol. Parasols with gold handles were for the higher ranking, silver for the lower.

Parasols were clearly the basis of a substantial industry that employed many people as artisans and bearers. It stands to reason that the royal household in Angkor had an official whose job it was to oversee the production and maintenance of parasols and to assure that each time the king appeared, they were displayed in the proper types and numbers and with the proper protocol. So I came up with the character of Nol, the parasol master. And it stands to reason, too, that someone who was in the king’s presence day after day could become a trusted advisor and power in his own right, as does Nol.

The ceremonial parasol is another piece of the old culture that has survived into modern times. There are stylized multi-tiered parasols in the Phnom Penh palace today, symbolizing royal authority. And when King Sihamoni (b. 1953), the current monarch of Cambodia, goes into public, there’s a retainer following with a large parasol overhead. These days, the protocol says one parasol is enough, even for the king.

JW: In addition to A Woman of Angkor, you also authored a recent work of nonfiction, Stories in Stone: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription & the Enigma of Khmer History. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the Sdok Kok Thom temple is located in Thailand and dates from the 11th century CE. Found within the temple complex was a unique 340-line inscription, in Sanskrit and ancient Khmer, which you have studied at length.

SdokKokThominnereastgate1979What were the circumstances that led you to this temple — one quite different from Angkor Wat — and what characteristics distinguish it from others in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos?

JB: In 1979, I was a journalist covering the exodus of refugees from Cambodia following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. Camps were springing up along the Thai-Cambodian border, huge boisterous places of tens of thousands of people newly free to move where they wanted. I spent a lot of time at the camps. One day, to take a break, I went for a walk down a trail and came across a fabulous thing, a sandstone Khmer temple, overgrown, ruined, untended. Of course I was not the first person to happen upon this place (people from local villages knew it), but I had the feeling of discovery. I went back many times.

Many years later, I learned what a significant historical site this place was. It was here that the great inscription was found, the most important primary source concerning the empire’s history. It recounts the history of a family of Brahmins who built the temple and had served the royal court generation after generation. In telling the family’s story, the inscription tells the empire’s story, starting with the establishment around the year 800 CE and running forward from there for two and a half centuries. It gives a royal genealogy and basic events of the empire’s history, such as a mountaintop rite that founded the empire and the establishment of various capitals. You also get fascinating glimpses of things as diverse as barter land purchases, settlement of open land, insurrection, and the construction of Sdok Kom Thom temple itself.

Historians know about the inscription, but hardly anyone else does. So I got the idea to write a book for the general reader that would recount how the lost history of Angkor was recovered through this inscription and many others. It was great fun researching and writing it. I went to Cambodia and Thailand and to France, where the original rubbings of the inscription, made by the first translator, Étienne Aymonier (1844-1929 CE), are now in the national library.

As a piece of architecture, Sdok Kok Thom is small compared to what you can see in Angkor, which lies about 130 km (80 m) away. The workmanship was not as fine as what you see at some Angkor temples. But the basic design and religious symbolism are the same. It is a good example of a provincial temple around which there was a large estate. Political-religious units of this sort were the basic building blocks of the Khmer imperial system.

JW: Forgive me if it is brash to ask about your future plans, but I am interested to know if you are going to continue writing about topics related to the Khmer Empire or Southeast Asia. What can you share with us?

PreahViheartempleJB: I have two books in the works, actually. Both relate to Preah Vihear, the spectacular cliff-top temple that has been the focus of a tragic feud between Cambodia and Thailand for close to a century. One book is a history of the temple, ancient and modern. The other is a novel set at the temple in the 12th century CE. When I run into an impasse writing one, I switch to the other, so both are moving forward, but sometimes slowly.

JW: Recently, it seems as though Cambodian and classical Khmer culture have captured the interest of many across the world: performances of the Apsara Dance (Robam Tep Apsara) have been performed before large international audiences; cultural festivals celebrating Cambodian heritage and art have been organized with much success; and a slew of new documentaries and books on Khmer temples have been aired and published. 

What is it in your opinion that makes Angkor Wat (as well as ancient Khmer culture) so beguiling and yet enigmatic?

JB: On one level, it’s love of ruins. There are few of us who are immune to the romance of ancient stone monuments covered in foliage. But anyone who visits Cambodia can see that things go much deeper than that. There is the dance you mention, there is today’s Buddhist faith, there is literature, there is music and food. The country was a crossroads for many cultural influences over the centuries, creating the richness that you see today. The temples and the sad history of the late 20th century CE have brought it special international attention, but I think that even without those the world would be waking up to what an amazing place Cambodia is.

JW: Mr. Burgess, thank you so much for your time and consideration. It was a pleasure to read your novel and learn more about ancient Khmer customs through fiction. On behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, I wish you much success in all your future endeavors!

JB: Thanks James!

Image Credits:

  1. Angkor Wat in present-day Cambodia. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.
  2. Book Cover–A Woman of Angkor. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.
  3. Beng Mealea temple complex near Angkor in Cambodia. It origins are unknown, but many scholars believe that it was built during the reign of Suryavarman II in the early 12th century CE. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.
  4. Khmer warrior (note the parasols) in on bas-relief from the Banteay Chhmar temple near the Thai-Cambodian border. Banteay Chhmar was built at the end of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.
  5. Sdok Kok Thom inner east gate, 1979. The Sdok Kok Thom complex was built in the 11th century CE and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.
  6. Preah Vihear temple complex on the Thai-Cambodian border. Preah Vihear was constructed in the tenth century CE. Courtesy: Mr. John Burgess.

JohnBurgessMr. John Burgess is the author of the new historical novel, A Woman of Angkor, set in the 12th century golden age of Cambodia’s Angkor civilization. Prior to the book’s publication, Burgess had a 28-year career at The Washington Post as a foreign correspondent, domestic reporter, and editor. Please be sure to visit John’s blog and homepage.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Mr. John Burgess, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. Special thanks is also extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.