At the height of its splendour, the Khmer Empire stretched across all of Indochina, drawing tribute and trade from nations across the known world. Working from 13th century records and scenes of daily life carved into the temple walls, Discover traces three ordinary lives lived in the shadow of the sacred city of Angkor
Photos: Sam Jam for Discover, Shutterstock
The high official
Power is etched into the stones of Angkor. At Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world, ancient words carved into the rock testify to the might of Suryavarman II, the all-powerful Defender of the Sun, god-king of an empire that stretched across most of Indochina.
But an empire cannot run off the whims and wishes of one man. Around the absolute monarchy of the deva-rajas, whose words raised the temples and palaces that still stretch towards the Cambodian sky, a court of priests, monks, courtiers and astrologers carried out the daily bureaucracy of divine rule.
In the 13th century travelogue Customs of Cambodia, Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat on a mission for Mongol Emperor Temür Khan to the sacred capital of the Khmer Empire, describes the ministers, generals and officials whose likenesses can be seen carved into the bas-reliefs of Angkor.
“Most of these officials are royal relatives,” he wrote. “Otherwise one has to marry into royalty by offering a daughter as a concubine.”
Second only to the immediate members of the royal family, the high officials of the court enjoyed immense power and privilege. They drew rent from vast swathes of lands toiled over by the peasants and labourers who made up the bulk of the Khmer Empire, carrying out the day-to-day running of the empire in luxury and ease. Their clothes, woven from the finest silks of the western-most reaches of the known world, bore the vibrant floral patterns that only the king and his family could wear.
Other government ministers were Brahman scholars who shunned the ostentatious garb of the nobility in favour of a single white thread wrapped about their neck as a mark of their learning. These heirs to the sacred philosophy of the Hindu Vedas attained high positions within the god-king’s government, where they were consulted – as were the most senior of the empire’s Buddhist monks – on matters of state importance.
Born through the streets of the sacred city on golden palanquins on the backs of elephants, the highest officials could be recognised by their golden-handled parasols, the red silk shielding them from the blazing Cambodian sun. Kneeling in the street with your head bowed towards the dirt, you might just be able to see the high officials passing by at the edge of your vision, untouched by the harsh light of day, their stern faces silhouetted against the spires of Angkor Wat.
As a walk through the winding markets of modern-day Cambodia demonstrates, women have always played a fundamental role in the trade that has kept the nation’s economy turning for centuries. The markets of Angkor were no exception: women, not men, ran the day-to-day trade of the Khmer Empire.
Every day from dawn until noon, the traders of Angkor would spread their wares onto woven mats in the open-air markets of the capital. Each woman’s place in the market was fiercely guarded, and the traders would pay a hefty rent to the local officials for the privilege of laying their mat in the dirt.
The women, wrapped in the sambot – a length of woven cloth worn around the hips that was the daily dress of all Khmer citizens from craftsman to king – hawked merchandise from places as varied as China, India, Persia and even Rome, though much of the trade came from neighbouring Siam (now Thailand) and Champa in present-day Vietnam. According to Zhou Daguan’s notes, many women would go into business with the Chinese traders who thronged to Angkor to bear the work of Khmer artisans back to the Middle Kingdom, their trade dependent on the business savvy – and lifelong connections – of the local women.
Although hard currency in the form of copper, silver and gold coins changed hands in the major transactions of the Khmer marketplace, smaller trades were made through an elaborate barter system involving daily goods and rice. Silver and gold mined in the far-off reaches of the lands of the Yuan dynasty shined next to mats piled high with richly patterned fabrics woven in Java, India and the other nations ringing the western oceans. Bare-foot and bare-breasted, with their hair bound tight into buns and their arms strung with gold bracelets, the traders of Angkor sat on their mats while the sun crawled high in the sky, their voices lost in the clamour of the Khmer Empire.
Not all people were born free into the Khmer Empire. Walking through the sprawling streets of Angkor, you might see a man peering at the world from a mask of blue face tattoos, his neck bound by a locked metal collar. These were the signs of a slave who had run away from their master – only to be found and dragged back into bondage.
Many slaves, who made up the lowest rung of Khmer society, were taken from the ethnic tribes that made their homes in the mountains and valleys of Cambodia, beyond the rice fields and urban settlements of the Khmer Empire. Men, women and children were taken by force from these tribes to be sold in the cities as slaves. When Zhou Daguan visited the city of Angkor, he described a deeply stratified society where some wealthy households possessed hundreds of slaves, with less well-heeled families having between ten and 20. Only the very poorest households, he wrote, owned none.
Unsurprisingly, daily life was harsh for a slave of the Khmer Empire. Unable to leave their masters’ homes without permission, they slept in the dirt beneath the stilted houses that made up the winding suburbs in and around Angkor, prostrating themselves before all who entered in absolute submission. They were frequently beaten and were forced to address their owners only as “mother” and “father”. This was more than just an empty turn of phrase: if a child was born to a slave, it was born the property of the slave’s owner, sentenced from birth to a life of labour and fear.
Other slaves were prisoners of war seized during the frequent skirmishes with the Khmer Empire’s neighbouring nations, dragged in chains to the city of Angkor to build mighty temples dedicated to the god-kings who had vanquished them. Still others had been born free in the shadow of Angkor, only to be reduced to chattel slavery for being unwilling – or unable – to pay the rent demanded of them by the wealthy nobility.
This story was originally published on Discover magazine 2019 vol.