Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan and the Decline of Angkor

   Continued from King Jayavarman VII

MAHA EYSEI: But the sea of life is ever changeable.

GENGHIS KHAN enters to the sound of galloping and whinnying horses, the sound of clashing swords and the screams of women and children.

MAHA EYSEI: After the death of Jayavarman in about 1210, the empire was beset from without by conquest. Genghis Khan had terrorized and subjugated most of Asia.
Ghengis Khan
Picture 17: Genghis Khan

Out of the Sound effects of war, we mix to :

Music 13.  Drums, Pipes and Danger
GENGHIS KHAN The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him.

To ride their horses and to take away their possessions.

To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.

Fade Music
MAHA EYSEI: Fortunately for Angkor, Genghis Khan's Mongol soldiers could not ride their horses through the thick jungle and they were liable to catch tropical diseases in the warm and humid south.
Short reprise of music
MAHA EYSEI: But the threat remained because other peoples were also driven south.
Fade Music again
MAHA EYSEI: Meanwhile there was another threat from within in the form of a vast Hindu reaction against Buddhism.  Tens of thousands of Buddhist statues were defaced and destroyed.  Nobody knows exactly who was responsible for this destruction or why, especially as Buddhism and Hinduism had co-existed so peaceably for so many centuries.  It remains a meaningless mystery.
BUDDHIST MONK: It is important to keep in mind that Hinduism and Buddhism have been interwoven throughout history.  Guatama Buddha is held by Hindu thinkers to be an avatar of the God Vishnu.  Even today in Cambodia the gods Indra, Vishnu and Siva are considered to be protectors of Buddhism.1
MAHA EYSEI: King Jayavarman VIII who reigned from 1243 to 1295 may have presided over most of this destruction.
Music 14.  Suitably Imperial

The large and luxurious figure of Kublai Khan is carried on in a palanquin.

MAHA EYSEI: However there was the beginning of an even greater threat from outside in the form of Kublai Khan the grandson of Genghis.  What he lacked in physical vigour he made up for in cunning.
KUBLAI KHAN: I shall found a new capital of the world and I shall call it Beijing.  I shall found a new Chinese dynasty and I shall extend my dominions to the South and to the East.  I shall send an ambassador to the Khmer Kingdom to demand obedience.  Meanwhile I enjoy drama, let the play continue.
MAHA EYSEI: Jayavarman VIII showed good judgment in his dealing with the threat of Kublai Khan's general, Sagatu, who in 1283 was poised on the Cham frontier. The king avoided war by paying tribute to him.
ZHOU DAGUAN: For long years this country had enjoyed commercial relations with us.  When the Holy Mongol Dynasty received its august mandate from heaven and extended its power over all four seas, and when the Generalissimo Sotu had set up his government in Champa, the Son of Heaven sent forth to Cambodia a Centurion bearing the standard of the tiger, but he was taken prisoner and never heard of again.
Fade Music
MAHA EYSEI: There is no record of what happened to the ambassador.  Perhaps he was executed by Jayavarman VIII, who was lucky to avoid retribution.  But by this time the Mongol Empire, as well as the Khmer empire, was in decline.

In 1294 Jayavarman VIII was overthrown by his son-in-law, Indravarman III, who had been on the throne for only a year, when in 1296 Zhou Daguan's embassy came to Angkor.  They were sent by Tamburlaine the grandson and successor of Kublai Khan.

Zhou Daguan describes the last days of the Khmer Empire.  His is the only written record apart from inscriptions upon stone that survive.

The Khmer used to write upon palm leaves.  Unfortunately these have all disintegrated.

Daguan gives a vivid picture in his report, The Customs of Cambodia:

Some Khmer ladies appear

ZHOU DAGUAN: Everyone with whom I talked said that the Cambodian women are highly sexed.  One or two days after giving birth to a child they are ready for intercourse: if a husband is not responsive he will be discarded.  When a husband is called away on matters of business, they endure his absence for a while; but if he is gone as much as ten days, the wife is apt to say, "I am no ghost; how can I be expected to sleep alone?"

Not only do the women have strong sexual impulses, but it is they who are the best traders.   For this reason a Chinese, arriving in the country, loses no time in getting himself a mate, for he will find her commercial instincts a great asset.
MAHA EYSEI: However perhaps like the decline of the Roman Empire, another of the world's greatest empires was coming to an end.  There could be several reasons for this.  Some say that Angkor was too far from the sea and no longer well placed for the growing international trade, in spite of the women's astute commercial sense.

The ladies leave and Buddhist monks enter

MAHA EYSEI: By this time Buddhism had reinstated itself once more.  The Buddhist monks were now of the southern Theravada tradition introduced from Sri Lanka
ZHOU DAGUAN: Worship of the Buddha is universal.  The monks shave the head, wear yellow robes, bare the right shoulder, knot waist and go barefoot.
MAHA EYSEI: Many reasons have been suggested for the decline of Angkor.  Some say the more egalitarian spiritual teachings of Theravada Buddhism undermined the hierarchical structure of Khmer society and the political power of prominent Hindus.

Others say that Jayavarman VII's massive building program eventually exhausted the kingdom's resources; and that the irrigation system that sustained Angkor's highly productive agriculture could not be properly maintained.

At the same time, Angkor's vassal states began to assert their independence, no longer paying tribute into Angkor's treasuries.  And yet others say that defending Angkor from frequent invasions by the neighbouring countries resulted in a huge loss of manpower.

Speaking as a Mongol, Zhou Daguan did not have a high opinion of Khmer soldiers at this time.
ZHOU DAGUAN: Soldiers move about unclothed and barefoot. In the right hand is carried a lance, in the left a shield. They have no bows, no arrows, no slings, no missiles, no breastplates, no helmets. Generally speaking, these people have neither discipline nor strategy.

Zhou Daguan leaves the stage

The play continues with: A Stepping Stone to Heaven

© 2013 Shaun MacLoughlin

If you are interested in this project, please contact Shaun MacLoughlin 

   Introduction to The Flying Palaces of Angkor

we recommend the following books which helped with our rersearch: