Angkor: Society and State

by Leonid Alexandrovich Sedov

The "communal-theocratric" society of Angkor described by a prominent Russian historian and sociologist.

Lunet inventaire naga de pont

Publication: in The Early State, ed. Henri J. M Claessen and Peter Skalník, Mouton Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1978 [pp 111-30]. ISBN 90 2797904 9

Published: 1978

Author: Leonid Alexandrovich Sedov

Pages: 19

Language : English

View publication

pdf 1.4 MB

Using great erudition and the tools of Marxist theory, the author - who was openly critical of the Soviet regime -, shares with us his vision of the Angkorian society as "representing a definite phase in a developmental process which may be termed 'state-centered'. The phase itself may be named 'communal-theocratic'. He summarized here the findings from his major work on Angkor, Angkorskaia Imperiia (The Angkorian Empire, 1967).

The state formation in Angkor

The beginning of the new era finds the Khmer tribes at the stage of the Iron Age culture. The population, sparse as it is, is made up of tribal clan communities with strong internal kinship ties and living relatively isolated from each other, though mutually at peace. This situation changed radically after the coastal regions in the Mekong Delta came under the influence of the highly developed Indian civilization. Indian immigrants, colonists and traders brought with them their own ideas of government, 'customs and fashions', and religious symbolism. They acquainted the aborigines with various new techniques, including methods of land reclamation, and with handicrafts and the art of war. However, the main changes in the life of the people of this coastal region were connected firstly with the introduction of writing, that major tool of civilization, and secondly with the drawing of the coastal communities into the broader sphere of international trade. These two factors radically changed the nature of the existing community of agriculturists and hunters transforming it into a nagara, or clan community with a state-like character. Trade and the crafts serving this trade became the chief occupation of the populace of this nagara. And the war craft acquired a place of honor among the other crafts, corresponding to a similar place of honor of the slave trade in the commercial structure.
We shall not dwell on the social characteristics of the nagara, referring the reader to the work by M. Kozlova, L. Sedov and V. Tiurin for this (1968, pp. 524-28). For our present purpose it is necessary only to say a few words about the nature of the relations between the nagara and the periphery which as yet lacked a state organization. This periphery served as the chief source of slaves, valuable commercial commodities and, partly, foodstuffs. At least, that is what Chinese travellers of the period stated in their reports (Giteaux 1958; Malleret 1960). All these commodities were secured in the form of tribute or as war spoils and prisoners. Only in this sense can we speak of a Funan military expansion and of the emergence of the first 'empire' on Cambodian soil. What, in fact, it amounted to was the domination of trade routes, or in other words the subjugation of other competing nagaras, and the political and military exploitation of the inland areas. The impact of the nagaras on the life of the interior regions, with their clusters of relatively small, autarkic communities, would not have been so radical if it had not been for the slave trade, that is, military plundering. It was precisely this plunder that stimulated the creation of a political and military apparatus of resistance among the peacefully stagnating communities of the interior. In the space of 300 years primitive state formations cropped up where once peripheral 'wilderness' had been, enabling the communities in question to defend themselves against Funanese slave raiders. The process was facilitated by the migration of some Funanese to the interior regions, which played the same role as the earlier migration of Indians had played for Funan itself. At any rate the conquerors of Funan — the Chenla kings Bhavavarman and Chitrasena — were such immigrants (Pelliot 1903). [p 112]


The idea of the merging of the king's power with that of the gods of the Indian pantheon (Siva, Vishnu, or Buddha) was introduced by Jayavarman II, assisted by the Indian brahmana Hiranyadama. This priest initiated a special rite consisting in part of the recital of appropriate Tantric texts and special sacrifices. Later, each successive monarch had to be confirmed in office, and his mystical divine power was conferred upon him by the royal chaplain (purohita), whose post was hereditary in one of the brahmana clans. It should be emphasized that during their lifetime Angkorian kings were considered not so much as gods, but rather as mystical intermediaries between gods and men. According to a popular legend transmitted by Tcheou Ta-kouan, the king was obliged to sleep every night with a nine-headed serpent — the owner of all the land — who appeared to him in the form of a woman. The king could not shirk this responsibility even once, as this would have brought down great harm to the people. The kings were not held to be descendants of gods, but were believed to become gods (or merge completely with gods) posthumously. [p 115]

Women and Power

Some kings backed their claim to the throne exclusively with their wives' genealogies. Thus Suryavarman I emphasized the fact that his wife Viralaksmi belonged to Indravarman's clan, and Jayendravarman
claimed a right to the throne as the husband of Indravarman I's daughter, Jayendradevi. The high social status of women and their position in the power structure corresponded with their role in matters of descent and
inheritance (Sedov 1966: 44-46). Chinese writers noted that Cambodian women sometimes were famous for their knowledge of astrology and political sciences and that some held high offices, including that of judge. The Lovek inscription informs us that one of the wives of Radjendravarman II, named Prana, served under his son Jayavarman
V as chief of the latter's staff of private secretaries. Because of the enormous tension around the problem of the succession and the dangers posed by the numerous male claimants, Angkorian kings sought support and protection from the female members of the court, who acted as a kind of counterweight to the explosive male environment. The harem was of particular importance as a symbol of royal prestige and an instrument of the king's power. In addition to five wives, one of whom was the principal one, kings had from 3,000 to 5,000 concubines and maids of honor. The harem was recruited from among the daughters of dignitaries and officials of all ranks, and hence fulfilled the function of a link between the king and the aristocracy of the royal service clan, being a symbol of the kinship between them, as well as a kind of hostage institution. Besides, the king's entourage included from 1,000 to 2,000 female courtiers possessing the exclusive right to enter the inner palace chambers. The king's personal guard was also made up of women bearing spears and shields. [...] Angkorian kings (except those of the latter period of the empire) would take this entire retinue with them on their regular tours of inspection of the country and on pilgrimages to distant shrines. Every temple and asrama had special royal bedchambers serving the king as temporary residence during such tours. Special officials responsible for their maintenance and security (chmam vrah krala phdam) are mentioned recurrently in the inscriptions. [pp116-7]

Rural communities and State

Rural communities continued to form the foundation of the society, though in the course of the integration process they had lost their territorial clan nature whereby a large stretch of territory was occupied by a group of people belonging to one and the same kinship group, and had become territorially more restricted extended family communities (Maretin 1974: 60-66). The different territorial units now became administrative divisions of the state (praman, visaya or desa) ruled and taxed by the center though preserving certain vestiges of communal self-government. The clan unity had been destroyed and various clans (kula) now saw themselves divided into different branches inhabiting territories lying far apart from each other and integrated into a new system of more limited territorial ties. However, clan ties had not lost all their importance, the clans, even in this divided and 'dismantled' form, preserving their individual organizational structure and rules and customs governing the relations between clan members. At the lower level of the village (sruk, grama) the kinship structure remained altogether intact, each village being an extended family settlement. As a result, the society came to resemble a piece of fabric, with the vertical clan ties, forming the warp and the horizontal neighborhood ties, interwined with the thread of administrative subordination, the weft. [p 118]

Duties and collective labor

Once a clan temple was exempted from the majority of state duties it entered into a relationship of economic and, probably, administrative dependence on one of the central temples. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there were about ten such temples in the country. They were semi-state institutions fulfilling important economic functions alongside the religious ones (we use the word 'semi-state' because all the higher positions in these temples were also the prerogative of certain noble families). Their economy was closely interwoven with the state economy, in the sense that they developed large specialized industries supplying the state with particular products (e.g., the Vrah Pulinn, or 'Holy Island' supplied the state with butter). Their own requirements were met mainly by their own lands and khnums (e.g., the Ta Prohm temple had about 6,000 khnums), about one fifth of their needs being supplied by the dependent clan temples and other agricultural communities. State subventions were also provided but they were disproportionately small. The tribute paid by clan temples to central ones was generally limited in extent, and, in fact, almost nominal, amounting to an average of 100 kg of rice a year, or 5.5 kg per member of the clan temple, including khnums. The figure is negligible in comparison with the clan temple's average annual consumption of 4 tons. But there were also cases of clan temples paying the central one a tithe (Coedes 1953: 130). It is also possible that the contributions of products other than rice were more considerable. There are instances known of corvee being exacted, whereby the people affiliated with clan temples were obliged to work the fields of the central temple (Präh Vihar). It is worth noting that even temples belonging to the king's kinsmen were not exempt from such corvee (Coedes 1954: 219-223). [p 123]

High productivity and "generalized craftmanship"

The Angkorian period of Cambodian history was one in which the development of productive forces reached a climax that has not been surpassed till modern times. The blossoming of Angkorian civilization, which left behind numerous testimonies of highly developed techniques of stone construction and the large-scale organization of labor for the building of roads, bridges, water reservoirs, and religious and public works, had as its basis an advanced rice-growing economy of the irrigation type. The productivity of the average agricultural worker was fifty per cent higher than at present. Considering the fact that the personal consumption of the semi-slave laborers was extremely low, and the labor intensiveness per unit of production was less than in later periods (the Khmers of Angkor harvested two or more crops a year), we can understand what was the source of the colossal labor reserves and wealth that brought eternal fame to the rulers of Angkor and the civilization they represented (Sedov 1967: 172, 179). It can be said that in comparison with later periods, Angkorian society was characterized by a much greater use of simple cooperative labor methods on the societal or the temple level. No division of labor had as yet evolved, and no intensive domestic industry for the market existed. The division of labor was only just making its appearance in autarkic peasant and temple communities. Skilled craftsmen, not engaged in agriculture, served the court as well as their communities. The towns were not centers of trade and industry, but rather administrative and cultural focuses, thriving due to heavy extortions from agriculture and the corvee labor of mobilized peasants. Architectural masterpieces were not so much the products of individual masters perfecting their methods and techniques from generation to generation as the results of a 'generalized craftsmanship', i.e., the work of the mass of unskilled villagers torn from their fields and families to toil under the overseers' lashes. This arrangement on the one hand provided for large-scale mobilization of labor, and on the other 'restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies'. (Marx 1858: 135). [pp 124-5]

A moneyless system

Monetary dealings were on the low level corresponding with the above-described conditions. Coins were not minted in Cambodia until the sixteenth century (Migot 1960: 251). Gold and silver in different units of weight and valuable objects (vessels, ornaments, etc.,) were among the standard articles of exchange in transactions. However, other commodities such as rice, cloth, cattle, butter and khnums also played a role. Land was often bought and sold, though not in the form of private property for in most cases the parties to such transactions were groups of kinsmen, and the deals were subject to the strict control of both the communities and the state. The state in particular tried to prevent excessive enrichment of its members. Typical were such formulas as the one in the Präsä Car inscription, relating to the sale of part of their lands by the branch of a clan or varga of boxers to a high dignitary in exchange for silver, cloth and salt, whereas a declaration was made to the court confirming the transaction to the effect that all the wealth derived from the mratan khlon is necessary to us in order to fulfil our state duties (thve vrah rajakarya nu gi) and the rest for our subsistence (Sedov 1968: 83). Sometimes the sale of land was to some extent symbolic, masking something like a commendation. The sellers preserved their rights to the land, though also certain obligations to the temple which bought the land were imposed upon them (Sedov 1967:148-49).

Illustration: 'Naga tete de pont (Spean Praptos)', in Lunet de Lajonquiere, Inventaire descriptif des monuments du Cambodge.

Tags: Khmer royalty, Khmer Empire, women, Queens & Kings of Cambodia, state formation, village life, collective labor

About the Author

Leonid A Sedov

Leonid Alexandrovich Sedov

L.A. Sedov [Л.А. Седов] (4 Dec 1934, Moscow-15 Feb 2018, Moscow) was a Soviet and Russian sociologist and orientalist.

After studying translation at Moscow Maurice Thorez Foreign Languages Institute (институт иностранных языков имени Мориса Тореза) and at the USSR Institute of Oriental Studies (Института востоковедения АН СССР), Sedov published in 1967 the reference study Ангкорская империя, Социально-экономический и государственный строй Камбоджи в IX-XIV вв (The Angkorean Empire: Social, Economic and State Building in Cambodia from the 9th to the 14th centuries, 1957, Moscow, Na'uka, Akademii︠a︡ Nauk SSSR, Institut Narodov Azii, 258 p.). This essay, inspired by Marxist methodology and developing remarkable historic insights, has been quoted by scholars worldwide.

Specializing in the study of Eastern states formation, L.A. contributed many articles to the Encyclopaedia of USSR (Советская энциклопедия) and published several studies, including Типы ранних классовых государств на Юго-Востоке Азия (Types of early-class states in Southeast Asia, with M. Kozlova and V. Tiurin, 1968) and 'La société angkorienne et le probleme du mode de production asiatique' (CERM, Paris, 1969).

Later on, L.A. Sedov specialized in sociological and political studies on post-Soviet Russia, especially as a leading associate of the Yurii Levada (after Prof. Yurii Alexandrovich Levada Юрий Александрович Левада) Analytical Center. In his 2018 tribute to Sedov, Prof. Alexandr Grofman wrote

Леня Седов был одним из наиболее видных и ярких представителей левадинской школы социологов. В социологию он пришел из востоковедения, опубликовав, в частности, в этой области книгу «Ангкорская империя». Первоначально он работал в секторе, руководимом Левадой в Институте конкрет ных социальных исследований Академии наук, затем, после разгрома сектора, в течение ряда лет он был редактором в издательстве «Советская энциклопедия» и, наконец, многие годы он работал в левадинском ВЦИОМе и Левада центре в качестве научного сотрудника, аналитика текущих социально-политических процессов и событий. [..]Он был безусловно профессионалом высокого класса, который испытывал отвращение к идеологическим штампам и предрассудкам советской системы. [Lenya Sedov was one of the most prominent and brightest founders of the Levada school of sociologists. He went into sociology from Oriental studies, after publishing in particular the book"Angkor Empire". Initially, he worked in the Levada-led branchof the Institute of Applied Sciences at the Academy of Sciences; then, after this structure was disbanded, he was for a number of years editor-in-chief of the publishing house "Soviet Encyclopedia" and, finally, worked as researcher, social and political analyst at Levada Center.[...] He was certainly a high-level professional, who had an aversion to ideological cliches and prejudices of the Soviet system. [Alexandr Grofman, "Несколько слов о Леониде Александровиче Седове" ["A Few Words about Leonid Alexandrovich Sedov"], Телескоп no. 5 (131), 2018]


  • 'K voprosu ob ekonomicheskom stroe ankorskoi Kambodzhi IX-XII w.' [On the question of the economic order of Angkorian Cambodia in the ninth to twelfth centuries], in: Narody Azii i Afriki n. 6., 1963
  • 'K voprosu ο varnakh ν angkorskoi Kambodzhe' [On the question of vamas in Angkorian Cambodia] in: Kasty υ Indii. Moscow: Nauka, 1965.
  • 'Kamni Ankora' [Steles of Angkor], in: Asia i Afrika Segodnia, n. 5, 1966
  • Angkorskaia imperia [Angkorian empire]. Moscow: Nauka, 1967
  • 'La societe angkorienne et le probleme du mode de production asiatique', in: La Pensie 138: 71-84, 1968 (reprinted in Garaudy, R. (ed.) Sur le mode de production asiatique, Paris: Editions Sociales, (1969: 327-343).
  • Ό vysshem dukhovenstve angkorskoi Kambodzhi' [On the higher clergy in Angkorian Cambodia], in: Epigrafika Vostoka 19, 1969
  • 'Angkor: Society and State', in The Early State, ed. Henri J. M Claessen and Peter Skalník, Mouton Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands, 1978 [pp 111-30]. ISBN 90 2797904 9