Academic fields have paradigms or themes which serve to focus scholarship and define the field. For instance, in the middle of the twentieth century, the idea that China had “responded” to the “impact” of the West in the nineteenth century was a central theme for the field of Chinese history in the West.
In the case of Southeast Asian history, an important concept has been that of “localization,” or the idea that people in Southeast Asian have historically adapted foreign ideas and cultural practices to fit their existing ideas and way of life.
This idea initially emerged as part of an effort to “write back” against the ideas of colonial-era scholars who had argued that Southeast Asia had largely been transformed by outside influences, particularly those which came fromIndiaandChina. Here such geographical terms as “Indo-China” and “Further India” reflected this perspective.
One scholar who argued against this view was the late O. W. Wolters. Wolters believed that while there was often ubiquitous evidence of foreign elements in Southeast Asia’s past, these elements could and should be “read” as what he termed “local cultural statements.”
Wolters employed concepts from literary theory to explain a process, which he referred to as “localization,” in which people in Southeast Asia took “fragments” from foreign literary texts or cultures and then used them as “decorations” or “allegories” to make “local cultural statements” about themselves. While these statements appeared in the texts which people in Southeast Asia wrote, Wolters contended that we can also see local cultural statements in cultural practices and architectural structures as well.
In other words, Wolters argued that the Southeast Asian past was like a text which we can read, and that while the language of that text might be Indic or Sinitic, the statements that were made were ultimately local, such as Khmer or Vietnamese.
To give an example of this, Wolters once “read” Angkor Wat. In doing so, he relied heavily (but also selectively) on the work of Eleanor Moron (who later published a revised version of her research on Angkor Wat under the name Eleanor Mannikka – see her Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship).
In 1977, Eleanor Moron published an interpretive essay about Angkor Wat. In this work she argued that Angkor Wat has an incredible amount of “numerical cosmology” to it. In particular, she contends that various distances in the temple complex all break down into numbers which have symbolic meaning.
She came to this conclusion by discovering that all of the distances in the temple complex can be divided by the same number, a basic unit of distance known as a cubit, and which in the case of Angkor Wat is 0.43545 meters. Further, Moron found that the number of cubits along many of the walkways and walls in the temple are significant in terms of Indian mythology.
For example, Moron noted that when one walks from the bridge at the western entrance to the point where one can finally see the main temple clearly at the threshold onto the porch of the second gallery, one traverses a distance of 1,728 cubits. Within the temple itself, Moron found other distances which add up to 1,728 cubits. This is significant because this number relates to concepts of time in Indian mythology.
In Indian mythology, time passes through four ages, the first of which is called the Krta Yuga, and lasts for 1,728,000 years. Hence, with all of these distances in Angkor Wat of 1,728 cubits in length, it appears that the creators of this temple wished to equate it somehow with the Krta Yuga, a period which, significantly, is considered in Indian mythology to have been a “golden age.”
The last of the four ages which time passes through is known as the Kali Yuga. This is the age which we are supposedly living in today, and it began with a great war known as the Battle of Kuruksetra which is famously recounted in the Mahabharata.
There are carved images around the outer walls of Angkor Wat. On the western wall there is a mural of the Battle of Kuruksetra, and on the eastern wall there is a mural of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, an episode from Indian mythology which details how the universe was created.
Moron suggested that since Suryavarman II, the king or ordered the construction of Angkor Wat, had fought his way to power, the depiction of the Battle of Kuruksetra on the western wall “may allude to Suryavarman’s own battle for the throne.” (221)
“May” was a key word here, as Moron did not provide any conclusive evidence to demonstrate that this was in fact the case. Instead, she offered an alternative explanation. She noted, for instance, that each morning the sun rises on the Churning of the Sea of Milk on the eastern wall and sets on the Battle of Kuruksetra on the western wall, and that the two murals might have a symbolic meaning connected to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction.
In any case, Wolters took some of this information from Moron’s study and came to his own conclusion. He argued that the depiction of the Battle of Kuruksetra on the western wall was where the “Khmer statement” was “embodied in Angkor Wat.” (62)
He argued that “This battle in traditional Indian cosmogony introduced the last age of the world [i.e., the Kali Yuga]. . . In Angkor Wat, however, the battle has been localized to introduce the golden age and, in the eyes of those responsible for the monument, the golden age was still in being.” (63)
Wolters’ point here is that Angkor Wat was built to honor Suryavarman II and to glorify his rule as a golden age, or Krta Yuga. Therefore, the mural of the Battle of Kuruksetra could not be indicating the beginning of the final age, or Kali Yuga, as it does in Indian thought.
Wolters then concludes with these points: “The signifiers visible at Angkor Wat are drawn from Indian literature, but they signify a Khmer formulation associated with the Khmer’s expectations of being Suryavarman’s contemporaries. Angkor Wat is an example of a local statement into which Indian conventions of. . . the golden age have retreated so completely that they have become, in a literal sense, decorative.” (63)
Ok, now for some analysis of Wolters’ ideas. First of all we have no proof that the mural of the Battle of Kuruksetra at Angkor Wat is meant to symbolize Suryavarman II’s rise to power. Wolters’ “reading” of Angkor Wat depends on that, and it is not verifiable. So his ideas are quite literally baseless.
On the other hand, let’s suppose that this mural is supposed to represent Suryavarman II’s rise to power. If a Khmer decides that the way in which Suryavarman II’s rise to power should be depicted is by means of the Battle of Kuruksetra, then how is that a “local cultural statement”?
For Wolters it is local because it does not accord with the way in which the battle was depicted in Indian thought. However, how do we know this? Has Wolters or anyone else surveyed everything that was ever written about the Battle of Kuruksetra in order to determine this? Of course not.
This is one of the main weaknesses of Wolters’ approach. Way back in 1933, French scholar Paul Mus wrote that “Working at a great distance from the object of study, one sometimes risks confusing a library with a country.” This is precisely what Wolters did.
In arguing that the “signifiers” on Angkor Wat “signified” something different from their Indic origins, he reduces the “Indian tradition” to something much smaller than even a library. To Wolters, the Battle of Kuruksetra only had one interpretation or meaning in all of Indian history, and that one interpretation or meaning was not the same as what he saw at Angkor Wat.
While I suspect that the Battle of Kuruksetra was referred to for many different purposes throughout time, it may be the case that it is only at Angkor Wat that we find this battle carved in stone. Further, it may be the case that its purpose there is to work together with the mural of the Churning of the Sea of Milk to create a holistic space which contains all of the destructive and regenerative powers of the universe. In which case, Angkor Wat may be unique in some ways within the larger world in which Indic cultural practices and beliefs prevailed, but the uniqueness would come not from the fact that there was something “local” in the temple, but that local people had employed Indic elements in novel ways. Is that “localization”?
To return to Paul Mus, back in 1933 he made the following comment about the Indic influence that we see in things like Cham art: “the Chams certainly imported Indian culture in all its refinements of detail but they were not content simply to copy it. They lived it.”
Whoever created Angkor Wat was also “living” a certain culture. In which case, I find it hard to see how that culture could have “retreated so completely” that it had become “decorative.” Something else was happening.