National Geographic : 2009 Jul
• the dilapidated ruins encountered by Western travelers, French historians a century ago con- cluded from the tantalizing allusion that Ayut- thaya sacked Angkor. Fletcher, who says his obsession is to " gure out what makes settlements grow and die," is dubious. Some early scholars, he says, viewed Angkor through the lens of the sieges and con- quests of European history. " e ruler of Ayut- thaya, indeed, says he took Angkor, and he may have taken some formal regalia back to Ayut- thaya with him," says Fletcher. But a er Angkor was captured, Ayutthaya s ruler installed his son on the throne. "He s not likely to have smashed the place up before giving it to his son." Court intrigue may not have perturbed most of Angkor s subjects, but religion was central to daily life. Angkor was what anthropologists call a regal-ritual city. Its kings claimed to be the world emperors of Hindu lore and erected temples to themselves. But as eravada Bud- dhism gradually eclipsed Hinduism in the 13th and 14th centuries, its tenet of social equality may have threatened Angkor s elite. "It was very subversive, just like Christianity was subversive to the Roman Empire," says Fletcher. "It would have been exceedingly di cult to stop." Such a religious shift would have eroded royal authority. e regal-ritual city operated on a moneyless economy, relying on tribute and taxation. e kingdom s de facto currency was rice, staple of the conscripted laborers who built the temples and the cast of thousands who ran them. An inscription at one complex, Ta Prohm, notes that 12,640 people serviced that temple alone. e inscription also records that more than 66,000 farmers produced nearly 3,000 tons of rice a year to feed this multitude of priests, dancers, and temple workers. Add just three large temples to the equation---Preah Khan and the larger complexes of Angkor Wat and the Bayon---and the calculated farm labor required swells to 300,000. at s nearly half of the estimated population of Greater Angkor. A new, egalitarian religion such as eravada Bud- dhism might have led to rebellion. Or maybe the royal court simply turned its back on Angkor. Successive rulers had a habit of erecting new temple complexes and letting older ones decay, and that penchant for start- ing anew might have doomed the city when sea trade began to ourish between Southeast Asia and China. Maybe it was simple economic op- portunism that, by the 16th century, had caused the Khmer center of power to shi to a location closer to the Mekong River, near Cambodia s present-day capital, Phnom Penh, a ording it easier access to the South China Sea. Economic and religious turmoil may have hastened Angkor s downfall, but its rulers were blindsided by another foe. Angkor became a medieval powerhouse thanks to a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs that enabled the city to hoard scarce water in dry months and Resembling the apsaras, the beautiful dancers who appear on many of Angkor s temple walls, 17-year-old Sonsa Ry bends to tradition and washes her hus- band s feet at their wedding in the village of nal Toteung. ROYAL PROCESSIONS INCLUDED ELEPHANTS AND HORSES DECORATED WITH GOLD, AND HUNDREDS OF PALACE WOMEN BEDECKED IN FLOWERS.