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The Descendants of Kambu: The Political Imagination of Angkorian Cambodia

  • Author(s): Lowman, Ian Nathaniel
  • Advisor(s): Edwards, Penelope
  • et al.

In the 9th century CE, a vast polity centered on the region of Angkor was taking shape in what is today Cambodia and Northeast Thailand. At this time the polity's inhabitants, the Khmers, began to see themselves as members of a community of territorial integrity and shared ethnic identity. This sense of belonging, enshrined in the polity's name, Kambujadesa (i.e., Cambodia) or "the land of the descendants of Kambu," represents one of the most remarkable local cultural innovations in Southeast Asian history. However, the history and implications of early Cambodian identity have thus far been largely overlooked.

In this study I use the evidence from the Old Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions to argue that Angkorian Cambodia (9th-15th centuries CE) was at its conceptual core an ethnic polity or a "nation"--an analytic category signifying, in Steven Grosby's words, an extensive "territorial community of nativity." The inscriptions of Cambodia's provincial elite suggest that the polity's autonomy and its people's common descent were widely disseminated ideals, celebrated in polity-wide myths and perpetuated in representations of the polity's foreign antagonists. I contend that this culture of territorial nativity contradicts the prevailing cosmological model of pre-modern politics in Southeast Asian studies, which assumes that polities before the 19th century were characterized by exaggerated royal claims to universal power and the absence of felt communities beyond extended family and religion. At the same time I seek to problematize standard historical accounts of the nation which fail to observe the affinity between territoriality and fictive kinship in select political cultures before the era of ideological nationalism.

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