Encyclopedia of Ancient Asian Civilizations

Charles F. W. Higham

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 2004 by Charles F. W. Higham 

This volume concentrates on the civilizations that arose
east of the Caspian Sea. These early civilizations of Asia
developed over a vast territory stretching from the region
of modern Afghanistan and the Aral Sea to Japan and
Korea, and from Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) to the islands
of Southeast Asia. These civilizations developed in the
oases that bordered the arid Taklamakan Desert in western
China and the tropical jungles of Java in Indonesia.
Virtually every major river basin sustained one or more
early states, along rivers like the Yalu, which flowed
through the icy cold of a Korean winter, or the Irrawaddy
and the Chao Phraya, which ran through the pervading
heat of their valleys. Early Western visitors to East and
Southeast Asia were invariably taken aback by the scale
and power of the rulers they encountered. Even the mighty
army of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.) rebelled at
the prospect of advancing beyond the Beas River into
India. Romans, Greeks, and Persians were keen to trade
with the East but barely gained a foothold on Asian soil.
When intrepid Portuguese friars penetrated the jungles
of Cambodia in the 16th century and came across a
great stone city abandoned to the forest, they were so surprised
that they could advance only the Roman emperor
Trajan (98–117) or Alexander the Great, rather than the
Cambodians, as being responsible for such magnificence.
Those Portuguese, as many later archaeologists did, at
once recognized the external trappings of what is now
called a state society. They encountered large temples and
walled cities, huge reservoirs, and inscriptions of texts in
an unknown form of writing. Had the people of Angkor
constructed their palaces as well as their temples in
stone, the friars would also have found large, opulent,
and richly ornamented domestic buildings. The discovery
of palace foundations, however, had to await more recent
archaeological excavation.
Great temples, roads, canals, and reservoirs, together
with tombs and writing, are the hardware of civilization.
The software lies in a social system that can be discerned
through the translation of writing and the inferences
drawn from the archaeological record.
The central operating system of a state lies in the ruling
elite. This usually takes the form of a hereditary
dynasty in which the ruler, who, in Japan and Korea, was
frequently a woman, often assumed godlike qualities
linked with an ability to communicate with the ancestors
and spirit world. Administration involved an upper class
of relatives of the ruling dynasty, a bureaucracy of centrally
appointed officials, or both. Power was concentrated
in the capital, often located in an urban center that
incorporated a palace, state temples, and quarters for specialists.
Tight control over the military helped ensure the
rulers’ continuance in power, but in many early states,
there was a perennial problem of scale, manifested in centrifugal
tendencies. The farther from the center, the
greater the temptation to seek independence.
One of the recurrent issues confronting the rulers of
early states in Asia was the success of the harvest.
Whether rice, millet, wheat, or barley, the surplus generated
by the field workers was vital to the well-being of all.
There is much evidence of central concern for predictable
harvests, manifested in state irrigation works, deployment
of increasingly efficient agricultural tools, and
infrastructure for transportation. Essentially, agricultural
and other surpluses were taxed and used to sustain the
administrative system. In many instances this taxation
encouraged a system of currency that took various forms:
cowry shells and cast imitations thereof, measures of gold
and silver, and coins that in India owed much to Greek prototypes.
In at least two instances it is possible to recognize an
indigenous development of an Asian civilization with
minimal outside influence. The origins of the Indus
Valley civilization can be traced to increasing social complexity
in the basin of this river and the surrounding
uplands to the north and west, linked with growing maritime
and overland trade with the contemporary civilizations
of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Here are all the
classic hallmarks of an early state system: huge walled
cities with elite precincts dividing the priests and aristocrats
from the rest of the urban population; regular
streets, granaries, craft workshops, and domestic houses;
and, most intriguing perhaps to the visitor, an efficient
system of latrines and drains. A written script was used
by at least 3300 B.C.E., but the failure of modern scholars
to read the brief texts means that the administrative and
ruling system remains conjectural. Several large cities
dominated, particularly Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, but
there were many smaller centers, villages, and hamlets.
The end of this civilization is dated to the first half of
the second millennium B.C.E., but the reasons for the
decline are not yet clearly defined. Some scholars have
turned for explanation to the Rig-Veda, sacred ritual
hymns, which survived through oral tradition in India
until first transcribed in the 14th century C.E. For millennia
Hindu priests have intoned these hymns during religious
ceremonies incorporating the soma ritual. This
ritual involved taking the juice from the soma plant, the
identity of which remains unknown. Some was then
offered to the gods; the rest was imbibed by the priests.
The gods worshiped include the principal Hindu deities
in their early manifestations: Foremost are Agni, the god
of fire; Surya, the Sun god; Rudra, god of storms; and
Indra and Vishnu, the gods of war. The Rig-Veda survives
in Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, and its early
manifestation was once seen as evidence of warriors
arriving in the Indus Valley from the northwest, warriors
who destroyed the cities of the Indus. Few now hold to
this view for lack of archaeological evidence. Indeed
some scholars have even suggested that the Rig-Veda in
essence originated in the Indus cities and actually
describes events that occurred in them.
In any case the Indus civilization did not survive in a
recognizable form beyond the first centuries of the second
millennium B.C.E. The center of gravity in India then
moved to the Ganges (Ganga)-Jamuna Basin, where a
series of small competing states, known as janapadas,
arose. The elimination and absorption of the weak led to
the formation of larger states, and ultimately by the same
process, the Mauryan state arose to form the first Indian
empire in the fourth century B.C.E.
The second independent development of a civilization
took place in China from about 2000 B.C.E. For
many years, the central focus for the early Chinese state
lay in the middle reaches of the Huang (Yellow) River
Valley. Early Chinese histories described the states of Xia
and Shang, including the names of capitals, dynasties,
and kings. Archaeological research has validated these
semimythical states, identified cities, recovered early
written records, and opened the burials of elite leaders.
Even after nearly a century of such research, new discoveries
are still crowding in. Thus a new Shang capital was
found as recently as 1999 at Huanbai. Excavations have
also revealed the antecedents of the first states, which
reach back to the period of early farming, and extending
through the increasingly complex societies of the loess
land bordering the Huang River. Long-range contact with
the West was manifested by the beginnings of bronze
casting and the adoption of the chariot.
Of even greater significance, there is compelling new
evidence for a parallel development to the south, in the
lands bordering the mighty Chang (Yangtze) River. Here
rice replaced millet as the subsistence base of states
known as the Changjiang civilization. Already by 4000
B.C.E., walled settlements like Chengtoushan were established.
The Liangzhu culture (3200 to 2000 B.C.E.) of the
lower Chang River Valley presents the picture of a complex
society, whose leaders were interred in opulent
tombs with fine jade grave goods. The most spectacular
finds are from Sanxingdui in the Sichuan Basin, a huge
walled city and likely capital of the regional state of the
Shu people during the second millennium B.C.E. The
bronze, ivory, gold, and jade offerings recovered from two
sacrificial pits reveal a society no less complex than its
contemporary at Anyang, the capital of the Shang state in
the Huang Valley to the north.
In north China, the Shang dynasty was replaced in
1045 B.C.E. by the Zhou rulers. The Western Zhou kings
controlled a considerable area. However, their policy of
sending royal relatives to rule over newly conquered
regions in due course weakened the center, as regional
lords assumed their own power bases and formed their
own states. In addition, the states known to the Chinese
as Shu and Chu continued to flourish in the Chang Valley
independent of the Zhou. This policy, with the transition
to the Eastern Zhou period in 770 B.C.E., led to the weakening
of the royal house; as rival states entered into
increasingly bellicose relationships, the state of Qin
emerged as the dominant force. By 221 B.C.E., the first
emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, had vanquished his last rivals.
His dynasty, however, was short lived, being succeeded by
the Western and then the Eastern Han. This period of
empire, which ended in 220 C.E., saw the establishment
of an enduring Chinese state that exercised considerable
influence on its borders.
The development of powerful states in China and India
during the first millennium B.C.E. had a potent effect on
the cultures with which they came into contact. Many
new states mushroomed in the wake of international
trade relations, wars of undisguised imperial conquest, or
exposure to new ideas and ideologies. To the northeast,
the Han policy of imperial expansion during the second
century B.C.E. saw the establishment of the commandery,
or province, of Lelang in northern Korea. This imposition
of an alien regime in the midst of already sophisticated
societies was, at least in part, a stimulus for the rise of
four Korean states—Koguryo, Shilla, Paekche, and Kaya.
By the fourth century C.E., the Chinese had withdrawn
from their foothold in the Korean Peninsula, and the
rulers of these states fought among themselves. In the
seventh century, the rulers of Shilla allied themselves
with the Chinese Tang emperor to vanquish all rivals and
to establish the first pan-Korean state, Unified Shilla.
Across the Tsushima Strait in Japan, the adoption of
sophisticated techniques for rice cultivation on the Han
model, together with the construction of irrigation
works, underpinned emerging statelets concentrated in
Kyushu and the margins of the Inland Sea. The rulers
built for themselves gigantic mounded tombs, the largest
of which reached a length of nearly half a kilometer. The
Nihongi, an indigenous historical record completed in the
early eighth century C.E., names a sequence of emperors
and empresses, together with their capitals, temples, and
palaces. Tracing these sites and opening them by excavation
have yielded a rich harvest of new information. The
Nara plain, east of modern Osaka, was a focus for the
early Japanese state, with royal tombs and the remains of
great cities at Fujiwara and Heijo, which were built along
the lines of the Chinese capital of Chang’an. In 1961, a
vital discovery revealed that mokkan, written records on
wooden slips, survived at Heijo in considerable quantities.
These illuminated the detailed workings of aristocratic
households and court functionaries. Linked with
the excavations in royal palaces and Buddhist temples,
the features of the early Nara state of the eighth century
have emerged clearly defined from oblivion.
With the end of the Han dynasty in the early third
century, China was divided into three states. The southern
kingdom of Wu had no access to the lucrative Silk
Road that linked China with the West, and the emperor
sent emissaries south to seek a possible maritime link
with the worlds of India and Rome. To their considerable
surprise, the emissaries encountered a state that they
named Funan, located on the delta of the Mekong River
in modern Vietnam and Cambodia. Their report, which
has survived, described a palace and walled settlements, a
system of taxation and laws, written records, and the
presence of craft specialists. Rice was cultivated, and
there was vigorous trade.
Once again, archaeology has verified these written
accounts. Air photography before the Second World War
revealed the outline of moated and walled cities on the
flat delta landscape, linked by canals that radiated,
straight as arrows, between the centers. At ground level,
the French archaeologist Louis Malleret in 1944 excavated
the city of Oc Eo and traced the outlines of brick temple
foundations, jewelry workshops, and house
foundations. Dating this city was facilitated by the dis covery
of coins minted by Roman emperors of the second
century C.E. Since the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975,
research has raced ahead. Many more sites have been
identified, and the inscriptions, written in Sanskrit and
employing the Indian Brahmi script, record the presence
of kings and queens who took Indian names and founded
temples dedicated to Indian gods. Wooden statues of the
Buddha have survived in the delta mud.
Funan was one of many small mercantile states that
prospered by participating in a great trade network now
known as the maritime Silk Road. A two-way trade with
the Indian subcontinent saw gold and spices heading
west, while bronzes, glass and carnelian ornaments, and
novel ideas entered Southeast Asia. Along the coast of
Vietnam, temples dedicated to Siva and other Hindu
gods, as well as Sanskrit texts, document the rise of the
Cham states. Chams spoke an Austronesian language,
unlike their neighbors in Southeast Asia, and they dominated
this coastal tract with its restricted river floodplains
until the march to the south by the Vietnamese that
ended in the 18th century. The rich soil of Java sustained
kingdoms that were responsible for Borobudur, the
largest Buddhist monument known, dating to the ninth
century, while the demand in the west for cloves and nutmegs
saw the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia prosper.
The broad floodplain of the Chao Phraya River in
Thailand witnessed the rise of a state known from its
inscriptions, in the Mon language, as Dvaravati. Here are
large, moated centers dominated by temples dedicated to
the Buddha, which rose at the same time as the Funan state
to the south. Small states developed along the coast of
peninsular Thailand and Malaysia, as goods were transshipped
from the Gulf of Siam to the ports on the Andaman
Sea. One major trading state, known as Srivijaya, arose at
Palembang on the island of Sumatra. To the west, the Pyu
civilization of the dry zone in modern Myanmar (Burma)
bequeathed great cities at Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra.
On the Arakan coast, the part of Southeast Asia most
exposed to trade with India, there are reports of visits by
the Buddha himself, and cities were founded at
Dhanyawadi and Vesali, complete with palaces and temples.
Local origins are common to all these states that burgeoned
along the maritime Silk Road. Explorations into
their prehistoric ancestry reveal growing cultural complexity,
as chiefs rose up and took advantage of the new
opportunities afforded by international trade. Indian
influence is seen in the Sanskrit and Pali languages, the
Brahmi script, and Hindu gods. Beneath the surface of the
Pyu, Dvaravati, Funan, and Cham civilizations lies a
strong local culture. These cultures continued well into
the second millennium C.E. In Cambodia the civilization
of Angkor grew into a major regional power. Pagan was
the center of the Burmese civilization. The Chams continued
to flourish until the predatory Vietnamese began
their march south.
The Silk Road itself was a labyrinth of trackways that
began with the Gansu corridor in western China. It then
skirted north and south of the arid Tarim Basin, before
reaching the crossroads that lay in the valleys of the Syr
Dar’ya and Amu Dar’ya Rivers as they flowed north to the
Aral Sea. Here it was possible to strike south into
Afghanistan and India or to continue in a westerly direction,
south of the Caspian Sea, to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
This route was an ancient one, followed, it seems, by
early farmers trekking east, who founded settlements in
the Tarim oases during the third millennium B.C.E. There,
in the dry wastes, are 4,000-year-old cemeteries containing
the remains of fair-skinned people with European features,
interred with woven plaid textiles, sprigs of
ephedra (a hallucinatory plant), and trousers and boots.
Their descendants in all probability spoke Tocharian, an
Indo-European language. It was along this route that
knowledge of bronze working and the chariot reached
China. The Silk Road was a conduit for the arrival of
Buddhist teachings in China and ultimately Korea and
Japan. At Mogao, east of the Taklamakan Desert, are
some of the finest Buddhist shrines anywhere.
The Chinese Han dynasty’s establishment of peaceful
conditions in the second century B.C.E., always problematical
where steppe horsemen might intervene, promoted
the development of states along the eastern stepping
stones of the Silk Road. When the archaeologist-explorers
Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein reached the deserts of far
western China a century ago, they encountered the
remains of walled cities, roads, even ancient vineyards.
Letters and royal orders on wood and leather have survived,
in an Indian script dating to the third century C.E.
These illuminate the kingdoms of Shan-shan, Sogdiana,
and Hotan and their oasis cities at Niya, Endere,
Panjikent, and Lou-lan.
The crossroads of Asia, where the routes south into
India bisect the Silk Road south of the Aral Sea, have seen
the rise and fall of many civilizations. Under the rule of
Cyrus the Great (ruled c. 585–c. 529 B.C.E.), the
Achaemenid empire of Persia expanded east, incorporating
the Indus Valley as its 20th province during the reign
of Darius the Great in the early fifth century B.C.E.
Achaemenid rule came to an end with the defeat of Darius
III at the hands of Alexander the Great at the Battle of
Gaugamela (modern Iraq) in 331 B.C.E., setting in motion
the beginning of the Greek control of this region. Under
Seleucus Nicator (356–281 B.C.E.), one of Alexander’s
generals and ruler of the former Persian Empire, Greek
influence was profoundly felt through the foundation of
cities, the construction of temples, and the minting of
coins bearing the images of many Bactrian Greek kings. At
Ay Khanum in Afghanistan and Sirkap in Pakistan are
cities that match their contemporaries in Greece itself.
This powerful wave of Hellenistic influence can be seen in
the Gandharan art style as well as in theaters and mausoleums,
for example, at Ay Khanum. However, the
Seleucid empire was on the wane by the mid-second century
B.C.E., and from its remnants arose the Parthians in
the region southeast of the Caspian Sea. They briefly held
sway over the great center of Merv (modern Mary in
Turkmenistan), reaching down into the Indus Valley.
The Kushans, however, were to exert a major influence
in this area. Moving west from China, these initially
nomadic groups settled south of the Aral Sea by the
end of the second century B.C.E., and under a line of
potent rulers beginning with Kujula Kadphises, they
came to rule a large empire south into India, with a capital
at Purusapura (modern Peshawar). King Kanishka,
who took the title devaputra, or son of god, showed a
deep interest in Hinduism. By 200 C.E., Persian power
resurfaced with the Sasanid dynasty under Ardashir I
(224–241). Sassanian control of the strategic Merv Oasis
and this central part of the Silk Road provided a welcome
element of stability. By the third century C.E., a Christian
monastery was founded at Merv.
From the fifth century C.E., however, the Sassanians
came under mounting pressure from the Hephthalite
Huns to the east, a people of shadowy origins, whose
prowess as mounted cavalrymen and archers was feared.
After the defeat and death of their king, Firuz, in 484, the
Sassanians paid tribute in coinage to the Hephthalites,
largely to keep the peace on their eastern frontier, until
the reign of Khosrow I in the mid-sixth century C.E.
Hephthalite territory at this juncture included Tokharistan
and much of Afghanistan. They conquered Sogdiana
in 509 and extended their authority as far east as
Urumqi in northwest China. By 520, they controlled this
area and in India came up against the western frontiers of
the Gupta empire under King Bhuhagupta. Under their
own king, Toramana, the Hephthalites seized the Punjab,
Kashmir, and Rajputana; Toramana’s successor, Mihirakula,
established his capital at Sakala (modern Sialkot
in Pakistan). He was a devotee of Siva, and this was a
period of devastation for the venerable Buddhist monasteries
in Pakistan and India, many of which were sacked
and destroyed. The last Hephthalite king, Yudhishthira,
ruled until about 670, when he was replaced by the
Turkish dynasty known as the Shahi.
The pattern underlying early Asian civilizations entails
three strands. The first involves the origin and flowering of
the indigenous states. Two can be identified: The earlier
was centered in the Indus Basin and flourished during the
fourth millennium B.C.E., before the cities were abandoned
and the focus of Indian civilization moved to the Ganges
(Ganga) and Yamuna Valleys. The later, and most durable,
began in catchments of the two great rivers of China, the
Chang and the Huang. Here there was a twin development
of agriculture, with rice dominating the balmier south and
millet the colder north. Again cultural complexity developed
in tandem in both areas, as did the early states, Xia
and Shang in the central plains of the Huang River and
Changjiang in the land bordering the Chang.
The second strand involved the development of what
might be termed “secondary civilizations” in areas that
came under the influence of China, India, or both. While
Chinese influence was strongly felt in Korea and Japan,
the impact of Buddhism cannot be discounted. To the
south, the states of the maritime Silk Road developed
from indigenous chiefdoms, retaining their autonomy
but prospering through the enriching influence of India
and China. The same cross-fertilization of ideas between
local inhabitants and foreign traders may be identified on
the Silk Road itself.
The third and most complex contributor to the pattern
of Asian civilization lies in the regions where east
met west through the expansion of the Greek and Persian
Empires and the intrusion of Sakas or Scythians,
Kushans, and Hephthalite Huns. This region, centering
on modern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, and the
basins of the Syr Dar’ya and Amu Dar’ya Rivers, is one of
the most interesting areas, because of the variety of peoples,
religions, languages, and cultures that came and
went, each contributing and at the same time adapting to
the ways of other societies.
Today Asia teems with humanity. Its billions of people
speak thousands of languages. Its contribution to the
development of the human species outweighs that of any
other part of the globe: the domestication of rice, the
largest mortuary complexes, two of the world’s great religions,
massive temples, cast iron, paper, silk, writing,
universities, totalitarian states, the crossbow, outstanding
works of art—the list is endless. The development of
Asian civilizations from their first foundations is a key to
understanding Asia today.

Table of Contents
List of Illustrations and Maps vi
Introduction xvii
Entries A to Z 1
Chronology 417
Bibliography 420
Index 426

Photographs & Illustrations
Statue of Agni, India 3
Fresco painting on the walls of the Ajanta caves, India 5
Amaravati, India 8
Ananda Temple at Pagan, Myanmar (Burma) 11
Sculptured heads of the Bayon temple at Angkor, Cambodia 17
Angkor Wat, Cambodia 19
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka 21
Sandstone figures of apsaras, Angkor Wat, Cambodia 24
Banteay Chmar, Cambodia 39
“Citadel of the women,” miniature temple of Banteay Srei, Cambodia 40
Reliefs carved on the walls of the Bayon temple at Angkor, Cambodia 46
Medieval temple at Bodh Gaya, India 54
Bodhisattva from Japan’s Heian period 54
Chariots, bronze model from Gansu in China, Eastern Han dynasty 71
Royal centers at Banteay Prei Nokor, Chenla period, Cambodia 75
Stairway of the Tripylon with bas-reliefs 90
Stone dharmacakra from Phra Phatom, Thailand 92
Statue of Siva, Elephanta, India 105
Kailasanatha temple at Ellora, India 106
Haniwa tomb figure, Japan 134
Wall painting of Indra, India 148
Bust of Jayavarman VII, Cambodia 169
Kharoshthi script from Hotan 182
Mud brick walls of Kot Diji, Pakistan 186
Lacquered basket found in the Han tomb in the Chinese
commandery of Lelang in northern Korea 193
Flying horse, bronze figure from the Eastern Han dynasty, China 196
Jade suit of Princess Dou Wan, Han dynasty, China 202
Mencius, in an 18th-century portrait, China 221
Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan 226
Mount Meru, represented at Ta Keo, Cambodia 231
Nisa, southern Turkmenistan 242
An oracle bone from Shang China 248
Pagan, Myanmar (Burma) 256
Sanctuary of Phimai, ancient Vimayapura, Thailand 261
Phnom Rung, Thailand 262
Pre Rup temple, Angkor, Cambodia 267
Terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, China 274
Scene from the Ramayana, Thailand 280
Four gateways of the stupa at Sanchi, India 293
Steatite seals, Indus civilization, Pakistan 300
Prince Shotoku, Japan 317
Shrine at Sokkuram, Korea 329
Sulamani temple at Pagan, Myanmar (Burma) 333
Ritual vessel, China 338
Frieze at Taxila, India, showing the Buddha and devotees 344
Terrace of the leper king, Angkor Thom, Cambodia 347
Great Wall of China 367
Wine vessel, from the Western Zhou dynasty, China 374
Bronze wine jug (jue), China 386
Yakushi-ji, a Buddhist temple at Heijo-kyo in Japan 394
Yayoi period bronze bell, Japan 404

Sites in Central Asia ix
Sites in the Indian Subcontinent x
Sites in East and Southeast Asia xii
Sites in Japan and Korea xiv
Sites in the Southeast Asian Islands xv


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