Mandala States in Southeast Asia

The term mandala has various iterations for the intended meaning, but the standard definition is usually meant to give an expression that has a meaning of geographical or cosmological inference. The generally agreed meaning to mandala is an orb shaped like an object or in relation to anything circular as this is the definition on basis of the Sanskrit-English dictionary. It refers to an annular ring of continents surrounding the central mountains of the cosmos. The reference on Mount Meru as the focal point in terms of a binding circle that relates magic utilized to perform sorcery, influence politics and the way of life. This circle was the king’s circle in nearby neighbors and far distant ones. In the illustrations of Arthasastra of Kautilya, the meaning of mandala in a political sense is well illustrated; this text has an explanation on the management of political power particularly to the Kautilya territory around the fourth century before Christ. The mandala was a system used to explain how smaller states formed a unified territory; this political association was widely practiced on the ancient East Asian islands.

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This often consisted of a chain of network states that functioned under a given law, especially the Manu laws. This functioning community with the political rule was often based on the relationship they had with the kings. Under the Manava Dharmasastra, the kings were subject to a political principality that categorized the type of neighbors the kings would have. This systems and laws created an interstate functioning political system that viewed their neighboring states as either neutrals (madhyama) neighboring states with no aggressive agendas, enemies (ari) who were viewed as aggressors and would often cause political tensions or allies (Mitra), those considered as political friends; often, the kings with these neighbor states would have some kind of political affiliations and agreements to strengthen their territories.

For more interpretation, the mandala theory can be postulated as a conventional interstate political policy that governs the united states forming the kingdom territories. This is what formed the mandala system and its applications. The territories under the mandala comprised of smaller kingdoms that followed the rules used in Ayudhya, which were a seminary state. These much smaller kingdoms were formed due to Provincial Hierarchy laws that ensured they were accorded the powers they deserved. The existence of the Palatine Law, which were subordinate to the muangs, formed the system of governance within the political territories of Ayudhya kingdom and its boundaries.

Amongst the muangs, some existed as cities and were accorded special political considerations with some of them having lords as their anointed rulers. This muangs that formed the cities comprised of especially first and second class muangs – Huamuang Ask and Hua muangs Tho. These names were their designated territorial identities, and their rulers were lords with kingship status. This muangs were referred to as first and second class respectively, and their rulers had their own servants. These servants included guards, court officials, maidens, workers, and political advisors. The undertakings of these servants as subordinates to the lords of these muangs were based on a replicated political functions of the capital of the entire mandala system that formed the kingdom but, at the smaller scale, to befit the cities stature.

The muangs rulers were likened to little kings of their territories; however, they had to pay tributes to the mother state or the bigger mandala system, which required them to pledge fealty to the ruler who managed the vast Ayudhya kingdoms. This system of political arrangement was used for ages, and it never morphed into any kind of political system like empires or even change the leadership title. There were little to none vital changes politically to influence change in how the power was centralized by the Ayudhya kings. This political system lasted for about four hundred years.

The Ayudhya kingdoms did at later stages evolved from a confederacy of state provinces known as miiang when first founded to the much complex political kingdom that had centralized governance form of government. The centralized system of kingdoms accepted the formation of tributary states, which were either conquered territories or those that joined the Ayudhya on their own volition for a political affiliation. There was, however, an exception of provincial territories that had their own political autonomy; these were known as outer ring territories and were not under a great deal of political control from the centralized kingdom under the Ayudhya kings. The territories that formed the inner circles were the exact reversal of this far-flung outer rings that formed autonomous provinces. The only similarity between these far kingdoms with autonomy and those within the Ayudhya kingdom with less political power and ruled by the centralized system is that they both recognized the legitimacy and superiority of the Ayudhya kings whether they were in the inner circle or outer circle.

Just like any political conglomerate formed from the confederacy of states, these kingdoms to function properly largely needed the presence of a strong political ruler who administered from the main capital. The implications of a weaker leader translate to political disintegration due to ambitions by other rival states that would like to front their leaders to take over the capital. This would affect the unity as the miiang that was not in the inner circle and had territorial autonomy would secede out of the Ayudhya. These tributaries would not feel the need to pay fealty to a weak leader with less political influence. The eventual fall of the Ayudhya kingdom was due to weaker leadership at the capital. The kingdom before the onset of the nineteenth century was mainly peaceful and comprised of a confederacy of provincial states that did not have a compact unitary system. Nevertheless, their rulers recognized the central government that enforced its political rule on its tributary states and the far outer miiang.

The changes to the Ayudhya kingdoms began with the rule of the great leader who was the Chulalongkom kingdom; this period was from 1868 to the 1900s. The king of Chulalongkom utilized a greater deal of his time as well as energy in bring unity among the Siamese states. This unity is considered his greatest achievement as he made the territories to be bigger and stronger under a centralized system. He formed the kingdom that was later referred to as Siam kingdom; his government had administrative duties over the territories. These territories included the Nonthaburi and Pathumthani that formed northern territories, and to the southern, he administered over Samutprakan and Phrapradaeng. The economic development of the different regions of the Ayudhya kingdom was not mainly depended on the type of leadership or even the confederacy formed. Some states obviously had significant development that was solely the responsibility of their rulers; however, they were still under the Ayudhya kingdom and rule of the king. This shows that the territories were often only affected in matters of political ruling related to the capital. However, religion and internal prosperity be it economical or otherwise was much left as a decentralized function to the miiang lords or administrators.

Unlike the European kingdoms and empires that were often succeeded by the practice of handing down the mantle of leadership on the actual bloodline of the rulers, it was a different case with the Ayudhya mandalas. The kings who presided over these Ayudhya mandalas could not at any given time appoint the rulers of the miiang when the king was not in a position to appoint members of his family or friends to hold political positions within the miiang that would be of any political benefits to his rule. The Ayudhya kings who tried imposing their rule on the subjects were never successful as the rings that consisted of these confederacies decided to rebel against the king. The only thing the kings could do was to exercise immense authority over the territories and in the process impose their totalitarian rule over the subjects as the law.

Under the rule of kings who tried to come up with a new totalitarian system of government by creating positions of subordinates known as yokkrabat or the institution of the inspector as well as the governors, especially the institutions of commissioner governors, they could exercise more control over the imperial Ayudhya kingdoms. These governors had direct authorities that outranked the miiang rulers. This, however, never made the Ayudhya kings to have an easy way to impose their unwanted rules. The core rituals that made the kingdom stable and functional, such as bannalam, was being undermined, and this ritual was responsible for expressing recognition of the Ayudhya ruler’s authorities. This never ending the quest for competitive greed for more powers by the Ayudhya rulers is what coated the recipe for the eventual fall of the kingdom’s dominance and progress instead of carrying out the right ways of replacing the kings who would die and leave their vacant positions.

The Ayudhya rulers opted instead to point the new kings who will serve their agendas and quest for more power. This new king did not sustain the reputations left by the kings they were anointed to replace; hence, they made even the states to deteriorate and, eventually, led to the downfall of the kingdoms. These kingdoms and their territories were focused on wrong leadership quests when the rest of the world was embracing the renaissance age from the 19th century onwards. The best view and description of these southeast Asian states prior to colonial influence and occupation would be a well-established system of ruling marred by personal agendas. The lack of understanding not only the benefits but also strength and prosperity obtained from a unified properly governed confederacy. These factors that contributed to one of the earliest forms of civilizations that practiced political powers without necessarily enforcing the unpopular will be amongst its subjects.

The Buddhist religion has had a profound influence in ancient Asian civilization; the religion is amongst the earliest and has its teachings even embed on the laws of most Asian countries. To grasp how vitally the mandala under Buddhists have influenced how the states of modern Asian countries have turned today, one has to take a close look at the way religion had a common influence on all the subjects. The teachings of the Buddha were aimed at refining the ways of men to be selfless and always be detached from the earthly possessions in order to one to have blessings and master the art of meditation and true Buddhism. This meant that the rulers were having a religious doctrine that at ancient civilizations did not influence nor practiced the vices associated with self-greed. This meant the subjects were viewing greed as an unworthy quality to have and did not want more than they have; this meant if you were a citizen in modesty a farmer, you could not admire to be wealthy if you did not have wealth nor admire to possess more than you had.

Buddha teaches his subjects that having earth possessions makes one suffer and they will be reborn in a cycle of life that has suffering in it caused by greed and selflessness; hence, such people will never see the light of being enlightened. This is what the case with the Buddhist mandala states that why they had profound respect for authority and they function whether under the autonomous territories that were administered by lords or under the direct authority of the kings. The Tibetan Buddhist played a crucial role in masking the states now known in southeastern Asia. They ensured that religion goes hand in hand with moral reforms and that no leader who had embodied the true teachings of Buddha’s enlightened wisdom would take the leadership. This ensured that harmony between religion and political interest and often the religious aspects of it never superseded the political ones.

Basing my arguments upon the articles about mandala states that it is hard to argue if this was the best form of leadership they could have had. The southeast Asian countries, especially the states that formed the mandala kingdoms, were not actually vast lands but smaller territories that viewed unitary system of government by joining the confederacies would advance their interests politically. It is not the best ideology to use the theory of mandala to try and develop a description of the Asian states that were conglomerated under one rule. There are several other hypotheses that form a plausible explanation as to why these kingdoms sorted to have a centralized kingdom under one rule. There could be a possibility of sorting for unified states due to fear of their political enemies or due to benefits that come with territorial integration. These benefits often are the military support in acts of aggression by the enemy of the kingdom.

In conclusion, it is remarkable how these mandala states decided to form and coexist in a democratic practice of governance that borrowed much on respect and expression of acknowledgment of a centralized form of government within the kingdom while, at the same time, using religion to unify the subjects and maintaining their basic levels of governance. It is noted that most of the time none of the rulers were often appointees of the king, but rather the territorial integrity of this Ayudhya kingdom states were resected. As they paid fealty to their imperial ruler who had central command of the kingdom, he was expected to respect the lords who governed over the kingdoms.



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Manggala, Panda Utama. “The Mandala Culture of Anarchy: The Pre-Colonial Southeast Asian International Society.” Journal of ASEAN Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 1-13.

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