After his coronation in 1181, King Jayavarman VII embarked on a gigantic public works program to rebuild the Angkorian empire that had been shattered during the Cham invasions. Plans included the construction of 102 hospitals throughout the country.
Today, a great deal and, at the same time, very little is known of these hospitals.
About 20 stone carvings and 50 hospital sanctuaries have been found throughout the empire’s former territory—which extended into today’s Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, said Christophe Pottier, an archeologist with the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, the French government agency that has been studying Angkor for more than a century.
Built according to a layout systematically reproduced from hospital to hospital, they had a sanctuary dedicated to Bhaisajyaguru—the Buddha of medicine—with a tall sandstone or laterite tower and a secondary structure located in a 20-by-30 meter walled area with an entrance pavilion and a laterite basin to collect rain water outside, he said. But the hospital facilities themselves remain a mystery, Pottier said.
This is why an archeological team will start early next month on the first excavation of a Jayavarman VII hospital in Cambodia.
The team of about 40 people will be led by Pottier and Rethy Chhem —a radiology and anthropology professor, head of radiology for the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
The hospital selected for the excavation is located between the West Baray reservoir and the west side of the fortified city of Angkor Thom, Pottier said.
“Medical knowledge was quite developed,” in Angkorian times, said Rethy Chhem. “There are medical manuscripts on childhood illnesses that are similar to Chinese, Indian, Tibetan and Arabic texts, which shows there was an exchange of information.”
Medicine was one of the five disciplines—along with philology, logic, fine arts and metaphysics—that monks studied as part of their training in Mahayana Buddhism, which differs from the Theravada Buddhism now practiced in Cambodia, he said. The monasteries of Ta Prohm and Prah Khan built by Jayavarman VII at Angkor were virtually universities, he said.
Viewing the body as a representation of the universe, Angkorian doctors took a patient’s pulse, not to monitor heartbeats as is done today, but to check on wind and energy flow in his body, Rethy Chhem said. They used herbal medicines and mercury, believed to prolong life, for treatment, he said. They also considered clarified butter, fresh butter, oil, honey and molasses—mentioned in inscriptions at Ta Prohm and Prah Khan —as basic medicines.
While stone inscriptions list a hospital staff of doctors, nurses and non-medical attendants, they give no information on the workings of the institutions, Rethy Chhem said. Did they conduct surgery or use tools such as forceps? “We don’t really know, and this is among the things we hope to find out with the excavation,” he said.
“The dig will also provide the opportunity to compare a stone inscription of the period with archeological data,” Pottier said. It is rare to have an inscription regarding a specific activity, such as hospital care, with facts that can be verified through excavation, he said.
The project, which is funded by the University of Chicago in the US in cooperation with the Apsara Authority—the government agency managing the Angkor Archeological Park—will start with an initial two-year phase to find out whether enough vestiges and artifacts can be found on the site to answer questions. If the site proves rich in remains, a second phase will be launched, Pottier said.
Participants at the First International Conference on the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia, a two-day event held at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap through today, will tour the site on Wednesday.
According to Rethy Chhem, the number of hospitals, 102, was linked to the sacred number 51 of Mahayana Buddhism, which Jayavarman VII “doubled” as he usually did to honor both his mother and father with two buildings per project.