Team To Excavate Angkor Hospitals To Illuminate Ancient Practices

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.

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