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Mandala (Southeast Asian political model)

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Title: Mandala (Southeast Asian political model)  
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Subject: History of Laos, History of Southeast Asia, Monthon, Political anthropology, Mueang
Collection: Feudalism in Asia, History of Southeast Asia, Mandalas, Political Geography, Political Theories, Tai History
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Mandala (Southeast Asian political model)

Notable mandalas in classical Southeast Asian history (circa 5th to 15th century). From north to south; Bagan, Ayutthaya, Champa, Angkor, Srivijaya and Majapahit.

Maṇḍala (मण्डल) is a Sanskrit word that means "circle". The mandala is a model for describing the patterns of diffuse political power distributed among Mueang or Kedatuan (principalities) in early Southeast Asian history, when local power was more important. The concept of a mandala counteracts modern tendencies to look for unified political power, i.e., the power of large kingdoms and nation states of later history — an inadvertent byproduct of 15th-century advances in map-making technologies.[1][2] In the words of O. W. Wolters who further explored the idea in 1982:

The map of earlier Southeast Asia which evolved from the prehistoric networks of small settlements and reveals itself in historical records was a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas.[3]

It is employed to denote traditional Southeast Asian political formations, such as federation of kingdoms or vassalized polity under a center of domination. It was adopted by 20th century Western historians from ancient Indian political discourse as a means of avoiding the term "state" in the conventional sense. Not only did Southeast Asian polities not conform to classical Chinese and European views of a territorially defined state with fixed borders and a bureaucratic apparatus, but they diverged considerably in the opposite direction: the polity was defined by its centre rather than its boundaries, and it could be composed of numerous other tributary polities without undergoing administrative integration.[4]

In some ways similar to the feudal system of Europe, states were linked in suzeraintributary relationships. Compared to feudalism however, the system gave greater independence to the subordinate states; it emphasised personal rather than official or territorial relationships; and it was often non-exclusive. Any particular area, therefore, could be subject to several powers, or none.


  • Terminology 1
  • History 2
  • Obligations 3
  • Personal relationships 4
  • Non-exclusivity 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • Additional references 8
  • Further reading 9


The term draws a comparison with the mandala of the Hindu and Buddhist worldview; the comparison emphasises the radiation of power from each power center, as well as the non-physical basis of the system.

Other metaphors such as S. J. Tambiah's original idea of a "galactic polity"[5] describe political patterns similar to the mandala. The historian Victor Lieberman[6] prefers the "solar polity" metaphor, referencing the gravitational pull the sun exerts over the planets.[7]


Intersecting mandalas circa 1360: from north to south: Lan Xang, Lanna, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Khmer and Champa.

Historically, the main suzerain or overlord states were the Khmer Empire of Cambodia; Srivijaya of South Sumatra; the successive kingdoms of Medang, Kediri, Singhasari and Majapahit of Java; the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand; Champa and the successive kingdoms in the histories of Vietnam; and China.[8] China occupies a special place in that the others often in turn paid tribute to China, although in practice the obligations imposed on the lessor kingdoms were minimal. The most notable tributary states were post-Angkor Cambodia, Lan Xang (succeeded by the Kingdom of Vientiane and Luang Prabang) and Lanna. Medieval Cambodia in particular was described by the Vietnamese emperor Gia Long as "an independent country that is slave of two" (Chandler p. 119). The system was eventually ended by the arrival of the Europeans in the mid-19th century. Culturally, they introduced Western geographical practices, which assumed that every area was subject to one sovereign. Practically, the colonisation of French Indochina, Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and Burma brought pressure from the colonisers for fixed boundaries to their possessions. The tributary states were then divided between the colonies and Siam, which exercised much more centralised power, but over a smaller area than thitherto.

Historian Martin Stuart-Fox uses the term "mandala" extensively to describe the history of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang as a structure of loosely held together mueang that disintegrated after Lan Xang's conquest by Thailand starting in the 18th century.[9][10]

Thai historian Sunait Chutintaranond made an important contribution to study of the mandala in Southeast Asian history by demonstrating that "three assumptions responsible for the view that Ayudhya was a strong centralized state" did not hold and that "in Ayudhya the hegemony of provincial governors was never successfully eliminated."[11][12]


Bunga mas (Flowers of Gold), tribute from northern Malay states in Malay peninsula for Siam. National Museum, Kuala Lumpur.)

The obligations on each side of the relationship varied according to the strength of the relationship and the circumstances. In general, the tributary was obliged to pay bunga mas, a regular tribute of various valuable goods and slaves, and miniature trees of gold and silver (bunga mas dan perak). The overlord ruler reciprocated with presents often of greater value than those supplied by the tributary. However, the tributary also had to provide men and supplies when called on, most often in time of war. The main benefit to the tributary was protection from invasion by other powers, although as South East Asia historian Thongchai Winichakul notes, this was often "mafia-like protection"[13] from the threats of the overlord himself. In some cases, the overlord also controlled the succession in the tributary, but in general interference with the tributary's domestic affairs was minimal: he would retain his own army and powers of taxation, for example. In the case of the more tenuous relationships, the "overlord" might regard it as one of tribute, while the "tributary" might consider the exchange of gifts to be purely commercial or as an expression of goodwill (Thongchai p. 87).

Personal relationships

For further information, see Kinship - Recognition of fluidity in kinship meanings and relations

The emphasis on personal relationships was one of the defining characteristics of the mandala system. The tributary ruler was subordinate to the overlord ruler, rather than to the overlord state in the abstract. This had many important implications. A strong ruler could attract new tributaries, and would have strong relationships over his existing tributaries. A weaker ruler would find it harder to attract and maintain these relationships. This was put forward as one cause of the sudden rise of Sukhothai under Ramkhamhaeng, for example, and for its almost equally steep decline after his death (Wyatt, 45 and 48). The tributary ruler could repudiate the relationship and seek either a different overlord or complete independence. The system was non-territorial. The overlord was owed allegiance by the tributary ruler, or at most by the tributary's main town, but not by all the people of a particular area. The tributary owner in turn had power either over tributary states further down the scale, or directly over "his" people, wherever they lived. No ruler had authority over unpopulated areas.

Personal relationship between overlord and subordinate rulers is also defining the dynamic of relationship within mandala. The relations between Dharmasetu of Srivijaya and Samaratungga of Sailendra for instance, defining the succession of these dynastic family. Dharmasetu was the Srivijayan Maharaja overlord, while the house of Sailendra in Java is suggested to be related and was subscribed to Srivijayan mandala domination. After Samaratungga married princess Tara, the daughter of Dharmasetu, Samaratungga become his successor and the house of Sailendra was promoted to become the dynastic lineage of later Srivijayan kings, and for a century period the center of Srivijaya was shifted from Sumatra to Java.


The overlord-tributary relationship was not necessarily exclusive. A state in border areas might pay tribute to two or three stronger powers. The tributary ruler could then play the stronger powers off against each other in order to minimise interference by either one, while for the major powers the tributaries served as a buffer zone to prevent direct conflict between them. For example the Malay kingdoms in Malay Peninsula earlier were the subject to Srivijayan mandala, and in later period contested by either Ayutthaya mandala in north and Majapahit mandala in south, before finally gain its own gravity during Malacca Sultanate.

See also


  1. ^ "How Maps Made the World".  
  2. ^ Branch, Jordan Nathaniel; advisor,  
  3. ^ O.W. Wolters, 1999, p. 27
  4. ^ Dellios, Rosita (2003-01-01). "Mandala: from sacred origins to sovereign affairs in traditional Southeast Asia". Bond University Australia. 
  5. ^ Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. World Conqueror and World Renouncer : A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. ISBN 0-521-29290-5. Chapter 7, cited in Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context c. 800-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003–2009 ISBN 978-661-0-16044-0. P. 33
  6. ^ "Victor B. Lieberman" (Biography). Professor of History, Department of History, appointed 1984.  
  7. ^ Lieberman, 2003, p. 33
  8. ^ O.W. Wolters, 1999, pp. 27–40, 126-154
  9. ^ Martin-Fox, 1998, pp. 14–15
  10. ^  
  11. ^ O.W. Wolters, pp. 142–143 citing Chutintaranond, 1990, pp. 97–98
  12. ^ Sunait Chutintaranond, ( 
  13. ^ Thongchai Winichakul (1994). Siam Mapped. p. 88. 

Additional references

  • Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. Westview Press, 1983. ISBN 0-8133-3511-6
  • Chutintaranond, Sunait (1990). "Mandala, Segmentary State and Politics of Centralization in Medieval Ayudhya" (free).  
  • Lieberman, Victor, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Stuart-Fox, Martin, The Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang: Rise and Decline, White Lotus, 1998.
  • Tambiah, S. J., World Conqueror and World Renouncer, Cambridge, 1976.
  • Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped. University of Hawaii Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8248-1974-8
  • Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982. ISBN 0-87727-725-7
  • Wolters, O.W. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Revised Edition, 1999.
  • Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History (2nd edition). Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-08475-7

Further reading

  • Political reasons for survey and map making in  
  • Renée Hagesteijn (1989), Circles of Kings: Political Dynamics in Early Continental Southeast Asia, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (138), Dordrecht and Providence, RI: Foris Publications 
  • Hermann Kulke (1993), Kings and Cults. State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia 
  • Stanley J. Tambiah (1977), "The Galactic Polity. The Structure of Traditional Kingdoms in Southeast Asia", Anthropology and the Climate of Opinion, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (New York) 293: 69–97 
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