Mandala (political model)

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

Maṇḍala is a Sanskrit word meaning 'circle'. The mandala is a model for describing the patterns of diffuse political power distributed among Mueang or Kedatuan (principalities) in medieval Southeast Asian history, when local power was more important than the central leadership. The concept of the mandala balances modern tendencies to look for unified political power, eg. the power of large kingdoms and nation states of later history – an inadvertent byproduct of 15th century advances in map-making technologies.[further explanation needed][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 European historians from ancient Indian political discourse as a means of avoiding the term "state" in the conventional sense. Not only did Southeast Asian polities except Vietnam not conform to 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.


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 Mataram, Kediri, Singhasari and Majapahit of Java; the Ayutthaya Kingdom of Thailand; Champa and early Đại Việt.[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 lesser 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. Cambodia in the 18th century 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.

The advent of Islam in the archipelago saw the application of this system which is still continued in the formation of the government, such as the formation of the 18th century Negeri Sembilan coalition which focused on Seri Menanti as a center flanked by four inner luak serambi and four outer districts.[9] Another example is the post-Majapahit Islamic kingdoms in Java.

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.[10][11]

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."[12][13]


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"[14] 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[edit]

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.

The personal relationship between overlord and subordinate rulers is also defining the dynamic of relationship within a 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 became his successor and the house of Sailendra was promoted to become the dynastic lineage of later Srivijayan kings, and for a century 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 against one another to minimize 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, Langkasuka and Tambralinga earlier were subject to Srivijayan mandala, and in later periods contested by both Ayutthaya mandala in the north and Majapahit mandala in the south, before finally gaining its own gravity during Malacca Sultanate.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "How Maps Made the World". Wilson Quarterly. Summer 2011. Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2011. Source: 'Mapping the Sovereign State: Technology, Authority, and Systemic Change' by Jordan Branch, in International Organization, Volume 65, Issue 1, Winter 2011
  2. ^ Branch, Jordan Nathaniel; Steven Weber (2011). Mapping the Sovereign State: Cartographic Technology, Political Authority, and Systemic Change (PhD thesis). University of California, Berkeley. pp. 1–36. doi:10.1017/S0020818310000299. Publication Number 3469226. Abstract: How did modern territorial states come to replace earlier forms of organization, defined by a wide variety of territorial and non-territorial forms of authority? Answering this question can help to explain both where our international political system came from and where it might be going ...
    The idea was originally proposed by Stanley J. Tambiah, a professor of anthropology, in a 1977 article entitled "The Galactic Polity: The structure of Political Kingdoms in Southeast Asia."
  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 978-0521804967. P. 33
  6. ^ "Victor B. Lieberman". Professor of History, Department of History, appointed 1984. University of Michigan. February 4, 2005. Archived from the original (Biography) on July 22, 2011. Retrieved August 17, 2011. Center for Southeast Asian Studies
  7. ^ Lieberman, 2003, p. 33
  8. ^ O.W. Wolters, 1999, pp. 27–40, 126-154
  9. ^ Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja (2013). "The galactic polity in Southeast Asia". HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. University of Chicago Press. 3 (3): 504–506. doi:10.14318/hau3.3.033. S2CID 17733357.
  10. ^ Martin-Fox, 1998, pp. 14–15
  11. ^ Stuart-Fox, Martin (1994). "Conflicting conceptions of the state: Siam, France and Vietnam in the late nineteenth century" (free). Journal of the Siam Society. Siam Heritage Trust. JSS Vol. 82.0 (digital). Retrieved April 12, 2013. Historians of Southeast Asia often face problems in using terms drawn from and applicable to European polities and societies to refer to non-European equivalents that do not conform to European models.
  12. ^ O.W. Wolters, pp. 142–143 citing Chutintaranond, 1990, pp. 97–98
  13. ^ Sunait Chutintaranond, (Thai: สุเนตร ชุตินธรานนท์) (1990). "Mandala, Segmentary State and Politics of Centralization in Medieval Ayudhya" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society. Siam Heritage Trust. JSS Vol. 78.1i (digital): image 11. Retrieved March 17, 2013. Nevertheless, the Ayudhya kings, as they are described in indigenous and foreign records, never successfully eliminated the hegemony of provincial governors.
  14. ^ Thongchai Winichakul (1994). Siam Mapped. p. 88.

Additional references[edit]

  • 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). Journal of the Siam Society. Siam Heritage Trust. JSS Vol. 78.1 (digital). Retrieved March 17, 2013. ... I am interested in the ways in which Kautilya's theory of mandala has been interpreted by historians for the purpose of studying ancient states in South and Southeast Asia.
  • 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[edit]

  • Political reasons for survey and map making in Siam detailed in Giblin, R.W. (2008) [1908]. "Royal Survey Work." (65.3 MB). In Wright, Arnold; Breakspear, Oliver T (eds.). Twentieth century impressions of Siam. London&c: Lloyds Greater Britain Publishing Company. pp. 121–127. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  • Renée Hagesteijn (1989), Circles of Kings: Political Dynamics in Early Continental Southeast Asia, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 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, vol. 293, no. 1, pp. 69–97, Bibcode:1977NYASA.293...69T, doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1977.tb41806.x, S2CID 84461786