Saturday, July 08, 2006

"King of the Mountain" (Glossary)

The earliest written records state that kings in Southeast Asia drew their power from a link with a real or symbolic mountain.

In medieval times, kings erected temples or mounds representing the cosmic mountain as a symbol of their own royal power.

Early interpretation of this practice explained it as a borrowing from India, but more recent, detailed research reveals rather that the "King of the Mountain" concept is rooted in indigenous belief.

To be sure, this system blended together with new ideas from the Hindu and Buddhist religions, but the core practice can be traced to ancient times in this region.

Ifugao rice terraces in northern Philippines. Department of Tourism photos.

First we should note that the King of the Mountain idea as found in Southeast Asia was never quite as developed in India. Mountains were very sacred in India, and gods were often associated with mountains, but royal power was not so significantly mountain-linked.

Mountain districts

The division of political districts based on a central mountain is found widely throughout this region among indigenous groups including some who show little evidence of Indianization.

But more importantly elements of this system have survived even out into the Pacific, apparently brought by the Lapita culture.

In ancient East Polynesia, for example, the island of Tahiti was divided into many districts each centered around a mountain and its rivers. Each district had its own meeting ground, marae, arioi house and community learning center and was led by a chiefly ruler.

Ancient Hawai`i had ahupua`a districts that ideally ran from a core mountain to the sea with each district having its own temple altar (ahu). The altar received offerings from title-holders upward through the line of precedence until they reached the king or paramount chief of the ahupua`a who offered them to the gods.

In Island Southeast Asia, we find often temples, sacred terraces, platforms, etc. attached to a central district mountain. In many cases, pyramid-like structures or mounds symbolically represent the cosmic mountain which is thought of as located either in Heaven or in some distant land.

In Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and North Borneo we find stone platforms or courts with standing "guardian" stones often linked with fertility and longevity. In some cases, these structures also have esoteric connotations as well. Ling Shun-Sheng explained the "earth altars" found among some Formosan peoples as having a link with the Heaven-Earth duality of the Mt. Tai Fengshan sacrifice.

Of course, this blog suggests that these concepts originated with the Nusantao transmission of knowledge concerning the polar mountains Pinatubo and Arayat, conceived of also as a single double-peaked mountain.

Temples and mounds

Early evidence of earthen and stone mound building in Southeast Asia is linked closely with megalithic culture.

Heine-Geldern postulated an early pre-metal megalithic period in Island Southeast Asia characterized by terraces/platforms, menhirs, dolmens, stones seats, stone meeting-places and formations, pyramids, earthen/stone mounds, stone-lined wells, baths, canals, steps, etc.

The site of Gio-Linh in Vietnam dates back possibly to 2000 BCE and is characterized by Paul Wheatley as "Sa-Huynh." It resembles the ISEA megalithic culture which was thought by Geldern to have about the same age as that given for Gio Linh.

The stone terraces of Gio-Linh comprise a complex irrigation system with stone-paved canals, flumes, reservoirs, water tanks, bridges, standing stones, menhirs and stone seats. Large circular earthen mounds here are thought to indicate forms of "earth worship."

In Yunnan, stone platforms similar to the Pacific island marae appear from about 600 BCE.

Stepped stone platforms similar to the widespread marae of Polynesia are present in many parts of Micronesia and Melanasia.

Such structures are found in Kiribati, the Marianas, New Caledonia, Mala, Ulawa and San Cristobal in the Solomons, and throughout much of the Carolines.

"Who is your Mountain?"

In ancient Maori society, a person wishing to speak on the marae temple may be challenged in the following way:

"Ko wai to Maunga?" -- "Who is your Mountain?"
"Ko wai to Awa?" -- "Who is your River?"
"Ko wai to Iwi?" -- "Who is your tribe?"

The sacred mountain is at the heart of one's genealogy and is often the place where one's ancestral spirits reside.

It is also the center that establishes political authority.

In Proto-Austronesian times, the word *banua may have referred specifically to the territory coming under the rule of a mountain and its ruling clan. The reflexes of *banua generally refer to any settled land but usually proscribed within certain boundaries.

Banua with reference to the cosmic mountain refers to all that land that lies under heaven i.e., the whole world, as that mountain is the link between Heaven and Earth. In this sense, the medieval Southeast Asian King of the Mountain was portrayed as a Universal Ruler.

As the volcanic entrance of the cosmic mountain leads to the Underworld, the most ancient forms of this theme also portray the King of the Mountain as the King of the Underworld.

Volcanic eruptions are seen as the end and beginning of the ages and eras of the world, visualized as starting with a New Sun exploding through the mountaintop, always cataclysmic in nature, and thus the King of the Mountain often has strong apocalyptic and messianic characteristics.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Bray, Francisca. The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies, University of California Press, 1994, p. 33.

Ling, Shun-Sheng. "Ancestral Temples and Earth Altars among the Formosan Aborigines," Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica 6, (Taiwan), 1958, p. 47.

Needham, J. and Lu Gwei-Djen. Trans-Pacific Echoes and Resonances, World Scientific, 1985, p. 19.

Wilson, Peter J. Man, the Promising Primate, Yale University Press, 1983, p. 154.