The India-Cambodia connection

In their anxiety to win the frenetic ‘fastest growing economy’ race, most Indians have forgotten the strong cultural roots they share with several oriental countries. Among them, Cambodia tops the list. Here, in the verdant wilderness of deep tropical forests – dotted with water-rich rivers and lakes – stands the fabulous city of Angkor. With its magnificently proportioned Hindu and Buddhist temples, terraces, pavilions, sculptured libraries and galleries, Angkor takes us into the womb of time when anonymous artists created some of the world’s best artistic monuments over a period of almost a thousand years!

India’s colonial past has created a mindset in which we think that progress is equivalent to the Western way of life!

It could probably be because of India’s colonial past. As a people, we are joined to Britain by an unseen umbilical cord, which turns our faces Westward each time we think of progress. It could also be that in our frantic search for modern materialism and progress, we have lost the true connotations of the words ‘history and roots’. We have become addicted to technology and live in the unreal world of computers rather than hark back to our cultural motifs, which link us to other parts of the world – especially, many countries and cultures of the Orient.

Oriental cultures mingle like smooth-flowing rivers!

At the top of the list of such countries and cultures is Cambodia, lying slightly to the south of Thailand. At the heart of Cambodia is the ancient city of Angkor. Till it gained its independence after World War II, Cambodia was ruled by France. Because this tropical country is extremely water rich, Angkor was covered with such a dense tropical jungle that much of the ancient city was hidden to the view of the French colonial rulers and neglected by the locals who were hard put to cope with their poverty and colonial status. One advantage of this neglect was that the culture, the monuments and the lifestyle of people who lived in Angkor and the hamlets near the town, remained unchanged.

All this changed when French missionaries, traveling to Cambodia in the 19th century, stumbled upon the treasures of this lost city, which stood as a sentinel to the rich and fabulous past of Cambodia. Henri Mahout, a French botanist-archeologist, then began huge restoration efforts supported by the French Government. Over a period of almost a hundred years, generations of French experts worked to free the temples from the snakelike twirls of gigantic tree-roots and centuries of neglect.

But then, the Vietnam war came as a tidal wave of violence to disrupt the efforts. As if this was not enough, the Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement came to Cambodia with its mindless cruelty in the 1990s. The country was devastated, with over three million people massacred. While this bloody period of Cambodia’s history unfolded, the ‘lost city’ monuments of Angkor suffered rampant destruction and neglect.

Today, at last, the Cambodians are breathing free air. The political turmoils of the past few centuries are over and it is time to once again – to look again with nostalgic longing – at the relics of the rich Khmer empire and its cultural treasures. All these narrate a story that is at once fascinating and magical – especially for Indians.

My curiosity about the orient led me to Cambodia’s heartland.

It was my inherent curiosity that took me recently to the Kingdom of Cambodia on a joyful voyage of discovery. First of all, I needed to find the agency, which would make my journey easy and carefree and the Internet was the best help for this. A non-eyeball-to-eyeball contact first generated the usual insecurity. So a meeting was arranged between the young group called The Wanderers who were to make my itinerary and travel plans. Once the visa, travel and hotel as well as transport arrangements were in place, I left one rainy night for this unknown destination, travel guides and history books tucked safely in my bag.

1. Phnom Penh is colorful, green and beautiful

Early next morning, I arrived in the fairyland-like capital city of Phnom Penh, dotted with palaces, gardens and quaint little cottage homes strewn over the verdant land. Situated on the confluence of the Mekong and the Ton Le Sap rivers, the city is quaint combination of the modern and ancient.

The coming of almost a million tourists from all over the world (chiefly Europe, Korea and China) has begun to change the face of the city distinctly. The roads are clean, well laid out and the parks are green with champa trees blooming with myriads of white flowers.

In the center of the city, stands the palace of King Norodom Simhamoni, who is the present ruler of the country. An ornate building, the palace has many pavilions, audience halls and meeting rooms. Visitors are allowed entry only to the public rooms that are maintained beautifully. On display are various idols of the Buddha, Bodhisatvas and other deities made of gold, encrusted with jade, emeralds and rubies. Some of the idols have huge precious diamonds studded in the garments, ornaments and even in the face and hair. The immaculate gardens with many lily ponds are at once riveting. Lotuses play a major role in the religious rituals of Cambodians and these are grown systematically in every available pond to be sold even at wayside shrines.

The National Museum in Phnom Penh is a repository of stone and metal sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities brought from the ruins of Angkor to stop them being pilfered out of country by ruthless smugglers of art. Huge idols of Shiva, Vishnu, the Buddha and many deities of both religions fill vast halls and open spaces.

To see Angkor is to realize the dream of a lifetime!

An hour’s flight took me next day to Siem Reap, the town nearest to the Angkor monuments. Now dotted with international class hotels, Siem Reap is close to Cambodia’s biggest lake – Ton Le Sap – which makes Cambodia rich with water throughout the year. The Siem Reap River, originating in the Kulen Mountains to the north of the country, brings water not only into the lake but also into the huge moat which surrounds the Angkor Wat temple, which is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

2. Angkor Thom – the connection with India

The journey to the monument complex takes hardly a few minutes and a new traveler like me chooses a route which was meticulously marked by French archeologists and historians who decided that two paths – the inner circuit and the outer circuit – would allow visitors to see the maximum number of temples in the minimum amount of time. The legend about the origin of the Angkor monuments astounded me. This legend says that Cambodia was a rich trading post for both India and China, with the result that both the Hindu and Buddhist cultures influenced the nation’s character.

Further, I learnt that a Hindu Brahmin called Kambu had come here and married the local princess called Chera, thus giving the country the name of Kampuchea. Indian traders settled the country around 200 AD. But by 600 AD, the kingdom changed hands and the Chenla dynasty came to power. King Jayavarman I took control of the land. Many generations later, Jayavarman VII built the Angkor Thom, which contains the Bayon, with Hindu and Buddhist sculptures decorating the monument. Throughout the monuments of Angkor, the most popular traditions of Hindu culture seem to have inspired the builders.

Thus, almost all the important temples display sculptures of the famous Samudramanthan story, in which the gods and the demons churned the cosmic ocean of milk to seek the elixir of immortality. The legends of the Mahabharat and Ramayan, the legend of Ganga Avataran or the descent of the Ganga also feature prolifically in many temples.

Indeed, some distance away in the Siem Reap riverbed, sculptures of a sleeping Vishnu and scores of Shiva Lingas recreate the story of the Ganga coming to the earth from the heavens with the local river playing the role of the most sacred river of India.

Seeing world-famous monuments from atop an elephant!

Angkor Thom was best seen by me from the back of an elephant. Elephants were one of the most common modes of travel in Cambodia for centuries. And the old world air of the past lingers on when you ride an elephant and look at the inspiring mega-temples which stand empty and silent today. The Angkor Thom temples have a similar concept of temple building to the one seen in India. At the base are several layers of sculptures of elephants and horses, armies, lotuses, apsaras etc. that denote the steps before one comes face-to-face with the deity in the sanctum.

Continuing from Angkor Thom, I saw the 350-metre-long Elephant Terrace with innumerable sculptures of elephants. This apparently was used as a viewing gallery for the king and his courtiers. Then came the Terrace of the Leper King, a platform which rises seven metres, whose edges are decorated with figures of Apsaras and royal dignitaries. The mysterious sculpture of a king or God Yama, removed from here, now rests in the museum. This terrace is described as the crematorium for the kings.

Angkor Wat is one of the modern world’s seven wonders!

My next stop was the world famous temple of Angkor Wat, built by Suryavarman II in the twelfth century. It took almost 40 years to build. By far, this is the flagship monument of Cambodia, unsurpassed by any other anywhere. A Hindu temple par excellence, Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu and Shiva though it is said to be also a mausoleum for the king who built it.

Built in several levels, the temple has huge bas-relief sculptures telling the story of the Mahabharat war and the Ramayana war with Ravana. The story of Samudramanthan is repeated here in great detail in bas-relief. The four towers of the temple – one in each corner – rise to 65 metres through three levels. The big tower stands at the center. At the top now, is an idol of the Buddha and the huge sculpture of Vishnu from the temple now rest in the museum.

The majesty of Angkor Wat lies in its concept – a cosmic universe in miniature – which lies at the base of Hindu philosophy. The temple stands in a manmade ocean, a moat that surrounds the vast temple. The main tower represents the Meru Mountain, the center of the universe according to Hindu belief. The other towers form the supporting peaks. The courtyard levels form the continents. The entire temple features 5400 sculptures of Apsaras in fascinatingly rich saree-like robes and jewellery.

These influence the culture of Cambodia deeply even today, with the music and dance styles of the country recreating the jewellery and the ensembles seen in the sculptures. Among all temples in Angkor, only the Wat faces the west, because it is reputed to be the mausoleum of the king. An exciting way to see an aerial view of Angkor Wat is to go up in the huge balloon that swings in the breeze near the monument and stare at the surrounding mountains and the temple in the center!

See pics of Angkor Wat

I wanted to find the soul of Cambodia.

Next day, I continued on my search for the soul of Cambodia, seeing the temples of Bante Samrai, Pria Rup, Bante Srei, Pria Khan, Preah Neak Pean and Ta Prohm. Two out of these are unique for their concepts.

Preah Neak Pean is a neat temple dedicated to the Bodhisatva of compassion, Avalokiteshwara. It has a square pool surrounded by four smaller pools. The large pool represents the Himalayas and the four smaller pools represent the world’s four biggest rivers originating from the Himalayas. Encircled by two nagas, the temple is named after snakes which are sculpted with their tails intertwining around the pool. The pool earlier had four animals on four sides, but only a horse survives the vagaries of Nature. This was the temple where sick people came to seek cures to a variety of ailments.

Ta Prohm is probably the monument which represents the spirit of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. Here, Nature has been showcased as the destroyer as well as the preserver in its pristine beauty. The ambience of the ruins is eerie and the monument is almost swallowed up by the huge roots of towering trees which have overgrown over the centuries to cover the many faces of Bodhisatva Avalokiteshwara.

Built around 1186 by King Jayavarman VII, Ta Prohm is a Buddhist temple with an inscription that tells of the huge number of people who lived and maintained its grandeur. A large complex of buildings, Ta Prohm is surrounded by a wall which has several towers with huge stone faces, with inscrutable expressions typical of oriental religious philosophies. Inside, green moss and lush vegetation cover the monuments, creating a rare vision of Nature mingling with history in complete silence. This eerie curtain of silence is pierced only by shrill parrot cries that ring in the green spaces between huge, gnarled trees that encircle the walls and monuments.

King Jayavarman VII is a hero for the Cambodian people.

Though Suryavarman II is the builder of Angkor Wat (UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven wonders of the modern world) and the massive temple feeds the nation’s economy with millions of tourists coming to see it, Cambodians remember King Jayavarman VII with more warmth because he is the monarch who created the bridge between Hinduism and Buddhism to give Cambodian culture its present quaint mix of the two religions. His statues stand in squares, shopping arcades and public gardens.

The people, ravaged by colonialism, wars and Khmer Rouge atrocities, are gentle, friendly – but exceedingly poor in the countryside. Their hospitality is touching. As the sun goes down against the silhouettes of the temples, the fairy lights at many ethnic restaurants come to light in Siem Reap. In each of these, dim lights burn on the stage, as Apsara dancers move with swanlike grace in their sculptured costumes and headdresses to the beat of drums and the music of the Cambodian lute. Cambodia is peaceful – there is no claustrophobic Bollywood to smother the media and no Page Three celebrities who compete with each other to appear in the social columns of the local newspaper!

There is much that Indians can learn from Cambodians

What I learnt from the Cambodian people is their peaceful way of life as compared with the aggressive, pushy, grabbing, insolent lifestyle of Indian metro cities. I learnt from them that one’s country is a sacred trust given to one and that keeping it green and clean is one’s duty. The swaying rice fields, the sprawling water bodies with pink and white lotuses, the gardens and public spaces – all were sparkling clean and green. The smiles on the faces of Cambodians showed that the small country, lying dormant till the beginning of the 21st century, is awakening to its great future as one of world’s ancient cultures and a veritable union of Hinduism and Buddhism, two great religions of the Orient!

Also see
1. Pictures of Temples of Cambodia
2. Shaiva temples in Cambodia
3. Space and Cosmology in Indian Temples - Angkor Watt

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