|The scattered temples are mostly deserted reminders of the former glory of the Khmer people, the dominant people of the region. Their kingdoms waxed and waned, to include parts of Thailand (Siam), Vietnam (Champa) and Laos at various times.
By Dr. Subramanian Swamy
The Lost Hindu Empire of Cambodia
by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar
A visit to Cambodia is recommended or may even be de rigueur for any Indian with an interest in the erstwhile history of India. For nowhere in the world outside India one can see the glory of its past splendor so well exhibited as in Cambodia. There are several hundred Hindu and Buddhist temple ruins throughout the countryside, especially around the town of Siem Reap near the large lake Tonle Sap. Siem Reap is the heart of the country. Here is where the splendid temple Angkor Wat has stood for nearly nine hundred years.
Mostly neglected for centuries and then ransacked and looted by occupying forces, the treasures of Cambodia are scattered all over the world now, mostly taken by Europeans. Smuggling of artifacts continues to this day. Cambodia has a very checkered history of war and destruction. It is only in the last one hundred years that attempts have been made to preserve, excavate and study the chronology of history, first by the French, and now by the rest of the world community. Indian and United States governments are also assisting in refurbishing and preserving the temples.
Many of the temple ruins appear like they are right out of pages of Rudyard Kipling’s books. Many with crumbling walls and roofs have seen better days. Giant trees hover over many temple walls, threatening their very foundations. Large roots of Kapok trees twine around the temples like giant mythical birds gripping them in their talons. Yet there is an indescribable charm that one immediately imbibes at first sight. Many ruins may look similar but one is drawn to see more. Those, which are preserved, demonstrate exquisite works of art and sculpture.
The people of this impoverished country are graceful and charming. They are simple, honest people, (mostly fishermen and farmers. There are not many towns outside a few larger cities. Once you leave the city limits of Phnom Penh there are not many homes or buildings of significant magnitude. Two-wheelers are the main modes of transportation, often attached to trailers that are used to transport families and goods. The vendors selling books, shawls and skirts are mostly beautiful children at temple sites, who surprise the tourists with better English than one would expect them to speak. These children are not scrappy, but not pushovers either and they can drive a hard bargain.
The scattered temples are mostly deserted reminders of the former glory of the Khmer people, the dominant people of the region. Their kingdoms waxed and waned, to include parts of Thailand (Siam), Vietnam (Champa) and Laos at various times. There have been wars and skirmishes between the Khmer people and their neighbors for centuries. The most recent involvement of Cambodia in the larger war in Vietnam, when the country was carpet bombed by the might of the American military, was just one of several wars in its history to cause much death and destruction. Following the American exit, civil war had kept the country impoverished and desperate until the year 2000 when it gained independence and now has a nascent socialist democracy.
The early history of Cambodia is best studied as Pre- Angkor era and Angkor era. Angkor is a ‘Khmer-ization’ of the Sanskrit word Nagara, meaning city.
Pre-history of Cambodia starts with the legendary Khambujaraja, a Brahmanical king of India, who had come to the region and faced adversity from a beautiful lady on the mountain. After a brief fight between them, a truce was drawn and the beautiful lady, Mero by name, married Khambuja. The country they jointly ruled was called Khambujadesa and their descendants were called the Khmer people. Khambujadesa later became Kampuchea and then Cambodia. The original language spoken was Mon-Khmer. Later in the 6th century the ‘Mon’ people moved further west to Thailand and the Khmer remained in current day Cambodia.
Indian influence in the region began in the first century C. E. They traded goods with Khmer by way of sea, when spice and silk trade had flourished. Both Indians and Chinese exerted their influences on the local people but Indian culture took a firm foothold, perhaps through the efforts of Brahmin priests. The rulers of the time had a suffix of ‘Varman’ to their names, similar to the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. Whilst the Cholas of Tanjavur in India eventually defeated the Pallava Varmans in the 8th century, the Khmer kingdoms flourished well into the 14th century. Though all the rulers of Cambodia bore the name ‘Varman,’ they did not necessarily belong to the same dynasty. At various periods in their history, the rulers and usurpers came from Siam (Thailand) or Champa (Vietnam) as well as Khambujadesa (Cambodia or Kampuchea).
There are historical references suggesting that Cambodia had been inhabited in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. Chinese travelers later chronicled the first established kingdom. The first kingdom was called Funan (an alteration of the word bnam or mountain in Khmer language). A certain Kaundinya, inspired by a dream, traveled from India and married a local princess Soma, belonging to the naga (cobra) tribe. He established the first Kaundinya dynasty of Funan. Later in the 5th century a second traveler from India - Kaundinya Jayavarman (478-514) arrived and focused on re-establishing the Indian culture. He established a more defined Funan kingdom and was later followed by Rudravarman in the sixth century. He was responsible for the first sculptures, mostly of Vishnu.
After the decline of Funan kingdom Khmer people established Chenla kingdom, where the names of kings Shrutavarman and Sheshthavarman are mentioned. They established their capital in Shreshthapura. Later Ishanavarman, from the Khmer kingdom of Bhavapura, defeated the remnants of Funan, and established his capital in Ishanapura.
Jayavarman I followed him and then his successor Pushkaraksha again united the splintered principalities in the year 716. His capital was Shambhupura (currently Sambor). His heirs maintained control over the kingdom until the end of 8th century, when Malayans and Javanese (Jayavarman II) gained dominion over many Khmer principalities. During this pre-Angkor period many temples were built, though they did not demonstrate the same style of architecture or the confidence of the later builders.
The Golden Period
The glory of Cambodia and its temples began in earnest during the rule of Jayavarman II beginning 802 C. E. It is thought that he came from the royal court in ‘Java’ to conquer smaller Khmer states. He declared a unified and sovereign Khambujadesa, independent of Javanese influence. This was when the Angkor era in the history of Cambodia was born. He named his capital city Hariharalaya and introduced ‘linga-cult.’ to his kingdom. The cult of Devaraja or the God King (the terrestrial counterpart of the celestial being) was also introduced by Jayavarman II. The capital stayed around the large Lake Tonle Sap, in and around the city of Siem Reap (until the 15th century, well after the demise of Hindu empires, when it was moved to Phnom Penh).
Thirty years after Jayavarman II’s death, his successor Indravarman I constructed the first major temple in his honor (one of the so called Rolous group of temples). From then on the rulers busied themselves in building temples using bricks, sandstone and laterite. Often they were painted in bright colors. They also built large water reservoirs called barays. Following Indravarman I, his son Yasovarman I built many more temples and barays.
Rajendravarman in the 10th century was a ruler busy building another half a dozen temples, the best preserved and an architectural masterpiece at Bantay Srei.
During the rule of Udayadityavarman II, several lingas were carved in the riverbed on Phnom Kulen (called Mahendraparvata at the time). Today it is known as the ‘River of thousand lingas’ and is a tourist attraction in its own right. It was believed that the water that flowed over the countless lingas of the river would fertilize the rice fields below. A short hike up the mountain will take a visitor to the place of thousand lingas at Kbal Spean.
The first inscriptions found on temple walls, dating back to 5th century, resembled the script used by Pallavas of South India. Later, the Khmer developed their own unique script and carved them into the walls mostly describing the temple and its deity but sometimes the inscriptions were just mundane details like a list of inventory. There are as many inscriptions in Sanskrit language as in Khmer language.
The first decade of 11th century witnessed the ascent to the throne of a powerful king Suryavarman I (1010-1050), who unified almost all of Khambuja and southern Thailand. He was also a busy builder of temples and royal palaces. Following his rule, Suryavarman II (1113-1150) further expanded the kingdom. He also built the glorious temple Angkor Wat (from the Indian words Nagara Vata - City Temple), the pinnacle of temples built in Cambodia.
The sprawling temple spreads over a one square mile area. Long walls with stories of Hindu mythology are sculpted as bas-reliefs. It is a magnificent temple complex, constructed in the form of mythological Mount Meru - the Hindu center of the Universe. The temple is surrounded by a large moat, representing the ocean surrounding Mt. Meru. The brilliant paint used to enhance the reliefs has faded but the architecture and beauty are still preserved. The sheer magnitude of the temple complex is impressive.
All the gods of the Hindu pantheon are represented in temple sculpture. Shiva and Vishnu were held in high esteem. Ramayana and Kurukshetra war are depicted on entire walls of stone sculptures. A masterpiece bas-relief is that of the legendary churning of the ocean by the gods and demons.
Sculptures of Vishnu on the back of his vessel Garuda or reclining on the serpent Ananta and Shiva with his consort Parvati are repeated in many temples. Also seen are Hanuman and Ganesh, along with many seductive figures of Apsaras - reminiscent of Dev-dasis, the consorts of the Gods.
Another colorful king Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) followed Suryavaramn II. The kingdom had briefly fallen into the hands of the Chams of Champa, but the warrior-like Jayavarman VI