Deep in the Cambodian jungles lie some of the world’s most astonishingly beautiful temple ruins. Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, during the years of the Khmer Empire, they are mind-boggling in their sheer exquisiteness, complexity, intricacy, variety, symmetry and numbers.
I made a trip there last year along with a large and lively group of my close and extended family members. The group included two spirited grandmothers, each of whom battled with velvet-gloved, iron-fisted determination to claim the mantle of Mythology Expert; their long-suffering-yet-secretly-proud husbands; a few of their offspring, sadly lacking in competitive spirit, and refusing to get drawn into the arguments on mythological minutiae; and, the charmer of the group, a 11-year old son/grandson/nephew who sweated and trekked his way up and down dozens of temples and steps with a true adventurer’s spirit.
To be true to the name of this blog, I should touch upon the South India connection before embarking on my travelogue. Relics and inscriptions have proved that intensive trade had been taking place between India and Cambodia since the 3rd century B.C. Indian mythology, religion and customs made a deep impact on Khmer civilization; both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and culture were adapted and adopted into the Cambodian way of life, mingling with the local lifestyle to blossom into its own unique version.
Theories abound about how, exactly, Indian culture spread into the lands of the Khmer Empire. The various theorists formed camps and glared at each other from behind their history books. There was the colonization-by-a-warrior-aristocracy camp which touted India ’s glorious colonization of South-East Asia. This cabal is now licking its wounds in the dusty closet into which it has been cruelly flung.
Now, proudly hoisting their banner held aloft with the winds of historical proof, there are those who say that the Indian penetration of these lands was largely peaceful. Ahh, but eavesdrop on a meeting of these “peace-loving” sorts, and you will detect tension and strife in their ranks. They disagree on who, really, came and peacefully spread the culture and customs of India in these jungles.
Standing on slippery ground and fast losing their grip are those who declare that it was the traders, hungrily roaming far and wide in their quest for gold and riches, who were responsible. That along with money and spices, they brought culture and religion as well.
With their hands on their hips and an I-told-you-so-smirk, the Brahmin-theorists, who now have the upper hand, contend that the trader theory does not explain how and why Indian culture spread deep into the interior of the country, where the traders did not venture (they limited themselves to the coastline). The Brahmins, on the other hand, they aver, were the true messengers of Hindu culture. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps they are both right. Or wrong. Thus ensuring that historians will remain gainfully employed till kingdom come.
The Brahmins, repositories of the knowledge and wisdom of the sacred sciences, were people of power, carrying an aura of mystery, magic and charisma about them. They were sought after by kings who hoped that the Brahmins’ blessings would expand, consolidate and legitimize their power. By a miraculous alchemy wrought by their religious rites, the Brahmins transformed rule obtained by force and war into rule by divine mandate.
And where did most of these Brahmins come from? From the south of India, from the maritime kingdom of the Pallavas and their port city, Mamallapuram. Smaller groups of Brahmins also made their way to Cambodia from central and northern India, where the Gupta Empire, then the Pala Kingdom, flourished. A few ships set sail from Orissa and the Gulf of Bengal, hugging the coastline, while a few more adventurous groups crossed the pirate-infested Bay of Bengal by way of the Nicobar Islands.
They brought the Hindu religion, with its customs and rituals, to the Khmer lands, where it merged with the local modes, resulting in a glorious syncretism which gave birth to some of the world’s most astounding religious monuments.
In the coming days I will write about some of the temples and places we visited on our trip. Happy reading!
(C) Kamini Dandapani