PREMA KASTURI AND S. SURESH
|Centuries of cultural and commercial interaction between South Indian kingdoms and Cambodia led to a fascinating mutual enrichment that can be seen in the motifs and architectural styles of temples that flowed freely across the ocean.|
When Kulottunga I, the Chola king, was constructing or enlarging the famous Shiva Temple at Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu), Suryavarman II, the king of Cambodia and the builder of Angkor Wat, offered to send, all the way from Cambodia, a block of stone as a gift for the new construction.
Photos: Prema Kasturi and S. Suresh
Cultural crossovers: The Angkor Wat shares many features with Pallava and Chola temples.
The very name “Cambodia”, brings forth visions of the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat with its huge pavilions, towering spires and larger-than-life sculptures. Angkor Wat and the scores of other spectacular temples surrounding it were bu ilt by the local Cambodian or Khmer kings between the ninth and the 14th centuries A.D. The UNESCO has now included these monuments in its “World Heritage” list. Each day, thousands of visitors enjoy these monuments, many of which are in picturesque ruins. Most of the visitors are, however, simply unaware that Cambodian art and culture have a lot of Indian, particularly South Indian, elements.
The remote origin of the intimate links between India and Cambodia forms the subject of innumerable legends. Many legends mention a young and handsome South Indian prince travelling to Cambodia, marrying a beautiful Cambodian princess and eventually becoming the ruler of that land. According to one popular legend, around the time of Christ or slightly earlier, Kaundinya, a Brahmin from India, sailed to the kingdom of Funan in Cambodia that was then ruled by a princess named Soma of the Naga dynasty. Using a divine weapon, Kaundinya defeated her in war, married her and became the king of Funan. Towards the beginning of the fifth century, another Brahmin, bearing the same name, inspired by a supernatural power, came to Cambodia where the local people welcomed him and elected him as the king of Funan. He and his successors introduced many Indian customs and laws in Cambodia. In the year 802, a powerful ruler named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer kingdom that had its capital in or around Angkor in Central Cambodia. The capture of Angkor by Thailand (Siam) in 1431 forced the Khmer rulers to shift their capital further south in the vicinity of Phnom Penh.
The cultural and commercial interaction between South India and Cambodia, in fact, dates back to a few centuries before Christ. South Indian merchants and artists regularly came to Cambodia through diverse land and sea routes. Located on the great maritime highway between India and China, Cambodia, from early times, emerged as a major commercial hub in the long distance trade network that linked China, South East Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Africa and Rome. Spices and gemstones from South East Asia reached the ports on the east coast of India (Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu), from where they were shipped to the Red Sea ports of Africa and from there sent to Rome through the North African port of Alexandria. Not surprisingly, archaeologists have discovered ancient Roman objects including intaglios, coins, ceramics and lamps in the Thailand-Cambodia region. These Roman materials should doubtless have reached South East Asia through Mahabalipuram, Arikamedu, Kaveripattinam or any of the other ancient ports of Southeastern India. Interestingly, similar Roman objects have been recurrently discovered in many of these port sites.