An India across the sea
‘Kamboja-Desa’ of our Puranas, Cambodia shares rich geographical, civilisational and cultural ties with India that are today being overpowered by Chinese omnipresence
Not many in India know very much about Cambodia. On my earlier UN posting there, I was congratulated by friends who thought the Southeast Asian country was actually a state in the USA, adjacent to Virginia! Rather far from the USA, Cambodia is, in fact, very close to India – not just geographically but in mind, heart and soul.
First, the physical closeness. By sea, Cambodia is only as far from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as mainland India is from the latter. And on land, say from Nagaland, Manipur or Mizoram, Cambodia is just beyond Myanmar and Thailand. In fact, Mizoram is closer to Cambodia than my state, Kerala! Historical, cultural and civilisational ties too are unmistakable as Cambodia has been built upon a rich Indian, Sanskrit and Hindu foundation.
For starters, Cambodia is the Kamboja-Desa of our Puranas, which would take us at least three millennia ago – India and Cambodia knew each other well enough. For another, Cambodia was a Hindu kingdom for many centuries, even perhaps for a couple of millennia. Their kings were Hindu, with names such as Jayavarman, Rajendravarman, Yasovarman, Indravarman. Note the endings of these names, Varman, which is the same as Varma of the Indian Kshatriya kings.
Jayavarman VII, known for his strict Buddhist beliefs, converted himself and his country into followers of Theravada Buddhism. Today, Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist country with over 90 per cent of its population proclaiming Buddhism. But the rigid Sanskrit and Indian foundation laid by Hindu kings many centuries ago prevails with strength. The language Khmer shares its base with Sanskrit and Pali, with several Khmer words bearing Sanskrit origin. The native Khmers also bear a stark physical resemblance with us Indians. Not surprisingly then, in Cambodia, I have often been mistaken as a native Cambodian.
Over the years, there has been immense Chinese migration into Cambodia. A Cambodian of Chinese descent can easily be distinguished by face, colour, eyes, physiognomy, etc. The original Khmer-Cambodian though still constitutes the overwhelming majority, especially in rural areas.
Angkor Wat, the revered largest Hindu temple in the world, stands near the town of Siem Reap as a glorious witness of the historic Khmer-Indian fellowship. It was a Vishnu temple whose unending walls have many stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata etched on them. These etchings are so well done that even today, ten centuries later, the readings are easily visible as one walks along the walls.
Angkor Wat is not only astounding because of its expanse and magnificence; it also exhibits a deep laboriousness in planning, managing and executing the construction. Imagine the number of pages that must have been spent of drawing, drafting and re-drafting – only that there were no papers then and natives ought to have relied on clay or palm leaves or simply their minds.
To visualise the massive extent of construction where the tiniest work was carried out manually, let me take you on a journey through the construction site. There must have been many thousands of skilled, semi-skilled and manual workers working on the temple every day for decades together. Just imagine the logistics. The number of dwellings – even mud huts thatched with palm leaves – that had to be built and maintained for the workers to stay in proximity to the construction site, must itself have run into thousands. And, imagine the food that would have to be cooked every day. The Cambodians are rice eaters – they eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All they needed to accompany the rice would be a little fish, dried, fried or cooked. Then picture this – tons upon tons of rice being cooked every day to feed workers. The logistics of the mega-kitchens – run without any technology and reliant entirely on firewood – must have itself been immense. Not to forget the logistics of serving rice three times a day.
Being fish eaters, Cambodians would catch tons of fish every day from the Tonle Sap lake on the other side of Siem Reap and cook it in time to serve along with rice. And again, the rice, unlike today, cannot have come from afar in lorries or trucks. The rice must necessarily have been grown nearby. Growing seedlings for the rice must have first required perfection in planning and later in transplanting them to acres and acres of actual plush rice fields, which too required ploughing by oxen – hundreds of pairs of them – to be readied on time.
Rice demands lots of water. Thus, water supply too must have needed planning, either in arranging for harvesting and storing rainwater or in bringing water from the nearby Tonle Sap lake. Or as the Khmers actually did, in building a massive artificial tank – as big as a large lake – not far from the construction site of the temple, to store water for the irrigation of rice fields. Think of the enormous amount of thought and planning that must have gone just into keeping workers fed. And, that is without emphasising on the engineering feat that preceded the construction of such a marvel so many thousand years ago. On my first visit to Cambodia, I was taken back many thousand years ago – to the aura of that time, the flavours and fragrances that must have dominated this sacred space.
Even though for a thousand years there have been numbered or no Hindus in Cambodia, there are 16 Brahmin priests who continue to reside in the King's palace in Phnom Penh. The King himself is a Buddhist, who is addressed as 'Preah', an embodiment next only to Buddha himself. And, yet, these Brahmin priests are an integral part of the Royal Palace.
They have a prized role to fulfil during the ploughing ceremony that the King conducts religiously every year at the beginning of the sowing season, even today. The Royal Palace located in the centre of Phnom Penh has a large piece of grass-covered land in front, where the ceremony is held. With the prime minister, ministers and others seated in their VIP boxes and with the public looking on, the King would lead his royal oxen, bullocks and cows in ploughing the piece of grass-covered land, breaking the land and preparing the country for the forthcoming agricultural season.
After the ploughing is complete, the Brahmins – dressed in impeccable dhotis, as priests would in India – lead the tired animals to various types of fodder: grass, hay, straw, water, paddy, rice, wheat, pulses, maize etc. Based on what the animals eat, the Brahmins and astrologers foretell the success of the harvest for the year – which crops will yield well and which will perish. If the animals fail to drink water, they would, for instance, predict a drought. If they went on to eat the paddy, the astrologers would predict a bountiful year for growing rice and so on.
The similarities with India are endless. But sadly, India is hardly relevant in Cambodia today. The once strong Indian foundation is now being rapidly overlaid by Chinese omnipresence. The Indian soft power that had once enthralled Cambodia has all but vanished now. Though the Khmers love India and Indians, China is in control. Today, Chinese culture is unmissable, not to speak of Chinese businesses, projects, housing estates, industry, roads and the list goes on. If only India could re-establish her natural ties with Kamboja-Desa.
(The author is a former IAS officer and UN official who spent seven years for the UN in Cambodia)