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Cambodia’s Ancient Ties with India

Cambodia’s Ancient Ties with India

The Elephanta Cave complex in Mumbai, ever-popular with tourists, is actually a shrine of the Pashupatas, a lost Shaivite sect whose followers were once found across India. But, incredibly, scattered across the Mekong River delta in Cambodia, are fascinating remains that tell us that the Pashupatas once thrived there too! Not just this, during the early medieval period, Cambodia had a thriving cult of Naga worship, just like India did.

Many such extraordinary connections make the ancient ties between India and Cambodia fascinating.

Facade of Angkor Wat, a drawing by Henri Mouhot, c. 1860 | Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, among Indians, apart from social media circulating the fact that the largest Vishnu temple in the world, Angkor Wat, is located in Cambodia, there is little knowledge of how deep and how rich India’s ancient ties with Cambodia were.

The Chaturbhuj Temple at Gwalior Fort | Wikimedia Commons

Take, for example, the case of the ‘First Zero’. It is well known that it was the ‘Shunya’ or the symbol of ‘Zero’ developed by Indians that revolutionized the world of mathematics. Till the early 20th century, archaeologists believed that the inscription in the Chaturbhuj temple in Gwalior, dating to 875 CE, contained the oldest-known symbol for ‘zero’.

A temple in Sambor Prei Kuk | Chanrasmey Miech via Wikimedia Commons

But in 1931, French archaeologist Georges Coedes deciphered a 7th century CE plaque found in the ruins of a temple at Sambor in Cambodia. The plaque dated to 683 CE and predated the Gwalior Zero by 192 years.

The ‘Sambor Zero’ reveals that the links between India and Cambodia went beyond religion, and encompassed art, science, philosophy and trade that enriched both cultures.

It was the thriving maritime trade from the 3rd century CE, between India and South East Asia, that forged close cultural interactions between India and all of South East Asia. For example, it was believed that the Kingdom of Champa in Vietnam was founded by merchants from the city of Champa, in present-day Bihar. 

Journey of the Pallava Prince, Nandivarman II | Neha Parab

A branch of the Pallava dynasty of South India ruled Vietnam, and a Vietnamese Pallava Prince was even brought to India in the 8th century CE, to rule the Indian Pallava dominions in India. Trade between Cambodia and India thrived especially during the Chola period, in the 11th century CE, when the Chola armada under Rajendra Chola established its dominance over South East Asian ports.

Map showing sea routes between Kalinga and other ports

Buddhism too went to Cambodia through the great port of Tamralipti in Bengal, and from the great ports of Kalinga. It was this admiration for Indian high culture that led to the creation of the founder myths of several South East Asian countries.

For example, the Khmer Empire that ruled Cambodia between the 9th and the 14th centuries CE is said to have been established by descendants of an Indian Brahmin ‘Kaundinya’, who married a local Princess. Similar stories, of an Indian Prince marrying a local Princess / Goddess and their offspring establishing kingdoms, are a common theme found across Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam as well.

Face-towers depicting Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Bayon-temple in Angkor, Cambodia | Manfred Werner via Wikimedia Commons

The great Khmer Empire and its magnificent temples at Angkor Wat and the Bayon are perhaps the greatest testament to Indic influences.

But beyond buildings and artefacts, the ancient ties between India and Cambodia are extremely deep and layered. To decode this fascinating saga, LHI Circle brings you a fascinating talk by architect and historian Dr Swati Chemburkar, who has spent a decade researching India’s ties with South East Asia.

In an exclusive Live Talk for LHI Circle members, architectural historian, Dr Swati Chemburkar takes us on a journey into the famous temples of Angkor Wat, and beyond, as she looks at their material and visual legacies to uncover early links between India and Cambodia.

Join us on an expedition across time and space to explore the era of the Khmer rulers – and learn about how early interactions with the Indian subcontinent produced a spectacular medley of styles there.

LIVE Session with Dr Swati Chemburkar on 14th July 2021 (Wednesday) at 7:00 PM (IST)

Do join the LHI Circle and be a part of this fascinating trail.

Cover Image: The Angkor Wat Temple Complex, Cambodia. Courtesy: Supanut Arunoprayote via Wikimedia Commons

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