I am not going to bore you with trivia about Cambodia and Angkor because all you need to do is Google Angkor and there are millions of pages at your fingertips. What I will do is tell you what went through me – my thoughts and emotions as I visited each of these sites. Yes there were emotions – very strong ones too!
When we got off at the airport and our guide picked us up, the first thing he told us was that Angkor the word itself was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘nagara’ which means city. He also told us that according to legend Cambodia came into being through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahmin named Kaundinya and the princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled the land of waters. Kaundinya shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat, causing the fearful princess to agree to marriage. In need of a dowry, her father drank up the waters of his land and presented them to Kaundinya to rule over. The new kingdom was named Kambuja or Kampuchea or Cambodia.
Right from the name to the structures to the food to the culture to the people, there is a very strong Indian influence in the Khmer culture. The Khmer people look very different to the neighbouring Vietnamese or Thai people. They look more Dravidian than their neighbours. They are very aware of India, her history, religion and myths. They have been introduced to Sanskrit and Pali.
The Khmers seem to be very proud of their Indian heritage. Our guide said to us when he picked us up at the airport. I love ‘Ramayana’. When my daughter grows up, I want her to look beautiful like an Indian, like Sita in Ramayana. He has named his daugher ‘Amara’ which means ‘eternal’ or ‘beyond death’. During the rest of my stay in Cambodia, I heard many people say that – ‘Indians beautiful. I want my child to look Indian.’
As we walked through the temples of Angkor, what stared us in the face was the strong Indian influence in almost every structure – the style of the temple architecture, the intricate carvings on all the panels based on Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Buddhist folklore. Even the structure of the temples follow the ancient traditions of temple architecture in India. There are so many little things that are so typical of India:
- There are huge moats around the temples.
- Tthere are tanks in the temple and we are told that the sacred waters from the rivers of India were brought to be poured into these tanks.
- The structure of some temples resembles the structure of Mount Meru.
- Temples are built at an elevated level because they believe Gods must be at a much higher plane than humans.
- They talk about walking through many sanctums to reach the sanctum of God, which is so similar to temples in Tamil Nadu.
- The script in these temples is like the ancient Dravidian script.
Enough said on this I think. Yes there is a very strong Indian influence everywhere. It is common knowledge for those who read history that the Indian rulers on the East coast of India, especially current day Tamil Nadu had travelled far and wide, built trade and cultural ties with almost all the South East Asian nations and exerted significant cultural influence in all the regions.
As I walked through these beautiful monuments, I felt an innate sense of pride in my heritage, my culture and the fact that my ancestors had carried the culture this far and wide. However, I also had a very heavy feeling in my heart that largely people in India don’t realise the level of cultural impact their ancestors had made hundreds of years ago. I felt sad that we have no real pride in our heritage. The older generation may have a stronger sense of pride but the current generation has no connection with the history of India. It’s all about survival. Study of history or arts does not make enough money for sustenance. So we study IT, Engineering and Technology and make a life. The finer and the softer aspects are slowly vanishing. Yes we all brag about our culture but that I believe is merely mob mentality. It is popular to be proud of our Indian heritage. We do nothing to protect our heritage. We don’t even protect our architectural treasure.
Cambodia and its people really impressed me. The country is a third world country. It was ravaged by civil war and considered unsafe until ten or so years ago. The people were subject to untellable cruelty by the neighbouring countries, by the Khmer Rouge (their own kin) but they have bounced back from their past to establish something I believe will take them ahead. They take pride in their history and want to share it with the world. They have created a city in the province of Angkor and made it tourist worthy. The amenities, the infra structure, everything has been thoughtfully developed to cater to tourists. The town of Siem Reap is truly a paradise for tourists. During the tourist season, people come to Siem Reap to earn a living and during off season, go back to their villages to concentrate on their primary occupation – agriculture.
It is so easy for tourists that you can choose the kind of holiday you want based on your budget. For those who want to travel in luxury there are private chauffeur driven cars with guides and interpreters who write up a program based on your schedule (and this includes EVERYTHING – entrance fees, parking fees, everything. Once you pay them you don’t have to get your wallet out), for those with a smaller budget there are tuk tuk drivers (who are honest) and for an even smaller budget, you can hire push bikes for a day for as little as USD$5 and travel at your own pace.
The mind does compare this to the roads in Agra that lead to the Taj Mahal where all you see is bad roads, filth, stench and squalor until you turn the corner and see the Taj in all its glory. The proud Indian in you wonders – with all our money and power, why could we not do in Agra what the Cambodians did in Siem Reap. When will we learn? Will we learn?