Across space and time


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.

Significant influence

Both Hinduism and Buddhism reached parts of South East Asia from India during the early centuries of the Christian era. The South Indian influence on Cambodian art and culture was, however, most vigorous and prolific during the rule of the Pallavas (third to ninth centuries) and Cholas (ninth to 13th centuries) in South India. It is well known that the use of the honorific title Varman — very common amongst the Pallava kings — was borrowed by the kings of Cambodia. The first Cambodian king to have this suffix appended to his name was Bhadravarman who lived in the fourth century and thus, was a contemporary of one of the early Pallava rulers of Kanchipuram. Significantly, Bhadravarman was a renowned scholar, well-versed in all the four Vedas and the author of several inscriptions in Sanskrit. He invited learned Brahmins from India to settle in his kingdom.

While Sanskrit language and literature spread to Cambodia from different parts of India including South India, the ornate Grantha (also called Pallava Grantha) script travelled to Cambodia exclusively from the Pallava kingdom. According to scholars, some of the birudas (titles) of the Pallava kings including Mahendravarman I appear to be in the Khmer language — the language of Cambodia. Further, Nandivarman Pallavamalla, one of the later Pallava rulers, is believed to have lived in Cambodia for some years before he travelled to Kanchi to ascend the Pallava throne. The most enduring contribution of the Pallavas to Cambodia is the cult of Ashtabhuja Vishnu (eight-armed Vishnu). In India, this form of Vishnu first originated around the Mathura region in North India, and slowly spread to Nagarjunakonda (Andhra) and from there, permeated further south to Kanchipuram. Many of the Pallava temples in and around Kanchi house sculptures of this form of Vishnu, with one temple (Ashtabhuja Perumal Temple) having the deity enshrined within the main sanctum. Initially, the Angkor Wat was a Hindu shrine dedicated to this form of Vishnu installed within the sanctum in the uppermost tier of the temple. This huge majestic monolithic image, recently restored and now kept at the entrance of Angkor Wat, is almost identical, in stylistic features, to the image within the sanctum of the Ashtabhuja Perumal Temple of Kanchi.

The Pallavas of Kanchi were contemporaries and rivals of the Chalukyas of Badami (Vatapi) in present-day Karnataka. But political differences and rivalries did not stand in the way of the exchange of art styles and ideas between these two kingdoms. Thus, we can observe Chalukyan influence in the art of Kanchi and Pallava imprints in the art of Badami and Pattadakkal in Karnataka. Again, not surprisingly, there are unmistakable parallels between the art of Pattadakkal and Angkor Wat. The most important and famous bas-relief sculpture in Angkor Wat is the one portraying the scene of the Churning of the Cosmic Ocean by the Gods and demons (samudramanthan). Miniature representations of the same scene occur on the pillars within the Angkor Wat. Sculptures exhibiting this theme occur in many other Angkor temples including the Bayon. Although the story has always been very popular in India, its representation in art has been very rare in this country. The Virupaksha Temple of Pattadakkal, however, features this scene on the face of a column. Stylistically, this sculpture is remarkably similar to the representation of the same scene in the pillars in Angkor Wat.

Again, in Angkor Wat, the bas-relief showing the Mahabharata war prominently features Bishma lying on the bed of arrows. Such a representation of Bishma is uncommon in South Indian art. A few late medieval temple wall paintings in Kerala, however, feature this theme.

Free exchange of ideas

Architecturally, the Angkor Wat shares many common features with both Pallava and Chola temples. Like the Vaikunta Perumal Temple (Kanchi) and the Sundara Varada Perumal Temple (Uttaramerur) of the Pallavas, the Angkor Wat consists of three levels or tiers, each of the upper tiers slightly smaller than the one below it, giving the structure the look of a pyramid. Again, like the Chola Brhadisvara Temple of Thanjavur, Angkor Wat too was conceived to represent the sacred mount Meru in the Himalayas. Damodara Pandita, a Brahmin scholar from Madhyadesa (Karnataka-Orissa region) in India was the chief priest of Suryavarman II, the builder of the Angkor Wat. It is believed that the king built this temple as per the guidelines provided by the Indian priest.

The friendly relation between the Chola kings and Cambodia is attested by a significant but little-known incident. 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. Kulottunga gratefully accepted the unusual gift, installed it in the temple and engraved an inscription informing that the stone was from Cambodia.

The beautiful temple of Banteay Srei, around 30km from Angkor Wat, has many intricately carved Hindu sculptures betraying South Indian influence. Here, one can see the dancing Shiva (Nataraja) above the main doorway leading to the central sanctum. Close to him, there is a small, frail female figure that has been identified as Karaikal Ammaiar, the well-known Tamil saint.

The inscriptions on the walls of the temples in Cambodia frequently refer to Indian scholars and priests settling in Cambodia, often on invitation from the king. Some of these scholars were the direct disciples of Adi Sankara in South India.

Any serious visitor to the monuments in Angkor will indeed be astounded by the sweep of the South Indian elements that have engulfed Cambodian culture during different periods of history. To the students of South Indian history and art, Cambodia is a revelation, an eye-opener to the spread of our unique culture to distant lands.

(Dr. Suresh’s field research in Cambodia has been sponsored by Ramu Endowments, Chennai)

Evidences of interaction

There have been several little-known finds of authentic South Indian objects in the Thailand-Cambodia region. Archaeological digs at Khuan Luk Pat on the west coast of Southern Thailand have revealed a Sangam Chola coin with the figure of the tiger — the Chola dynastic emblem — on it (first century B.C.). The region has also yielded a very rare bronze figure betraying features of the Amaravati school of art (first-second centuries A.D.).

2 thoughts on “Across space and time

  1. How do you do?

    I am interested in your blog; it is great. I would like to suggest you, if you can, please present another temple. It is interesting if you can post the history or any information of temple that no one ever heard. Yes, Angkor Wat is good; but everyone one know it and it is already written in many references.
    Please continue process this blog.




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