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Cambodia in ancient times was the most powerful and fascinating empire, from the 9th to 13th century,  in Southeast Asia. The extent and grandeur of the Cambodian civilization was demonstrated by the magnificent temples scattered over an area covering Laos and part of Thailand in those days. The area that was covered measures several hundred square kilometers and the magnificent buildings that even now stand attest to the power and artistic skills of the ancient Khmers. These buildings reflected eloquently the religious beliefs of the Khmers. For any one wishful of knowing the story of our ancestors’ journey beyond the borders, the study of the Cambodian history is indispensable.

History in brief

The numerous epigraphs, the colossal monuments with hundreds of reliefs and the chronicles, mostly Chinese, help construct the early history of Cambodia. Leaving aside the prehistoric period we come to the protohistoric period in which India established its direct relations with Cambodia.

The Angkor Wat

The first kingdom to which the Chinese referred to as Funan was established by an Indian Brahmin, Kaundinya, in the third century of the Common Era. Interestingly enough, he established his kingdom after his marriage with a local princess. The capital of Funan, Wyadhapura, was situated in a region where Brahmanism and Buddhism existed simultaneously.

Ta Prohm

The Sanskrit language was adopted at court level. Astronomy, a legal system, literature and universal kingship were some of the Indian ideas absorbed by the Khmers. By the early seventh century the centre of power moved towards north to a polity the Chinese called Zhenla (Chenla). According to a legend which finds reference in an epigraph this was established by an Indian migrant named Kambu Swayambhu and the state got its name Kambuja after its founder’s name. Later on, it became Cambodia.

The Angkor period

Jayavarman II (802-830) was the first notable king of this period. Along with his prowess in the political field, he took interest in establishing a new set of religious beliefs known as the Devaraja (god-king) cult. From the reign of Indravarman a precedent was set for each successor to honour his ancestors with a temple (Preah Ko), and a tataka (baray meaning lake). In fact, these elements became regular features used by successive rulers to display their omnipotence.

Battle scene, Angkor Wat

Yashovarman (877-89) was another great ruler. Besides being a very powerful king he was also renowned as a scholar well versed in yoga, poetry and literature. Of all the successors of Yashovarman, Suryavarman II was the most famous. He reigned from 1113 to 1150. He remained in history as a great builder of the magnificent, colossal temple of Angkor Wat. Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) was the last important king of the dynasty. He was a Mahayanist. He undertook a massive building programme and also won victory over the Chams, a battle that is depicted on the bas-reliefs at the Bayon. Sometime in the 14th century the Thais made repeated raids on Angkor, attacking it brutally and finally forcing the Khmers to shift their capital to Phnom Penh in the 15th century.

Vinshu on Garuda, Angkor Wat

The monuments restored

The ruins of the once captivating, colossal monuments including the ones like the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom that were devastated by enemies, nature and utter negligence on the part of the natives, were first noticed by the Portuguese and the Spanish missionaries. The diaries meticulously written by Henry Mouhot aroused interest among architects and connoisseurs of art. Simultaneously, the decipherment of some 1200 Sanskrit epigraphs by Hendrik Kern, Auguste Barthe and A. Bergaigne revealed the history related to several aspects of Cambodia.

Several Frenchmen have made significant contributions to the conservation of Angkor. Jean Commaille was the first among them, followed by Henri Marchal an introducer of the restoration system known as anastylosis: a method of recording, dismantling and reconstructing whole structures. Then there was a band of champions of Angkor that included Georges Trouve and Maurice Glaize.

Indians should be proud of their efforts and expertise in the restoration of Angkor Wat through the Archaeological Survey of India from 1980 onwards. Presently, they have undertaken repairs and renovation of the dilapidated temple of Ta Phrom.

Author: Dr GB Deglurkar
Photographs © Jitendra Kshirsagar
Extract from: Heritage India Vol 5, Issue 3

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