"Had the ancient Greeks and Romans known about Angkor Wat, they surely would have counted that great temple city as the eighth wonder of the world." – wrote Michael D Coe, author of "Angkor and the Khmer Civilization" (2003) who is also a scholar on the Maya civilization. I think all visitors to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia would fully agree with him. When we visited Angkor Wat recently, we had the sudden sensation similar to that we felt when we first visited the Grand Canyon. Probably it is the same feeling experienced by the poet John Keats when he first read ‘Homer’ – an experience which the poet immortalized in one of his poem.
Located in northern Cambodia near the city called Siem Reap (literally meaning ‘defeat of the Siams’), Angkor Wat was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world, and next to the Great Wall of China, it is also the most prominent ancient archeological complex that can actually be seen from the outer space. In short, in the archaeological world there is nothing else to equal it. The entire urban complex covers more than 1,500,000 sq meters. Scholars and visitors all over are justifiably impressed by the classic Maya cities of Mexico and Guatemala, yet one could fit ten of the largest Classic Maya cities within the bounds of Angkor and still have room to spare.
What is more surprising is the fact that this giant temple complex was practically hidden from the outside world till 1860 when Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist and explorer ‘rediscovered’ the ruins of Angkor. Mouhot was so much overwhelmed by its size that his initial comment was that it must have been the 'works of giants'. Its discovery has caught the western world by much surprise and wonder, and scholars and visitors all over the world, have been intrigued by the puzzle of Angkor ever since. The first question was, who had built Angkor Wat in the tropical forests of Cambodia? When was it built? How could a nation of poor farmers such as Cambodia was in the nineteenth century ever have supported such mighty works from a bygone era?
Today, thanks to the century long research and restoration work conducted mainly by the French archeologists, many of these mysteries are solved. Then again the Vietnam war of the sixties and its by– product, the fanatical and devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot, kept Cambodia out of reach of the researchers and visitors for many years. In fact the last of the guerrillas surrendered only in 1998. Today researchers and visitors are once again flocking into free Cambodia and are in fact starting to unearth new sites previously undiscovered.
The name, Angkor Wat, means "Temple City" in Khmer; Angkor, meaning "city" is a vernacular form of the word nogor which comes from the Sanskrit word nagara. Wat is the Khmer word for "temple grounds", also derived from Sanskrit (Pali) word, vata meaning "enclosure". Angkor Wat was built by king Subramaniam II, the first king of united Cambodia, around 1150 AD. The king’s devotion to, the Hindu God Vishnu, a break from the Saiva tradition of previous kings, led him to commission the largest and perhaps the most beautiful and one of the most mysterious of all monuments of Angkor – the temple tomb and observatory now known as the Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is constructed within a surrounding outer wall 1,024 m by 802 m and 4.5 m high. The outer wall is surrounded by a 30m apron of open ground and a moat 190m wide. It was designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the Devas of Hindu Mythology. At the center lies five towers, four at four corners and one at the center. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west. The typical western orientation, as explained by the scholars, was due to its dedication to Vishnu, who was associated with the west. Another unusual character is provided by the bas-reliefs on its walls, which proceed in a counter-clockwise direction — prasavya in Hindu terminology, which is the reverse of the normal clockwise order.
The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture and its extensive bas-reliefs. Angkor Wat is decorated with depictions of apsaras and devatas. They employed small apsara as decorative motifs on pillars and walls, and incorporated the larger devata images more prominently at every level of the temple from the entry pavilion to the tops of the high towers. There are total about 1800 depictions of devata in the present research inventory. Virtually all of its surfaces, columns, lintels and even roofs are carved. There are miles of reliefs illustrating scenes from Indian epic the Ramayana including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons pulling chariots as well as warriors following an elephant-mounted leader and celestial dancing girls with elaborate hair styles. The gallery wall alone is decorated with almost 1,000 square meters of bas reliefs.
There are much more to be marveled at its construction. The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that are sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity. The blocks were presumably put in place by a combination of elephants, coir ropes, pulleys and bamboo scaffolding. The Angkor Wat temple consumed about 6 to 10 million blocks of sandstone with an average weight of 1.5 tons each. In fact, the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids put together. Moreover, unlike the Egyptian pyramids which use limestone quarried barely 0.5 km away, the entire city of Angkor was built with sandstone quarried from 40 km or more away from the Mount Kulen.
While visitors were simply overwhelmed at the huge and yet delicate construction of Angkor Wat, then in mid 1970, the scholar Eleanor Moron began studying the dimensions of the temple in more details and found that the temple used the unit of length the Indian measurement of Hat (1.3 ft approx) and that all the significant lengths of the temple are in exact proportions to the four Hindu yugas (ages) (Satya, Treta, Dwapar and Kali) of the Hindu cosmology: 4:3:2:1. There are much more about Angkor Wat that need further study.
Although originally constructed as a shrine of Vishnu, towards the end of the 12th century however, Angkor Wat was gradually converted into a Buddhist shrine. Some historians suggest that Saivism and Vaishnavism were seen to have failed the Cambodians when the Chams were able to destroy so much of Angkor in 1177, and the Cambodians turned to Buddhism. Although Angkor Wat was somewhat neglected after the 15th century when the capital was shifted, it was however never completely abandoned. Its preservation was also partly due to the fact that its surrounding moat provided some protection from encroachment by the jungle. In fact when Henry Mouhot rediscovered the temple, it was still inhabited by hundreds of practicing Buddhist monks inside.
All these Hindu-Buddhist elements of Agkor Wat raise an obvious question that Cambodia must have close cultural relations with India. Historians agree that without active inspiration, support, education and collaboration from India, Angkor Wat could not have been built. In fact, if one visits Cambodia, one would find that the whole country of Cambodia is an 'Indian seeming' country and the Indo-Aryan (Hindu-Buddhist) cultural and religious influence is obvious everywhere. The customs of the Khemers are so much like the Indians, that visiting Cambodia would seem like visiting ancient India of bygone days. Besides the Angkor Wat, there are other seemingly Hindu-Buddhist temples. There is even a river in Cambodia, called ‘the river of thousand lingas’ where one king curved out 1000 Siva Lingas in stone on the river bed with the idea of purifying the river to make it like the Ganga. As a way of greetings, if you extend your hand for a hand shake, the Khemer would put the Indian to shame by responding with a simple Hindu style namaskar. In fact, till the 19th century the Khmers used to dress more like an Indian (with dhoti and turban etc). They have adopted the Indian epic, the Ramayana (they call it Ramakien or Rama Jataka) in their own version full of Theravada Buddhist values. In many temples, Siva and Vishnu are shrined togther in the form of Harihara. In one temple, Vishnu and Siva are shown to be below the Buddha. There is even a Valmiki temple which is rare in India. Their script is derived purely from the Indian Brahmi script. Their music and musical instruments are mostly derived from India. The Khmers have a national scarf which they call the krama scarf (which I think should be karma scarf) which they claim to have been derived from India.
All these and others have led the historians to conclude that Indian civilization must have penetrated, influenced and educated not only Cambodia but the entire South East Asia for thousands of years. This however, raises another mystery: How and why there is no record of any cultural contacts in the history of India. India’s complete lack of records of its cultural contacts with Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, even in the Indian Puranas, except for a reference to a country named Komboja desa, is rather perplexing. R. C. Majumdar, the noted Indian historian wrote, “Indeed so complete is the absence of any clear record of references in this respect, that until evidence was forthcoming from these colonies in recent times, no one in this country (India) had the remotest idea about the flourishing settlements in those far off regions in the south– east beyond the sea”. (Ancient Indian Colonization in South East Asia). This mystery or the missing link in history will probably never be fully solved.
While the historians are still trying to solve the problem of Indian colonization of Southeast Asia mostly from records of Chinese writers and other records, the problem simply reinforces the point that, unlike the Chinese, the Indians did not care to keep any records of its own political history. One probable reason is that the Indians were so much busy discussing the higher ideals of life and arguing about various ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’, and creating epic poetry like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, that they did not have the political will or discipline to keep any record of its political history which they considered rather as mundane. It is no wonder, that the only historical record we have in India, is that kept by the Tai Ahoms in Assam, obviously a tradition they learnt from the Chinese.
It is said that the process of ‘Indianization’ of Southeast Asia started from the early Christian period mainly through Indian merchants trading there who gradually spread the superior Indo-Aryan culture without any imposition. Generally the Indo-Aryan culture is considered superior for several reasons. First, it has an idea of a universal king which is very appealing to the kings. It has obviously a stronger and phonetically better structured language, the Sanskrit, with which the priests could speak ‘directly to the gods’. Moreover it has the most scientific script and writing system, the Brahmi script. As a result we find that most of the Southeast Asian scripts are derived from the Brahmi script. Most importantly it has the universal epic story, the Ramayana, which appeals to the common folks. All the South East Asian countries adopted the Ramayana story and made it their own with slight modification with infusion of Thervada Buddhist morals. In fact, the Cambodians adopted everything Indian except the caste system, although we have evidence that the Hindu priests tried to implement the same without success. Another system the Cambodians did not adopt is the Indian cooking and vegetarian eating habits. This shows that probably the Indian merchants came without their wives and settled and married local girls in Cambodia, and that it was through the native wives that Indo-Aryan culture spread. Regarding religion, both Brahmanism (Saivism and Vaishnavism) and Buddhism went. Initially it was Saivism which appealed to the people. However, later the people adopted Buddhism mainly because of its universal message of love and brotherhood and absence of the caste system. If Hinduism went, it was Hinduism without the temple rituals of the Brahmin priests.
It seems that Indian merchants went by the sea as well as by the land. There are some evidences of Indian merchants trading by the sea from the ports of South and East India through the Bay of Bengal. There are also evidences of Indian merchants trading in Southeast Asia by the land, through various trade routes. One of the main trade routes, known as the Southeast Silk Road (SSR), started in Pataliputra, the ancient capital of India, that connected China, Burma and Southeast Asia, passing right through the present state of Assam. We have various Jataka stories showing how some Sakya princes went to Burma through Assam and settled and established kingdoms there.
We may agree with the scholars that the construction of such a grand Hindu-Buddhist monument as Angkor Wat in Cambodia was possible only with cultural inspiration from the mother India. As Jawaharlal Nehru said in his 'Discovery of India' ,”The inspiration for Angkor came from India but it was the Khmer genius that developed it, or the two fused together and produced this wonder.” We may add here that what the Khmers built in Cambodia with Indian inspiration is unique, and we may have to admit that it is well-nigh impossible that such magnificent construction could have been built in India itself. We may note that by the twelfth century, India practically lost all its creative power. That is also the time when Buddhism practically disappeared from India, while the whole of Asia embraced the religion. Why and how it happened, is another question that need to be discussed separately.