Finding India in Cambodia

Finding India in Cambodia

India and Cambodia are same-same but different. There are many deep-rooted mythological and historical connections between the two nations...

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

It seems so much like home. That was the thought that ran through our minds as we drove from Phnom Penh International Airport to downtown Phnom Penh. The roads seemed strangely familiar though it was our first visit to Cambodia. It was probably the sight of the ubiquitous symbol of Indian roads, the Bajaj autorickshaw that triggered this thought. But it was more than that. The billboards along the streets and the boards of the shops were in a script that tugged at the heartstrings and reminded one of home. It was, of course, the Khmer script which has an uncanny similarity to scripts of Kannada and Telugu languages. The Khmer script is derived from the Pallava script which was developed in Southern India around the 6th century. 

If you drive along the riverfront of Phnom Penh, you will not miss the plethora of Indian restaurants. Indigo Indian Restaurant, Flavours of India, Mother India and Namaste India are some of the names that vie with each other to grab your attention.

As we explored Cambodia and interacted with the locals, we discovered the roots of the Indian connection running deeper and deeper, all the way to the 4th century and beyond. The heritage of India and Cambodia seem to be linked intrinsically and date back a long period in time. Ancient Indian texts mention the region as well as the people who inhabit it. If you talk to the locals, many similarities in the culture are visible, even in small things. Be it the folded-hands greeting or the similarity in funeral or death rites.

Legends say...

“Our queen married one of your people,” says our guide Hok Savithyea with a smile. He is referring to the Khmer legend according to which a foreigner referred to as ‘Preah Thaong’ arrived by sea and married a Naga queen named ‘Neang Neak’, their union is said to have given birth to the Khmer race of people. It is believed that Preah Thaong was an ancient Brahmin saint of India named Kaundiniya, while the Naga queen was Queen Soma. They established the ancient Funan kingdom that was the precursor to the establishment of the Khmer empire in the 1st century.

Spotting an autorickshaw on the roads of Phnom Penh
Spotting an autorickshaw on the roads of Phnom Penh

This myth forms the basis of many of the famous apsara dances of Cambodia today. This was the foundation for the establishment of a Hindu kingdom in the region. The temples of Angkor Wat and others stand as a mute witness to the influence of Hinduism in the region.

Religious route

Cambodia is the home of Khmer people who now practise Theravada Buddhism, which has direct link to the Buddhism tenets expounded by the Buddha himself. Today, almost 95% of the Cambodian population follows Buddhism. But many aspects of the culture and religion bear a striking similarity to those of Hinduism. Both the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism are the influences that crossed the seas from India. The kings of the Funan Kingdom, as well as the Pre-Angkor and Angkor periods, were mostly Hindu kings who built massive temples that expounded Hinduism and highlighted the various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. The early kings followed Brahmanism and this is evident from the sculptures and reliefs found across the temples of Siem Reap. Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma iconography dominate the early Hindu temples. However, in the 12th century, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, one of the greatest kings of Khmer empire, Buddhism gained more prominence and Buddhist themes started appearing on the temples. The king himself followed Buddhism and his kingdom was declared a Buddhist state. However, both Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed in harmony in Khmer empire.

Architectural bonds 

The most famous of the Indian connections can be found in the spectacular ancient temples of Cambodia, including the magnificent Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap. The design of Angkor Wat simulates a representation of Mount Meru, the centre of the universe and the abode of the gods, surrounded by mountain ranges and oceans. The origins of this design can be traced to many of the temples of India. Motifs of the famous ‘churning of the ocean’ by devas and asuras are seen across various ancient temples; you can also find images of Garuda and numerous other Hindu deities.

An Indian thali in one of the many Indian restaurants in Phnom Penh
An Indian thali in one of the many Indian restaurants in Phnom Penh

Matching customs & beliefs

Our interaction with local Khmer people revealed that there were quite a few similarities in customs, beliefs and rituals. Khmer people, too, believe in reincarnation much like the Hindus. Traditional marriages involve matching of horoscopes just like traditional Hindu marriages. After death, the body is cremated; a part of the ashes is immersed in the river and the rest is kept inside a stupa. All families have such a stupa. One of the important religious festivals of Khmer people is Pchum Ben that lasts for 15 days. During this period, offerings of balls of rice mixed with sesame seeds are made. It is believed that during this period, the spirits of ancestors of seven generations descend on earth. People pay their respects to their ancestors during this period by making offerings to monks with the belief that these will reach their ancestors. This festival echoes with similar rites and customs of Hinduism in India. The Cambodian experience was, in many ways, a different sort of homecoming as we explored the Indian connection in a land where thousands of years ago the culture of India had travelled to.