Cambodia, April 14, 2017: It is unknown to a large number of people that the country that is the home to world’s largest existing Hindu structure is the small South-Asian country, Cambodia. It is high time we pay attention to the jewel of a destination that is this country.
Starting from Siem Reap, once the seat of the Khmer Empire, the Hindu iconography in the Buddhist kingdom can definitely satisfy art-lovers and all kind of travelers. Khmer versions of Ganesha and Hanuman are present all around the city, and both the Ramayana (known as the Reamker in Cambodia) and Mahabharata can be spotted largely in popular imagery.
In Angkor Wat, the 12th century Hindu temple structure that draws millions of enthusiasts every year, Hindu deities loomed larger than life, including a statue of Vishnu at the entrance now worshiped as a Buddhist shrine.
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The Hindu temples (some of which had become Buddhist structures during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the latter 12th century CE), one is instantly drawn to the level of devotion and dedication with which the structures were built, inscribed and carved. The similarities between the ancient Khmer script (which has roots in Southern India) and Tamil can easily be spotted as well.
There are certain things that make Cambodia so interesting. It is a country that has held strongly to its Buddhist roots for nearly 700 years, transitioning from Mahayana Buddhism to Theravada Buddhism following Jayavarman VII’s reign.
In fact, many of Cambodia’s historical institutions mark “the beginning” of Khmer history with its involvement in patronizing Buddhism. Yet, so much of Cambodia’s cultural traditions – and a lot of its tourism dollars – are committed to an era in which Hinduism was either the dominant religious tradition, co-worshipped with Buddhism, or patronized by Khmer rulers.
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Even at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, there is a myth surrounding a sword believed to have been donated to the ancestors of the royal family by Indra, the Hindu deity.
At the national museum, the exhibit galleries are filled with various forms of Hindu divinity, while visitors are unable to differentiate between the multi-armed form of Buddha (Lokeshvara) and Vishnu. There can be many reasons for this. Probably the statues were worshiped as both at different periods of Khmer history.
Additionally, Cambodia has recently enjoyed the return of artifacts from the Ramayana that were stolen from the country during the French colonial period.
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Today, one of the challenges Cambodia is facing is sustaining that rich history amidst pressure to modernize (and cater to a growing number of expatriate visitors) and investment from countries such as China, which has invested millions to embellish Cambodia’s Chinese Buddhist history.
As such, Cambodia’s intention to preserve its Hindu heritage depends largely upon support from the global Hindu community. The sad part is, a big portion of the Hindu community is not even aware of the rich Hindu heritage in this small South-Asian nation. It is noteworthy that names such as Devi, Vidya, Rama, and Krishna are popular among Cambodians, reflecting a perfect absorption of Hinduism into Buddhist culture.
Cambodia and its culture make one value the global outreach of Hinduism more than ever. Even if Hinduism no longer is Cambodia’s prevalent religion, its influence on life and culture – and lasting legacy – cannot be denied.
– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang