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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Let's promote the great Indic civilisation

‘‘You Indians have allowed yourself to forget that there is such a thing as Indic civilisation. And we are its last outpost.’’

The words were spoken to me 25 years ago by the Khmer nationalist politician and one-time prime minister Son Sann, lamenting India’s support for Vietnam in its conquest of Cambodia in 1979. To Son Sann, a venerable figure already in his late 70s, Cambodia was an Indic civilisation being overrun by the forces of a Sinic state, and he was bewildered that India, the fount of his country’s heritage, should sympathise with a people as distinctly un-Indian as the Vietnamese. Given that Vietnam’s invasion had put an end to the blood-soaked terror of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, i was more inclined to see the choice politically than in terms of civilisational heritage. But Son Sann’s words stayed with me.

They came back to mind during a recent visit to Angkor Wat, perhaps the greatest Hindu temple ever built anywhere in the world — and in Cambodia, not India. To walk past those exquisite sculptures recounting tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to have the Cambodian guide explain the significance of the symbols protecting the shrine — the naga, the simha and the garuda, corresponding, he said earnestly, to today’s navy, army and air force! — and to marvel at the epic scale of a Hindu temple as impressive as the finest cathedral or mosque anywhere in the world, was also to marvel at the extraordinary reach of our culture beyond its own shores. Hinduism was brought to Cambodia by merchants and travellers more than a millennium ago, and it has long since disappeared, supplanted by a Buddhism that was also an Indian export. But at its peak it profoundly influenced the culture, music, dance and mythology of the Cambodian people.

Even today my Cambodian guide at Bayon, a few minutes’ drive from Angkor Wat, speaks with admiration of a sensibility which, in the 16th century, saw Hindus and Buddhists worship side-by-side in adjoining shrines within the same temple complex. (If only we could do that at Ayodhya, i found myself thinking.)

Perhaps Son Sann was right, and Cambodia is indeed the last outpost of Indic civilisation in a world increasingly Sinified. But what exactly does that mean? At a time when the north of India was reeling under waves of conquest and cultural stagnation, our forefathers in the south were exporting Indianness to South-east Asia. It was an anonymous task, carried out not by warrior heroes blazing across the land bearing swords of conquest, but by individuals who had come in peace, to trade, to teach and to persuade. Their impact was profound. To this day, the kings of Thailand are only crowned in the presence of Brahmin priests; the Muslims of Java still sport Sanskritic names, despite their conversion to Islam, a faith whose adherents normally bear names originating in Arabia; Garuda is Indonesia’s national airline and Ramayana its best-selling brand of clove cigars; even the Philippines has produced a pop-dance ballet about Rama’s quest for his kidnapped queen. But contemporary international politics has rendered all this much less significant than the modern indices of strategic thinking, economic interests and geopolitical affinities. India is far less important to the countries that still bear the stamp of ‘Indic’ influence than, say, China, whose significance is contemporary, rather than civilisational.

Should we care, and is there anything we can do about it? Of course we should care: no great civilisation can afford to be indifferent to the way in which it is perceived by others. But what, today, is Indic civilisation? Can we afford to anchor ourselves in a purely atavistic view of ourselves, hailing the religious and cultural heritage of our forebears without recognising the extent to which we ourselves have changed? Isn’t Indian civilisation today an evolved hybrid, that draws as much from the influence of Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, not to mention two centuries of British colonial rule? Can we speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport? When an Indian dons ‘national dress’ for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India. When Indian Hindus voted recently in the cynical and contrived competition to select the ‘new seven wonders’ of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion. So, doesn’t Indianness come ahead of the classically Indic?

I would argue in the affirmative, which brings me to the second part of the question: what can we do about it? It seems to me that we ought to be pouring far more resources into our cultural diplomacy, to project the richness of our composite culture into lands which already have a predisposition for it. I’m not a fan of propaganda, which most people tend to see for what it is: i believe the message that will really get through is of who we are, not what we want to show. But just as, in economic terms, the government must provide the basic infrastructure and let the private sector get on with actual ventures, so, too, in the field of cultural promotion, the government has to create the showcases which individual Indians can then proceed to fill.

The Nehru Centre in London is a great asset for India, but why on earth is there only one such centre? We should have them in Cambodia, in Indonesia, in Thailand, in Malaysia, and for that matter in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Brazil, in Canada. Once they exist, they can serve as a catalyst for locals and visiting Indians to perform, speak, sing, argue and screen their work, thus enabling others to see the products of our civilisation, the multi-religious identities of our people, our linguistic diversity, the myriad manifestations of our creative energies. Then we can speak of a civilisation that is ‘Indic’ in its heritage, Indian in its contemporary relevance.
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Companies to invest more in oil, gas exploration in Block B, Cambodia

The Singapore Petroleum Company (Cambodia) Limited (SPC) and its two partners said here on Friday that they will invest another 2.5 million U.S. dollars progressively in oil and gas exploration in Block B in off-sea Cambodia.

"We are interested in exploring oil and gas in Block B," said Lim Beng See, who is in charge of investor relation and communication for SPC.

So far, SPC and its two partners, the PTTEP International Limited and the Resourceful Petroleum Limited, have invested about one million U.S. dollars in Block B, he said.

"We don't know how many barrels of oil and gas there are, yet we are at the exploration stage in Block B," he added.

Block B is located in the Gulf of Thailand, some 250 kilometers off the coast of Cambodia. Is located to the southeast of the Khmer Basin, where a number of oil and gas discoveries have been made, said a SPC statement.

Each company has one-third of the shares in Block B in accordance with the approval of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority (CNPA), it added.

Investors from early 10 countries have been trying to find oil and gas in Block A to F near the seashore of Cambodia in the past decade, but none of them starts production yet.

Cambodia is preparing a draft law for oil and gas management and expects to get benefits from oil and gas in 2010.

Millions of barrels of oil and gas are estimated to lie beneath the sea southwest to Cambodia.

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CSULB to screen films on Cambodia

Documentaries detail lives of children, efforts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.
By Greg Mellen, Staff writer

LONG BEACH - It may be 32 years since the horrors of the so-called Killing Fields in Cambodia were unleashed, but the lessons and the fallout continue.
Today, two documentary films will be screened at Cal State Long Beach as part of an event produced by the Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation, "Cambodia: 32 Years After the Killing Fields."

Moderating the day's events will be Jack Ong, executive director and co-founder of the foundation. Dr. Ngor was a Cambodian genocide survivor, author and Academy Award-winning actor for his portrayal of journalist Dith Pran in "The Killing Fields." Ngor was killed outside his home in 1996 by Asian gang members. His foundation continues to provide humanitarian aid in Cambodia, including operating an orphanage.

It is estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died between 1975 and 1979 from executions, starvation and deprivation during the Khmer Rouge reign.

The films, "What I See When I Close My Eyes" and "The Road to Closure" will be aired at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., respectively.

The first movie, by actress Leslie Hope, looks at the lives of street children in Phnom Penh, who are being sheltered, fed and educated by the Friends-International organization. Hope, a popular television actress who played Kiefer Sutherland's wife in the first year of "24," and her actor husband Adam Kane will discuss the film after its airing.
"The Road to Closure" by Tiara Delgado explores reactions from Cambodians at home and in the U.S. about the erratic and oft-delayed attempts to form a tribunal to bring leaders of the Khmer Rouge to trial for crimes against humanity.

The film is one of four Delgado has made about Cambodia. Her first, which she financed with her own money, was called "Fragile Hopes from the Killing Fields" and is a tale of survivor families narrated by Susan Sarandon in 2003.

Delgado's film will be followed by a timely discussion about the unfolding story of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. To date, just two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been charged by the tribunal. Their trials have yet to begin.

The Long Beach event, which will be staged from noon until 5 p.m. at the Student Union Ballroom on the Cal State Long Beach campus, will also feature traditional Khmer pinpeat music, Angkor dancing and a book signing by Long Beach resident and author Navy Phim of her memoir "Reflections of a Khmer Soul."
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