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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Across space and time

Cultural crossovers: The Angkor Wat shares many features with Pallava and Chola temples.


Centuries of cultural and commercial interaction between South Indian kingdoms and Cambodia led to a fascinating mutual enrichment that can be seen in the motifs and architectural styles of temples that flowed freely across the ocean.

When Kulottunga I, the Chola king, was constructing or enlarging the famous Shiva Temple at Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu), Suryavarman II, the king of Cambodia and the builder of Angkor Wat, offered to send, all the way from Cambodia, a block of stone as a gift for the new construction.

The very name “Cambodia”, brings forth visions of the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat with its huge pavilions, towering spires and larger-than-life sculptures. Angkor Wat and the scores of other spectacular temples surrounding it were bu ilt by the local Cambodian or Khmer kings between the ninth and the 14th centuries A.D. The UNESCO has now included these monuments in its “World Heritage” list. Each day, thousands of visitors enjoy these monuments, many of which are in picturesque ruins. Most of the visitors are, however, simply unaware that Cambodian art and culture have a lot of Indian, particularly South Indian, elements.

The remote origin of the intimate links between India and Cambodia forms the subject of innumerable legends. Many legends mention a young and handsome South Indian prince travelling to Cambodia, marrying a beautiful Cambodian princess and eventually becoming the ruler of that land. According to one popular legend, around the time of Christ or slightly earlier, Kaundinya, a Brahmin from India, sailed to the kingdom of Funan in Cambodia that was then ruled by a princess named Soma of the Naga dynasty. Using a divine weapon, Kaundinya defeated her in war, married her and became the king of Funan. Towards the beginning of the fifth century, another Brahmin, bearing the same name, inspired by a supernatural power, came to Cambodia where the local people welcomed him and elected him as the king of Funan. He and his successors introduced many Indian customs and laws in Cambodia. In the year 802, a powerful ruler named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer kingdom that had its capital in or around Angkor in Central Cambodia. The capture of Angkor by Thailand (Siam) in 1431 forced the Khmer rulers to shift their capital further south in the vicinity of Phnom Penh.

The cultural and commercial interaction between South India and Cambodia, in fact, dates back to a few centuries before Christ. South Indian merchants and artists regularly came to Cambodia through diverse land and sea routes. Located on the great maritime highway between India and China, Cambodia, from early times, emerged as a major commercial hub in the long distance trade network that linked China, South East Asia, Sri Lanka, India, Africa and Rome. Spices and gemstones from South East Asia reached the ports on the east coast of India (Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu), from where they were shipped to the Red Sea ports of Africa and from there sent to Rome through the North African port of Alexandria. Not surprisingly, archaeologists have discovered ancient Roman objects including intaglios, coins, ceramics and lamps in the Thailand-Cambodia region. These Roman materials should doubtless have reached South East Asia through Mahabalipuram, Arikamedu, Kaveripattinam or any of the other ancient ports of Southeastern India. Interestingly, similar Roman objects have been recurrently discovered in many of these port sites.

Significant influence

Both Hinduism and Buddhism reached parts of South East Asia from India during the early centuries of the Christian era. The South Indian influence on Cambodian art and culture was, however, most vigorous and prolific during the rule of the Pallavas (third to ninth centuries) and Cholas (ninth to 13th centuries) in South India. It is well known that the use of the honorific title Varman — very common amongst the Pallava kings — was borrowed by the kings of Cambodia. The first Cambodian king to have this suffix appended to his name was Bhadravarman who lived in the fourth century and thus, was a contemporary of one of the early Pallava rulers of Kanchipuram. Significantly, Bhadravarman was a renowned scholar, well-versed in all the four Vedas and the author of several inscriptions in Sanskrit. He invited learned Brahmins from India to settle in his kingdom.

While Sanskrit language and literature spread to Cambodia from different parts of India including South India, the ornate Grantha (also called Pallava Grantha) script travelled to Cambodia exclusively from the Pallava kingdom. According to scholars, some of the birudas (titles) of the Pallava kings including Mahendravarman I appear to be in the Khmer language — the language of Cambodia. Further, Nandivarman Pallavamalla, one of the later Pallava rulers, is believed to have lived in Cambodia for some years before he travelled to Kanchi to ascend the Pallava throne. The most enduring contribution of the Pallavas to Cambodia is the cult of Ashtabhuja Vishnu (eight-armed Vishnu). In India, this form of Vishnu first originated around the Mathura region in North India, and slowly spread to Nagarjunakonda (Andhra) and from there, permeated further south to Kanchipuram. Many of the Pallava temples in and around Kanchi house sculptures of this form of Vishnu, with one temple (Ashtabhuja Perumal Temple) having the deity enshrined within the main sanctum. Initially, the Angkor Wat was a Hindu shrine dedicated to this form of Vishnu installed within the sanctum in the uppermost tier of the temple. This huge majestic monolithic image, recently restored and now kept at the entrance of Angkor Wat, is almost identical, in stylistic features, to the image within the sanctum of the Ashtabhuja Perumal Temple of Kanchi.

The Pallavas of Kanchi were contemporaries and rivals of the Chalukyas of Badami (Vatapi) in present-day Karnataka. But political differences and rivalries did not stand in the way of the exchange of art styles and ideas between these two kingdoms. Thus, we can observe Chalukyan influence in the art of Kanchi and Pallava imprints in the art of Badami and Pattadakkal in Karnataka. Again, not surprisingly, there are unmistakable parallels between the art of Pattadakkal and Angkor Wat. The most important and famous bas-relief sculpture in Angkor Wat is the one portraying the scene of the Churning of the Cosmic Ocean by the Gods and demons (samudramanthan). Miniature representations of the same scene occur on the pillars within the Angkor Wat. Sculptures exhibiting this theme occur in many other Angkor temples including the Bayon. Although the story has always been very popular in India, its representation in art has been very rare in this country. The Virupaksha Temple of Pattadakkal, however, features this scene on the face of a column. Stylistically, this sculpture is remarkably similar to the representation of the same scene in the pillars in Angkor Wat.

Again, in Angkor Wat, the bas-relief showing the Mahabharata war prominently features Bishma lying on the bed of arrows. Such a representation of Bishma is uncommon in South Indian art. A few late medieval temple wall paintings in Kerala, however, feature this theme.

Free exchange of ideas

Architecturally, the Angkor Wat shares many common features with both Pallava and Chola temples. Like the Vaikunta Perumal Temple (Kanchi) and the Sundara Varada Perumal Temple (Uttaramerur) of the Pallavas, the Angkor Wat consists of three levels or tiers, each of the upper tiers slightly smaller than the one below it, giving the structure the look of a pyramid. Again, like the Chola Brhadisvara Temple of Thanjavur, Angkor Wat too was conceived to represent the sacred mount Meru in the Himalayas. Damodara Pandita, a Brahmin scholar from Madhyadesa (Karnataka-Orissa region) in India was the chief priest of Suryavarman II, the builder of the Angkor Wat. It is believed that the king built this temple as per the guidelines provided by the Indian priest.

The friendly relation between the Chola kings and Cambodia is attested by a significant but little-known incident. When Kulottunga I, the Chola king, was constructing or enlarging the famous Shiva Temple at Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu), Suryavarman II, the king of Cambodia and the builder of Angkor Wat, offered to send, all the way from Cambodia, a block of stone as a gift for the new construction. Kulottunga gratefully accepted the unusual gift, installed it in the temple and engraved an inscription informing that the stone was from Cambodia.

The beautiful temple of Banteay Srei, around 30km from Angkor Wat, has many intricately carved Hindu sculptures betraying South Indian influence. Here, one can see the dancing Shiva (Nataraja) above the main doorway leading to the central sanctum. Close to him, there is a small, frail female figure that has been identified as Karaikal Ammaiar, the well-known Tamil saint.

The inscriptions on the walls of the temples in Cambodia frequently refer to Indian scholars and priests settling in Cambodia, often on invitation from the king. Some of these scholars were the direct disciples of Adi Sankara in South India.

Any serious visitor to the monuments in Angkor will indeed be astounded by the sweep of the South Indian elements that have engulfed Cambodian culture during different periods of history. To the students of South Indian history and art, Cambodia is a revelation, an eye-opener to the spread of our unique culture to distant lands.

(Dr. Suresh’s field research in Cambodia has been sponsored by Ramu Endowments, Chennai)

Evidences of interactions, the eight arm Siva God is worshiped by majority in Cambodia

There have been several little-known finds of authentic South Indian objects in the Thailand-Cambodia region. Archaeological digs at Khuan Luk Pat on the west coast of Southern Thailand have revealed a Sangam Chola coin with the figure of the tiger — the Chola dynastic emblem — on it (first century B.C.). The region has also yielded a very rare bronze figure betraying features of the Amaravati school of art (first-second centuries A.D.).
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Ex-Khmer Rouge still dominate regions of Cambodia


ANLONG VENG, Cambodia (AP) — Just as the chief Khmer Rouge torturer takes the stand before a United Nations-backed genocide tribunal, a mausoleum fit for a king will be unveiled for another murderous leader from the same regime.

The entombed Ta Mok, known to his victims as "The Butcher," remains a revered figure in Anlong Veng because practically everyone here — from the district chief to the tourism promoter, from the wealthiest businessmen to dirt-poor farmers — was once Khmer Rouge.

This remote, rough-and-ready town is no aberration. Thirty years after the fall of their Maoist regime, former Khmer Rouge officials still run extensive enclaves across northwestern and northern Cambodia. After Anlong Veng, their last holdout, fell in 1998, Khmer Rouge officials abandoned their savage policies and took posts in the new power structure.

They appear unlikely to face justice for alleged crimes during a brutal 1975-1979 reign of terror under which some 2 million died.

"We were the former Khmer Rouge commanders so we knew the area and the people, so after we surrendered we were confident we would get similar positions — in the government, police, the military," explains Pery Saroen, 55, Anlong Veng's deputy district chief, whose superior is also a one-star army general. "When we handed over ourselves, our territory, we became part of the government. We had an agreement with the government and we knew they would forgive us."

An equivalent scenario would have been known Nazi officials and military commanders, some with blood on their hands, serving in 1975 as West Germany's mayors and ministers amid war crimes trials for their leaders.

Only five are expected to face trial. The first, Kaing Guek Eav — better known as Comrade Duch — headed Phnom Penh's notorious S-21 torture center. He is scheduled to testify at the end of the month before a joint international and Cambodian tribunal.

"It's clear that not every Khmer Rouge cadre who carried out killings and crimes is going to come before the tribunal. We don't believe it should stop at the top five most notorious figures. We could do more to bring justice to Cambodians," says Sara Colm of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, echoing criticism of many Cambodians and foreign prosecutors.

Nhem Sarath, with the non-governmental Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, says villagers outside Khmer Rouge areas often ask why the court doesn't try the many Khmer Rouge suspected of atrocities.

"They also ask us why the powerful leaders now running the country are also not arrested," he says.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly Chairman Heng Samrin were all Khmer Rouge commanders or officials, and now are unchallenged in their power. Other top positions are filled by their one-time comrades, including Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong and deputy prime ministers Men Sam On and Keat Chhun, who also holds the finance and economy portfolio.

Although no evidence has come to light implicating Hun Sen, a division commander, in Khmer Rouge crimes, he has sought to narrowly restrict those brought to justice because a number in his government and party are hiding skeletons in their closets.

Among the most notorious is Meah Mut, an ex-Khmer Rouge military official, who is on a prosecution "hit list" of at least five others they want to try. A brigadier general and adviser to the Defense Ministry, he lives in a lovely house amid a fruit orchard in Samlot, about 125 miles from Anlong Veng, in the northwest.

It was to this region that the Khmer Rouge leaders and thousands of followers fled when a Vietnamese invasion force toppled their regime in 1979. While Khmer Rouge in other areas of the country sought to quietly merge back into society, those in the northwest melted into the jungles and mountains to wage guerrilla war until the guns fell silent through an amnesty in 1998, the year Anlong Veng fell, and their leader, Pol Pot, died. All ex-Khmer Rouge in the region express loyalty to Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party.

David Chandler, a leading Cambodia historian due to appear as an expert witness at the tribunal, says the deal has proved a "standoff, a trade-off that suits both sides."

"They are not going into dissidence or to secede. They have to behave to a certain extent but Hun Sen is not going to mess with them too much," he says. "I don't think these are dedicated left-wing thinkers or performers. I think they abandoned that and got into the money and the patronage situation and are perfectly happy."

Many of the former Khmer Rouge claim to support the trial of their one-time leaders.

"To be honest, when ex-Khmer Rouge heard that the top five leaders would be tried, they said, 'We don't mind. Let's do it,'" said Nhem En, another district deputy head who was S-21's chief photographer and, like most former Khmer Rouge, points a finger at the leaders while denying any wrongdoing himself.

Ta Mok, who died a prisoner in 2006, is still much admired in Anlong Veng. His mausoleum, copied from ancient Angkorian temples by his rich grandson, will be completed almost to the day that Duch testifies.

"We regarded Ta Mok like a father who takes care of his children. He imposed restrictions and discipline but he gave us food, clothing, places to live," recalls Chat Chay, a poor laborer and former Khmer Rouge soldier. He noted how Ta Mok, whose cruelty was legendary, built roads, a hospital, a bridge and a high school building.

The town's 3,000 schoolchildren are taught nothing about their country's Khmer Rouge past, and only a few posters about the trial have been put around school grounds, says elementary school Vice Principal Reak Smey. He is one of a sizable influx of non-Khmer Rouge from other parts of the country, drawn by the possibility of acquiring land in the sparsely populated area and earning income from a lucrative cross-border trade with nearby Thailand.

"When I first arrived I was worried about having to adapt to life with former Khmer Rouge, but after a few months I discovered their honesty and kindness. The more I lived with them, the better I felt," he says, recalling that the revolutionaries had tried to instill rigid morality, albeit at the point of a gun, during their years in power. Now, he says, their virtues are being eroded by the influence of the newcomers.

Khieu Dum is a wealthy 36-year-old who owns a gas station and money exchange business. He is also the son of Khieu Samphan, who faces charges of crimes against humanity during his time as the Khmer Rouge president. An expensive Lexus sports utility vehicle sits in the son's garage at the dusty crossroads of this district of about 20,000, where the new settlers have had to be friendly because they are the powerless outsiders.

"This is a small and simple place. People just go about their business. The old (Khmer Rouge) people and the newcomers live together amiably. I have never had trouble because of my father," says Khieu Dum.

The Khmer Rouge leaders were off to a head start when the amnesty came, having amassed mini-fortunes during their days as guerrillas through smuggling of timber, gems and antiques to Thailand. Now, the upper echelons own some of the poshest houses and cars in the provinces of Pailin, Preah Vihear, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meancheay — Cambodia's Khmer Rouge country.

Some have sunk into gross corruption and engage in activities, like gambling, which would have earned them summary execution in the old days. And they have certainly ditched their ideal of a classless society.

In Anlong Veng, a two-class system appears to have emerged: the rich businessmen and government officials living in town and former low-ranking soldiers who barely survive on arid land they don't own in the surrounding countryside. Thus the town witnessed both the final military defeat of the Khmer Rouge and the death of its ideals.

Chat Chay says he joined the movement as a 14-year-old after the Khmer Rouge persuaded him they would liberate the country and create a utopia of neither rich nor poor. Now, he breaks up stones at construction sites, able to use only his right hand since a head wound paralyzed his left side. He earns less than one dollar a day for his family of seven.

"The Khmer Rouge didn't do what they promised. They changed their policies," says the 51-year-old man. "I was wounded but the Khmer Rouge gave me nothing and I have also received nothing from this government."

Associated Press writer Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.

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Focus on Cambodia's Human Trafficking is Misleading

By Alan Perry

Rory Byrne's March 23rd article "Human Trafficking On the Rise in Cambodia" from VOA News is misleading and uninformed. The first glaring error is of course the misspelling of the Capitol City of Phnom Penh in the article. Let us hope that this is a simple editorial mistake and not an indication of how well he understood his subject matter. Unfortunately I think it may be the latter.

The real problem with the article is that it lacks perspective or any other viewpoint on the Human Trafficking issue. There is no dissenting voice or opinions reported. Cambodia has become for lack of a better word the worlds favorite sex "obsession". With daily breathless reportage on Human trafficking and child sex convictions one is left with the mistaken impression that Cambodia is a place where one can simply walk down the street and pick out your favorite 13 year-old girl or boy for an hours pleasure. This is simply not the case.

I first came to Cambodia 15 years ago and now have lived here for 2 years and own a business. In all that time I have never witnessed any such activity nor could I direct anyone to any place which deals in such a thing. I have traveled widely here and employ a number of Cambodians and in conversation with them I cannot find a single person that knows about the "sex slave" trade. I do however know that it is often the families of these girls and boys who send them away or sell them into "jobs" in prostitution. Many boys are sold into the military so their family can get the stipend the government gives out for that and many escape. Most of the girls, if the truth be known, are sent into this trade by their families, not lured there by strangers. Most are free to come and go as they please because having been sent there by the parents they often will stay out of respect and fear of the parents. The parents receive a payment, the girl is expected to work for a period of time.

This is not slavery, at worst it is indentured servitude. There is a very important difference. Of course no one wants to see children sent into the sex trade by anyone, let alone their parents, but I believe the notion that there are thousands of girls chained in basements being used as sex slaves defies logic. Most of Cambodia is a crowded and busy place especially the cities. Keeping something like this from the police would be very difficult here, to say nothing of the fact that I have never seen or heard of a house here with a basement. While many of the police are corrupt not all of them are by any means and there are many levels of police in a given area. This makes it especially difficult to keep slaves locked in your "basement" without your neighbors and the police finding out and reporting on you.

The article does not at any time cite one single credible study of this problem and for good reason...none exists. Some organizations such as World Vision raise millions of dollars in the U. S., Britain and Australia beating the child sex and human trafficking drum. Only a trickle of those funds are ever spent here in Cambodia actually doing anything about the problem. A problem that I would argue is no worse than in London, Honolulu or Des Moines.

The article goes on to cite how there were girls rescued from this business by the organization named in the article, one I have never heard of previously. It is written in such a way as to leave the impression that all these girls were "sex slaves". I would defy the writer or the organization cited to bring forth one credible person with that story. It seems clear to me that what is most likely is that there was financial incentive for these girls to leave or that they felt they had no other place to go if they left on their own. Many families wont take a girl back who has shamed them by working in this industry and many continue in the business for the very good financial rewards. Consider that the average wage of most Cambodians is often cited at less than one US dollar a day. A girl or boy working in the sex trade can make 10, 20 or 100 times this in a single day. With this they buy cell phones, motorcycles, nice clothes and send money home to the family. This scenario is the real story of the sex trade in Cambodia.

Many do it as a sideline, some go to school, and others do work in brothels. some come to escape the poverty and closeness of village life. Some of the young people that turn to this trade do it because they have lost a good job in a factory due to layoffs. Consider this the next time some well meaning organization asks you to help stamp out child labor in Cambodia, Thailand or where ever: If these young people lose their jobs often the next stop is to turn to prostitution to make sure they eat everyday. This is the real story of the sex trade.

People often fall into this trap when writing or reporting on Cambodia. With little or no knowledge of the country and it's people they rely instead on those with an axe to grind, an issue to promote or in the case of some organizations, money to be raised by keeping this issue on the front burner and sounding as horrible as possible. It would be nice to have a reporter ask some hard probing questions, explore the logic and interview others with a different viewpoint. Unfortunately Mr Byrne seemingly did none of that.

Alan Perry is a resident of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and is with DevaRaja Villa and Bungalows, Intimate Stylish Personal Attentive. Reach him at .

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