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Hinduism in Cambodia

Part of and ancient Vedantic Empire

princeofprincesOur knowledge of the world and its history is poorly known, but in the past few years it has become well-established that what people refer to as Hinduism which may be better described as Vedanta influenced all life from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Over 2000 years ago, Indian elephants helped to build Roman edifices and before them, Vedanta helped to shape Greek civilisation. But in the Far East architects and builders from India created the great temple complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom. Not only that, you'll find Sanskrit words in the Filipino language and the Japanese and Korean temples all feature Hindu deities.

In fact Southeast Asia is filled with what could be described as Indian artefacts in the form of temples, rock carvings and great works of art. The thrust of this great Vedantic civilisation had little to do with economics and political power, it was about the dissemination of knowledge and enabling populations to live in harmony with nature.

Krishna Carvings at Banteay Srei

Among the many Vaishnava ruins in Cambodia, the 10th century temple of Banteay Srei in Angkor has several of the most beautiful carved renditions of Sri Krsna found anywhere in the country. The Lord is depicted in two famous lila scenes, one from the Bhagavat Purana and one from Mahabharata.

Banteay Srei (or Banteay Srey) is a Shiva temple lying 15 miles northeast of the main complex at Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom and Yasodharapura were once important capitals in the area, and ancient temple ruins are found all around the area. Similar temple ruins are now being threatened with further ruin due to the recent increase in volcanic activity in Indonesia, which rains down particles highly corrosive to the area's soft sandstone carvings.

Most of the temple constructions in the Angkor area are enormous, but the Banteay Srei temple is very small in comparison, making it particularly enjoyable for pilgrims to explore. Built in 967 A.D., Banteay Srei is the only major temple at Angkor not built by a local ruler. This temple was raised by a scholar named Yajnavaraha, who worked in the service of King Rajendravarman. On his own accord, Yajnavaraha also offered financial support to local citizens suffering from ill health, poverty or injustice.

The temple was originally known as Tribhuvanamahesvara, referring to both Lord Visnu and Lord Shiva, and the village surrounding it was called Isvarapura. The name Banteay Srei is thought to refer to the many devatas carved into the red sandstone walls. The name also translates to 'citadel of women' or 'citadel of beauty'.

Tribhuvanamahesvara was dedicated to the presiding deity, a Shiva linga residing in the central part of the structure, but the temple complex was also divided along its east-west axis, with areas located north of the axis being devoted to the worship of Lord Visnu, and those south of the axis dedicated to Lord Shiva.

One of the most famous carvings in the complex is that of Lord Nrsimhadeva, who appears in His ugra mood, but stylistically carved very much in the Cambodian style. He is furiously attacking the demon Hiranyakasipu, who is positioned in a unique way on the carved surface, with his head due south of the Lord's head, rather than lying horizontally across His lap.

In the style of most Khmer temples, Banteay Srei is oriented to the east, having three concentric rectangular enclosures along its east-west axis. A causeway along the axis leads from the outer gopura to the third and outermost of the three wings. The sanctum is in the inner enclosure, with three towers above. There are two adjacent wings known as the libraries.

The library in the south has a west-facing pediment upon which is carved a beautiful depiction from Krsna lila. This one depicts Krsna slaying the wicked Kamsa, who has collapsed to his knees beneath the mighty hand of Sri Krsna. Behind Krsna's head the end of Balarama's plow is visible, and behind Kamsa there are waves carved into the backdrop, probably depicting the evaporation of the demon's life airs.

Also carved into this west-facing pediment is a scene depicting Shiva and Uma on Mount Kailasa, with Kamadeva pointing an arrow at Shiva, and another scene of the burning of Khandava Forest.

The east-facing pediment on the northern library is carved with a scene of Lord Indra, creating rain to put out the forest fire started by Agni, who wished to kill the Naga king, Takshaka in Khandava Forest. Indra is riding on Airavata, surrounded by worshippers who are begging for his assistance with the fire. However, Indra's intervention is being opposed by Sri Krsna and Arjuna, who are seen bottom right, standing on their chariots.

Helping Agni, the two are sending a battery of arrows towards the heavens to prevent the rain from reaching the ground. Their arrows form a roof of protection, supported from below by a row of hamsas, who stand between Indra's waters and the forest below. Takshaka's son Aswasena is seen trying to escape the fire, climbing the roof of arrows, with panicked animals below.

Carved in traditional Khmer style, these wall sculptures are beautiful renditions from Vedic sastra, and provide a unique view of the Lord's pastimes.

Hinduism (The forgotten facts)

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6 comments to Hinduism in Cambodia

  • Jeana

    An excellent post and a history that’s been hidden

  • I think wiki gives a good summary but I’m more inclined to agree that Hindu influence spread much earlier given the genetic links to Australia. But wiki says “Hindu civilization also transformed and shaped the social construct and statehood of Southeast Asian regional polity. Through the formation of Indianized kingdoms, small indigenous polities led by petty chieftain were transformed into major kingdoms and empires led by a maharaja with statecraft concept akin to those in India. It gave birth to the former Champa civilisation in southern parts of Central Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indochina, Langkasuka Kingdom and Old Kedah in the Malay Peninsula, the Sriwijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Medang kingdom, Singhasari and the Majapahit Empire based in Java, Bali, and parts of the Philippine archipelago. The civilisation of India influenced the languages, scripts, written tradition, literatures, calendars, beliefs system and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations.”

  • Huang Coutch

    Hi, amazing temples and a must visit when in SEA

  • The Khmer Empire was one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia, The empire, which grew out of the former kingdom of Chenla, at times ruled over and/or vassalized parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Its greatest legacy is Angkor, the site of the capital city during the empire’s zenith. Angkor bears testimony to the Khmer empire’s immense power and wealth, as well as the variety of belief systems that it patronised over time. The empire’s official religions included Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, until Theravada Buddhism prevailed, even among the lower classes, after its introduction from Sri Lanka in the 13th century. Modern researches by satellites have revealed Angkor to be the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.

  • Marshall

    I was amazed on my across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to see lots of Hindu ruins which must have influenced the culture of the region more than many people today care to admit. Even today we’ve lost most of the technology that the Hindus used to create Angkor Wat and other monuments

  • Tyler

    G’day, modern historians seem quite cosy in their agreement that Hinduism only spread during what the Chinese refer to as the Funan period in the first centuries A.D. There are the Roulous group in addition to the older city of Mahendraparvata is said to have existed 350 years before Angkor Wat, but this indicates there must have been cultural exchanges over a long period before any constructions. https://youtu.be/ztXH1n04f7U

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