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At home with the gods

October 7, 2008

A visit to wondrous Angkor Wat with an enthusiastic extended family is a life-changing adventure remembers Kamini Dandapani.

Deep in the Cambodian jungles lie some of the world's most astonishingly beautiful temple ruins. Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, during the Khmer Empire, they are mind-boggling for their sheer exquisiteness, complexity, intricacy, variety, symmetry and numbers.

I made a trip there along with a large and lively group of my close and extended family. The group included two spirited grandmothers, each of whom battled with velvet-gloved, iron-fisted determination to claim the mantle of Mythology Expert; their long-suffering-yet-secretly-proud husbands; a few of their offspring, sadly lacking in competitive spirit, and refusing to get drawn into the arguments on mythological minutiae; and, the charmer of the group, a 11-year-old son/grandson/nephew who sweated and trekked his way up and down dozens of temples and steps with a true adventurer's spirit.

I should touch upon the South India connection before embarking on my travelogue. Relics and inscriptions have proved that intensive trade had been taking place between India and Cambodia since the 3rd century BC. Indian mythology, religion and customs made a deep impact on Khmer civilization; both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and culture were adapted and adopted into the Cambodian way of life, mingling with the local lifestyle to blossom into its own unique version.

Theories abound about how, exactly, Indian culture spread into the lands of the Khmer Empire. The various theorists formed camps and glared at each other from behind their history books. There was the colonization-by-a-warrior-aristocracy camp which touted India's glorious colonization of South-East Asia. This cabal is now licking its wounds in the dusty closet into which it has been cruelly flung.

Now, proudly hoisting their banner held aloft with the winds of historical proof, there are those who say that the Indian penetration of these lands was largely peaceful. Ahh, but eavesdrop on a meeting of these 'peace-loving' sorts, and you will detect tension and strife in their ranks. They disagree on who, really, came and peacefully spread the culture and customs of India in these jungles.

Standing on slippery ground and fast losing their grip are those who declare that it was the traders, hungrily roaming far and wide in their quest for gold and riches, who were responsible. That along with money and spices, they brought culture and religion as well.

With their hands on their hips and an I-told-you-so-smirk, the Brahmin-theorists, who now have the upper hand, contend that the trader theory does not explain how and why Indian culture spread deep into the interior of the country, where the traders did not venture (they limited themselves to the coastline). The Brahmins, on the other hand, they aver, were the true messengers of Hindu culture. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps they are both right. Or wrong. Thus ensuring that historians will remain gainfully employed till kingdom come.

Also see: In the court of the fish eyed Goddess
First published in India Abroad
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