This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!
We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.
By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.
We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms wending their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.
A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.
The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.
Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!
The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.
Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.
In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!
The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.
This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.
Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.
This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.
Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.
There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.
The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.
First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.
A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.
There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.
One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.
The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.
In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.
The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!
Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.
On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.
As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.
One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.
I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.
At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.
The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .
I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.
However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language – Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.
A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.
And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pic below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.
We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!
I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .