Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cultural ties between India and Cambodia

Cultural ties between India and Cambodia

Sunday, December 02, 2007
Dr Sarharuddin Ahmed
The Assam Tribune (India)

Dr R Das Gupta while making a serious and systematic study of the sculptures of Mediaeval Assam remarked, “The Ahom temple reliefs are framed in rectangular panels with foiled arches for the top. The arches multiply when the number of figures is more two.... The human figures have the feet in said view, the body in front view and the faces usually in profile. Sometimes front faces are large, a local ethnic characteristic feature as we also see in the Khmer reliefs from Angkor in Cambodia. Such similarity raises the question of some real artistic connection between the stone carver’s technique and ideals for figures between Assam and Angkorian Cambodia. But history is silent about any such connections” (The Journal of the Assam Research Society, Vol. xxvii, 1983). Dr. Das Gupta made his observations about 25 years ago. Sunanda K Dattta-Ray, Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of South Indian Studies, Singapore who has visited Assam very recently as a State Guest stressed on the old connection between India and Kambujadesa - ancient Cambodia in his article “India’s Look East Policy should include a revival of cultural ties” (The Telegraph, 20.10.07). While making some observations on the cultural ties between India and Cambodia, Datta-Ray concludes, “The past that lives on, sublimely perhaps, deserves to be nurtured, not in India alone but throughout Southeast Asia with museums, language instruction, research centers and educational tours and exchanges. An Association of Southeast Asian Nations project perhaps financed by the Asian Development Bank, to trace, establish and strengthen cultural links between the Asean and Asean’s most important dialogue partner”.

Indeed, both the aforesaid observations deserve rapt attention for lightening the cultural ties between India and Southeast Asia more specifically Cambodia. It is gathered from the inscriptions of Kambujadesa or ancient Cambodia that many places and many of the useful public institutions bore Sanskrit names. There were many towns, such as Tamrapura, Adhyapura, Dhruvapura, Jyesthapura, Vikramapura, Bhavapura, Insanapura etc. Public institutions carried Sanskrit names like- Viprasala (learned Assembly), Sarasvati (Public School), Pustaka Asrama (Library), Satra (Guest House), Arogyasala (Hospital) and Vahnigriha (a temple where the sacrificial fire is regularly maintained). Further, the kings, queens, nobles and priests etc. had Sanskrit names. Even the female servants had the name of Sanskrit origin, e.g. Devadasi.

The asramas were the centres of culture and learning. The gurus taught their pupils in the asramas in the traditional Indian manner. Reference to fourteen sciences (four Vedas – Rig, Yaur, Sama and Atharva; Six Vedangas namely – Siksa, Kalpa, Nirukta, Vyakarana, Chanda and Yotisa; Dharma-Sastra and Puranas; and finally two Indian law books - Manusmrti and Yagyavalka Smrti) is severally found in the ancient Cambodian inscriptions (RC Majumdar’s Inscriptions of Kambuja, Pre Rup Stele Inscriptions of Rajendravarman, verse 135). Moreover, in the inscriptions of ancient Cambodia, references are made to Indian epic characters with the same degree of reverence or contempt. This leads us to conjecture that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were highly practised by the learned circle of ancient Cambodia. Apart from the two epics, there are also references to Panini, Vatsyayana, Visalaksa, Pravarasena, Mayura, Gunadhya and Susruta together with their work are mentioned. In may be presumed that the scholars had the intimate knowledge of the works of Kalidasa.

The most important point to be noted here is that the inscriptions are written in beautiful Kavya-style. The composers of the Prasasties exhibited a thorough acquaintance with the most developed rules and conventions of Sanskrit rhetoric and prosody.

It is not only the external form of India’s traditional life that was prevalent in ancient Cambodia, but even the very view of life has been shaped by the Indian ideas of ethics and morality. In the concluding part of the royal charters, sometimes it is found that imprecatory verses are usually quoted in order to show the merits and good results derived from honouring the grant and that hell and suffering coming out of violating the same. These verses are usually the sayings of a sage or sages or quoted from the Dharmasastras.

In the present context, the formation of the word ‘Kambuja’ is taken to be noteworthy. In many of the classical Sanskrit works the word Kamboja (not Kambuja) is referred to. Panini in his Astadhyayi mentions the word Kamboja (IV, I.175). When the word occurs in Panini, it is obvious that it should occur also in the Mahabhasya of Patanjali. While throwing light on the peculiarity of the dialect of the people of Kamboja, Yaska refers to this word (Nirukta, II.2.). It appears that the Kambojas were originally a foreign tribe as is known from the Manusmrti where their association is found with the Sakas and the Yavanas who are traditionally believed to be originally Ksatriya but gradually degraded to the ranks of sudras (Manu.X.44). In determining the geographical boundary of the Kingdom of Raghu and also for showing his military prowess, Kalidasa mentions the word Kamboja (Raghu.iv.69). In the Mahabharata, the very peculiar characteristics of the horses of Kamboja are recorded. It is stated that when the horses of Kamboja ran, their tails and ears and eyes remained motionless (Dronaparva, ch.36. Verse.36). Moreover, this epic, in describing the different rivers, countries and Janapadas of ancient India places Kamboja in the north (Bhismaparva ch.9., verse 65).

Primarily, on the basis of the references found in the classical Sanskrit works, it is concluded that there was celebrated country called Kamboja in the Northwestern part of India. DC Sircar presumes that the name Kambuja (ancient name of Cambodia) is coined on the model of the name of the Kamboja people in North-western India (Indian Epigraphy, p.203). It is already shown that many public institutions of ancient Cambodia had the names of Indian origin. Another instance from the inscriptions of Assam is referred to here. In the Guvakuchi Copper Plate grant of Indrapala (verse 20), occurs the name of a place called Savathi which appears to be a prakritised form of Sravasti. Savathi should have been a locality around modern Rangiya junction of NF Railway some 30 km north of Guwahati. It is conjectured that this Savathi might have been modeled on Sravasti of North Kosala like Ayuthia (from Ayodhya) and also river Mekong (from Ma Ganga) of Kambuja. Hence, it is reasonable to conjecture that Kambuja which is situated to the north-eastern part of India is coined on the model of Kamboja of North-Western India. Because of philological reasons, there is scope to believe that the name Kambuja is just a corrupt form of Kamboja where the vowel O is changed to U.

At the beginning, R Das Gupta is quoted to show the resemblances of architectural designs and sculptures of Assam and Cambodia. The affinities not only confined to art and architecture, but cover the contemporary epigraphical literature also.

First, the language of the epigraphs of the early period of Assam History is Sanskrit. The language of the records of Kambuja or ancient Cambodia is mostly correct Sanskrit, irregularities and mistakes which are few, being probably due to the scribes or engravers rather than the composers.

Secondly, the inscriptions of the Mediaeval Assam (Ahom period) are written partly in Sanskrit and partly in local Tai language. Similarly, the composers of the inscriptions of Kambuja use the local Khmer language in addition to Sanskrit.

Thirdly, some of the literary texts of the copper plates of early Assam are quite long. Dubi Copper Plates of Bhaskaravarman cover altogether 76 verses. A large number of the inscriptions of Kambuja contain 50 stanzas or more, while some contain more than hundred stanzas.

Fourthly, in the inscriptions of Assam, Saka era is commonly used. This practice is noticed in the inscriptions of Cambodia also.

Fifthly, in the copper plate inscriptions of early Assam, the text of the literary portion sometimes is repeated fully in another inscription. This feature is noticed in the inscriptions of Kambuja also.

Sixthly, in the inscriptions of early Assam, the kings are described to have descended from the mythical ancestor, viz., Naraka, the son of Lord Vishnu and Bhumi (i.e., earth). The family is hence called Bhauma-Naraka family. In Kambuja inscriptions also the kings are said to have descended from the mythical couple Kambu Svayambhuva and Mera.

Lastly, the composers of the Assam inscriptions were pessimists in worldly pleasures. They consider the world to be hollow and the life of the human being is as fickle as a drop of water. The authors of the Cambodian inscriptions were also pessimists in nature.

The writer is the Director-in-Charge of the Directorate of Museums, Assam.

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