Here’s how to rebuild political pagodas

What is remarkable about the Cambodian legacy is that it has been able to amalgamate the cultural influences and blend these with local cultures

While the politics that ravages Cambodia tends to make the headlines with the ongoing Khmer Rouge trials and the stand-off between the ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Opposition under Sam Rainsy, there is another aspect of Cambodia’s history and current economy that needs to be looked at. As India and the region negotiate the move towards a free-trade agreement in the services sector, the opening up of the two country’s tourism sector will significantly push the level of interaction between Cambodia and India. For India and Indian tourists, Cambodia provides a treasure trove of India’s cultural linkages and historical ties which are alluring and breathtaking in their magnitude and splendour.

Cambodia lies in the mainland of Southeast Asia. It is accessible from India by road and there is a proposal for a railway link that will connect India to Vietnam, which is part of the comprehensive agreement between India and the Asean states.
Economically, Cambodia remained underdeveloped till 1993. Following the end of the Cambodian stalemate, the country opened up economically — with two industries growing rapidly. Both export in garments and tourism became the leading growth vehicles for the Cambodian economy. Tourism became the second largest income contributor and the first in terms of foreign exchange earnings. In 2005 the revenues from this sector amounted to $832 million, which was 13 per cent of the country’s GDP. From 2006 to 2018, the tourism sector is likely to expand to the tune of $1,705.7 million.
Much of this industry relates to the monuments of the Angkor kingdom, reflected in the architectural remains all over the Cambodian province of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a northwestern province in Cambodia and shares a border with Thailand. Most of the monuments, numbering more than 1,000, remain nondescript. Of these, nearly 27 temples and monuments are proof of the glorious culture that the Angor kingdom witnessed.
These temples have been influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism and are architectural wonders, Angkor Wat being the most famous. The association with both Hinduism and Buddhism continued based on the faith of the ruling king. Often while the ruling king practised Hinduism, his successor would be a Buddhist and on ascending the throne the main worship would shift to Buddhism. This shift between two main religious faiths was not conflictual and the change was often smooth and easy.
All these monuments date back to the period between the 9th and the 15th centuries, when the Angkor dynasty was at the height of its glory. The inroads made by Siam (Thailand) and Vietnamese kingdoms reduced the glory of the Angkor dynasty and eroded its territorial limits to the current state of Cambodia. After the decline of the Angkor period in the 15th century, the region was visited by several French missionaries, and it was only in 1860 that the French explorer Henri Mouhot exposed its existence to the Western world. The temples stand as a testament to a highly developed culture and society, revealed through the inscriptions on the monuments. The Indian influences were visible in the realms of religion, art and architecture. There were also commonalities in terms of language and script. In fact, Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri’s works on Indian influences in the Far East talk of the peaceful penetration of Indian cultural influences in the region. What is remarkable about the Cambodian legacy is that it has been able to amalgamate the cultural influences and blend these with local cultures which have remained resilient, thereby enriching both.
The projection of the softer, more benign aspects of a country’s power has recently become a part of diplomacy and foreign policy. In this context exploring the dimensions of cultural relations through the prism of diplomacy is a significant move. The historical and cultural linkages can act as a foundation upon which other ties such as economic and political relations can be based. For India this is particularly important since there are few political issues that divide Cambodia and India. In the context of China this is more difficult because of the historical ties where China has had a dominant role over the region.
As India’s integration with the Southeast Asian region increases both in economic and political spheres, it is also critical for India to revisit its cultural links with the region. As the second phase of the free- trade agreement is likely to take shape with the opening up of the services sector, the possibility of contributing to the growth of the tourism industry in Cambodia remains a key point that needs to be explored. India’s focus on this aspect will also help to reduce Cambodia’s development gap vis-a-vis other Asean countries, while simultaneously providing India an investment opportunity in the tourism industry within the region.
One of the aspects through which this can be done is to have sister cities that are culturally linked. This would allow for the art and architecture from the two cities to be bound together in the context of building tourism links, thereby ensuring both the movement of people for tourism and the growth of local industries that are linked to the tourism sector. In the case of India and Cambodia, an example of this could possibly be Siem Reap and Thanjavur, both temple towns — where the cultural imprints are so vibrantly visible.
At the regional level, another significant factor is the revival of the Nalanda University which was a centre for higher learning in ancient times. The Nalanda project focuses on the cultural footprints across the Southeast Asian region. By reviving the Nalanda project India is being seen as playing the Buddha card, whereby the Buddhist legacy is used to leverage closer ties with the region. Even China has been building these ties by projecting Lumbini in Tibet — the birthplace of Buddha — as a cultural destination. The building of these links will bring closer economic and societal cooperation, which will ultimately contribute to the building of political ties as well.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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