It’s a unique confluence of Shaivism and Buddhism, telescoping the centuries-old historical and cultural connect between India and Southeast Asia. A 1,100-year-old Shiva temple, Preah Vihier, perched atop a hillock on the Thailand-Cambodia border, has become a living symbol of the commingling of the two distinct but kindred faiths, drawing hordes of Buddhist worshippers every day to this majestic shrine. The message it sends to its devotees is that of harmony, peace and coexistence of multiple beliefs, a message that needs underlining post the Bodh Gaya bomb blasts.
This cross-cultural dimension of India’s relations with other Southeast Asian nations, particularly Cambodia, has been evoked beautifully in a photo exhibition by politician-journalist Tarun Vijay entitled ‘Kailash in Cambodia’. The exhibition was inaugurated by India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid July 12 in the Indian capital. “It is a remarkable edifice linked to two remarkable civilizations… It has meaningful and far reaching consequences. It is so wonderful that a message is being sent from this presentation alone,” he said.
The photographs seek to unravel the mystic beauty of the India-inspired architecture of the temple. The 50 photographs, compiled over two years by Vijay, an MP representing India’s chief opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajya Sabha, bear an eloquent testimony to the enduring influence that Hinduism has had in Cambodia and how today it’s an integral part of the daily life there.
Throwing more light on the similarities between the two countries, Dr Karan Singh, president, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), said: “There were times when the Ram Lila performed in Cambodia was 10 times better than India.”
In recent times, this historical temple, also known as Shikhareshwar, has been a witness to some unwanted tensions. Both Thailand and Cambodia have been sparring to control the temple. Tensions over the issue led to sporadic clashes along the border that killed some 20 people and sent tens of thousands of villagers fleeing to safety.
And yet, the beauty of the temple stands unspoilt despite all changes that have taken place over centuries. The picture of Lord Shiva dancing on the head of an elephant-demon, which is also the symbol of the central mandapa of the temple, is simply awe-inspiring. The linear structure of the temple depicts the pilgrimage to the abode of Lord Shiva, who lives on top of a cliff. A number of beautifully sculpted statues of Hindu gods and scenes from Indian mythology evoke the sense of the sacred that permeates the place. Preah Vihier, located at the top of a cliff in the Dangkrek Range, was known as the Himalaya of Angkor, Cambodia.
Look East: The magic of love and harmony
In an interview with India Writes, www.indiawrites.org, Tarun Vijay, author, columnist and BJP MP, speaks about the sheer beauty of the temple and how it epitomizes the cultural interconnections between India and Southeast Asian nation, known in Indian mythology as suvarnabhumi (the land of gold). Vijay, who has extensively travelled to Southeast Asian countries, also strikes an upbeat note on India’s thriving relations with the region.
(Excerpt from the interview)
Q) What is the importance of this Shiva temple?
A) This temple is unique in its architectural depiction of Shiva. It is a dancing Shiva on an elephant head. Therefore, it is called Shikhareshwar. The dance of Shiva here is different from that of Nataraja. It was built during the Khmer rule and took more than six centuries to complete. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. In the later years, an entire population converted to Buddhism in and around this place. But they continued to have great respect and reverence for the Shiva temple. It is a beautiful example of both Buddha and Shiva existing together. ‘Harmony’ is what defines them. At a time when blasts happened at Bodh Gaya, the co-existence of Buddha and Shiva is a great message of peace and harmony. This message needs to be sent.
Q) Does Cambodia still have Shiva followers?
A) They don’t have many Shiva followers now. But at one point they had a Shiva kingdom for more than eight centuries in the entire East. That was known as Wijay Empire. Then, the entire region was Hindu; that’s why one can find Shiva temples in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Now, they have all turned Buddhist.
Q) Are there any religious contentions at play here?
A) No, not at all. In the same temple, Shiva is there, Buddha too and even Ganpati. Locals worship there and there is no feud over religion. It is an active temple and full of people.
Q) Who runs the temple there?
A) There are no formal rituals there. The priests go and worship. They light incense sticks. Unlike in India, where the priests live in the temple, there is no puja, no priests live inside the temple. People go and worship the way they want.
Q) What is the message that you are sending out?
A) The message is that the only magic that lives in this world is that of harmony and love. If Buddha and Shiva can co-exist, why can’t everyone else in India? In times like this, Shikhareshwar gives the message that convergence is India’s future.
Q) How do you see India’s evolving relations with Southeast Asia?
A) We should look towards the Southeast Asian countries. We should commend the government of India on its rigorous pursuit of building cultural ties and looking east. India is a natural friend to countries in the region. There is a natural affinity and bond existing in every single Southeast Asian country for India. Unfortunately and ironically, Indians are not looking eastward. Maybe, we will no longer be fixated with the West, now that the paradigm is shifting and we have vibrant trade and economic relations with virtually every country in the region, including Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia exists.
Q) If the BJP comes to power, what will your party do to promote this relationship?
A) We will follow former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s line of looking east. For him culture and economy both go hand in hand. Economic relations are more trusted if the civilizational relations are warmed up. So, it’s more of a soft power approach. I am giving all my time to study of eastern countries and am trying to help to make India look more and more towards China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations.
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