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The Angkor Empire, created between the ninth to fourteenth centuries CE, borrowed extensively from Hinduism and Buddhism. The influence of India was also all-pervasive in trade, customs, and language. Yet, the Khmer Kings would not blindly emulate. They cherry-picked in order to impose their own personality on their evolving cultural ethos. They completely transformed the Indian blueprint into a glorious Khmer one that would even surpass the former in some respects. 

THE CAMBODIAN PRINCE NORODOM SIHANOUK, IN HIS ACCOUNT and impressions of the Indian leader, the prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, reminisced to the journalist Bernard Krisher about his meeting with the Indian leader in 1954:[1]

Nehru was perceptibly sensitive to my compliments and to the adoration I bore him. He was also very proud of the Indian origin of the Khmer civilization. On his visit to Phnom Penh, I recall his saying, ‘We are cousins. The Khmer civilization is a child of the Indian civilization, and we are very proud of that.’ But, in fact, we improved on some aspects of their civilization. A temple like Angkor Wat, according to French experts and other Western scholars, is something very Khmer and architecturally superior to the Indian temples.

In this article I argue that the constant and cumulative influence of India, through trade, social customs, religion, and language, would not be one-sided. The Khmer kings would build the fascinating and beautiful temples of Angkor in the ninth to fourteenth centuries CE, but unknown to them, their architectural complexity and sheer scale would surpass any structures India would produce. Because the Khmers would bring to Indian thought their own traditions and skills and lend a uniqueness that smelt of the vast alluvial flooding plains of the Tonle Sap lake, the ground plan of a culture influenced by India would undergo a uniquely Khmer transformation. This Khmerisation of Indian thought built the glorious Khmer Empire on the unshakeable edifice of syncretism, a synthesis that would be stronger, more abiding, more brilliant and more honed than the Indian model.

Although, in this project, I explore specifically the Angkorean Empire, which was at times Hindu and at other times Buddhist, there were several Hindu states which had kings with Hindu names between the first and seventh centuries CE along the Mekong River, near the Dangrek Mountains, such as Chenla and Funan. It is important to remember that both Hinduism and Buddhism flowed from Indian shores to Southeast Asia across the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, the Sunda Strait, the Straits of Malacca, and the Gulf of Thailand.

Sketch of the facade of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot, c. 1860. This image, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

It was a chink in the monsoon clouds over the shimmering Tonle Sap lake that gave me a glimpse from the window of the Tupolev aircraft of the gargantuan faces of the Bodhisattva at the Bayon temple in the Angkor Wat complex. It was 1991. I was on a mission to meet the head of the Archaeological Survey of India team, Dr. B. Narasimhaiah, which was working on renovating some of the galleries of Angkor. The dirt track from the toy-sized airport at Siem Reap to the site where the Indian team was hard at work was thick with red earth, forest canopy and cicada song. I had broken away from a Japanese tour group, and had jumped into a Toyota Corolla with a driver who spoke no English. Twice during the hour-long circuitous route through the jungle, we had to disembark and lift tree trunks that had fallen across the track so that we could pass. At least thrice we heard machinegun fire in the distance. That unforgettable meeting with a very committed archaeologist who braved the monsoons, Khmer Rouge shelling for nights on end, and challenging living conditions, and who gave me my first tour of the Angkor Wat, was the start of an adventure which led to an extended study of Indian influences in Cambodia, and culminated in my book Dance of Life on the mythology, history and politics of Cambodian culture.

As early as the first century CE, merchants from India who traded with the Southeast Asian kingdoms of Sumatra, Bali, Java, Cambodia, and what is present-day Vietnam, brought the rich heritage of Hindu mythology and culture to their ports of call.[2] The spirit of adventure among Indian seafarers spread in its wake a continuous flow of Indian immigrants to the islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pagan (ancient Myanmar), and Funan (present-day southern Vietnam and Cambodia).

Sometimes their halts at new ports of call were unscheduled due to bad weather of the onslaught of the monsoon, a not very well-understood phenomenon, where their ships would be forced to anchor for months before sailing. The temptation then, as it is now, among long distance travellers was to sink roots and start a family, as life seemed somewhat lonely in a new land. The process of infusion in much of Southeast Asia was mostly peaceful, through assimilation, philosophy, social interaction and the spread of religion, both Hinduism and Buddhism.

The earliest history of Kambuja—the ancient name of modern Cambodia—is steeped in a mystery yet to be cracked, as it is buried somewhere in the misty wars of dynastic succession, and locked in an intangible web of myth, legend and fact. Some of the most engaging and reliable accounts of this period are from Chinese chronicles and some ancient Sanskrit inscriptions.

Map of Southeast Asia, circa 900 CE, showing the Khmer Empire in red, Champa in yellow and Haripunjaya in light green plus additional surrounding states. Atlas of World History, Patrick Karl O' Brien and Societies, Networks, and Transitions: A Global History, Volume B, Craig A. Lockard. This map, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

The only reliable records, other than the epigraphic evidence of the history of the Khmer kingdom, recorded over fourteen centuries, come from the diaries of travellers, historians and ambassadors from the royal courts of Chinese emperors. For instance, the Chinese ambassador Kang Tai to the court of the king of Funan, Fan-siun, wrote in the third century CE about a seafarer from India named Kaundinya, who was the first to substantially introduce Indian customs and thought to Kambuja as early as the first century CE. In his account, Kang Tai related history laced with legend and myth that came closest to generally accepted fact:[3]

The sovereign of Funan was originally a female called Lieu-ye (Willow Leaf). There was a person called Huen-chen (original Indian name was Kaundinya) of Ho-fu. He was a staunch devotee of a Brahmanical god who was pleased with his piety. He dreamt that the god gave him a divine bow and asked him to set sail on a trading vessel. At dawn he went to the temple of the god and found the bow. He, then, embarked on his voyage and the god changed the course of the winds so that he arrived at Funan. Lieu-ye, the ethnic princess, came to pillage the wayfaring seaman and then, wonder of wonders, Huen-chen shot an arrow from the divine bow that pierced the queen’s vessel. She surrendered. They were happily married, and Huen-chen began to rule the country.

In his celebrated book, Angkor, which he wrote in 1937, Sir Malcolm    MacDonald gave a vivid and engaging description of the queen:

As was the custom amongst her simple people, her majesty was completely naked. Willow Leaf did not even wear a fig leaf. Deploring this evidence of savagery, Kaundinya at once presented his prisoner with a roll of cloth with which to wrap herself.

I like to think there is a direct relationship between Willow Leaf and the ladies who live nowadays on the same spot in the delta of the Mekong River; that she was the original mother, the ancestral Eve of all the modern generations of damsels in Cochin China—those black-haired, slanting eyed beauties whose serene faces and slim, graceful and indeed willowy figures placed them amongst the loveliest women in the world.

The Kaundinya fact, myth, or legend is mentioned in a Sanskrit inscription found in Champa in 657 CE:[4]

At Bhavapura, Kaundinya, foremost of the Brahmans of this city, planted the javelin that he had received from the eminent Brahmana Asvattama, son of Drona. There was a daughter of the king of the Nagas, of birth…who founded on the earth which carried the name of Soma [In Puranic mythology, Soma is the moon, and sometimes also the daughter of the moon]: having adopted this state, remarkable thing, she lived in a human dwelling. The foremost of the Munis named Kaundinya, married her for the accomplishment of the rites.

Interestingly, the Brahmans, the hallowed priestly class in India, are still said to have a special clan named Kaundinya, as mentioned in an inscription dated around second century CE found near Mysore, Karnataka. Although Kaundinya, a Hindu prince, may indeed have come from India, the possibility that he may have been a Hindu from Java, Sumatra or from any of the Malay Hindu princely states cannot be totally ruled out.

There is still another myth of origin of the Khmer people connected to the nagas, or serpents. Although Cambodians call themselves Khmers (some scholars suggest after Mera, the apsara, who coupled with the great father of the Khmer race, Kambu, a “descendant of the solar dynasty,”) historians often refer to them as Kambujas, or sons of Kambu, a legendary ancestor. In this legend, Kambu Swayambhuva, a king from Aryadesa, a part of ancient India, on his wanderings found himself in a grotto in the arid Cambodian wilderness. To his utter horror, Kambu landed in the pit of multi-headed snakes whose brilliant eyes all focused on him. Kambu drew his sword from the scabbard and approached the largest of the serpents.

When he came close to the snake, it spoke to him in a human voice and asked him where Kambu was from. In the course of his story, Kambu mentioned Lord Siva, upon which the serpent introduced himself as the Lord of the Serpents and declared that Lord Siva was his king too. The naga king invited him to stay in the land and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Kambu. The latter accepted. The naga king used his magical powers to turn the desert into a lush and fertile paradise and Kambu ruled over the kingdom which was later named Kambuja.

The French art historian and archaeologist, Henri Parmentier, wrote in 1932: “It seems to be mainly an aboriginal population which was civilized at different times by religious and commercial emigrants from India. It is thus that they received their initial artistic inspiration; but they build their monuments themselves, modifying the Hindu teachings according to their own personality.”[5] Parmentier, along with most scholars, have reached the consensus that although there was a strong Hindu influence, the Khmers cherry-picked in order to impose their own personality on their evolving cultural ethos.

This stele found at Tháp Mười in Đồng Tháp Province, Vietnam and now located in the Museum of History in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the few extant writings that can be attributed confidently to the kingdom of Funan. The text is in Sanskrit, written in Grantha alphabet of the Pallava dynasty, dated to the mid-fifth century CE, and tells of a donation in honour of Visnu by a Prince Gunavarman of the Kaundinya lineage. This image, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

The successive waves and wavelets, of travellers from the flourishing seafaring Pallava, Pala, and Chola dynasties between the fourth and tenth centuries CE also brought language and social structure. Many Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions have been found that demonstrate that a caste system had also made its mark, although in a less rigorous form. Some Indian myths and legends were imbibed along with marriage and funerary rites. Chinese travellers observed that their style of architecture was borrowed from India, and the rich influx of Indian artisans, traders and royalty made remarkable etchings on Khmer Funanese culture as both Sanskrit and Khmer alphabets have been discovered in ancient Khmer inscriptions. Through the six colourful centuries, Kaundinya’s descendants continued to rule and then generals like Fan-chi-man and Fan-siun slowly annexed more vassal states and territories. In 503 CE, Jayavarman (his family name was also Kaundinya like the first Indian prince to have sailed to Funan), sent an emissary to the imperial court in China with presents that included an image of the Buddha made of coral.  

Although relations between Funan and China were cordial, Chinese influence on Funanese life was limited to the field of commerce. Unlike the Indian influence, which had a deep and long-pervading impact, China did not project itself on the lives of the people.

Occasional trouble spots certainly emerged, such as the time when a Hindu visitor known as Chantan (in Chinese), possibly Chandan or Chandra from eastern India, might have tried to claim the Funanese throne in 357 CE. Chinese history has a reference to this incident. Some historians have put together evidence showing that Chantan could have been a member of the royal Kushana family from India, who, having lost his land to the invincible Gupta kings in the earlier part of the fourth century, may have come to Funan to try his luck at the throne.

 In the process of settlement amid rich fertile riverine deltas that yielded enough fish and rice to live comfortable existences, many of the merchants married indigenous women and imperceptibly passed on their social, religious, and cultural genes over hundreds of years. These new thoughts, ideas and words began a new lexicon of cultural and religious icons in what we now know as Southeast Asia.

It was there in the fifth and sixth centuries CE that Cambodian classical dance took its first infant steps, a form of art that was anchored in the 3,000 years old southern Indian dance form of Bharat Natyam. The connection between dance and the temple in India was an ancient and pervasive one. Indian classical dance was the sapling that grew from the roots of religion from the time the Natya Sastra (the rules of dance and the performative arts, the bible of Indian artists) was written in the second century CE, arguably by the sage Bharata who wrote it down as he listened to the recitation of the creator of the universe, Lord Brahma.

It is evident from the sculptural remains of the southern Indian temples that dance had an elevated social position as an expression of devotion. The ancient temples in India were the setting for a mythological scenario where music and dance were handed down as divine heritage to humans by gods and goddesses. To be seen by thousands of visitors and devotees, the scenes from Hindu mythology were chiseled everywhere: in lintels, recesses, tympanums, pillars, bas-reliefs, galleries and sanctums in Kambuja and Java as well.

It is to the credit of this southern Indian form that the oldest classical dance traditions of India, Java and Kambuja have been conserved in the wake of some truly tumultuous centuries of cultural erosion, ceaseless battles, and marauding armies. This art form melded with indigenous Khmer mythology and dance was effectively preserved in Kambuja at various points in time. The Indian sastras and epics are crowded with references to the images of a dancing Siva, especially as Nataraja, and the dancing forms of Ganesa, the son of Siva and the lord of success and the remover of obstacles.

The concept of Siva as Nataraja travelled far and lived long in the minds of the peoples of the lands who imported the philosophy of dance as being related to divinity, fertility, and wisdom. The Department of Fine Arts of the government of Thailand has chosen for its logo an image of Ganesa, who is associated with learning, the arts and dance.

The Indian influence in Cambodia is preserved in historical and epigraphic evidence in the form of inscriptions, such as the 1,000 Siva lingas on the shallow bed of the Stung Kbal Spean River on the sacred mountain, Mahendraparvat, now known as Phnom Kulen, where the Khmer King Jayavarman II declared himself devaraja (god-king), and where he was consecrated cakravartin (universal monarch) in 802 CE.

The 1,000 Siva lingas on the riverbed of Kbal Spean. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

An inscription, chiseled 250 years after Jayavarman II’s momentous decision to declare his independence and heralded as the most important of all Cambodian inscriptions of the Angkorean period—the period referring to the Angkor Empire from 802-1432 CE—was the single key to many locks about the mystery of the construction of Angkor: the establishment of the independent kingdom of Kambuja by Jayavarman II, and the importance of the devaraja cult as an essentially Khmer model of worship and kingship.

The model never had an exact precedent in India, but it was mirrored in the royal dynasties in Champa—an Indianised state in central and southern Vietnam from approximately the second century CE—with chief priest Brighu, and in Java with chief priest Agastya appearing clearly in the role of royal preceptors. This inscription also provided a murmur of the thunderous wave of Saivite thought that would reign supreme in the next two centuries, until the eleventh century CE right through a line of Cambodian monarchs, for 250 years. It endorsed the beginning of the Brahmans’ elevated status in the Ankorean court.

But most interestingly (for our purposes of finding a link between classical Khmer dance and the worship of Siva), this inscription established the pervasive trend of Siva worship, thereby underlining the importance of dance performance as part of the reverence of Siva.

Lord Visnu reclining on the serpent god Ananta, with Goddess Lakshmi at his feet and Lord Brahma on a lotus petal, on the Kbal Spean river bank. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

The compact Khmer temple, Prasat Sdok Kok Thom, representing the epitome of Khmer glory and power, crystallised the core of the devaraja philosophy: the king who is god on earth. It was built by the King Udayityavarman II, a highly accomplished scholar of the Sanskrit sastras. Almost inaccessible in the 1980s, it was used at different points in the 1970s and 1980s for plunder and loot by the political factions of civil war-torn Cambodia. And it was only as recently as 1990 when the Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn expressed an interest in visiting this renowned, though crumbling, structure located in Thai territory, that Thai troops entered to clear it of land mines and the occupying Khmer People’s National Liberation Front troops, which in the late 1990s came under the direction of the front’s leader, Son Sann.

In Angkorean sculpture and bronze casting, Siva as the Lord of Dance is prevalent. M. Giteau, in her work Khmer Sculpture, speaks of the five-headed, ten-armed dancing Siva. Idols of the dancing Siva with ten arms, known popularly as Natakesvara, have been found in the Bantey Srei temple (Citadel of Women), a tenth-century CE monument located at a short distance from the temples of Angkor Wat, as well as in the bas-reliefs of the latter temples.

Of course, this 1052 CE inscription is valuable also because little is known about Jayavarman II’s life, his antecedents or his family. Where did he come from, why indeed did he go to Java, and when exactly did he return? These questions have befuddled most scholars, and fielded half-baked analyses at best and wild theories at worst. This inscription makes a direct reference to Jayavarman II, who on his return from Java, which was then ruled by the powerful Sailendra kings, established an independent kingdom of Kambuja.

Jayavarman II invited the Brahman Hiranyadama, who was well-schooled in esoteric tantric rituals, to perform these rites, so Kambujadesa—the land of Kambu—would no longer be a vassal state of Java but would declare itself an independent state led by a great ruler. Hiranyadama came from a janapada (populous city) possibly from Bharatavarsa (India), according to the inscription, or as more recent Cambodian scholars argue, from the Cambodian Kulen region itself. He installed the cult of the devaraja, which for nearly 600 years would remain the state religion, even when Buddhism was widely practiced. Hiranyadama introduced Brahman rituals in the court: he initiated the young royal Brahman Sivakaivalya into the secrets of the devaraja cult.

In his teachings he used four books: Brahmavinasikha, Nayottara, Sammoha, and Siraschheda. L.P. Briggs and other scholars have pointed out that at this time in Bengal, a very powerful state ruled by the Pala dynasty, and through much of the northern Indian belt, Saivism was “inoculated with tantrism, shamanism, and magic practices, and even Mahayanist Buddhism was adopting many of the forms and practices of Saivism.”[6]

A Siva lingam within the Angkor Wat. Photo by Julie Banerjee Mehta.

Hiranydama also installed a royal lingam to be worshipped as a royal god, a symbol of the divine ego, and protector of the realm. The hereditary character of the king was established firmly with this cult. His ego was preserved and not allowed to diminish or disappear after his death. Research in the first seven decades of the twentieth century, especially by Philippe Stern, has shown that one of the most derelict temples on the Kulen plateau, Krus Preah Aram Rong Chen, was indeed the temple where Jayavarman II installed the royal lingam. The lingam was in fact regarded the tutelary deity and the transfer of the dead king’s ego to his successor was ensured through the chanting of the proper mantras and by performing the correct kriya, karya, and padhyati (ceremonies, rites and rituals). Information may be lacking about the exact nature of the ceremonies, but the Sanskrit portion of this inscription calls these sastras the four faces of the celestial spirit or the gandharva named Tumburu (in this case, the divine envoy of Siva), who represents the four mouths of Siva.

All this historical and epigraphic evidence gleaned from the inscription of Sdok Kok Thom, endorsed the establishment of a Saivite devaraja cult under the Khmer kings who ruled the Angkorean Empire. In addition, the extensive knowledge of the Hindu sastras acquired by the rajpurohitas (chief priests of the king), provides first-hand experience of the practice of Hinduism by Jayavarman II, the architect of a six-hundred-year period of the Khmer Empire, and points to a line of highly motivated Khmer kings who had painstakingly read the exhaustive literature of the Sanskrit sastras. The Khmer kings were schooled by preceptors who were equally skilled linguists and grammarians, and who had the core knowledge of Hinduism passed on to them by their fathers over generations in the guru-shishya parampara where teachers bestow their accumulated knowledge to the students. The Khmer kings used the Brahmans to gain direct connection to the ultimate divine power over the universe. And the Brahmans, as in their original homelands, in their turn used their powerful and favoured status in the Khmer court to gain more temporal power and glory.

Historical evidence seems to suggest that between the fourth and twelfth centuries, the powerful southern Indian Pallava and Chola dynasties as well as the eastern Indian Pala and Sena dynasties intermittently but recurrently exported temple dance and the accompanying rituals and philosophy, and the oral and visual traditions through the kingdom of Java to the court of Kambuja, as they had exported religion and language. But the important fact to remember is that the importers did not adopt the Indian style blindly. Indeed, like the purely Cambodian flavour of the devaraja cult which has no exact parallel in India, classical Indian temple dance, too, was absorbed selectively, and was woven into the fabric of what was already in existence in Cambodia.

Scene from the Ramayana at Angkor Wat. This photo, by the courtesy of Wikicommons, is in the public domain.

In her comprehensive introduction to Khmer Court Dance, the Cambodian classical dancer Chan Moly Sam, now resident in the United States, draws a direct association between the old devadasi cult of temple worship in India and the temple dancers who were dedicated by the Khmer kings to their temples: “The concept of the devaraja included dance and dancers as a sacred part of the role of worship. They were called devadasi or the servants of god and their lives were dedicated to performing ritual dances and other important services in front of the idols. Offerings were made with dancing, praying and music.”[7] She adds: “With their soul and feeling, dancers used their movements, gestures and postures as a sacred language to communicate with the world of god.”

Solange Thierry, a former member of the French School of the Far East (École française d'Extrême-Orient) and a former curator of the Cambodian National Museum, as well as a scholar of Khmer art, explains in her book The Khmers: “Everything comes from India, but all is transformed, all is Khmer.”[8] In her memorable work, Les Dances Sacrees, Thierry builds the case for the argument put forth by Chan Moly Sam with relevant data culled from the inscriptions: “With the dance and dancers the God King placated the celestial powers in order to ensure the safety and glory of his subjects. This resulted in a vast number of devadasis.”[9] Thierry demonstrates that under the king Indravarman in the ninth century, forty-two dancers entered the priesthood to perform at the temples.

The prima ballerina of the Royal Cambodian Ballet company, Ouk Solichumnit (right) and performer Em Kim An in Bangkok during a cultural visit in 1999. Photo by Julie Banerjee Mehta.

The links to the past were clearly discernible in the court of the king Norodom Sihanouk. The high priests, the bakus, at the essentially Buddhist court in the present day are in fact descendants of Hindu Brahmans, many of whom still wear the holy thread and carry out a host of Hindu rituals, such as the Ploughing Ceremony.

Towards the end of the eighth century, the Pala dynasty of Bengal was one of the three great powers ruling India around the same time that Jayavarman II began to assert his authority in Kambuja. L.P. Briggs draws a close association between the Pala contemporaries of the Khmer monarchs of the time. The historian R.C. Majumdar wrote in 1952 that during the time of Devapala, who ruled for forty years between 815 and 855 CE, the fame of this Bengal king’s prowess reached the distant isles in the Indian archipelago. Maharaja Balaputradeva, the Sailandra king of Suvarnadwipa (Java) erected a monastery at Nalanda, and, at his request, Devapala granted five villages for its maintenance. Protected by the Pala dynasty, the influence of the university at Nalanda extended all over Southeast Asia. Briggs explains that although Buddhism was predominant at Nalanda, the influence was not wholly Mahayanist because at the time a “peculiar syncretism was taking place at Nalanda between Mahayanism and Sivaism and the two creeds were working side by side in perfect harmony. Sivaic teachers also came to Java, possibly also a rishi named Agastya, patron saint of the Tamil culture, namesake of the rishi of that name mentioned in the Vedas.”

During the rule of the King Nandivarman III (730-800 CE) of the Pallava dynasty of southern India, the Pallavas increased their influence across the seas because he was an ambitious ruler and is believed to have built a powerful fleet. A Tamil inscription at Takua pa, in peninsular Thailand, refers to a temple of Visnu and a tank called Avaninaranam that he had built in Kanchi. His exploits were spoken of in awe in Southeast Asia.

For his part, the Khmer king Suryavarman I, too, did much to spread Khmer glory far when he asserted his authority over northern Siam and appointed Kambuja chiefs to rule over the population. According to R.C. Majumdar in Hindu Colonies in the Far East, from this time Khmer art and culture were firmly planted in the Menam Valley (Siam) and Khmer civilisation spread in the north as far as Sukhothai and Sawankhalok.[10] The powerful cult of Siva was also propagated by their easterly neighbours, the kings of Champa—the Hindu kingdom in present-day central Vietnam—who regarded Siva as the tutelary deity.

The Bhadresvara lingam, originally placed at a temple in My Son in present-day Vietnam at the beginning of the fifth century CE, as well as the Sambhu-Bhadresvara lingam and the Srisana Bhadresvara deity, commanded the reverence of princes and paupers in the kingdom of Champa. The whole valley of the lower Mekong, part of the valley of the Menam, up to the western-most borders of what was the Khmer Empire from the time of Jayavarman VII (and what we now know as Kanchanaburi with the Bridge on the River Kwai) were under Siva’s thunderous dancing feet. The secret lay in the inimitable icon—the lingam—a symbol of national unity that would bring warring factions and dynasties and six centuries into a jostling and vibrant Khmer diaspora of the glory of the Angkorean Empire.

There is no doubt that Suryavarman I, possibly a son of the king of Tambralinga and a Khmer princess of the family of Saptadevakula, was himself a scholar of the Sanskritic texts. Tambralinga, a principality in the north Malay peninsula, was at the time a vassal of the Srivijaya Kingdom, and was for a short time conquered by Raja Rajendra Chola from a southern Indian kingdom in 1025 CE. An undated Sanskrit pillar inscription, for instance, in the temple of Preah Khan of Kompong Svay (not to be confused with the temple of the same name within the Angkor Wat complex) seems to celebrate the dedication of the temple to the Buddha, whom it praises especially for his knowledge of the sastras.

Only very occasionally was there conflict, and it was not provoked by any Indian kingdom. When the Indonesian kingdom of Srivijaya used its powerful naval fleet to coerce all ships passing through the region and transiting through its ports to pay dues and taxes, it was bound to bring reprisal. In order to enforce a monopoly over the India-China trade route, Srivijaya acquired territorial control over the strategic areas around the Straits of Malacca and the Isthmus of Kra. According to the Arab chronicler, Sulayman, the Srivijayan Empire extended over all of Sumatra, Kedah and western Java by the middle of the ninth century. The Arab traveller, Masudi, reported in 995 CE that it took two years to go around all the islands of the empire in the fastest vessel.

Srivijaya’s domination of the India-China trade route remained unchallenged for two to three centuries. The historian D.R. Sardesai explains that its high-handed practice of forcing ships to use and pay excessively for its port facilities tried the patience of the region’s rulers and traders.[11] The first challenges came from the Mataram kings of eastern Java in the last quarter of the tenth century. Some decades later, in 1025 CE, the ruler of a southern Indian kingdom, Rajendra Chola, dealt a crushing blow to the might and monopoly of Srivijaya. Historians believe that the Cholas conquered and administered large parts of the Srivijayan Empire, including its ports of Ligor, Kedah, and Tumasik, but that was only for a few decades. The Cholas faced logistical problems of exercising political control from their distant empire in southern India. The problems of the Cholas worked to the advantage of Srivijaya, who acknowledged the suzerainty of the Cholas and promised good behaviour, which satisfied the Chola king’s demand.

The women of the Angkor Empire were both celebrated and mistreated by the kings and the priests, as they were in India. The apsaras are young women in their prime in the reliefs in Angkor Wat (built by Suryavarman II and dedicated to Lord Visnu), and in the carvings at the temples of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan (built by Jayavarman VII, who was a Buddhist). The bodies of the apsaras are gently rounded with firm swelling breasts and singhakotis (slim, lion-like waists). Their toplessness and natural endowments are very much part of the acceptance of physical beauty in Hindu and Buddhist thought.

Ancient India and Kambuja also shared an unsavoury temple practice: the ritual of the deflowering of pubescent girls by monks who used their religious authority for personal satisfaction. The visiting Chinese envoy, Chou Ta Kuan, who visited the court of the King Indravarman III at Angkor, recorded the hegemony of the temple patriarchy.

The stupa at Sanchi, perhaps the greatest monument to Buddhism, also boasts carvings of beautifully-endowed women on each of its four gateways. Examined individually, the very stance of the figure, with her arm sensuously around the crook of a mango tree, the partially-clothed body suggestively bent in the classic tribhanga pose (an undulation at the waist causes the torso to be bent in three) makes a powerful statement about women being celebrated for their fecundity and are thus treated as auspicious motifs throughout Indian art and architecture, with Buddhist art fielding some of the most exquisite examples.

As Vidya Dehejia explains in her book, Indian Art, there was no dichotomy between the celebration of life, fertility and the bounties from the gods and worship of the giver of these gifts: “Woman was associated with fertility and thus, in turn, with growth, abundance and prosperity. What might seem a paradox to modern minds was not so to the ancient…in the Buddhist and Hindu context. Woman was not associated with sin: there was no Eve responsible for the fall of humanity.”[12]

An Apsara sculpted into the walls of Angkor Wat. Photo by Julie Banerjee Mehta.

Dehejia explains: “Beyond auspiciousness, however, the woman-and-tree motif carried an added dimension of meaning due to a widely-prevalent ancient belief that by her very touch, woman could cause a tree to blossom or bear fruit.” Ancient writers including the famed poet Kalidasa (400 CE) alluded to this belief in their Sanskrit dramas and poems. Later on, the texts codified the theme by specifying the exact actions needed to evoke response from the different species of trees. “The ashoka tree responded to the touch of the woman’s foot; the piyala to the sound of her singing; the kesara to the wine from her mouth,” Dehejia writes. “The mango tree, beneath which the Sanchi figure stands, was believed to blossom at the sound of a woman’s laughter.”

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi with the Royal Cambodian Ballet company dancers in Phnom Penh, in 1994. Photo by Julie Banerjee Mehta.

The Sanchi figures, generally described as yaksis, had a pan-Asian presence, especially in the Khmer psyche, in which the tree spirit and the serpent spirit Nagi had shared dwellings and were associated with undergrowth and moisture.

Apsaras are one of the keys to the mystery of Cambodia’s ancient heritage of classical dance in their representation as celestial beings with stunning grace, most often posing languorously, and sometimes coquettishly with a mirror in hand, occasionally with discernible individualistic features. It is to the credit of visionaries and keepers of the faith such as Queen Sisowath Kossamak and her granddaughter Princess Norodom Buppha Devi that a laudable effort has been made to preserve the purity of the dance form based on the images of the apsaras carved in the media of stone.

Julie Mehta holds a Master's degree and PhD in English Literature and South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto, and also an MA from Jadavpur University, Calcutta. A specialist in world literature and cultural studies, she currently teaches post-colonial literature at Loreto College, Calcutta, and has taught at the University of Toronto and York University in Canada. She is the author of Dance of Life: The Mythology, History, and Politics of Cambodian Culture, and co-author of Hun Sen: Strongman of Cambodia (with Harish C. Mehta). She has been researching Cambodian history and culture since the early 1990s, and has visited Cambodia several times over the last three decades to conduct archival research and interviews with survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.


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[2] R.C. Majumdar, Hindu Colonies in the Far East (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1963).

[3] Malcolm MacDonald, Angkor and the Khmers (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[4] Sanskrit Inscription, Champa, 657 CE, from Les Inscriptions de Mi-Son, trans. Louis Finot, Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient 4 (1904).

[5] Henri Parmentier, Henri Parmentier’s Guide to Angkor (Phnom Penh: EKLIP, 19-).

[6] Lawrence Palmer Briggs, The Ancient Khmer Empire (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1999).

[7] Chan Moly Sam, Khmer Court Dance: A Comprehensive Study of Movements, Gestures, and Postures as Applied Techniques (Siem Reap, Cambodia: Khmer Studies Institute, 1987).

[8] Solange Thierry, The Khmers, trans. Gail Armstrong (Pondicherry: Kailash Editions, 1997).

[9] Solange Thierry, Les Dances Sacrées, Sources Orientales 6, Aux editions Seuil (Paris: Tier a Part, 1963).

[10] Majumdar, Hindu Colonies in the Far East.

[11] D.R. Sardesai, Southeast Asia: Past and Present (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010)

[12] Vidya Dehejia, Indian Art (London: Phaidon, 1997).