Saturday, February 22, 2014

Angkor Wat: Part 1-The rise of the Nagas

Hindu religion, it is said, forbids people to cross the ocean which they call ‘kala pani’, or black waters. Beyond it lays the land of demons; once you go there you lose your identity, your religion. It was probably a desperate effort from the Brahmins to stop the adventurous traders who were making their own destiny. The traders were growing rich and powerful, challenging the authority of the priests. Indian traders have been adventurous since the time of Indus Valley Civilization. Rome once banned Indian traders as they were draining out their treasury. Sindabad, an Indian sailor from Sind found his way into the Arabian Tales. The efforts of the Brahmins went futile.
A Serpent...NAGA


India’s most valued trading partner was China. Since the time when Buddhism spread to China from India, Indians shared healthy relations with them. The route from India to China was undoubtedly the most important marine route of the ancient world. The legacy of this ancient route was left behind in South East Asia. Indian epics like Ramayana found a new home in this far-away land. Holy Indian cities like Ayodhya were recreated. The grand Hindu and Buddhist temple like those of Angkor Wat speaks of this ancient legacy. The marine route had to pass through the narrow Isthmus of Kra connecting Malay Peninsula with the main land of Asia. This Isthmus became the focal point through which South East Asia became Indianized.

The people of Funan (now parts of Cambodia and Vietnam) controlled the Isthmus of Kra. Legend has it that a Naga princess of Funan named Soma attacked an Indian ship. However Indian Brahman named Kaundinya defeated her. He spared her life only when she agreed to marry him. They both got settled in Funan and Kaundinya became its king. They had seven sons and the land was divided between each one of them. Naga’s are probably clans having serpent as their totem, and interestingly huge serpents are sculpted at the gates of the temples of Angkor. Various versions of the story exist, but it cannot be taken as a historical fact. However it does give a clue about the interactions of Indians and the people of Funan. Firstly, it showed that Indian sailors were common in this region. Secondly, people of Funan began as pirates who attacked the merchant ships. However they were not strong enough to defeat the merchants. These Indian merchants probably put in some effort to stabilize the political scenario of the area for safe passage of their ships. This was the beginning of a long constructive effort that led to the consolidation and formation of the Kingdom of Funan from separate tribal clans.

Here I go back to another myth, but from India. A prince went abroad on his ship. There he met a beautiful and enchanting Princess and fell in love. But their love could not last long forever as the Princess was a Naga of the netherworld and the Prince had to leave. While leaving, the Prince told his beloved that if she sets their child adrift with a young twig (Pallava) tied to its body he will recognize the child, find it, and give a part of his empire to his child. Thus, when the child was born the Naga Princess did as asked and the Prince recognized him and gave him a part of his empire. Thus was born the Pallava Dynasty of Andhra. One cannot help wonder how the origins of the dynasties of Funan and Pallava are linked when we hear of another story, this time more historical than mythological. The death of Pallava King Paramesvaravarman II in the 8th century leads to the end of Simhavishnu blood line. Kingless Pallava Empire desperately needed an heir, and thus the important leaders and scholars of Pallava Empire took a long and adventurous journey across the ocean in search of their king. The great king Simhavishnu’s had a brother named Bhimavarman. His sixth decedent Kadavesa Hari Varma was the king of Cambodia. The king had four sons who were the only legitimate heir of the Pallava Dynasty. The youngest son Nandivarman II agreed to the offer of becoming the king, and he was just 14 years old. This leaves no doubt that Indians were well settled in Cambodia, a trend started by the Indian merchants, and helped spread Indian language and religion in the area.


The ports of Funan began as halting points for the ships to and from China. The local Chieftains took active part in the trading activities. Sometimes they acted as middle men by transferring the Chinese goods to Indians and Europeans, and vice versa. Slowly, they started to introduce their own indigenous products in the market. South East Asian products like Camphor, sandalwood and spices were sold to the traders boosting the economy of the land. The spices became so famous that South-East Asia became the Spice Capital of the world from eleventh to eighteenth century. It would be the beginning of the golden period of South East Asia, an era in which the majestic temples like the ones in Angkor Wat will be built. 
Angkor Wat

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