It’s in travelling that we better know ourselves

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 17, 2015 21:10 IST
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century (Photo: iStock)

Sometimes, the more you travel away from home, the more you appreciate it. Indians who visit the West always come back with talk about the success of our people abroad. And each time I go East, I am struck by the magnitude of the achievements of our distant ancestors.

Let’s start with Thailand. I wrote some weeks ago about being in Bangkok when the Erawan shrine was bombed. I wrote that I was pretty sure that the Thais, who worship this avatar of Brahma, would ensure that the temple re-opened within a month or so.

I was wrong. They did it in much less time. And when I went back last week, it was as though nothing had ever happened; as though there had never been a bomb blast. I went to pray at the shrine and found the place teeming with Thais, lighting agarbattis and bowing before the Brahma murti.

Bangkok was also entirely normal. I made a point of staying at the Grand Hyatt Erawan, on whose grounds the temple is located, and the hotel was buzzing. Grand weddings took over the banquet hall, tourists thronged the lobby, and many guests took the side entrance to visit the shrine.

As you know, Thailand is a Buddhist country. But such is the influence of Hindu tradition and culture that Buddhists are happy to worship Hindu deities, and not far from the Erawan shrine, you also find a huge murti of Ganesha. On Navratra, the Hindu temple on Silom Road is clogged with Thai Buddhists. And of course, the kings of Thailand all take the name of Rama and have Brahmin priests.

Such is the influence of Hindu culture that Buddhists also worship Hindu deities. Not far from the Erawan shrine is a huge Ganesha murti (Photo: Vir Sanghvi)

But why focus only on Hinduism? Even Buddhism is a religion that grew out of the subcontinent. And in much of South-East Asia, they seem to have welcomed both religions together. In both cases, it was monks from India who went to spread the word and remarkably, there were no conversions by force and no use either of inducements or the sword. Yet, such was the strength of India’s religious and cultural traditions that the first monks had spread their faiths throughout South-East Asia, much before the birth of Christ or the establishment of Islam.

Even though Buddhism took a firmer hold in South-East Asia in later years (except, notably, in Bali), Hindu traditions, rituals, customs and mythology still retain a powerful hold. It is, as far as I know, the only example of a cultural legacy persisting over thousands of years even though the people have switched to another religion.

While I was thrilled to see the crowds back at the Erawan shrine, nothing had prepared me for the sheer majesty of Angkor Wat. You’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat. It is the main (if not only) reason that tourists visit Cambodia, and a whole town, Siem Reap, with luxury hotels, shops etc, has grown up on the basis of Angkor Wat-related business. You probably also know that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What you may not know is that Angkor Wat, probably the largest religious structure in the world, was built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century. It wasn’t built by Indians. It was built by the local king who was a Hindu and who wanted to create a temple that captured the sense of Mount Meru or the home of the gods. It is dedicated to Vishnu and has long been the stuff of legend. A 13th century Chinese traveller wrote, for instance, that some believed that the temple magically sprung up on a single night by divine intervention.

Heaven on earth: Angkor Wat was built by the local king, a Hindu who wanted to create a temple that captured the sense of Mount Meru or the home of the Gods. It was dedicated to Vishnu. (Photo: Vir Sanghvi)

It is not hard to see why legends grew up around Angkor Wat. The city of Angkor (now destroyed) built around the temple occupied an area much larger than present-day Paris. The temple used around 10 million blocks of sandstone, much more than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. The city of Angkor used more sandstone than all of the pyramids of Egypt put together.

These sandstone blocks were fitted tightly together without any mortar or cement-like substance. The intricate carvings on them were done by artisans who came to the site and began work after the blocks had been installed. It must have required thousands of men to build the temple. Each block of sandstone was carted to Angkor Wat from a quarry 25 miles away, so the effort it took can scarcely be imagined today.

Angkor was overrun and sacked by the Khmer (Cambodian) empire’s traditional rivals, the Cham kings of Vietnam. But they did not damage the temple because they too were Hindus. When, eventually, the Khmers were able to re-establish their empire, the kings adopted Buddhism (which had already been around for centuries in Cambodia) perhaps because of resentment against the Hindu Cham conquerors.

If Angkor Wat was the only temple in the region, a trip to Siem Reap would still be worth it. But there are many other temples in the vicinity, though, admittedly, none of them is quite as majestic as Angkor Wat. You may have seen photos of the Bayan temple, which was built primarily as a Buddhist temple but took on Hindu elements when a Hindu King came to power in the mid-13th century.

Its most striking feature is the many faces carved on its outer walls. Guides call it the “temple of the smiling Buddha” but, in fact, it is by no means clear that the faces are meant to represent the Buddha. The theory favoured by most historians is that the faces represent the man who built the temple, King Jayavarman VII, who asked his sculptors to make him look like a Bodhisattva.

You’ve probably seen photos of Ta Prohm, even if you don’t know the name. Its story tells you something about the Indian influence in Cambodia and the way in which Hindu and Buddhist traditions intermingled. Though the temple was built by a Buddhist king who called it Raja Vihar, it soon came to be known as Ta Prohm after Brahma (called Prohm in Cambodia and Phrom in Thailand).

Ta Prohm takes on the local name for Brahma (Photo: Vir Sanghvi)

It is famous as the temple that the forest reclaimed because, over the centuries, trees have grown in and around the temple, wrapping their branches around the walls. Part of the Angelina Jolie movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed here and tourists still gather to have their photo taken at the spots where Jolie did her flexing and pouting routines.

My favourite of the lesser-known temples is the Shiva temple called Banteay Srei, which is much older than Angkor Wat. It is a peaceful and delicately designed temple rather than a majestic one and I like it because it is, quite clearly, a South Indian temple, though my guide seemed dubious when I suggested this.

I did some research and discovered that it was originally called Tribhuwan Maheshwar, but that over time, Chola sculptors and traders took it over and remodelled it on the lines of a Tamil temple. There are Natraj images and references to Tamil tradition. Because the temple was remodelled by a later ruler, various influences have merged and the image of Hanuman, the guardian of the temple was probably added later as were the scenes from the Ramayana.

Merging cultures: Banteay Srei, much older than Angkor Wat, was originally called Tribhuwan Maheshwar. Chola sculptors later remodelled it on the lines of a Tamil temple. (Photo: Vir Sanghvi)

The more I read about Cambodia’s temples, the more fascinated I became with the influence our ancestors had had over South-East Asia. Even now, with Hinduism having largely disappeared from the area, much of the region follows a religion that originated in the Gangetic plain: Buddhism.

You should go to Cambodia. It’s quite cheap. You fly to Bangkok and then take a Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap. That flight is overpriced because Bangkok Airways has a virtual monopoly on that sector, but once you get to Siem Reap, everything is inexpensive. There are no taxis so people travel by tuk-tuks, which are not the modified autos you find in Thailand but are scooters with little trailers attached.

Nobody uses the local currency so you pay everywhere in dollars. A tuk-tuk to most parts of the city will cost between one or two dollars. Two people can feast for ten dollars. A massage will cost around five dollars and there are scores of cheap but clean hotels.

If you want to go the luxury route, there’s the old Grand Hotel, which is run by Fairmont these days. Or you can do what I did and stay in the heart of the city at the old Hotel de La Paix, which is now a Park Hyatt and combines a great location with a sense of being an oasis of peace. (Sort of like a boutique version of Calcutta’s Oberoi Grand.)

The people are friendly. Nobody will try and cheat you. And the more you explore Cambodia’s temples, the prouder you will feel of our own cultural traditions. Because it is in travelling that we better know ourselves.

From HT Brunch, October 18

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