An 11th century temple in Cambodia, located near its border with Thailand and the subject of lingering tension between the two Southeast Asian countries, will now be renovated by India.
The Preah Vihear temple has been in the limelight this year over Cambodia's bid to get a Unesco world heritage status for it, but was objected to by Thailand.
A senior official in the external affairs ministry said Cambodia had approached India to take up the conservation of the Preah Vihear temple about six months ago. "The request had been routed through our ambassador," the official, who could not be identified as per service rules, told IANS.
The government has already asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to start work on a conservation plan for the temple.
It is expected that an announcement would be made to coincide with the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to India next month.
India has been conducting temple diplomacy across Southeast Asia, harnessing the ASI to renovate important medieval temples in the region built by dynasties that had links with India.
An ASI team has been conserving the Ta Phrom temple in Cambodia's world-famous Angkor Wat complex since 2004, with the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai conducting the structural study.
Similarly, ASI had also been asked to draw up a conservation plan for the ruins of Wat Phou temple in Southern Laos. In Indonesia, Indian archaeologists are helping to renovate the Hindu temples at Prambanan, Yogyakarta, that were damaged by the 2006 Java earthquake.
Indian diplomats said the strategy is to stress the common cultural links between India and Southeast Asia as medieval trade links with south Indian kingdoms led to the spread of Indian religion, language and culture in the region.
The Preah Vihear temple built during the Khmer empire is perched on a cliff in Dangrek Mountains, just across the Thai border. In fact, the easiest access to the temple is from the Thai side, while the Cambodian way is a ride through a mountain dirt road.
With its grand causeway climbing up the hill, the temple is supposed to be a stylised representation of Mount Meru, the habitat of gods according to Hindu mythology. Among the sculptures carved on the walls is a depiction of the Hindu mythological story of "churning of the ocean".
In 1962, the International Court of Justice had ruled that the temple was firmly in Cambodia. But with the country plunging into civil war soon after, the temple witnessed pitched battles between the Khmer rouge and the Cambodian army, with the former using it as a military camp.
Since 1998, the temple has remained open, with the only access being from Thailand. Six years later, the temple's importance in bilateral relations again came to the fore when a section of Cambodian media quoted a Thai professor as saying that Preah Vihear temple should be handed over to Thailand as compensation for the 2003 anti-Thai riots.
The latest difference of opinion over Preah Vihear between Thailand and Cambodia took place in June 2007, when the former objected to Cambodia's application before Unesco to grant the temple a world heritage site status. Unesco rejected the application this year but asked Cambodia to reapply in 2008 with a joint management plan with Thailand. In fact, the Thai embassy even warned its citizens in Cambodia to remain on alert against riots, which fortunately did not take place.
Even now, while a majority of the visitors come from Thailand to the temple, they are greeted by a large Cambodian flag atop the temple and a signboard, "I have pride to be born as a Khmer".