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A Hindu temple steeped in history

Perched on a 525-metre high cliff on the Dangrek Mountain range, Preah Vihear provided an ideal setting for a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva by the past monarchs of the Brahman-influenced Khmer Empire.
None | By Peter Janssen, DPA, Preah Vihear, Cambodia
UPDATED ON JUN 18, 2008 09:01 AM IST

Preah Vihear, a millennium-old temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, the divine destroyer, has been a magnet for conflicts in its recent history.

The temple, which may be designated a world heritage site by UNESCO next month, prompted an ownership spat between Cambodia and Thailand that led to a suspension of diplomatic relations in 1958 and eventually ended up in The Hague for an international settlement in 1962. Cambodia won, but even today embers of the old border dispute burn on.

Preah Vihear also provided the "last stand" in two very different Cambodian civil wars.

In May, 1975 the last remnants of the pro-US Lon Nol army finally fell to the Khmer Rouge at the mountain-top Preah Vihear and then in December 1998, the temple site was used to negotiate the surrender of diehard remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Scars from these recent military conflicts remain, including strategically situated cement bunkers around the temple complex, bullet holes in its limestone bricks that the Khmer Rouge shot up for AK-47 target practice and rusting artillery pieces. The leftover land mines have reportedly been removed.

Perched on a 525-metre high cliff on the Dangrek Mountain range, Preah Vihear provided an ideal setting for a temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva by the past monarchs of the Brahman-influenced Khmer Empire.

It is believed that construction on the temple, built in several stages starting with the Shiva sanctuary at the top and moving down the mountain side in four levels, began some time in the 9th century, well before Cambodia's spectacular Angkor Wat complex was built.

At its height of power in the 12th to 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire encompassed much of modern-day Thailand.

"It included everything right up to Lopburi and all of what is now Bangkok," said Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known Thai historian and social critic.

The Thai empire didn't really become a regional force until the 15th century, with the rise of Ayutthaya.

Thai invasions of Cambodia, then in its decline, led to the adoption of many Khmer cultural traditions by the Thais, including the Hindu concept of god-kings and court rituals, and an ongoing fondness for Brahman-inspired black magic, especially among Thai politicians, noted Sulak.

Besides Preah Vihear there are many other Khmer-style temples to be found in Thailand, especially in the north-eastern provinces bordering Cambodia such as Buri Ram, Surin and Si Sa Ket.

Preah Vihear, arguably the most magnificent, has proven the most contentious.

The French, former colonial masters of Indochina, began delineating the Thai-Cambodian border in 1904, using the watershed along the Dangrek Mountain range as one of the landmarks.

Although Preah Vihear is rather clearly on what is now the Thai side of the Dangrek cliff edge, on the French-composed map the temple mysteriously moved inside the Cambodian side of the watershed.

But because Thailand never officially objected to the French map, it lost Preah Vihear to the newly independent Cambodia at the International Court of Justice June 15, 1962.

"Something tricky happened," said Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat, in reference to the original French map. "If you used the watershed to divide the border Phear Vihear should be on Thai territory, but the court ruled that since we never expressed our objection, the map flaw was immaterial."

Although Thailand lost the temple to Cambodia, Cambodia lost Pheah Vihear's three Shiva lingams (originally in the sanctuary), to Thailand. The whereabouts of the missing lingams remains a mystery.

When Cambodia decided to propose Preah Vihear as a world heritage site to the Unesco in 2007, the old territorial dispute came to life again.

Thailand objected on the grounds that the site's map, as drawn up by Cambodia, included some territory outside the temple compound that is still disputed, and derailed Phnom Penh's initial Preah Vihear push at Unesco.

At a meeting between Thai and Cambodian officials May 22 at Unesco's Paris headquarters, the Cambodian side agreed to redraw the inscription map, including only the temple.

Although there are still some minor objections, Thailand will hopefully accept the new map in time for Unesco to name Preah Vihear a world heritage site at its meeting next month.

But by limiting the site to only the temple compound, and not the surroundings, the UN body will have less say over the Preah Vihear neighbourhood, which bodes ill for the site.

For instance, there is already talk of a Chinese firm seeking a concession to build a hotel-casino complex on the Cambodian side of the border, and maybe even a cable car to help ferry gamblers to and from the temple.

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