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Sep 19, 2008

Hinduism throbbing high in South East Asia-II


Sanskrit influence in Vietnam

By Ratnadeep Banerji

Cambodia or Kambodia is veritably the English transliteration of the French name Kambodge implying for Sanskrit Kamboja. The Funan kingdom existed in the 1st century BC as a pre-Angkor Indianised Khmer kingdom located around the Mekong Delta with its capital at Vyadhapura. Funanese culture was a blend of native beliefs and Indian ideas with Sanskrit as the court language. Funanese advocated Hinduism till the advent of Buddhism in the fifth century AD. Thus Funanese were the first in Cambodia to usher in Hinduism.

In ancient Sanskrit literature, there are references of Kambojas located in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. The Kamboja transmigration from north-west India is a fascinating chapter recognised by most of the historians.

The Khmer empire in the Indochina archipelago was founded by Jayavarman-the-second of the Kambojas which went on to become the largest empire of south-east Asia. He had earlier been a resident at the court of Sailendra in Java and towed away the Hindu culture to Cambodia. In 802 AD he declared himself Chakravartin, commemorating a Hindu ritual taken from the Hindu tradition. He founded his new capital and named it Hariharalaya after the name Harihara, a Hindu deity prominent in pre-Angkorian Cambodia having Hari and Vishnu on opposite sides.

His successors went on to build several Hindu temples. Suryavarman the second went on to make what remains the largest temple complex in the world at Angkor Wat in the early 12th century AD.

Cambodia has one of the only two Brahma temples in the world. The empire’s official religions included Hinduism besides Mahayana Buddhism till the advent of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century.

Myanmar erstwhile Burma
A paltry 2 per cent of the Burmese population amounting to 240,000 accounts for Hindus that too happen to be Burmese Indians. But Hinduism held a major sway over Burmese history and thereupon its literature. Yama Zatdaw is Burmese rendition of the Ramayana. The dominant ethnic group, Bamar living mostly in countryside follow Nat worship which has several adaptations of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The Burmese God Thagyamin, King of the Nats rides a three-headed elephant is identified with Indra, the king of Hindu Gods. Burmese Buddhists are devouts of Thuyathadi, counterpart of Saraswati. As the Goddess of knowledge, She is avidly worshipped by students before examinations. Some other Gods are as well worshipped by Burmese Buddhists.

Burmese language as such contains plethora of loanwords from Sanskrit and Pali, many being connected with religion. In Burmese culture several Hindu traditions are still perceived especially on the Burmese New Year festival, Thingyan and also during weddings. Hinduism alongwith Buddhism greatly influenced the royal courts of Burmese monarchs including their formal royal titles. The coronation ceremonies were also Hindu in origin. The architecture seen at places like Bagan reflect profound Hindu influence.

Thailand
The Khmer empire had a strong Hindu lineage. Thailand’s epic Ramkien is based on the Ramayana. The city Ayutthaya, capital of Ayutthaya province is named in remembrance of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama as in Thai Ramkien. Sadly in 1767 this city which was then among one of the world’s largest cities was razed down by the Burmese army, with only ruins left that has now been converted into a historical park and accorded a UNESCO heritage site. Several Brahminical rituals are still in vogue: use of holy strings and pouring of lustral water from conch shells. The well-known Erawan shrine has the idol of Phra Phrom, counterpart of Lord Brahma and statues of Ganesha, Indra and Shiva among other Hindu deities. Interestingly, Garuda stands insignia for the monarchy.

Vietnam
The kingdom of Champa was initially under the influence of Chinese culture. But from 4th century onwards when it took on Funan kingdom, Indian culture steadily kept creeping all throughout. This can be gauged from the fact that Champa was a confederation of five principalities— Indrapura, Amaravati, Vijaya, Kauthara and Panduranga each named after a historic region of India. Sanskrit was accorded a scholarly language and Shaivism became the state religion; Hinduism too getting a boost. This scenario remained until the 10th century when Arab maritime trade threw its Islamic mantle over Champa, then an important hub on the spice route.

From around the 4th century AD, royal temples started coming up in a valley two kilometers wide, mostly devoted to Shiva and also some to Vishnu and eventually grew to be one of the most prominent temple complexes of southeast Asia. My Son bears strong architectural resemblances with India. It had its own architectural template of that period now denoted by scholars as My Son E1 named after a particular edifice that stands emblematic of the birth of Brahma from a lotus issuing from the navel of sleeping Vishnu and the entire thing placed upon Shiva-linga serving as a pedestal. In 1969, The Vietnam War with American bombing did havoc to this temple complex. It has been selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Selected Site

Laos
It used to be a part of Khmer Empire. Phra Lak Phra Lam is the Laotian adaptation of Ramayana and is very similar to Ramakien in Thailand.

The Philippines
The chiefs of many Philippine islands were called Rajas until the advent of the Arabs in 1450. The prevalent script was derived from Brahmi. The vocabulary found in all Philippine languages bears a strong bond with Hinduism. Several statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses were hidden to prevent their destruction by Arabs and Spaniards. One such four-pound gold statue of Golden Tara, a Hindu-Malayan goddess was found in 1917 lying on the bank of Wawa River, projecting from the silt in ravine after a storm and flood. This 21 carat statue is dated from the period 1200s to early 1300s. Another gold artifact of Garuda was found at Palawan. Hinduism was deterred by Javanese missionaries spreading Islam and then kept at bay by the Spaniards spreading Christianity.

(To be continued)
(The author can be contacted at ratnaub@gmail.com)

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