“It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”
These were the words used by António da Madelena, a Portuguese monk and one of the first Western visitors to Angkor Wat, to describe the world’s largest Hindu temple complex. And rightly so, for the incredible detailing and magnificent scale of Cambodia’s most iconic monument is the ultimate expression of Khmer architectural genius.
Built by Suryavarman II at the zenith of Khmer empire in the 12th century, the temple is the earthly representation of Mt Meru — the centre of the Universe, the abode of the gods of the Hindu faith. It is surrounded by a moat (as wide as the Ganges at Haridwar!), sprawling courtyards, terraced galleries and beautifully sculpted towers.
But the piece de resistance at the temple complex has to be the twin bas reliefs of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, hundreds of metres long and adorned by hundreds of delicately carved devas, asuras and apsaras that are so varied in their poses, expressions and attire. Thus, while Angkor Wat’s architecture is distinctly Khmer, its inspiration is essentially Indian.
However, few know that the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat shares a unique link with India apart from the ancient legends on its walls: the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has played a pivotal role in restoring and conserving the temple!
Here’s the little-known tale behind this ‘past’ connection!
The year was 1986. For the past decade, Angkor Wat had remained shrouded in mystery and gun smoke as the Cambodian civil war had dragged. Apart from the battle scars left by Khmer Rouge guerrillas, long years of neglect and nature’s vagaries had began to show on the ancient edifice.
In fact, the jungle surrounding Angkor Wat had started swallowing the entire superstructure, with the exquisite carvings developing cracks and the ornate columns beginning to sink.
It was this imminent danger to the famed temple that pushed Cambodia’s new government (established with Vietnamese support after the expulsion of the Khmer Rouge in 1979) to finally act to save it.
But Cold War politics had led to Cambodia’s new government being rejected by most of the international community, leaving it without friends or funds to help restore its fabled monument to its original majesty.
Enter India. One of the few countries to have diplomatic relations with Cambodia at the time, India accepted the south-east Asian nation’s request to restore Angkor Wat and signed a six-year agreement regarding the same.
Following this, it assigned funds and a team of ASI archaeologists for the historic project.
Dr. B Narasimhaiah, who has written a book documenting India’s contribution (Angkor Vat: India’s Contribution in Conservation, published by the ASI, 1994), headed the team for much of the time.
When the ASI team arrived in Cambodia, they knew they faced a challenging task. The temple complex lay in ruins, with signs of decay everywhere. Encroaching tentacles of wilderness had torn asunder the courtyards, moss had turned the walls sooty black and a thick green blanket of water hyacinth carpeted the moat.
Jungle-clad balustrades too were on the brink of crumbling, bas-relief galleries had giant cracks and the carvings of the celestial beings had developed ugly pockmarks. Moreover, thousands of bats had colonised the temple, their pungent excreta mixing with rainwater to corrode the sandstone and eat into the superstructure.
Tumultous years of civil war too had taken its toll. Some of Angkor Wat’s best carvings were burnt by napalm-caused fires, riddled with bullets or blown off by bombs. In fact, nearly 50 statues of the Buddha (the complex had been a Buddhist monastery during the 15th century) had been beheaded by the ruthless regime of Khmer Rouge.
Furthermore, while the guerrillas had been dispersed, they hadn’t been completely neutralized and the forest around Ankor Wat was still heavily mined. Sourcing and organising the necessary supplies was also a tough task. As such, day-to-day survival was as much of a challenge for the ASI team as the restoration job itself.
Nonetheless, the Indian archeologists persevered with the help of Cambodian workers and in the presence of an armed escort. Employing conservation techniques and material available at the time, they begun the mammoth task that had been started by French conservators (who had fled in 1972 leaving their work unfinished).
Spending Rs 3 crore over a period of seven years, the ASI team completed the task in 1993. For the war-weary Cambodians, this restoration deeply endeared India to them. As Cheng Phon, Cambodia’s then-minister of culture had dramatically said in 1988:
“By restoring Angkor Wat, the Indian team is in fact healing our souls.”
However, soon afterwards some European conservators (especially the strangely possessive French) began accusing the ASI of using inappropriate methods in the restoration, turning what should have been a moment of triumph into a frustrating battle to defend its work at international cultural fora.
The good news is that most Cambodians remain unswayed by the French arguments, retaining positive memories of ASI’s presence in their country during those difficult days. When asked about their view, some even point to how one side of the Angkor Wat’s stepped embankment (repaired by the ASI) was still intact, whereas the other (repaired by the French) had collapsed!
Interestingly, ancient India’s cultural impact in Cambodia is not limited to Angkor Wat: it can also be seen in myriad forms in inscriptions, iconography and literature. In fact, a 500-year old inscription in Cambodia shows how the same astronomical calculation practised in India was also practised in the Khmer empire!
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)