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Why India is funding restoration at Cambodia's Angkor Wat

For India, keen to reviving civilisational ties across southeast Asia, having a stake in Angkot Wat, one of the most prominent Hindu-Buddhist shrines in the world, furthers its cause.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar (in the brown shirt) at Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia.

In a recent significant attempt to dig deeper into India’s civilisational ties with the rest of the world, the Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has announced the restoration of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. The Angkor Wat temples have been known as the largest religious complex in the world and making sense for India to take interest in the restoration of the monument. In his address to the Kashi Tamil Sangamam, Jaishankar stated that the temple would be restored because India’s cultural heritage and civilisational history is not just limited to the subcontinent but evidently extends beyond it. The restoration of this temple and other such sites all across the world could be akin to restoring India’s civilisational bonds with the respective countries. Before we understand the importance of this endeavour, it would be relevant to know why this heritage site holds such prominence.

World’s largest religious structure

Situated in the city of Angkor, Cambodia, this vast monument stands to cover around 400 acres of land. The temple complex is also considered to be the finest example of Khmer architecture, dating back to the 12th century. This whole temple complex includes about a thousand buildings laid with the religious motifs of Hinduism. The temple was home to the idols of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, the three most important deities in Hinduism.

The ties to Hinduism are further revealed through the walls of the temple which are covered in scriptures and depicting images from the scenes of Mahabharata and Ramayana, the two fundamental texts in Hindu mythology. One can note however, that this superstructure does not only hold prominence for Hinduism but has had modern historical engagements with the Indian state as well.

Falling prey to the ravages of the Cambodian civil war during the Khmer Rouge and subsequent neglect in the years thereafter, this vast monument was on the verge of being forgotten by modern civilization. However, it was during the strategically volatile years of the cold war that Cambodia turned to India. India, at the time, was one of the few countries to share diplomatic ties with Cambodia amidst the strong cold war power politics.

It was during this time, in 1986, that Cambodia requested India to assist in the restoration and preservation of this marvellous structure that holds significance for both the countries alike. India, in response, entered into a six year agreement with the country during which period it allocated funds and assigned personnel from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct relevant research on the monument. To this point, this project stands as one of the largest bilateral projects of these countries, valued at about $4 million in 1986.

So it is established that India’s interest in the monument is not a recent phenomenon but rather dates back to decades. This remarkable structure forms a very important base for the cultural links between the two countries. It could also be said that restoring and renovating this temple complex would add a new spark into the bilateral relations between India and Cambodia as well.

Why is the restoration of cultural ties important?

Restoring the Angkor Wat, one of the most prominent links between the Indian and Cambodian civilizations, would add to the bilateral relations of the two countries. With a strong historical backdrop to the relations between these two countries, it would make perfect sense to enhance cooperation in the contemporary climate.

Restoring the Angkor Wat temple complex would not only provide a vibrant hue to the religious ties that the countries share, it could also open the doors for research collaborations in similar projects. It may be noted that the Angkor Wat is not the only temple with rich civilizational ties to India and there are many such sites that India is now looking to explore.

In this regard it can be noted that apart from Angkor Wat, Cambodia had also been in touch with India for the restoration of the Ta Prohm temple. The work was commenced by the ASI in 2003 and the project entered its third phase in 2016.

It would not be an understatement to suggest that India has been a trusted partner to Cambodia, providing much needed humanitarian aid and allocating resources for building developmental infrastructure in the country. The partnership in the restoration of these temples would not only add to the quality of the bilateral relationship but would also improve upon India’s civilisational base in Southeast Asia. Strong research collaboration in this domain with Cambodia could be a strong link to further engage with the other countries in the region.

Restoration of other temples

As Jaishankar noted, restoring temples all around the world would be an important step towards tracing the Indian civilisational history that goes beyond the subcontinent through the works of traders, religious scholars and travellers that moved from India to the rest of the world.

In this endeavour, as per the external affairs minister, the Indian government is committed to sanctioning funds towards building of new temples and restoration of the old ones in other countries, for example Vietnam. Recently, India has also come into agreement with the UAE and Bahrain to build temples in these countries, pointing towards the creation of new cultural links in the middle east as well. In terms of South Asia as well, the Indian government has pledged a sum of 200 crore rupees ($24 million) to Nepal for the creation of the Ramayana Circuit. The Thiruketheeswaram Temple in Mannar, Sri Lanka was also revived after being locked up for about 12 years.

These instances provide a different facet to multilateral diplomacy and cooperation, one that is founded on cultural and strong civilizational grounds. Restoration and creation of religious sites thus not only holds prominence in the matters of faith but could also contribute tangibly in aspects of economy and diplomacy. One could argue that the work towards creation of such structures would not only create employment and labour opportunities but would also attract commercial attention in terms of tourism. The Angkor Wat, for example, was once regarded as a prime tourist destination in Cambodia and now with its revival it is likely to once again add to commercial, diplomatic and cultural ties between India and Cambodia.

All $ = USD

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