ARTICLES / Cambodia / India

Asia Times Online: “Temple tantrum in Cambodia”

PHNOM PENH – If the Mahavir Mandir Trust, an India-based religious organization, has its way, a massive replica of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple will grace the banks of India’s Ganges River. The ancient temple’ second coming, divined to be the largest Hindu shrine in the world, will, however, rise amid a flurry of diplomatic complaints and hurt Cambodian feelings.

On March 5, a spiritual ceremony to purify the land on which the temple will stand in India’s Bihar province was held, and construction is scheduled to begin in April, according to Acharya Kishore Kunal, the Mahavir Mandir Trust’s secretary. He said the massive replica, which is designed to be larger than the original Angkor Wat, will be built out of “admiration for the Cambodian people.”

“To me, this is the most marvelous monument ever made by mankind,” Kunal said. “I just want to make the largest Hindu temple in the world. My competition is not with Cambodian culture, it’s with the Hindu religious structure.”

Cambodian officials have nonetheless taken spirited affront, arguing that the Indian organization has no right to copy Angkor Wat’s original design without Phnom Penh’s permission.

Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said its embassy in New Delhi is assessing the situation and that if his government’s permission is not granted “they have to stop”. Kuong said New Delhi has yet to respond to his government’s complaint.

“I was angry and surprised,” said Phay Siphan, the Cambodian government’s Council of Ministers’ spokesman. “Angkor Wat is [our] nation’s spirit, the picture is on our flag. Angkor Wat is Cambodian sovereignty, it should not be replicated.”

He compared the project of to a form of imperialism, similar to when various European countries took possession of historic and often religiously significant artifacts from the rest of the world. “We fight against replication … We want to get rid of this idea,” he said. “They should leave us Angkor Wat, it’s unique in this world.”

Erected in the 12th century by Khmer King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat and its surrounding sites are sometimes referred to as the largest religious monument in the world. Built originally as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat was later used for Buddhist worship after Cambodia’s monarchy converted to Buddhism several centuries later. Both Buddhism and Hinduism owe their spiritual roots to ancient India.

Nowadays, the temple – a United Nations’ World Heritage Site – is central to Cambodia’s national identity and is the country’s biggest money-making tourist attraction.

Grassroots Cambodians, the majority of whom are Buddhist, have echoed the government’s displeasure with the replica plans. “I am just disappointed because I want Angkor Wat to be the only one in the world,” said Seang Nara, a Phnom Penh-based law student. “I don’t want Angkor Wat [to be] stolen by another place.”

“No tourists will come to Cambodia. They will go to India because [the temple] there will be new and bigger than in Cambodia,” said Ly Srun Chhay, a 20-year-old university student in the national capital.

Certain academics view the ownership controversy through a wider historical lens. Sombo Manara, the deputy chairman of the history department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he sees India’s interest in Angkor Wat in a positive light, comparing the planned replica to a Cambodian franchise that will become popular outside of the country.

“Before we thought that all culture – like Brahmanism and Buddhism – came from India to Cambodia. But now why don’t we feel happy that our Cambodian culture is spreading back to India?” he asked. “This is the first time that they copy from Cambodia … Why don’t we feel happy with that?”

Manara noted that India was the first country to send official aid to Cambodia after the end of the Khmer Rouge period, including funds to finance Angkor Wat’s restoration. He believes the planned replica will likely fall short of the original temple’s grandeur and fine point detail, including the over 3,000 reliefs of Apsaras, or female spirits, carved into Angkor’s stone walls.

“If a replica is built, it’s still not the same as [the original] in Cambodia. Of course the world is competition – we have to attract our tourists by the original name,” he said. “The face [of the Apsara] is not an Indian face, it’s a Cambodian face. So can the Indians replicate that?”

Mahavir Mandir Trust’s Kunal concedes there will be several significant differences. For instance, the replica will not include the original’s outer structures and moat – the water pools in front of the temple’s main entrance that give it much of its charm. Kunal said the replica structure will have either more or fewer than the original Angkor Wat’s 13 towers because the number is considered inauspicious in India.

The India-based version will also be built from different materials. While the 12th century original was made from huge blocks of stone, the Angkor Wat of 2012, or the Virat Angkor Wat Ram Mandir, will be constructed from concrete and granite, Kunal said.
“I’m ready for any change, any suggestion if there’s any problem,” he said. “I’d like to make sure there’s no controversy with good wishes from the people of Cambodia.”

He says the replica, which will rely on donations for its financing, will take approximately 10 years and cost around US$20 million to build. Mahavir Mandir Trust has created a Facebook page and blog to promote the project.

Critics in Cambodia, however, have raised questions about the India group’s commercial rather than spiritual motivations, particularly considering Kunal has never personally visited Angkor Wat.

“I wanted to visit during [my] June vacation, but now I’m slightly scared because there are many types of people,” he said. “Some people [in Cambodia] want to throw their shoes on me.”

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