India has excellent relations with other Asian countries not only on matters regarding defense but also on matters having cultural significance. The deep cultural ties between India and Southeast Asia have a unique history which dates back to centuries. Due to this, there are many monuments, designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the region which reflect the influence of Indian culture in Southeast Asia. India has on its part, helped in the restoration and conservation of a number of such monuments which extends beyond the Indian territorial boundary.
One such example is the Angkor Wat, the center of the Khmer Kingdom in Cambodia which India has recently helped restore. In the year 1980, Cambodia had made an appeal to the world community to help save the Angkor Wat, which India was the first country to respond to. The Angkor Wat temple was constructed as a Hindu temple and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The walls of the temple are covered with extraordinary carvings depicting stories and characters from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and include hundreds of fine carvings of Apsaras.
India worked closely with the International Coordination Committee (ICC) of Angkor and the Cambodian Authority for Protection and management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA), for restoration and conservation for a good seven years. During this period, the northern embankment of a moat, gateway, semi vaults of fourth enclosure esplanade, Samudra Manthana Gallery, third enclosure Gallery, northern corner of second enclosure, northern Library and the central tower of the Angkor Wat temple were restored.
This is just one of the hoards of projects ASI is working on in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. ASI is currently working on restoration and conservation of the Ta Prohm temple, commonly known as the Tree Temple. It is a significant 12th-century monastic Buddhist temple complex located in the Angkor World Heritage Site. The temple had featured in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and since then shot to its popularity. As of now, it is the second most popular tourist site in Cambodia after the Angkor Wat Temple.
However, the Ta Prohm conservation project had a lot of difficulties in the execution. Many trees had grown over the temple structure whose roots had penetrated into the foundation of the structure. Due to this, the restoration project faced a lot of challenges and even the technical experts of ICC Angkor were at a loss as both the structures and the trees had to be conserved. ASI came to the rescue and adopted an integrated approach in collaboration with experts in the fields of history, archaeology, hydrology, geology, structural engineering, geo-technology, arboriculture, and architecture. The multidisciplinary approach helped to effectively deal with the complexities and devise the most appropriate conservation strategy.
The restoration work by ASI team in Southeast Asia has received tremendous appreciation from the ICC and the Cambodian Government and the ASI team lead DS Sood has been conferred a medal of the SAHAMETRE and an honor as the rank of the knight; in recognition of the tremendous contribution made for conserving this heritage. DS Sood, describing his experience stated that “he feels very proud” and that it is a “wonderful experience for him and an honor for the country”.
India hasn’t been alone in the restoration and more than 14 countries, including, Germany, France, America, and China are currently working alongside for the conservation of monuments in Angkor park area under the guidance of ICC Angkor.
Moreover, not just restricted to Cambodia, the ASI has also been working on the Wat Phou temple on the slopes of Phou Kao Mountain in the Champasak Province of Laos which dates back to 5th Century AD. The Phou Kao Mountain has been viewed as the home of Lord Shiva with its natural stone Linga at top and the Mekong River representing the River Ganges and the surrounding universal ocean. For this reason, the site, not only being another world heritage site, is actually culturally, architecturally and religiously very close to Hinduism. The ASI has been involved in conservation and restoration of this monument since 2009 and the work is to continue until 2028.
Due to the influx of Indian workers, the local Laotians are very keen to learn about the Indian culture and work environment. Whenever any important work is started by the ASI, local authorities are also invited. Just like the Cambodian government, the work done by the ASI team has also been appreciated by the Laotian government.
Apart from these projects, ASI has, in the past, helped restore the Ananda Temple in Bagan, which is a Buddhist temple in Myanmar. In Vietnam, the ASI had started its restoration work to conserve the Cham monument of ‘My Son’, group of temples, which happens to be another World Heritage site. Constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries AD, the architecture of the temples is influenced by Southern Indian temple architecture. ASI is currently working on the restoration of three groups of hotels and so happy with the work, the management board wants ASI to undertake more work.
India’s engagement with Southeast Asia has increased after Modi government came to power. PM Modi has repeatedly emphasized the cultural ties of India and Southeast Asia. As such, further co-operation in the revival of cultural monuments have picked up speed under the Modi government and the trend is likely to continue.