THE CAMBODIAN CONNECTION – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

THE CAMBODIAN CONNECTION – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

From its inception by King Yashovarman in 889 AD, to its decline in the 14th century, Angkor in Cambodia was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire. The world famous temple complex of Angkor Wat  built and extended by various Khmer kings between the 7th and eleventh centuries when this civilisation was at the height of its extraordinary creativity, is today a world heritage site.  A few years ago during my travels in Cambodia  I spent a few days at Angkor marvelling at these magnificient monuments of ancient glory in stone. Apart from wishing to drink deep of her archaeological splendour, my main reason for visiting Angkor was to travel about 900 years back in time and see this kingdom which had close cultural ties with ancient Sri Lanka specially during the Polonnaruwa period. When King Parakramabahu the 1st ascended the throne in 1153 AD he established close  diplomatic links with the powerful Khmer kingdom, true to his foreign policy of expanding trade with countries in South East Asia.  Relations between ancient Ceylon and Cambodia were so close that King Jayavarman who ruled Angkor from 1181 to 1218 AD sent one of his sons to spend some time at the royal court in Polonnaruwa. The young Khmer prince was thus a VIP guest at the court and some records indicate he stayed there for three years.

 

In her excellent book HISTORY OF ANGKOR Professor Madeleine Giteau of the Sorbonne University Paris, mentions this visit and also goes on to state that in the 13th century the Sinhalese kings were responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia which until that time practiced Mahayana Buddhism. As a result of King Parakramabahu’s dynamic foreign policy, there were many foreign merchants residing in Ceylon at the time. Among these were the Cambodian bird catchers because an important item in international trade during this period were exotic bird feathers. Apart from diplomatic missions, there were probably Sinhala merchants residing in Cambodia, specifically in Angkor which facilitated two way trade. Cambodia also had some influence in the architecture during the Polonnaruwa period, albeit very limited. The “Sathmahal Prasadaya” in Polonnaruwa with its design of seven storeys is typically Cambodian. King Parakramabahu’s policy of fostering ties with the Khmer empire had one negative  (though fortunately temporary) result for ancient Ceylon. Before he became king, Ceylon enjoyed very close ties with Burma. Burma also enjoyed close trade links with Cambodia.

 

When Ceylon established diplomatic ties with Cambodia the Burmese king Alaungsithu became very suspicious . He feared that Ceylon would deprive Burma of a major share of her trade with Cambodia. He then became openly hostile by obstructing Ceylon’s trade with South East Asian kingdoms   – an act which strained relations between Burma and Ceylon. And unfortunately, this led to war. What the Burmese king failed to realise was that he picked on the wrong man !  King Parakramabahu was not know as “The Great” for nothing ! A man who did not believe in half measures, and being the great statesman  he was, he explored all diplomatic avenues, playing the pacifist to dispel the crisis which had developed. When all failed he dispatched an army to lower Burma to teach the Burmese king a lesson. (This incidentally would give one an idea of the strength of Ceylon’s army and  navy at the time). Fortunately, King Alaungsithu sued for peace and happily diplomatic relations were restored .

 

After King Parakramabahu’s death in 1186 AD his successors King Nissanka Malla and King Vijayabahu 2nd continued maintaining strong diplomatic links with Cambodia. In 1353 Angkor was abandoned when this once mighty empire was seized by the Siamese King, Ramadhipathi. However, in 1358 another Khmer prince Suryavamsa Rajadhiraja recaptured Angkor and ruled until 1370, when another massive attack from Siam (present day Thailand) signalled the fall of this once proud kingdom. Sadly, one hundred and fifty years before, a similar fate befell Ceylon when Polonnaruwa was captured in 1215 by an Indian prince, Magha. By 1235 the destruction of Polonnaruwa was complete . Perusing the pages of history, I formed the opinion that the fall of Polonnaruwa began with the death of King Nissanka Malla 1n 1196 AD. The four kings after him spent their time and energy squabbling and plotting . Corruption spread through the land resulting in neglect and weakening of the kingdom. Unity they say is strength. Conversely, disunity results in division and weakness. It was during this time that Prince Magha of the Kalinga dynasty invaded the island to deliver the coup de grace. The lessons of history it seems are never learned.

Today, two ancient kingdoms which had close links over 900 years ago merit the honour of being classified as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, evoking the admiration of visitors from all over the world   –  Angkor, capital of ancient Cambodia, and Polonnaruwa capital of medieval Ceylon.

 

Bernard VanCuylenburg. 

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