Cambodia – The Country and its Roots – Dharmashastras – 1

This article is part 1 of 3 in the series Cambodia - The Country And Its Roots

The current article is an enlarged version of a talk presented by Arjun Bharadwaj on 5th June 2018 at the National Seminar on Dharmashastra – Theory and Practise – RC Puducherry. The article derives its inspiration from a paper titled “Vedic Cambodia” written by Dr. R Nagaswamy. 



The current paper attempts a critical examination and appreciation of the works of Dr. R Nagaswamy, with special focus on his thorough research on the South East Asian countries. An archaeologist and historian par excellence, Nagaswamy has shown in his works that Cambodia has always been a part of the pan-Indian culture and has had constant contact with India for over fifteen hundred years. In addition to the observations made by the scholar, the paper also borrows from the works of Dr. R C Majumdar and Mahāmahopādhyāya Dr. P V Kane, stalwarts in the fields of history and ancient and modern Indian law. Inscriptions, travelogues, and art found in Cambodia serve as the primary evidences for its cultural connection with India. The author also draws from the original dharmaśāstra texts and his own experience during his visit to Cambodia. The paper also serves as a rebuttal to divisive elements who have been trying to establish that the Cambodian culture was different from that of mainland India and that the natives of the land resisted the amalgamation of Indian culture in their soil. Though it has been conclusively shown by several scholars with Nagaswamy playing a pivotal role, some others with malicious intentions still misinterpret the inscriptions and traditions of Cambodia. This paper reaffirms the presence of an integrated Indian culture in Cambodia for several centuries.


Cambodia, a country which lies in a distant South East corner of Asia has evoked great curiosity and much interest in travelers and historians for over a century. History tells us that it was sanātana-dharma, today roughly translated as Hinduism that served as a common thread for all aspects of life in the discrete settlements of the country and untied them all with a common cultural spirit. It was this culture that has its roots in India, had its off-shoots in Cambodia.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the monuments found in the country today far surpass in their sheer size and magnitude the architectural marvels found in mainland India. If an off-shoot had such grandeur, it is only likely that what we see today as India too had such great monuments which are lost today primarily due to foreign invasions. Art and institutions created on the Indian models, grew and developed a unique character and the mighty empire of Cambodia flourished for more than a thousand years fed by constant streams of civilization flowing from the motherland. It eventually met with an inevitable decline, when its perennial source started to be targeted and constantly wounded by predatory religions. Just as the mother, the daughter too became a wounded civilization.

A Brief Outline of the History of Cambodia

The objective of this article is not to delve into the history of Cambodia, however, it would not be out of place to give a brief outline. Irrespective of the dates assigned to different dynasties and kings, one can be sure that the earliest traces of the influence of Indian culture on Cambodia goes back by at least fifteen centuries. The kingdom of Fu-nan existed from the 1st to the 6th Century CE and the Kambuja-deśa as it later came to be known, grew mostly under the rule of the Khmers (and other smaller dynasties) from the 6th to the 15th Century CE.

Vedic Cambodia

Dr. R Nagaswamy (see Appendix for a brief bio-data) points out that the term ‘Vedic’ is not limited to the mere recitation of the hymns belonging to the samhita portion of the Vedas. It is also not limited to the performance of Vedic rituals, but is an umbrella term that includes a wide gamut of literature, scriptures, rituals, arts and several aspects of lifestyle. The four Vedas comprise of karma-kāṇḍa and the jñāna-kāṇḍa, and have as their undercurrent a quest after right living and a philosophical enquiry to understand the nature of the Self and the universe. The system is incomplete without its auxiliary elements called the vedāṅgas (limbs of the Vedas), six in number. The code of individual and social conduct for a healthy and dynamic society is described in the Dharmaśāstras, which form a part of the Kalpa, one of the six limbs. The epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have also been accorded the status of Vedas. A famous traditional verse goes:

वेदवेद्ये परे पुंसि जाते दशरथात्मजे ।
वेदः प्राचेतसादासीत् साक्षात् रामायणात्मना ॥

The verse elevates the status of Rāmāyaṇa from a kāvya (poetry) to that of a Veda, saying that the primordial being, who can only be known through the Vedas took birth as the son of Daśaratha, whose life was recorded by the ancient poet Vālmīki in his epic. [It is interesting to note that, as a corollary, the Vedas are themselves termed as divine poetry]. Similarly, the visionary-poet Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana reorganized the Vedas into four and came to be called Veda-vyāsa. While he is not the seer (draṣṭā) of any of the hymns of the Vedas, he is the visionary and the composer of the largest and most profound literary work, the Mahābhārata, which came to be called the fifth Veda. Many Purāṇas and several śāstras such as the Nāṭyaśāstra and Āyurveda have also been accorded the status of the Vedas. (Kane, Volume 1: pages 349-421)

In summary, anything that is profound and has had a great impact on the Indian thought and culture is accorded the status of a Veda. The word ‘Vedic’ in the paper’s title has a broad range of meaning and should not be limited to any narrower sense of the word.

Prevalence of Dharmaśāstra-PurāṇaItihāsa Traditions in Cambodia

5th Century CE

An account from the History of the Southern Ts’i covering the period from 479 to 501 CE states the following –

“In case of dispute, they throw a golden ring or egg in boiling water and the disputants have to draw them out of it. They have to walk seven steps carrying red-hot iron chain in their hands. The hands of the guilty are completely burnt, but the innocent do not suffer any injury. Sometimes, the disputants are thrown into water. The guilty sinks but the innocent does not.” (Majumdar, 1943:37)

The above is certainly a reference to ‘ordeals’ called ‘divyas’. Divya is defined as ‘that which decides a matter (in dispute) not determined by human means of proof’ or ‘that which decides what cannot be or is not be decided by human means of proof’ (Kane, Volume 3: 363). The former that involved carrying a red-hot iron chain is called agni-divya and the latter is a variety of jala-divya. (Kane, Volume 3: 369-372).

One of the earliest references to the practise of the divyas is found in the Chāndogyopaniṣat (6.16.1).

“स यदि तस्य कर्ता भवति तत एवानृतमात्मानं कुरुते ।
सोऽनृताभिसंधोऽनृतेनात्मानमन्तर्धाय परशुं तप्तं प्रतिगृह्णाति । स दह्यते ।“

This comes in the context where sages go to the king Aśvapati-kaikeya. If the suspect is truthful, then the heated axe would not burn him but if he wasn’t it would burn him. Such was their belief. Śankarācārya’s commentary on the section says –

तस्मिंश्चापह्नवाने आहुः परशुमस्मै तपतेति शोधयत्वात्मानमिति ।
स यदि तस्य स्तैन्यस्य कर्ता भवति बहिश्चापह्नते स एवंभूतस्तत एवानृतमन्यथाभूतं सन्तमन्यथाऽमानं कुरुते स तथानृताभिसन्धोऽनृतेनाऽत्मानमन्तर्धाय व्यवहितं कृत्वा परशुं तप्तं मोहात्प्रतिगृह्राति स दह्यतेऽथ हन्यते राजपुरुषैः स्वकृतेनानृताभिसन्धिदोषेण ॥१॥

This is famous as the “tapta-paraśu-grahaṇa-nyāyaḥ” and it is likely that the migrants from India carried these practises as a cultural memory to their new home in Cambodia.

While P V Kane traces back the mention of the various ordeals (divyas) to the Atharvaveda, we get clearer evidence in the Yājñavalkya-smṛti (c. 1st Cent BCE to 3rd Cent CE; P V Kane, Volume 1:443). For a custom to find its place in the dharmaśāstra texts, the practice itself should have existed at least a couple of centuries before it was codified. It is safe to say that the practice of the ordeals was native to India and later migrated to the South East Asian countries.

6th Century CE

Three Sanskrit inscriptions of Fu-nan belonging to the 6th Century CE serve as the best evidence of the extent to which Indian culture was imbibed by its people. The first contains an invocation to the deity Viṣṇu, showing the prevalence of Vaiṣṇavisam (along with Śaivism and Buddhism). The second records a donation by prince Guṇavarman to the image of Viṣṇu called Cakratīrthasvāmī which was consecrated by brāhmaṇas well-versed in the Vedas, Upavedas, and Vedāṅgas. It was consecrated on the eighth day of the month (aṣṭame ahani) as per the Vedic calendar (Nagaswamy, 2018:593, Majumdar 1943:40-41)

अस्य अष्टमे अहनि विचित्रैः उपवेद-वेद-वेदाङ्गविद्बिः, अमरप्रतिमैः द्विजेन्द्रैः, संस्कारितस्य कथितं, भुवि चक्रतीर्थस्वामीति नाम विधदुः, स्मृतिषु प्रवीणाः

तद्-भक्तोSधिवसेद्-विशेदपि च वा तुष्टान्तरात्मा जनो।
मुक्तो-दुष्कृत-कर्मणस्स परमङ्-गच्छेत् पदं वैष्णवम् ||

Nagaswamy points to the fact that the reference to the Vedic calendar serves as an evidence of the prevalence of the Jyautiṣa system in Cambodia.

The Purāṇas have reference to Cakratīrtha, the place where Brahma’s wheel cracked through the earth producing a pond of water. It is also at this place that the deity Viṣṇu had killed several demons in a split second and it came to be called the Naimiṣāraṇya. The local legends corroborate the story. Just as Diana Eck in her book India – A Sacred Geography (2012) points out, migrants have the tendency to reconstruct geographical features of their native land as a cultural memory. Just as there is dakṣiṇa-gaṅgā in Southern India as a representation of the sacred Gaṅgā of the north, the river Mekong in Thailand (and Cambodia) is said to be named after ‘Mā Gaṅgā’. Similarly Ayutthaya is named after the legendary city of Ayodhya as it has been the ideal city for the Indians. Thus, it is likely that Cakratīrtha of the Naimiṣāraṇya was replicated near Puri and on the Tungabhadra basin near Hampi. Similarly, the reference to Cakratīrthasvāmī in the Cambodian inscription could be because a temple dedicated to the deity Viṣṇu was constructed as a reconstruction of the holy place in their motherland, India. Additionally, phrases such as ‘tad viṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padaṃ, sadā paśyanti sūrayaḥ’ are found in the Ṛgveda (Book 1, hymn 22) and replicated in the other Vedas too. Thus, reaching the feet of Viṣṇu (paramaṅ-gacchet padaṃ vaiṣṇavam) as seen in the inscription is a firmly established Vedic concept.

Majumdar also points to the fact that there are clear references to the cult of Bhakti and the theory of Karma. There is a mention of Kṣīroda-samudra and aṃṛta in the invocatory verse that certainly display their knowledge of the Purāṇic lore.

The third inscription in this series has a royal eulogy that is very similar to the ones those written for Indian kings.

एकस्थानखिलान् नराधिपगुणान् उद्यच्छते वेक्षितुम्
धात्रा निर्मित एक एव स भुवि श्री रुद्रवर्म्म…… (lost)

सर्वं सच्चरितं कृतं नृपतिना तेनातिधर्मार्थिना
लोकानुग्रह-साधनं प्रति न च क्षत्रव्रतं खण्डितम् (Majumdar, 1943:41)

“The Creator (Brahma) created the king Rudravarman to collect in one place all the kingly virtues. For the sake of dharma, the king performed all virtuous deeds. He never gave up the duties of a king that help in the nourishment of the world”. The verse is the famous śārdūlavikrīḍitam meter and is written in classical Sanskrit.  Several such verses are found in the mainland of India too. One of the popular verses from the Kumārasambhavam of Kāḻidāsa is as follows:

सर्वोपमाद्रव्यसमुच्चयेन यथाप्रदेशं विनिवेशितेन।
सा निर्मिता विश्वसृजा प्रयत्नादेकस्थसौन्दर्यदिदृक्षयेव || (Kumārasambhavam 1. 49)

“With the desire to see at one place, all the aspects of beauty that serve as elements for comparison, the creator of the world, Brahmā brought them all together with great effort in Pārvatī”.

It is very likely that author of the inscription was actually inspired by this particular verse and it serves as a clear evidence for the fact that even the ideas in the poetry of Cambodia closely followed whatever was native to India. (Kāḻidāsa is supposed to have lived between the 4th and 6th century CE. The inscription in Cambodia belongs to the 6th Century CE.)

Most of the inscriptions are found in the Sanskrit language and South Indian alphabet. This shows that Sanskrit was in active usage in Fu-nan and poems were being composed in the language. RC Majumdar notes –

“… enough (inscriptions) remain to show that the religion and mythology of India had been carried to Cambodia and the essential elements of Hindu culture were thoroughly established in the colony of Fu-nan long before the sixth Century AD. How thoroughly Indian mythology was cultivated in Fu-nan may be illustrated by the description of Queen Kulaprabhāvatī in the first inscription as  “Śacī is that of Śakra, Svāhā is that of Fire, Rudrāṇi that of Hara and Śrī of Śrīpati.”

To be continued.



Nagaswamy, R (2018) “Tamil Nadu- the Land of Vedas”, Tamil Arts Academy, Chennai

Majumdar, R C (1943) “Kambuja-Desa”, University of Madras

Kane, P V (republished, 1990) “History of Dharmashastra”



Dr. R Nagaswamy  Cambodia – The Country and its Roots – Dharmashastras – 1 FR_PIX-2_GM5574VT3

Dr. R Nagaswamy

Padma Bhushan Dr. Ramachandran Nagaswamy (born 10 August 1930) is an Indian historian, archaeologist and epigraphist who is known for his work on temple inscriptions and art history of Tamil Nadu. He served as the founder-Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department.

He is an authority in Chola Bronzes. He was awarded India’s third highest civilian award the Padma Bhushan in 2018



The author is grateful to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Hari Ravikumar for their inputs and thorough review.

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Arjun Bharadwaj

Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He is currently studying comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.
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