India and Cambodia are Sister Civilisations, and India Takes Pride in Assisting in Its Progress: Ambassador Devyani Khobragade

India-Cambodia relations go back to the 1st century AD when Hindu and Buddhist religious and cultural influences emanated out of India to various parts of South-East Asia. Cambodians are today predominantly Buddhist but retain a strong influence of Hindu rituals, idolatry and mythology. The pervading influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian architecture are borne out by the magnificent structures at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Phrom and other religious and historical sites in Cambodia.

In response to an appeal by the Cambodian Government to save the famous Angkor Wat temples, GOI responded favourably and it was the first country to offer such assistance, says an Ministry of External Affairs notification. Various teams of Archaeological Survey of India worked from 1986 to 1993. On Cambodia’s request, India also agreed to restore Ta Prohm temple in Siem Reap.

India has been appointed co-chair of the prestigious International Coordinating Committee (ICC) on Preah Vihear, a world heritage site and one of the oldest temples and pilgrimage site of Lord Shiva. For the restoration of Preah Vihear Temple, Indian side has
conveyed its willingness to carry out restoration and conservation work of Gopura-5 and some segments of Gopura-1 of Preah Vihear.

The “Asian Traditional Textiles Museum” has been set up at Siem Reap with India's help.. The construction of the Museum building was completed in end December 2011. An Indian Director joined the museum in July 2013.

Dr Devyani Uttam Khobragade is the Ambassador of India to the Kingdom of Cambodia.  A doctor by qualification, she tells CSP she considers Cambodia to be a sister civilisation sharing bonds of culture, trade and most importantly language.

When you first landed in Cambodia did the country throw up any surprises. Did you find similarities with India?

I consider Cambodia as a civilizational sister country, owing to our ancient trade as well as religious ties emanating from Buddhism and Hinduism. When I first arrived, I noticed that  culture, religion, food and customs very similar to India and hear familiar Sanskrit words in Khmer language as it is spoken on the streets. The country has so much to offer, the sunrise at Angkor Wat, majestic beaches and hundreds of  Vishnu and Shiva temple influences are worth witnessing. From its array of glorious temples and religious structures, rich heritage and culture to the rare wildlife and stunning eco-tourism spots, the country has it all.

The antiquity of Indian connection is well known. Are these connections valued and preserved? Especially as seen in temple excavations?  Recently the assistance of ASI was requested to preserve some monuments. Is this happening?

India takes immense pride in the fact that we were the first country that the Cambodian government approached for the conservation of the Angkor Wat. India led the heritage conservation work from 1986-94 under most arduous circumstances which has been deeply appreciated by Cambodia. India takes utmost care when dealing with preservation and conservation of artifacts, antiquities, as may be seen from the restoration and preservation work done by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Angkor Wat and ongoing work in Ta Prohm temple. At present, India is engaged in the restoration work of Ta Prohm temple in Angkor Archaeological Park, which receives a good foot fall of around 10,000 tourists every day in normal times. The Government of India has agreed to restore/preserve a part of Preah Vihear temple complex. It will be my utmost effort to make India the first country to contribute to conservation of Preah Vihear temple originally dedicated to Lord Shiva. India is also the co-chair for the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of the Preah Vihear temple. The ASI team is expected to arrive soon to start work on ground. Embassy is exploring some more sites for providing assistance in preserving ancient temples by way of Quick Impact Projects. In addition to the ASI work, Embassy is also engaging in restoring small temples and other sites.

Which are the areas in which India has taken initiative forge strong ties culturally with Cambodia in the recent years?

India-Cambodia cultural and historical relations are more than a millennium old when Indian culture emanated out of India and spread rapidly in various parts of South-East Asia. To exploit the goodwill and familiarity between the two nations, enhancing people to people contact from the present level is of utmost importance. Even in the contemporary times India and Cambodia share close cultural ties with initiatives like the India-Cambodia Cultural Exchange Programme,   Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Asian Traditional Textiles Museum at Siem Reap etc. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has been maintaining a Chair on Buddhist & Sanskrit Studies at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University and a full time Indian Professor on Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies is deployed by Government of India in the University.  Through more cultural interaction and exchanges, India see a strong convergence in strategic, economic, political, security and development perspectives of both nations.

What are the areas of collaboration in cultural entrepreneurship where India can showcase her cultural offerings?

I believe cultural entrepreneurs are cultural change agents and resourceful visionaries who organize cultural, financial, social and human capital, to generate revenue from a cultural activity. Their innovative solutions result in economically sustainable cultural enterprises that enhance livelihoods and create cultural value and wealth for both creative producers and consumers of cultural services and products. India is making good progress in using cultural knowledge into sustainable economic activity. India is working with Cambodia in painting restorations, artifacts and digitization of temples, supporting UNESCO heritage sites etc.

As a person who knows many languages, what role do you think language can play in connecting the cultures. Are Indian languages spoken, learnt and used in Cambodia?

Language is a bridge to bring people closer. The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Indian languages are not spoken here but there is definite link between Sanskrit and Khmer and many Khmer words have originated from Sanskrit. Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has recently launched Sanskrit learning “Littleguru” app, which saw many requests from Cambodian scholars, students. Embassy will actively promote to reach out to the common man and women and scholars in Cambodia. It would be interesting for people to learn Indian languages and Indians will also find interest in Khmer.

How popular are courses on India popular in universities? Are students interested in coming to India for their gap year?

India has one of the most advanced infrastructure for higher education in the Asian region. Indian degrees are treated with respect all over the world and professionals who have undertaken higher studies in India have made significant contribution to advanced and applied research in different disciplines all over the world including in Cambodia. India is a popular destination for higher studies for students from Cambodia as it is home to many reputed and top ranking universities in the world. Besides the top universities, India has thousands of government and private universities and colleges to choose from. Currently, many Cambodian students join Indian Universities through Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, ICCR Scholarships and those offered under multilateral frameworks like ASEAN, MGC etc. There are specific courses on Buddhist studies at Nalanda University which are popular in Cambodia. The Embassy is actively promoting Cambodian students and monks to apply for courses in India.

How do you think India can draw more tourists to India from Cambodia to visit temples and areas of a common cultural source of heritage?

Cambodia and India have common cultural heritage. The sacred Buddhist places like Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar etc are of immense interest to Cambodians. The air connectivity issue; lack of information in Cambodia about the pilgrim places may be a major reason for less interest. The Embassy is working with various stakeholders to promote travel to India. Once COVID-19 subsides, we will work organize tour operators meet with both countries to address the issues and establish tourism flow to both the countries.

Are there areas where you think India can learn in cultural promotion and preservation?

In the cultural growth of Cambodia, there was a big setback during Khmer Rouge period. The way Cambodia emerged stronger from it is really inspiring. The progress made in preserving both tangible and intangible culture really worked out and the results are clearly visible in Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear. India also takes pride in being a part of this progress. The way Cambodia is balancing urbanization and preserving culture could be inspiring to India.

Given the pandemic have you had an opportunity to travel and experience the country?

I am a travel enthusiast. Luckily when I arrived in Cambodia there were no travel restrictions. I have visited a few significant cultural sites including Angkor Wat. There are many places in Cambodia that are on my bucket list to cover such as ancient temples Phnom Banan, Phnom Chisor, Phnom Da, Ek Phnom Temple & Angkor Borei are on top priority now. The majestic Cambodian temples and scenic beauty has mesmerized me and I am really looking forward to exploring interior parts of Cambodia.