For nearly 1,000 years, much of Southeast Asia followed religions that we think of as exclusively or originally ‘Indian’. The colossal temple of Angkor Wat in Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia — beautifully described by William Dalrymple in a recent article in Financial Times — and the overgrown Angkor ruins, with their serene depictions of Hindu deities, are often held up as proof that India colonised, inspired or influenced Southeast Asia in some way.
Like with all things medieval, it turns out that the truth is far stranger than modern notions. It is certainly beyond dispute that for many centuries — starting from around the 8th century CE all the way up to the 15th — the religious culture of Cambodia was predominantly Shaivite. But the process by which it became Shaivite is astonishing: Contrary to what we may think, it involves active conversion by Hindu preachers, market forces emerging from Cambodian courts, Indians emigrating in search of greener pastures, and a considerable degree of intelligence and selectivity in how Cambodia interacted with ‘Indian’ ideas.
Pashupata missionaries in India and abroad
Roughly around the second century CE, legend holds that the corpse of a young man in Karohana (present-day Karvan), Gujarat, was reanimated. This man, Lakulisha, then went about preaching a Shaiva doctrine revolving around asceticism and meditative practice to inculcate magical powers. And thus, the sect known as the Pashupatas was born. It would grow to become one of the most influential and widespread sects of all early medieval schools of Shaivism.
From the outset, Pashupatas distinguished themselves from other Shaivite sects by their missionary zeal. Lakulisha himself travelled to distant Mathura and initiated four Brahmin disciples into his esoteric tradition, positioning each of them in a different city to convert many more. Pashupatas spread rapidly through the relatively urban Gangetic Plains; within barely a few generations (fourth century CE), they were being mentioned in the inscriptions of the Gupta emperors, and were spreading down the coast towards the Krishna-Godavari delta. By the seventh century, they had established themselves near the now-famous Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. Chinese travellers claim that by this time, Varanasi alone had nearly 10,000 of these ash-covered ascetics, and here, they composed much of the great text known as the Skanda Purana. Around this time, they also began seeking a foothold in new, rapidly-urbanising regions that were developing complex state structures, the elites of which required ritual services and were willing to pay dearly for them. We thus begin to see them in the inland Deccan and in Southeast Asia.
A Deccan inscription from 660 CE offers some insight into this process. In return for ritually initiating the Chalukya king Vikramaditya I into Shaivism, the Pashupata guru Sudarshana was granted the village of Iparumkal. Sudharshana then distributed plots in the village to 27 Shaivite Brahmins; over the generations, through close ties with the Chalukyas, this region, present-day Alampur, Telangana, grew into a major Shaiva stronghold.
It is in this context that we now turn to Cambodia. Around this time, Cambodia, like the Deccan, was home to several warring principalities. The general region — including sites in Laos — already had some centres of Shiva worship, particularly centred around mountains and natural stone columns believed to be self-manifestations (svayambhu) of the Shiva linga. In Cambodia, stones were already believed to be the dwellings of ancestral spirits associated with the land; it seems to have been a natural transition to see stone Shiva linga as representing a primordial, ancestral deity of the land as well. Pashupatas may have arrived on these shores as early as the fifth century, with the earliest epigraphic evidence dating to the seventh century.
The Cambodian embrace of Pashupata missionaries was also tied also to their beliefs about rulership. David Chandler in his History of Cambodia says that those who could lead men and win battles were also believed to be spiritually gifted, and vice versa. This idea that worked well with Pashupata concepts of gaining magical power through Shaivite ritual. Cambodian chiefs, seeking to attract and use Pashupata ritual knowledge, rapidly commissioned dozens of Shaivite temples along the length of the Mekong River and in various urban, political, and pre-existing sacred centres. Many of these were named after existing Pashupata Shiva centres in India (Siddheshvara, Amratakeshvara, Amareshvara), writes Shaivism scholar Alexis Sanderson in The Saiva Religion Among the Khmers. The objective behind these constructions was not an ‘imitation’ of India, but to make Shiva a Cambodian god and Cambodia a Shaivite land, as was being done by temple-building royals in South India at the same time.
Market forces and Shaivite ritual
Through the sixth to the ninth centuries CE, as Cambodian princes and Pashupata initiates were making their land increasingly Shaivite, Indian Shaivism underwent a major transition with the growth of mantramarga, Shaiva Siddhanta, or tantric Shaivism. Mantramarga texts were somewhat simpler than the esoteric doctrines of the Pashupatas, providing agamas — scriptures and frameworks of practice — that could be developed by practitioners for use in temples, personal worship, and public rituals.
The arrival of mantramarga texts in Cambodia was revolutionary. In 802 CE, when the young king Jayavarman set out to establish the empire of Angkor, he conducted a ritual with a Brahmin priest, Hiranyadama. The priest developed a paddhati, a detailed ritual manual that was the basis of the Devaraja cult, practically the State religion of the Angkor Empire for centuries after. The Devaraja cult closely associated the king with Shiva, and worshipped him as the king of the gods. It led to the establishment of dozens of temples and monastic establishments, all of which drew on paddhatis composed by mantramarga experts.
These texts reveal something fascinating about medieval Shaivism. Mantramarga practitioners were technically supposed to base their paddhatis on agamas of their own school and lineage. In practice, due to the need to fulfil the ritual demands of their royal customers, they very often melded together multiple lineages in their paddhatis. The Cambodian market for Shaivite experts was such that many Indians are known to have travelled there in search of employment, especially Brahmins. Some of them even claimed to have come to worship the national god, Shiva Bhadreshvara. (Oddly, we have little evidence that Southeast Asians ever visited Hindu sacred sites in India, but plenty of evidence of the converse).
So, what can we really say about medieval Cambodia’s relationship with India? When we see European military advisers in early modern India, we recognise that India was wealthier and more amenable to their skills, see their willingness to adjust to their patron’s culture and needs, and recognise the agency of Indians in hiring them. If we are to peer past the national pride that has inaccurately become intertwined with medieval religious and cultural exchanges, we see something similar in the medieval world. It is one where the forces of the market and the agency of patrons were as alive as they are today; one where Indian religions were no different in their fundamental impulses to any other; and one with a political economy as rich and morally complex as our own.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.