Follow me on Twitter

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Thai, Cambodia war over Shiva temple

The Sunday Guardian
TARUN VIJAY 10th July, 2011

More than 400 rounds of mortar have been fired on the Preah Vihear Shiva temple since February this year. Wars between nations are fought for many reasons: this one, between Thailand and Cambodia, is over a Hindu temple, situated on the Cambodian side of the border.

Five Thai soldiers and one civilian have been killed in fighting; while seven Cambodian soldiers have died since the temple was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2008. War clouds darkened again in the end of June this year as Thailand withdrew from the talks organised by the World Heritage Committee on which nation should manage the Shiva temple.

I recently visited Preah Vihear to offer puja, the first Indian parliamentarian to do so. The temple is perched on a hill on the edge of the Dangrek mountains, 625 metres above sea level and 414 km from Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD and originally named Shikhareshwar, the temple is a living example of Khmer architecture. Preah Vihear means sacred shrine in Khmer. Thailand claims the temple and the surrounding territory as its own.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled in a 9-3 vote that Cambodia had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. But it did not rule on the land surrounding the temple. So the ownership of 4.6 sq km land remains disputed.

As for India, our missions in Bangkok and Phnom Penh are too wary to take any stand on Preah Vihear's status. It is as if they have nothing to do with this Hindu temple.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled in a 9-3 vote that Cambodia had sovereignty over Preah Vihear. But it did not rule on the land surrounding the temple. So the ownership of 4.6 sq km land remains disputed.

It took me three years to decide on a trip to Preah Vihear. And then one day I found myself at a speech by Prof Sachchidanand Sahai organised by Kapila Vatsyayan in New Delhi. The speaker had worked extensively on Preah Vihear and the account that he gave of the temple was so moving that I instantly bought my ticket to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Preah Vihear is a three-hour journey by road from Siem Reap. To reach the temple one has to climb the 2,250 steps built with UNESCO'S financial aid. The steps run parallel to an ancient pathway. There is a road as well that leads right up to the temple, but I avoided it as it passes through a controversial portion of the land claimed by Thailand.

So I undertook a steep, harsh, tiring but thrilling trek. The treacherous woods negotiated during the trek reminded me of the rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh.

The temple is vast and finely crafted. Its splendour reflects the finesse of Angkorwat. It has been known as poetry etched in stone that has dominated the Khmer mindscape for the last 1,200 years. The several Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions on the temple's walls give an idea of the period of its construction. In 9th century AD, Prince Indrayudha, the son of King Jayavarman II began work on Shikhareshwara (Lord of the Summit) dedicated to Lord Shiva. He brought a divine Shiva lingam from Vat Phu (now in Laos) and installed it. As the economic and political powers of the kings increased, the temple was remodelled several times. King Suryavarman I built many pillars "at the command of Shiva", followed by King Jayavarman VI (1080-1107), King Dharanindravarman I (1107-1112) and Suryavarman II (1113-1150). The temple received continuous patronage from the kings for more than four centuries.

The Sanskrit inscriptions also speak of the great royal guru Divakar and the temple recorder Sukarman. The temple has five gopurams adorned with carvings showing a dancing Shiva, Krishna on Kaliya, Indra, Vishnu, Ram, Laxman and Sita. And Mount Dangrek symbolically represents Mount Kailash, Shiva's abode.

It started raining when we were visiting the fifth Gopuram after offering our obeisance at the garbha griha, the sanctum sanctorum. The rains meant good omen, said Hong Sath, the director of Preah Vihear Authority. "Not many tourists visit Preah Vihear these days for the fear of Thai missiles, but we are hopeful of our usual tourist inflow this year as the UNESCO is trying to restore peace," he said. One can spot a Thai tourist post from the temple. But it has been turned into an army barrack. "They are watching you," said Hong Soth with a smile. The gopurams bear the marks of shelling. A signboard has several bullet marks. "The gunfire is from the Thai side," Sath said.

Both Cambodia and Thailand are Buddhist countries that have a grand Hindu heritage dating back to more than 1,000 years; yet both are at loggerheads over an ancient Shiva temple.

The World Heritage Committee (WHC) was expected to come up with a solution acceptable to the warring countries on 29 June in Paris. But the campaign in Thailand for the 3 July elections aggravated the situation. Both Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have been emphatic about the ownership of Preah Vihear. Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister led a 22-member delegation to Paris to counter Thai arguments and succeeded in getting the WHC decide in a manner that cheers the Cambodians. Abhisit, unhappy as he was with the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra's imminent return to power, clutched on to the plank of nationalism and made his natural resources and environment minister Suwit Khunkitti withdraw from the 35th session of the WHC to protest the committee's decision.

In Bangkok, Abhisit said that Thaksin's group had close relations with Cambodia and supported its plan for the temple. Cambodian Premier Hun Sen accused Thailand of using the dispute for domestic political gains. He said, "Not only did Thailand actually invade (Cambodia), it also cheated on history by changing the name of Preah Vihear temple to Prah Vihan."

Wild rumours started floating that the Thai army might use the border conflict at Preah Vihear as a pretext to jeopardise the 3 July elections, but this did not happen. Local media has been reporting that the border is tense after Thailand announced its withdrawal from the World Heritage Committee.

If the Indian government is silent on this issue, so are the different Hindu organisations. Surely many in the South Block see that India has a role to play in this matter and must use its good relations with both countries to ensure that the temple remains safe and guarded while the dispute is solved amicably. Maybe now that the Thai elections are over and Thaksin has won, tempers will cool and good sense will prevail.

No comments: