Cambodia: Sanskrit Inscriptions

While the newspapers continue to tell us how in Vietnam, and now in Cambodia, people, animals, villages, farms, cities, crops, forests, and even the fish in the ocean are being destroyed, little information is given about the destruction of an ancient civilization. We do not know which temples and monasteries were destroyed and which books and manuscripts, sculptures and inscriptions have disappeared forever. A study of the history of the Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia alone may help us to understand a civilization that may soon be altogether lost.

During the first century A.D. several Hindu kingdoms arose in Southeast Asia. The largest of these was Fu-nan in the lower Mekhong delta, which by the third century ranged over a large area extending from North Vietnam well into the Malayan peninsula. The Hindu and soon also Buddhist kings of these states left numerous Sanskrit inscriptions, the Sanskrit language having been introduced from India along with Hinduism and Buddhism. While Cambodia possesses or possessed an enormous wealth of such inscriptions, sometimes of great historical, literary, religious, and moral value, the oldest Sanskrit inscription, that of Vocañh, is in fact from Vietnam and dates from the third century. It refers to an earlier king, Srimararaja, but since the text is much mutilated we know neither the name of the writer, nor his relationship to Srimara. About the present state of this inscription nothing is known.

The Vocañh inscription is written in regular Sanskrit prose, and most of the inscriptions from Cambodia are written in a more correct form of Sanskrit than that which is used in some of the inscriptions from India. The reason for this may be that the Cambodians learned Sanskrit from grammar books and not from native speakers. The Indian grammarian Panini is in fact honored by being mentioned in these inscriptions; other linguistic works are referred to as well.

Apart from certain isolated idiosyncrasies, of which the most interesting is perhaps the use of a relative clause with the verb either in the form of the present participle or in the locative absolute, whatever deviations from regular Sanskrit are found in the inscriptions from Cambodia are generally attributed to the influence of middle-Indic languages, more rarely to the influence of the Khmer language. While the oldest Cambodian inscriptions, those of Fu-nan, date from the fifth or sixth century, the first inscriptions in Khmer date from the seventh century. Later the poetic parts of the inscriptions tend to be written in Sanskrit, while the accompanying prose, which provides more technical detail, is in Khmer.

While Vietnam used to be called Campa (which is also the name of a town in western Bengal), the name Cambodia itself is probably the Sanskrit Kamboja or Kambuja. Tradition has it that the Cambodians were the offspring of the union of Kambu (literally “conch shell”) and Mera or Pera, who was given in marriage to Kambu by Siva. Older Sanskrit sources refer to the Kambuja as a people living in another area, viz. the …

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