12: The Tragic Story of Khmer's Tamil Father


Southeast Asia: “Let's consolidate what we've learned so that we don't lose track of the larger picture. In my prehistoric period, which ended with the modern era, my dominant cultures consisted of Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic speakers. Those who spoke languages in the Austro-Asiatic family lived on my mainland. Foremost of these were the Khmer and the Mon. Those cultures that spoke Austronesian lived on my islands. These two cultures lived and traded together for so long, a few millennia at least, that they exerted a great influence upon each other. The merger of these two cultures constituted my prehistoric culture.

Waves of Indians migrated to my part of the world in the first centuries of the modern era. Many were traders in search of fortune. They came, stayed and intermarried with the indigenous population. On my mainland, this racial blending gave birth to the modern race of the Khmer. The Indian immigrants also brought their kingdom-based politics, their religions, their script and their literature. The sophistication of these innovations blended with local traditions to create Khmer culture. However, in the beginning at least, the Indian water technology was more important to the Khmer than their culture.”

Father India's ability to control Flooding leads to marriage with Mother Naga

Mother Naga: “My marriage to a Hindu prince gave birth to the Khmer race. Father India didn’t conquer me; I married him willingly. He had much to offer.

Accompanying his traders were Indian craftsman and Brahmins, who brought India’s traditions with them. This included the amazing script and literature of Sanskrit with the accompanying Hindu mythology. Metaphysical ideologies integrated and authenticated the lush mythology. Plus, India’s religion claimed to be a universal cosmic frame of reference. As such, it also included our local religions rather than excluding them. Further, India’s mythology was so rich that we could easily identify Indian deities with our local spirits. Also the Hindu philosophy of statecraft contained the conceptual system of kingship, which was used to unify our diverse tribes and centralize our cities into countries and kingdoms.”

Consolidation under a king had the obvious advantage of size in resisting domination by external and alien cultures. However, we didn’t really have any large enemies at the time. The more immediate and pressing need was for control of our devastating annual floods. India’s people supplied a new technology of hydraulic engineering, which was used for both flood control and irrigation. In many ways, this was more important than all of the rest. In fact, this technological ability to control water lent so much prestige to the Indian traders that we became more interested in the rest of their culture.

This was probably the main reason I fell in love with Father India. I was impressed by the complexity of his technology. It made him good father material. It seems just yesterday that I casually mentioned to him …

Mother Naga: “I am so tired of seeing my children suffer from the devastating flood waters of the Mekong River which flows down from the Himalayas.”

Father India: “You have problems from flooding?”

Mother Naga: “Every spring, the snow from the Himalayas melts and inundates our cities with water. It is so hard to get ahead when we are always digging ourselves out of the mud.”

Father: “I can easily help your people deal with the swelling waters of the Mekong. I have already had plenty of experience dealing with the flood waters of the Indus and the Ganges.”

Mother Naga: “I felt an immediate attraction for him. I knew that I was in love. Here was someone who could relieve the suffering of my family. That he was rich, cultured and smart was just frosting on the cake.

But I didn’t want him trying to dominate me or my artists with his warrior mentality. I remember our first big confrontation.”

Father Tamil’s tragic story

Mother Naga: “I want to get things straight from the beginning. I want to join as partners, not as your slave. I don’t want any of this ‘taking women by force’, like they do in your book, the Mahabharata.”

Father India: “Don’t worry. I come from southeast India, not the northwest, where the Aryans come from - with their dominator mentality. That’s why many call me Tamil. I am only called India where I’m not known that well.”

Mother Naga: “My real name is Soma. But I’m a Naga princess, so some call me Naga. I personify the essence of the flexible chaos that is at the foundation of artistic expression.”

Father India/Tamil: “Now that we’re getting to know each other, let us call each other by our nicknames.”

Mother Naga/Soma: “Surely. Excuse my ignorance, but what’s the difference between the cultures of northern and southern India?”

Tamil: “Let me tell you a little about my tragic history. It will clarify things tremendously and give you an idea why I am so in love with you. I, too, am descended from the Nagas, but from a very ancient branch. We may even have common ancestors. Scientists have found Paleolithic tools in Cambodia and Vietnam, which are similar to those found in my homeland of India. Further your Mon-Khmer language has similarities to my ancestral language.”

Soma: “But I thought Hindi and Sanskrit are in the Indo-Aryan language family, which is quite different from Khmer, the Austro-Asiatic language that my family speaks.”

Tamil: “This is true. But my ancestors preceded the brutal Aryan invasion.”

Soma: “Brutal? But didn’t they bring civilization with them?”

Tamil: “They brought their culture, which included horses, coinage, Brahmanism, a foreign script and Vedic literature. But we had a high level of civilization before they ever arrived. And ours was not based upon the domination of a warrior king. That is another reason that we get along so well.”

Soma: “You’re whetting my curiosity. What is this tragic history you speak of?”

Tamil: “Many thousands of years ago my extended tribe migrated into the Indus Valley of northeast India. We probably came from Africa just like everyone else, but no one really remembers. The mists of time veil this prehistoric period.

Ours was the largest of the early civilizations. We were literate with an alphabet of 250-500 characters. We had many domesticated animals, including elephants, and practiced an irrigated agriculture based upon channeling the Indus River. That is why we are so good at flood control. We obtained gold for sophisticated metal work from the surrounding hills of India and Afghanistan. The height of our civilization was from 2500-1700 BCE. Scientists call our culture the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization.

We spoke a language, which was probably in the Dravidian language family. Although some linguists consider Dravidian an isolated language group, others say that it is vaguely related to the Khmer language. I prefer that explanation. It explains part of our deep affection for each other. The Dravidian family includes Telegu and Tamil - which are still the main languages of southern India.”

Soma: “Southern India? I thought you lived around the Indus River in northwest India.”

Tamil: “We moved south from 2000 -> 1500 BCE. This migration was not by choice. We were escaping the barbaric Aryan invasion, which brought our civilization to an abrupt end. We migrated south eventually reaching southeast India, where we were shielded from their militaristic culture by the local mountain ranges. Our southern culture was never conquered or assimilated by the Aryans. Thousands of years later the British joined our subcontinent into one administrative unit.

Our northwest civilization was dead after the Aryan onslaught. However, a distinct cultural continuity exists between our Indus Valley civilization and the following Copper age cultures of central and west India, which existed from 1700 BCE to the 1st millennium. This continuity continues from this Copper Age culture to our southeast Indian culture, which has existed through to the present day. Our ancient Harappan culture never died. We just moved south.

To be honest, however, the Aryan invasion of the mid 2nd millennium BCE was just our coup de grace. Deep floods had already submerged large parts of our country. Despite our irrigated agriculture, we were having a hard time supporting our growing population. Things had been too good for too long, just like it was at the end of the Khmer Empire at Angkor,. Our cycle was over. In the Aryan’s Rig-Veda, Indra, the god of war, speaks of ‘rending forts as age consumes a garment’. We were thread bare, just waiting for the inevitable end. At our peak, we thought we would last forever, when we were just part of the transitory nature of existence – a spider web that was a little more elegant than the rest. Time changes everything."

Mohenjo Daro: Tamil's Golden Age

Tamil: "How grand things were in our Golden Age. For instance, Mohenjo Daro, one of our major cities, was laid out with astonishing regularity. It would make modern city planners jealous. It was a rectangular city, broken into 12 blocks or islands. These islands were 1260 feet in the  north-south direction by 750 feet east-west. Each island was surrounded by drainage ditches or moats. Our city had baths and bathrooms. The sanitation was provided by our abundance of surrounding reservoirs or moats.

One of the center islands was raised about 20 feet above the surrounding islands. This was our religious or ceremonial headquarters. It was here that modern scientists found our famous bronze dancing girls, who were naked except for armlets. They also found bulls and buffaloes. Much of our art is imbued with a sense of humor. Before the arrival of the Aryans, floods from the Indus devastated our wonderful city of Mohenjo Daro. Even our wonderful drainage couldn’t protect us from Nature’s fury.

We copied this square motif with drainage reservoirs with a raised center shrine when we set up your rectangular cities of Oc Eo, Angkor Borei, and the greater Angkor complex with its interior sacred cities, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.”

Soma: “I’ve appreciated this so much. It has saved my people from so much grief. Besides channeling the flood waters of the Himalayas, we’ve been able to use the water for irrigation.”

The Importance of the Tamil culture of Southern India to Southeast Asia

Tamil: “Think nothing of it. We’ve enjoyed sharing our technology with a culture that shares our humor and joyousness. The Northern Indians, whose ancestors were the Aryans, are a little too warlike and serious for our tastes. While western culture has linked the cultures of northern and southern India together, we are actually very different. Although we are integrated culturally, sharing a common mythology, they speak an Aryan language, while we speak a Dravidian language - totally different families. We call ourselves Tamil.

We are the people of Southern India. We are not a small isolated subset of Indians. There are 57 million of us in India alone. At the bottom of the Indian peninsula, surrounded by the Indian Ocean on three sides, we have long been prominent sea traders. Our traders and people have spread all over the world from Sri Lanka, to the Malay Peninsula, to East Africa, South Africa, Fiji and the West Indies.

Our Tamil culture has been the center of traditional Hinduism, especially the school of bhakti or devotion, which emerged in the 6th century CE. In more recent times, there was even a Dravidian movement that aimed at the de-Sanskritization and de-Brahminization of our Tamil culture - the elimination of Aryanism.

We Tamils have played an important role in the transmission of Indian culture and customs to your part of the world, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia. We have also been a spreading center for Buddhism and Jainism. We have a long history of cultural achievement, including literature, art and architecture. We are known for our reservoirs, water towers, and elaborate drainage systems. We even had our own Iron Age from 1000 --> 500 BCE. The Chola Empire, which spread all over the islands of Southeast Asia, was also a Tamil dynasty. The Aryan culture of the north has had much less influence on your people of Southeast Asia than have we Tamils from the south.”

Soma: “Earlier you said that you have a Naga background. Why is this?”

Tamil: “The Aryan invaders pushed us into the hills. They called us Nagas, after the serpents that were part of our cult objects. Eventually they called any outsiders who lived in the hills, Nagas.”

Soma: “No wonder we love each other so much and have given birth to such a wonderfully joyous culture.”


Mother Naga/Soma: “This interaction was a big turning point in our relationship. Seeing our common roots and Tamil’s gentle sensitivity combined with a good sense of humor and his marvelous technology I was overwhelmed. I fell madly in love. I was ecstatic with joy. But I loved him for more than these things. Adding to his appeal, Tamil brought his political kingdoms, religions, and literature. He was too good to be true. I am so grateful to Tamil. His marvelous attributes were essential ingredients of my magnificent Empire at Angkor. Non-pareil, as the French say – without parallel."


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