Tracing Botanical Knowledge through Cambodian Temple Art

This project pertains to the history of botany in India and the circulation of botanical knowledge and materials between India and Cambodia between the 10th and 13th centuries. In particular, we focus on the depictions of flora on bas-reliefs of Cambodian (Khmer) temples that can be identified through contemporary as well as later written records. Plants are important indicators of interactions between cultures. As foods, medicines, commercial commodities and objects of veneration, plants have followed people across continents. 

Khmer imagery often contain lively representations of flora and fauna, at times forming a backdrop or a frame for the Hindu and Buddhist mythological stories . We ask whether these are depictions of indigenous plants meant to localize "foreign" stories or whether they are specific Indian flora associated with particular Indian myths, gods and goddesses. If they are Indian flora, is it then suggestive of a transfer of knowledge and/or material specimen from India? We also consider the reverse transfer from Cambodia to India as a probable aspect in this interconnected network.

This project aims to, first, identify the various plants and trees that are portrayed on the Khmer reliefs, second, determine their genealogy (whether local or Indian), and third, characterize their role and significance in the local and Indian cultural and scientific contexts.

This study could have implications in ecology and ethno botany. Humans interact with landscape in myriad ways including culturally and geographically. Archaeology, history and art are some of the repositories that record these interactions. Plants and trees have had a significant role in both India and Southeast Asia; they have been venerated, used for therapeutic purposes, were traded as prized commercial items and depicted in art. Trees and plants associated with sacred temple groves were also used to treat poisons, possessions and other dangerous afflictions, and temple art provide well preserved records of certain aspects that were relevant to the culture during that period.