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Religion- Buddhist 

The religions onn the whole are strongly influenced by the early Indian and Chinese cultures. As early as at the beginning of the Christian era the Indian traders brought - along with their products - their religion to the first Khmer state in Funan. Most of them were followers of Brahmanism (a forerunner of Hinduism), which merged with the existing animistic beliefs into a kind of new religion - hinduistic and local deities existing side by side.

During the Angkor period, which started the beginning of the 8th century, various Hindu sects were promoted by the Angkor kings, especially the cults of Shiva and Vishnu, which is still to be seen in the art and architecture of that period. Jayavarman II crowned himself as a reincarnation of Shiva and reigned on the basis of the Hindu concept of the god-kings or devaraja. Hindu cosmology had a great impact on the whole Cambodian culture. Today, almost 90% of the population are Theravada-Buddhists - the faith has had a formative influence on everyday live and still has. It was reintroduced as the national religion in 1989.

Theravada-Buddhism entered the country in the 13th century and began to spread under King Jayavarman VII in the whole country, till it became state religion in the 15th century. As a popular religion, it held great attractions to a population which for many centuries had been denied access to the more elitist and extravagant devaraja cult. Many Cambodian males at some point of their lives, spend time in a Buddhist monastery and almost every village has a Buddhist temple - or wat - around which village life centers. Buddhist rituals follow the lunar calendar and there are several significant religious holidays and festivals that are widely observed.

Cambodian Buddhism appears an easy going faith and tolerates ancestor and territorial spirit worship, which is widely practised. There are often small rustic altars to the guardian spirits in the corner of pagodas. Many Khmer communities have achars, who share in the spiritual guidance of people but do not compete with the monks. Most important ceremonies - weddings, funerals, coming of age - have both Buddhist and animist elements. Today other religions in Cambodia are Islam and Christianity - there are around 500.000 Cham-Muslims belonging to the Sunni school and approximately 60.000 Christians, most of them Roman Catholics. Almost all the Chinese in Cambodia are Taoist or Confucianist.

Arts & Architecture

The height of Khmer art and architecture dates from the Angkor period. All the surviving monuments are built of stone or brick, and all are religious buildings. The culture and art of the early kingdoms of Funan and Chenla were central to the evolution of Angkorian art and architecture. Relics of the pre-Angkorian periods have been found all over South-Cambodia. Most of it is Hindu art, but a number of Mahayana-Buddhist Bodhisattvas have been found also. During Angkor period, architecture and its decoration were governed by a series of mystical and religious beliefs.

Common motifs in Khmer sculpture are apsaras (celestial nymphs), which have become a kind of symbol of the Khmer culture. The apsaras are carved with splendidly ornate jewellery, clothed in the latest Angkor fashion and represented the ultimate ideal of feminine beauty of that time. Other motifs are nagas (sacred aquatic snakes), which play an important part in Hindu mythology and are possibly more than any other motif charac-teristic of Southeast Asia. Most of these motifs have been taken from Indian art and have been modified into what is now known as traditional Khmer art.

Temples were designed to represent the cosmic Mt. Meru, the home of the gods of Indian cosmology, surrounded by oceans. Angkor literally means "city" or "capital", Wat means "temple". Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the architectural masterpieces of Cambodia and probably the largest religious building on earth. Conceived by Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took an estimated 30 years to build. It is generally believed to have been a funeral temple for the king. It has been continuously occupied by monks and is well preserved.

Intricate bas reliefs surround Angkor Wat on four sides. Each tells a different story. The most celebrated of these is "The Churning of the Ocean of Milk", which is located on the east wing. Again, the central sanctuary of the temple complex represents Mt. Meru, the five towers symbolize Meru's five peaks, the enclosing wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world and the surrounding moat, the ocean beyond.

The symmetrical towers of Angkor Wat are stylized on the Cambodian flag and have become a symbol of Khmer culture.

Language

The official Cambodian language, called Khmer, is part of the Mon-Khmer family, enriched by the Indian Pali and Sanskrit languages. Khmer is related to the languages spoken by hilltribe people of Laos, Vietnam and even Malaysia. It has no tones and the script is derived from the South-Indian alphabet, written from left to right and leaving no space between the words. English and French are spoken also - French mainly by some old people, whereas the younger generation learns English.

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June 13, 2005 change by giorgio

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