Nithyananda Sangha posted a series of YouTube videos making the assertion shortly before hosting workshops in Siem Reap
A prominent Indian mystic who claims some 10 million followers has argued in a series of YouTube videos that the earliest Khmer temples were built in southern India, and that Angkor Wat itself was constructed 3,000 years ago.
The videos by Nithyananda Sangha, also known as Swami Nithyananda, were posted in October and December last year, just before he visited Siem Reap to host a three-week, $10,000 meditation workshop at the Empress Angkor Hotel.
In the satsangs, or assemblies, he calls on his followers to “please understand” that the Cambodian temples are far older than the 900 or 1,000 years asserted by “cunning” Western historians, and that many of the temples were not built in the Kingdom at all.
Rather, he says the temples were first built and carved in Tamil Nadu in southern India, where the stones were then numbered, dismantled and taken by ship to Cambodia. There, they were re-assembled and re-carved.
He even argues that the elephants necessary for the work had to be shipped from India, as Cambodians were not sophisticated enough to train elephants to assemble temples.
Cambodia-based historians have dismissed the claims as “ludicrous” and “weird”.
In his talk, Nithyananda conflates the Funan Kingdom, which extended across much of modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and is approximately dated between the 1st and 6th or 7th centuries CE, with the time of the Khmer Empire, which is regarded as having taken root in 802 CE with the coronation of Jayavarman II.
The Funan period saw extensive Indianisation in the region, in particular from the north Indian Gupta dynasty and the Pallava dynasty of Tamil Nadu, the latter of whom Nithyananda credits with this remarkable feat of engineering and logistics.
“The guy is way off-base,” said Damian Evans, director of the Robert Christie Research Centre for the University of Sydney, who added that he had never heard of any similar claims being made in the past.
“To take the most obvious point, many of the temples have foundation inscriptions that tell us the year in which they were consecrated, in a calendar that we can clearly understand,” he said.
Dominique Soutif, director of the Ecôle Français d’Extrême Orient, agreed. “It is a fraud,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like this before. Sometimes people say weird things about the temples, but not that weird.”
On the question of dating the temples, Evans conceded that there is naturally some academic debate about the flows of trade and culture between this region and the Indian subcontinent. “There is obviously some Pallava influence on Khmer culture, among others, but to suggest that it was transplanted here wholesale is frankly ludicrous, and flies in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary.”
More fatally to the Swami’s claims, there are hundreds of temples scattered across Cambodia whose construction corresponds with the Pallava dynasty’s time in Cambodia. These are all, however, constructed from brick, not stone, and were not carved.
Nithyananda is described on his own website as a “living incarnation of super-consciousness”, and the most watched spiritual teacher on YouTube, with more than 18 million views. He is the founder of an Ashram near Bangalore, which offers meditation, yoga and wellness training programs, and also tours the world with his teachings. The guru’s LinkedIn profile asserts that he can cure cancer with a single touch.
The mystic is no stranger to controversy. In August last year, the Supreme Court of India ruled that he had to undergo a sexual “potency test”after he denied allegations of sexual abuse and rape on the basis that he is impotent.
His followers claim that the video that forms much of the evidence against him is fabricated. The results do not yet appear to have been formally published, and Nithyananda may have to undergo the test again following accusations that he failed to cooperate.
His workshops in Siem Reap in December were attended by as many as 500 followers, said Andreas Pfohl. The 55-year-old German, who works in the legal profession, attended as many of the morning sessions, which were free, as he could, out of curiosity.
“I hadn’t heard of him before, but I like Indian culture and I enjoyed the music that they played. I wouldn’t say I’d be a convert afterwards,” he said.
“I didn’t hear him say anything about Angkor Wat except that it is the largest Shiva temple in the world.”
According to Pfohl, most of those attending the full-day sessions and day trips, for whom the $10,000 fee would apply, came from India.
One attendee, who asked not to be named, said: “When I got to Cambodia four years ago and saw the temples, so many things didn’t make sense, but when I heard what Nithyananda had to say, it all became clear.
“He’s real, he’s unbelievable. He has the highest genes on the planet.”
Repeated calls to the number posted on Nithyananda’s website went through to a number that has been switched off according to the voice message, while an emailed request for comment was not answered.