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មតិ | MATI

Ideas     Insight     Inspirations


Updated: Jan 11, 2019

My fingers below the name “Mera,” inscribed at the tenth-century temple of Baksei Chamkrong. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

“Where are you going? Where do you come from? What will you do?”[1]

These are the words of Chheng Phon,[2] an eminent figure in the world of Khmer art and culture. The artist was instrumental in reviving shadow play and inventing the genre of folk dance, leading as Minister of Culture and Information after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

Lok Ta, as I and many others know him, passed away earlier this year. But his poetic soul and astute philosophy lives on in his students and their students, and in the many forms of dance, music, and performing arts currently practiced in the country.

I would like to dedicate this writing to Lok Ta, and to use his words to explore where we are as a people and where we need to be. I will do so by digging into our creation stories, into our first-known conceptions of self, nationhood, world, and universe. For it is only with understanding of the past, as the great teacher so poignantly suggests, that we can forge higher possibilities and futures.

Naga women next to their serpentine form at the Terrace of the Leper King. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The earliest Khmer founding myth is Preah Thaong Neang Neak. It is cited in fifth-century Chinese sources,[3] and in a seventh-century inscription tracing the Cham king’s legitimacy to Khmer King Isanavarmann I.[4] Even the Tamil epic Manimekhalai, dated from the sixth century of the Common Era, incorporates a version of the narrative.[5]

Before I recount the story, it is important to bear in mind that different peoples, places, and times have left us with variations of Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Therefore, what follows is the tale only as I carry it:

Once, in a faraway land, there was a brahmin named Preah Thaong. The young man worshipped a deity with deep devotion, and dreamt the god gave him a bow and ordered him to set sail. When he woke up the next morning, Preah Thaong went to pay his respects at the temple. And, to his surprise, he found the same bow at the base of the god’s sacred tree.

Taking this as a good omen, Preah Thaong journeyed with his men into unknown waters, into the domain of a naga (serpent) princess named Neang Neak. Seeing the intruders, the princess raised her army to defend her territory. Preah Thaong fired an arrow into the bow of her ship however, and Neang Neak surrendered upon seeing its powerful magic.

The brahmin demanded that the naga princess marry him, but the ceremony could only be completed in the subterranean realm. Neang Neak therefore transformed into her true serpentine form. The princess swam to the kingdom of the naga as the brahmin hung onto her tail.

Their wedding was celebrated with great festivity by the creatures of the ocean, who sang and danced with an elated joy. Neang Neak’s father, the naga king, swallowed an entire sea in honor of the sacred union. He revealed a most fertile land and named it Kambujadesa, and gave it to the newlyweds to rule.

Kambujadesa—“land born of Kambu”—is known as Kampuchea or Cambodia today. It was known this way by the fifth century of the Common Era, as Chinese records described “Kambuja aliens” making tribute to their court in the first century.[6] We may never know when our ancestors first referred to the country as Kambuja, but let this not stop us from diving deeper into the tale.

Through Preah Thaong Neang Neak, we know that Cambodia has always been a hybridity, a coming together of different peoples, cultures, and realms. Preah Thaong exemplifies the masculine, foreign, and human forces while Neang Neak embodies the feminine, local, and divine. This connection and interchange between different spheres of being and thought is what gave rise to our earliest nation, described as Funan by the Chinese, transliterated as “phnom” by French scholar George Cœdès, but described as Kambuja by our ancestors.

Secondly, kambu is a Pali word for “gold.”[7] Kambujadesa, therefore, means “land born of gold.” This creates a direct connection to ancient concepts of Suvarnabhumi or Sovannaphum, the “land of gold” where many South Asian merchants traveled to trade. In fact, ancient Cambodia was a prime center for trade between India and China, with artifacts of Greek, Roman, and Persian provenance unearthed at Óc Eo in modern day Vietnam.[8] This translation can explain why the name Kampu[9] is used interchangeably with Preah Thaong, as thaong is commonly understood to mean “gold.”

Kampu is associated with another Khmer founding story however, and we must explore it to further understand what creates and animates us as a people. That story is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a story of Hindu origin, but interpreted below based on the bas-relief at Angkor Wat:

Once, a long time ago, the tevea (gods) and yeak wanted to procure amrita. Whoever drank this elixir would be granted the power of immortality. As both sides saw mutual gain, they agreed to join forces.

They decided to have a tug of war to decide who would win the prize. The god Vishnu transformed into a giant tortoise to hold up Mount Mandara, the pivot of the contest. And Vasuki, the naga of Shiva, wrapped around the mountain to serve as a rope.

For hundreds and thousands of years, the tevea and yeak pulled and pulled but no side seemed to prevail. They pulled until white milk started to bleed and seep from the naga’s body, the fluid quickly forming a vast ocean.

The deities continued to pull and pull, their competition killing the many creatures of the sea. The ocean began to foam as they continued to turn and pivot, some of the bubbles floating into the air and transforming into heavenly dancers known as apsara.

The most talented and beautiful of these apsara—their queen—was Mera. She was given by Shiva as a wife to the sage Kampu Svayambhuva, or “Kampu the Self-Born.” It is the union of Kampu and Mera from whom we, Khmer people, originated.

Beyond the name Kampu, there are many things which connect our two founding myths. First is water, sea, and ocean. Even the apsara indicate this, as they take their name from the Sanskrit root ap (water). At the core of our founding myths then are the forces of motion, movement, interchange, and adaptability, as water takes the shape of its container. Secondly, the naga, creatures associated with water and its ability to deliver life and fertility, serve as bridges between different worlds in both stories: between human and non-human, surface and below the surface in the prior; godly and ungodly, mortal and immortal in the latter. Thirdly, there is the generative competition and union of complementary forces. In the first story, a battle produces our land, people, and nation. In the second, a tug of war produces the apsara, and eventually our people.

It is interesting to note that the reptilian naga and heavenly apsara are but one expression of the bridge. Their mutual purpose can be seen in robam kbach boran (classical dance), whose origins are traced to the primal, animist roots of the naga as well as the apsara of Hindu conception. This interchange of naga and apsara, of local[10] and foreign, is mirrored in the way that Khmer kings traced their lineage to both stories, which respectively represented the nation’s lunar and solar dynasties.

Furthermore, the battle between Preah Thaong and Neang Neak always appears to be non-violent. This is mirrored in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat, in which the yeak seem to be handsome, benign, and collaborative. They are nowhere near attacking the tevea in malice, and lack the vicious ferocity seen in their counterparts from India, Tibet, and other parts of Hindu and Buddhist Asia.

This may seem contrary to modern conceptions of yeak, which is often translated as “demon” or “ogre,” but I would like to share the words of my Khmer language teacher: “In the beginning the yeak were beautiful. People wanted to show their power however, so they drew fangs and gave them angry faces to make people respect them.”[11] Furthermore, in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, the word yeak is defined as​ a “non-human, invisible deity of land, object, or place; an asora; an evil spirit; either good- or bad-hearted that humans venerate and make offerings to.” In fact, the yeak are to the tevea as the titans are to the Olympian gods of ancient Greece (and the apsara are comparable to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty who was born from sea foam).

Yeak in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

If Preah Thaong and Neang Neak and the tevea and yeak of Angkor Wat teach us how to join different communities and ways of thinking, Mera and the apsara teach us how to transcend conflicts that may result from that process.

Indeed, of all the gifts to emerge from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Khmer artists depicted only the apsara at Angkor Wat. They are shown flying with their hands in the dance gesture known as stuoy—the gesture of strength, victory, pride, greatness, celebration, and uplifting. They emerge in astounding numbers like a powerful cloud and demarcate the heavens, flying as if they might raise the entire temple up to the sky.

The apsara are born from the tug of war between tevea and yeak, between right and left, but they are neither tevea nor yeak, neither right nor left. Furthermore, they are polar-opposites of the dead and butchered sea creatures depicted on the bottom of the relief panel. The apsara appear at the top of the scene, springing to life from the forces of competition and conflict, born of violence but neither broken nor destroyed by it, born of violence but transcendent. They also represent a rebirth, in a sense—the force of the central axis sucking in the sea creatures at the bottom, lifting them up and transforming them, and spewing them out as resplendent apsara above.

The apsara then are the triumph of the middle point and path, the balance, power, and creative force of convergences and intersections. Chheng Phon has described them further as “the symbol of the surety of a life free from anxiety . . . [beings] trying to find this surety for others.”[12]

So what might this mean for us today?

Cambodia is a nation that has been shaped by centuries of war, and our people have been both the conquerors and the defeated. The temples of Angkor—symbols of Khmer victory—are celebrated with great pride as they represent the height of Khmer power and cultural sophistication. On the other hand, the periods after Angkor—when Thailand and Vietnam ate at our country’s territories—is perceived as a time of lost glory, a time conceptualized by French colonials as a “dark age” and imprinted onto the popular Cambodian imagination.

In the modern era, violence manifested in the genocide initiated by the Khmer Rouge, which saw the deaths of a third of the entire population,[13] including ninety percent of Khmer artists. The effects of this conflict are still visible in the country and diaspora today, ranging from landmine victims with missing limbs to the genetic passage of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Long Beach, CA, for example, a survey conducted by Khmer Girls in Action and the University of California – Los Angeles showed that nearly half of Khmer American youth participants possessed symptoms of depression.[14]

War and violence creates a cycle of fear all over the world. The victors manipulate those around them by instilling fear, and in turn fear the possibility of betrayal and revenge. On the other hand, the defeated and oppressed come to fear people and ideas from the outside, manifested in a fear of lost land, lost identity, lost sovereignty, and lost heritage. This culture of fear, and its debilitating effects on Cambodia, is aptly described by Khmer social psychologist Dr. Seanglim Bit:

“Fear is a constant reality in the Cambodian psyche . . . the fear stems from the centuries of complex history, the religious and mythological belief systems and the social arrangements which characterize Cambodian society. Through the systematic use of force to gain advantage, the Cambodian population has become conditioned to accept and tolerate fear as the expected human condition. Compounding the effects of fear in the Cambodian experience is the fact that it is submerged and hidden behind a façade of social characteristics which present a superficial picture of harmony and humility, at least until the recent period of civil strife. Fear is neither identified nor openly recognized as a primary determinant in human psychology or in the conduct of public affairs by those who would assist Cambodia to resolve its contemporary problems or indeed by Cambodians themselves. Fear restrains the exercises of creativity, the ability to conceive new solutions, adaptations or innovations for contributing to general society. Attitudes of self-glorification based on cultural triumphs long past but incompletely understood, have denied present society a source of inspiration for the changes it must make to reform its cultural values. The triad of fear-oppression-false pride creates an infertile ground for progressive self-development. The net result of this triad operating at the various levels of social interaction is a society which does not have the full benefit of its own internal human resources to generate its own self-development and manage incremental social change.”[15]

To root Dr. Bit’s observation in everyday Khmer life, I would like to share an example from the world of classical dance, one that touches upon our methods of pedagogy as well as our interpersonal relationships and social hierarchies. Soth Sam On, my teacher’s teacher, the star performer of yeak roles from the 1950s to 1970s, was once interviewed for the Khmer Dance Project. The late dance master rationalized being hit as a young student by her very strict teacher Lok Khun Mit: “It all depends on fear. If the students are not afraid, they will not learn . . . If they are not afraid, nothing is possible.”[16]

Love, devotion, respect, and fear are often intertwined in Khmer dance and culture. This can be understood somewhat through the word awe, which originally described the wonder and fear one experiences upon seeing a god. Interestingly, in Cambodia, we say that there are three types of gods: the first being our parents who gave us life, the second being our teachers who illuminate our lives, and the third being the Buddha who enlightens our world.

That said, Soth Sam On distinguished between fearing the beating stick and respecting the teacher in her interview. And my own late father has once said, “Making people fear you is not the same as making them respect you.”

The yeak at Angkor Wat have been carved to be respected, not feared. The temple they appear in, in turn, has garnered the admiration of numerous Khmer individuals and groups, appearing on our nation’s flag and inspiring the creation of dance, music, sculpture, and film for generations. It is this grand religious structure that I will address last, as it is perhaps the most potent point of origination for Khmer identity and consciousness today.

Angkor Wat. By sam garza (originally posted to Flickr as Angkor Wat) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

As a people, we take great pride in being the children of Angkor. Dr. Bit writes astutely of this in his essential book The Warrior Heritage:

“To be Cambodian is to be the warrior, the creator and the builder of Angkor Wat. More accurately, to be a Cambodian is to be a descendant of a people that produced architectural masterpieces of the Angkor era which rival the achievements of any of the ancient civilizations.”[17]

In other words, as Khmer, we carry the legacies of the warrior and the artist. We are both the destroyer and the creator, a fact made evident in the many scenes of battle and war exquisitely depicted at Angkor Wat, and in Shiva, the deity most venerated by royalty in ancient Cambodia, whose cosmic dance both destroys and recreates the universe.

Due to centuries of on-going war however, the warrior spirit has prevailed in Cambodia. The positive side of this is a certain strength, vigor, perseverance, urgency, immediacy, and action; its negative is a subtractive, fear-driven mentality, a this-or-that, you-or-me, us-or-them, life-or-death way of thinking and behaving. This must now be balanced by our rich artist spirit, the fertile force that nurtures, grows, connects, creates, invents, and builds. We must become more of a this-and-that, you-and-me, us-and-them, life-and-life-through-death people. Perhaps then we will have new sources of hope, peace, genius, and inspiration, and push our country to a new era of enlightenment, prosperity, wealth, and abundance.

Satellite image of Phnom Penh. Imagery 2017 TerraMetrics, Map data 2017 Google.

As we strive for this then, we must bear in mind and heart the stories of where we come from. They exist in the spaces of the in-between—between history and mythology, body and memory, reality and emotion, person and society, Cambodia and the world. In our work to lift our people and country beyond war and genocide, let us not succumb to fear and the anger, mistrust, divisiveness, and violence that it breeds. This will only render us the sea animals depicted in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, whose bodies are mercilessly broken, torn, and ripped apart at the relief’s central axis.

Instead, let us aim high and strive for the divine apsara. Let us revalue them as more than pretty decorations, carry them for their fullest power and transcendent resilience. In fact, in Java, the apsara are known as vidyadhari, as “holders of knowledge.” And knowledge is liberating.

How will Cambodia nurture its next generation of svayambhuva—those who are born of themselves, those who are self-made and self-creating? How will it attract and retain the brightest minds and visionary talents who constantly define their fields and disciplines, from inside and outside of its borders? And what must we do to allow these leaders to contribute fully to our systems of culture and education, health and urban planning, environmental conservation and industrial development?

On our journey forward then, let us remember Lok Ta’s words which reminds us to constantly assess, understand, and re-chart our trajectories. Let us strive to interact in non-violent generative union, without demonizing the other in our moments of tension and conflict. And let us shed away our skins of fear, transforming our historical wounds and painful legacies into sources of strength, imagining and creating new stories, meanings, and possibilities for our individual selves, our families, our communities, and our country.

For example, contrary to popular Khmer belief, a smaller Cambodia is not necessarily a sign of weakness nor decay. It is an opportunity. Smaller requires fewer resources, enables greater precision and care, is easier to manage and faster to mobilize. And, if the development of technology and medicine is any indication, size is neither a marker of strength, efficacy, impact, power, nor influence.

Therefore, let us be like tiny, precious diamonds that form under immense heat and pressure. And let us be like beautiful pearls, which form in response to illness and danger.

Phnom Penh, the current capital of our country, was once called the “Pearl of Asia.”[18] The city was also once known as Krong Chatumok, the “City of Four Faces,” as it sits on the convergence of multiple rivers. This intersection mirrors our earliest founding stories and the wisdom of our ancestors, which emphasizes the generative capacities of connection, intersection, interchange, adaptability, and hybridity. It is a ritual image of creative power, universal omniscience, and cosmic radiance—not unlike the mandala upon which Angkor Wat was modeled.

Let the past, present, and future converge in and through us then. And let the most groundbreaking people, ideas, images, approaches, narratives, systems, and technologies converge on our city. Let us filter, transform, and improve all these things—creating, developing, and inventing those of our own ingenuity—so that they may flow to the rest of Cambodia and beyond, uplifting our people and country, and with that, the world.

- - - - -

[1] The phrase in Khmer is: ទៅណាមកពីណាធ្វើអី?

[2] My friend Anjan pointed out that this is very similar to Gauguin’s famous questions, written on the back of one of his works.

[3] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[4] Southward, William A. “The Coastal States of Champa.” Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History, edited by Ian Glover and Peter Bellwood, RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, pp. 224.

[5] Even Japan's eighth-century Kojiki, or "Record of Ancient Matters," includes a creation myth nearly identical to Preah Thaong Neang Neak. Please see the story of Toyotama-hime and Yamasachi-hiko, the grandparents of Emperor Jimmu (Japan's first emperor).

[6] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter. Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000. Page 10.

[7] My friend Trent Walker, a scholar of Buddhism and performer of smot (dharma chanting), tells me that it can mean “gold” but also “a piece of jewelry” or “conch.” All these meanings are attested in Samdech Chuon Nath’s dictionary, with “gold” being the first and primary definition.

[8] The name Óc Eo is a French transliteration of the Khmer Or Kaiv, which means “glass” or “crystal canal.”

[9] I am interchanging Kambu and Kampu here, the first being the romanization of Sanskrit and the latter being the common, contemporary spelling. No matter what, it refers to the same thing and person.

[10] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987. Pages 265 - 267. The word naga is believed to have been incorporated into the vocabulary of India from Southeast Asia. And the Manimekhalai may have adopted the being and its associated narratives from there as well.

[11] Name has been omitted. Personal communication, 2016.

[12] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1994. Page 77.

[13] Shapiro-Phim, Toni. “Flight and Renewal.” Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, edited by Prumsodun Ok, self-published, 2013, pp. 10 - 13. Be advised that numbers vary for this estimate.

[14] Minasian, Stephanie. “Khmer Girls in Action Fight for Youth Rights.”, 2 Nov. 2011, Accessed 4 Sept. 2017.

[15] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Pages 135 – 136.

[16] Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Soth Sam On, 2008-03-30" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[17] Bit, Seanglim. The Warrior Heritage. Self-Published, 1991. Page 3.

[18] My friend Roger Nelson, an Australian curator and art historian, says that many cities in Asia have been described, or have described themselves, as the “Pearl of Asia.” Personal communication, September 2017.

Rehearsing a new devotional song I wrote, set to the traditional melody He. The lyrics use Khmer, Middle Khmer, and Sanskrit, and employs Buddhist imagery derived from ancient sutra to pay respects to the sacred beings who care for us and our world. Translation:

"He! I bring my hands together in prayer,

Lifting them to every direction and place,

Offering my heart like the moon,

He, he, he, he, offering my heart like the moon."

"Oh ancestors, spirits who protect our lineage,

Masters of the lands and waters ever eminent,

Sacred teachers and gods,

He, he, he, he, sacred teachers and gods!" "May you bestow blessings,

Glory, well-being, victory,

Upon us all,

He, he, he, he, upon us all."

First published November 10, 2020 to (citations can be seen on that document)

Khaol is one of the many performing art traditions of Cambodia. As noted by historian Vong Sotheara, ancient inscriptions from the reign of King Jayavarmma V indicate its practice since the tenth century. Linguist Pou Saveros has suggested the art form is actually older, as evident from narrators and chanters denoted as “bhāṇi.” Indeed the bol, or stylized chant-narration, is one key feature differentiating khaol from its sister tradition of robam kbach boran or “classical dance,” which is also known as robam preah reacheatrap or “dance of the royal treasure.” Solely performing episodes of the Reamker with an all-male cast, khaol is closely related in language and music to sbek thom, a shadow theater employing large leather puppets. Since its origins, khaol likely emphasized the comic and ‘burlesque,’ as evident from its namesake which means “a type of tall, black monkey.”

Despite its rich heritage, khaol fell into vulnerable obscurity in modern Khmer society. There are two documented instances for this decline. First off, Cambodia’s royal chronicles have related how King Ang Duong, upon his return from Bangkok in the mid-nineteenth century, separated male and female dancers, instructing them to perform separately from one another. His male troupe was disbanded after his death, spurring male court dancers to live and perform amongst the people instead. Secondly, according to anthropologist Ang Choulean, no longer having royal patronage or prestige, khaol saw its modern decline with the introduction and popularity of transistor radios, as broadcasters preferred performances of lakhaon bassac alongside contemporary expressions of auditory culture. The art form’s invisibility in the presence of this new technology saw that “khaol was only present in some rural areas such as Wat Svay Andet on the northern shore of the Tonle Thom [Mekong River].”

Today, with the Lakhaon Khaol of Wat Svay Andet listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO—and, in honesty, due to nationalist tensions spurred by neighboring Thailand’s listing of khon (a historical derivative of Khmer khaol) in this same list—khaol is beginning to gain much-needed attention in Cambodia. However, proper analysis and writing on the tradition still remains scarce, leaving Khmer audiences filled with pride but lacking many sources and opportunities for deep understanding.

In order to encourage the practice, preservation, and development of khaol, I hereby offer an analysis of the Reamker as chanted by the late khaol master Pka Say. Although incomplete, it remains the most in-depth published text after “the manuscript text of the [khaol] Reamker which had served as the only written support for the Svay Andet troupe for decades, if not centuries, disappeared from the local temple treasury” during the Khmer Rouge regime. This study of his recitation, recorded and transcribed by Pi Bunnin and published by the Buddhist Institute in 2000, is therefore only intended as a limited supplement to the writings of other scholars available on the tradition.

I. Repetition of Structure: Memory, Magic, Ritual, and Practicality

Grandfather Say’s Reamker begins with an exposition relating the beginnings of the story, explaining the origins, births, and incarnations of Preah Ream (Rāma), Neang Seda (Sīta), Hanumān, the monkey brothers Sugrib (Sugrīva) and Peali (Vālin), and the demon king Reab (Rāvana) to name a few. It is full of particularities beyond the scope of this paper, such as Neang Seda being an incarnation of Socheata (Sujāta), the wife of Indra. Ultimately, it reveals in tone, language, and content how the Reamker has come to reflect the character of the people, with, for example, Siva being described with quaint familiarity as the “elder brother” of Visnu.

The performance proper, however, begins as Preah Ream prepares to build the bridge to Langka with his monkey army, beginning the great battle that has inspired the creation of art and performance in Cambodia for centuries. What then follows in Grandfather Say’s telling are a series of short episodes, based on each terrifying adversary facing Preah Ream and his army. These can range from the powerful trickster Indrajit to the slippery beast Maharomel, the “Great Slippery One” from the Patala Ocean, who can only be killed by sand.

Leading up to Preah Ream’s battle with Reab, each of these episodes are shockingly similar in structure. With some exceptions, they usually follow as such:

  1. Reab assesses his losses in tears and orders two trusted soldiers to summon a valiant warrior, who is often a blood relation of the king of Langka.

  2. This ally appears and raises an army, fortifying the area with guard towers and leading his men in a powerful roar at night to intimidate Preah Ream and his forces.

  3. Preah Ream awakens, adorning himself and longing for Neang Seda.

  4. Preah Ream asks Biphek (Vibhīṣaṇa), the virtuous astrologer brother of Reab, about the cries of the demons heard last night, who the army belongs to, and from where they hail. Biphek consults the stars to identify the adversary, and informs of who should fight the foe. If the stars say that Rama shall fight, he orders Sugrib, called Soryavong (Suryavaṅsa), to raise his army.

  5. The two armies meet and are even in match. The leaders call out to each other to engage in battle.

  6. Biphek informs Preah Ream of the enemy’s weakness, and the prince, his brother Preah Leak (Lakṣmaṇa), or one of his monkey generals accordingly slays the demon or monster.

  7. The ally of Reab is killed, and the two trusted demon soldiers of the king of Langka report the death to their lord. Reab cries at this loss of life, and laments for the impending doom and destruction of Langka.

This repetition of structure is by no means a coincidence. First off, it must be said that Grandfather Say is illiterate, unable to read or write in Khmer. He remembers these episodes as they have been passed on to him through oral transmission, and the repetitive structure of these episodes create and cultivate the mnemonic power of the Reamker of Wat Svay Andet for chanters, performers, and audiences alike. It also reflects how the khaol troupe of Wat Svay Andet is not one of professionals, but of villagers who come together at a specified time of year to stage performances as required of their annual propitiation of ancestor and territorial spirits. This narrative skeleton ensured the village performers could recall and restage an episode with relative ease, contributing to the continuity of ritual and tradition amongst a people whose main occupation was farming. Each scene ends with the victory of Preah Ream and his monkey army, closing with a fearful and disheartened Reab—which must have signified for the villagers their own inevitable triumph over calamity and danger that came in natural and supernatural, as well as social, psychological, and human forms.

II. Repetition of Language: Psychology of Practitioner and Community

The prevalence of pattern and repetition is also found in the language used in Grandfather Say’s Reamker, which, according to anthropologist Ang Choulean, would require “deep and pristine” knowledge of Middle Khmer and linguistics for proper study of the work. The episodes unfold through phrases that resurface consistently, creating sonic flow and rhythm conducive to memorization for chanter-narrators such as Grandfather Say, who “did not use treatises or texts, all the words bound and remembered completely in [their heads].” This makes reading the Reamker publication taxing for the untrained reader, who cannot experience the emotive variation, musicality, surprises, and specificities particular to live performance. This is not to mention the reader’s loss of narrative nuances as expressed through the dancers’ miming of the chant, as well as missing actions communicated during musical interludes.

That said, these phrases are important as they reveal the psychology of the composers of the Reamker of Wat Svay Andet, as well as the conditions and world of their communities. “Bangang yur pum ban,” meaning “unable to hesitate long,” is commonly repeated as generals and soldiers take orders from their lords, the immediacy of their service and enthusiasm of their effort reflecting industrious farmers who live and work in an environment where the forces of nature and cycles of agriculture and life do not tolerate lethargy nor dallying. Swift and timely action of the villagers in farm work is integral to their survival, and they must perform their duties with speed, strength, and vigor just as these monkey and demon warriors who “srut rut heav hoh phlek phlos tov,” or, “in hurry and haste, soaring, flying fast, flashing, blazing and leaping, go.” Their departures are always closed with the phrase, “aoy ban doch preah harateiy” or “to have as the sacred heart [desires].” In other words, the above qualities were integral to the well-being and prosperity of the composers, performers, and their village community, who, as a people at the base of Khmer society, had essential needs related to health, survival, and prosperity—and these were inextricably tied to the immense work necessary to secure an abundant harvest. The cooperation, physical vitality, and diligent work ethic valued in these words are so prominent that they appear in every episode, on almost every page of the battle scenes (which make up a majority of the text).

Interestingly, when characters go out into battle, the composers use the term “thver kar” which in today’s language often means “to work.” However, it can more accurately be translated as to “perform a duty.” Indeed, for farmers dependent on the land, water, and sun, life itself was working and battling with nature, and it is possible to speculate that the villagers imbued Preah Ream and his army with their own hopes for success against the menacing demons and monsters, who were disastrous, dangerous manifestations of nature that attacked invisibly, from the forest and from the sky, and sometimes even appear as vicious animalian monsters.

Furthermore, it is curious to ponder if “thver kar” may have had an actual militaristic meaning in the past, with commoners such as those living in the Wat Svay Andet area and throughout Cambodia being pulled into war service for their kings. Khmer literature such as Preah Ko Preah Kaev and Tonsay Saphea provide us with many examples of fathers, husbands, sons, and brothers being torn from their loved ones owing to such obligations to their kings, and corvée militaries were common throughout Southeast Asia as can be seen in the Javanaese Kakawin Ramayana and other literary sources. In such a case, Khmer villagers such as the dancers of Wat Svay Andet must have been expected to answer these conscriptions as Sugrib often answers Preah Ream in Grandfather Say’s Reamker, saying respectfully in line with Old and Middle Khmer convention, “Krab thvay bangkum laong thuli Preah Bat,” or, “I prostrate, offering obeisance, to the Fine Dust of Your Sacred, Divine Feet, Lord.” As an example of such historical ties and duties to the palace, the khaol troupe of Wat Svay Andet maintains “strong symbolic associations to the court along with some more practical ties to central cultural authorities. They recall their own palace performances, and claim royal origins for their tradition.”

This network of bonds, allegiances, and responsibilities then, undoubtedly solidified village khaol dancers in the service of the king, and historical performances may have sometimes been a means of bolstering morale to thver kar on the battlefield, instilling social role and obligation in farmer-dancers turned soldiers. Such dances, for example Robam Dav (Sword Dance), already exist in the robam kbach boran repertoire. Furthermore this relationship between dance, martial arts, and military service is not impossible, especially considering the inseparable relationship between dance aesthetics and war imagery at Khmer temples such as Angkor Wat. The Battle of Kurukshetra, for example, prominently features war as dance, with the Pandava, Kaurava, and their armies executing postures and gestures synonymous with Khmer classical dance today. Their marching armies are accompanied by musicians and dancers, who would have had their counterparts in real-life military processions. The Bayon’s historical galleries, furthermore, boast ritualized fights on boats—the vigorous martial stances of the warriors inseparable from dance. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the modern era at temples sharing many cultural practices with Wat Svay Andet, spirit mediums possessed by Lok Ta Kamhaeng (Grandfather Kamhaeng i.e. Hanumān) have been known to “ascend the rav, displaying martial gestures for a great period before stopping and proceeding to crawl up a koki tree, by swinging on the koki branches, dancing and playing to their ends before stopping.”

Interestingly, Grandfather Say’s Reamker often describes this fighting as “leng” or “play.” In doing so, the chaotic, violent, and destructive subject matter was given form, order, and camaraderie through performance, stressing the art form as one of social cohesion and generation instead. In the use of this word, ancient Khmer concepts of ritual performance are also conjured—as the word was both noun and verb, meaning both “a play” and “to play” in an Old Khmer context that was mirrored in the usage of robam (dance, dancer) and lakhaon (theater, actor) seen up into the modern era. For example, Thai scholars posit that the len dukdamban was a ritual reenactment of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which was brought to Thailand from the Khmer capital at Angkor. In Cambodia, this kind of ritual play is enacted every year amongst the people during a Khmer New Year game, in which men and women engage in a fun and festive tug of war, with the former customarily losing to the women as it is believed to ensure fertility, prosperity, and abundance for the coming year.

III. The Search for Sok

It should be noted that Grandfather Say’s Reamker is but one version of the Reamker in Cambodia, which in turn is but one of many versions of the Ramayana present in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each of these tellings reflect the realities and values of the composers and performers, as well as the social, political, and natural environment in which they lived. As such, each retelling of the Reamker and Ramayana has come to feature idiosyncrasies shaped by and shaping the local people.

For example, the Kakawin Ramayana authored in ninth-century Java, reflects the work of court poets of a predominantly Hindu (but also Buddhist) palace community, with the story something of a hero’s romance contemplating the pain of separation, loss, and destruction in war and instilling audiences of nobility with the valor to fight and die bravely in battle. Sex and lovemaking are unabashed and prominent in the text, as so are the Hindu trivarga or the triple-pursuit of dharma (moral duty), artha (material wealth), and kama (romantic and sexual fulfilment). It ends with Rama and Sita’s reunion and lovemaking, depicted as something of a ritual yoga of sacred linga and yoni—even if this union is described with a particularly earthly tone feigning innocence and shyness.

Pou cites the Kakawin Ramayana, alongside the oldest extant written version of the Khmer Reamker, as the ‘leading Ramayana of Southeast Asia. The latter, dated to the sixteenth century and likely written by monks or those educated in Theravada Buddhist temples, rid the tale of any mentions of sex or lovemaking, with the closest of any such union being sublimated and symbolized as Preah Ream and Neang Seda falling asleep together, “the two of them like the most brilliant sun, beside the orb of the sacred moon.” Indeed, the composers transformed this Reamker into a Buddhist tale, referring to Preah Ream as a ‘bodhisattva’ and ‘bud of a Buddha.’ Preah Ream himself is aware of his mission to lead others to transcendence, guiding his wife through the wild forest of pain caused by illusive power and attachment and conducting his army across to the other shore, “toward the Enlightenment and the Deliverance.”

The people living around Wat Svay Andet, of much humbler circumstances, did not emphasize the exploits and moral duties of a warrior-prince as did the Kakawin Ramayana. Nor did they focus on such lofty and elevated concepts of spiritual enlightenment as found in Cambodia’s sixteenth-century Reamker. Instead, a prevailing concept and goal is the attainment of sok (sukha), and this concept of well-being is one that emerges often. For example, in Grandfather Say’s exposition, Preah Visnu (Lord Viṣṇu) leaves the pleasure of Preah Eyso’s, or Lord Siva’s, Kailāsa Heaven—not to find nirvāṇa or some immeasurable divine or earthly power, but to find sok. As another example, when Preah Ream breaks his promise not to see Neang Seda before their marriage, the hermit who had adopted her regretfully laments, “‘Oh! My grandchildren disobeyed my orders, and will surely be separated and torn apart; they will not have sok with one another.’”

As mentioned earlier, the performance of khaol at Wat Svay Andet was closely linked to the sok of the people. Rice farmers bound to the land, their well-being and desires were in turn inseparably linked to the flow of rain and water as necessary for agricultural production. As such their khaol is dominated by a ritual and magic quality that has been noted by many scholars of before, with each performance a prayer for rain, fertility, and abundant harvest that ensured the vitality of the community. Cultural anthropologist Toni Shapiro-Phim and cultural historian Ashley Thompson have noted that the Kumbhakar (Kumbhakāra) episode is a most popular one, as the removal of this gigantic demon will allow for the “release of heavenly waters.” Indeed, water is a central issue in several moments of Grandfather Say’s Reamker, manifested most in Preah Ream’s revival of Hanumān, who is often referred to as Kamhaeng and as Veayobot (Vāyoputra). In the text, Biphek explains to his lord the cause of a draught before the narrator explains how Preah Ream rids of it:

“‘The fact is, that Hangsavayant has sucked and taken all the wind and rain, so that not even a tiny, little bit of moisture or dew is left . . . Therefore, may you, I invite Your Fine Dust, Lord, to grasp the Brahmas arrow and shoot it’ . . . The Sacred Cakra, Divine Universe manifest, unable to hesitate for long, reached and grabbed the Brahmas arrow, shooting and projecting it so that there was an echo, quaking and reverberating, hurting and harming Hangsavayant, so that the winds would be released, the rain, moisture, and dew freed, with Preah Phirun, the sacred, divine rain, coming to drip and drench, wash over, giving life to the land and forests, reviving the monkey Kamhaeng, as the sacred heart desires!”

It is important to note that “the sacred heart” which desires here is multiple and many. It is Preah Ream who bears compassion and responsibility for one of his most trusted generals and followers. It is the monkey army who wishes for the well-being of their kindred lord. And it is the villagers engaged in ritual performance at Wat Svay Andet, praying for the miraculous revival of a divine monkey prince who is child of the wind god, and, in this, for the miraculous return and movement of clouds, rain, and water essential to their survival.

Closing Thoughts

It is unfortunate that Grandfather Pka Say passed away before he finished chanting the Reamker. It is also unfortunate that the recording was made in his old age, at a time when he was forgetful and sickly. This makes us wonder about the repetitive nature—have some variations, nuances, and fluctuations merely been lost to us? Even Grandfather Say mentions the gradual loss of certain melodies, which could also mean the loss of lyrics, narrative content, choreography, philosophy, concept, approach, and history. Ultimately, Grandfather Say’s telling reveals the power and weakness of human memory, and the continuities, discontinuities, and regenerations in tradition’s continual and constant evolution forward.

Is the khaol of Wat Svay Andet today—which, contrary to the female expression of classical dance, “emphasizes the actions of decidedly masculine and aggressive ogres and monkeys,” with “giants shift[ing] their weight and mov[ing] their torsos and heads in quick, almost jerky bursts”—khaol as it has always been? Or is there a marked difference to the time when male court dancers came to live and perform amongst villagers during the reign of King Ang Duong? How might it compare to the khaol of Angkor, when it was patronized by the most powerful royal family in mainland Southeast Asia? These are questions to ask as Cambodia takes a new interest in this ancient art, with some elder artists associated with the Ministry of Culture scoffing off some male dancers for “being more flexible than women.”

These words can reflect the art form’s historical relationship to a people bound to agricultural labor, and possibly even their military obligations, which would require men to have the strength, vigor, virility, speed, and bravery embodied by the monkey Kamhaeng. Indeed this unique epithet of Hanumān, meaning “awesome” in every sense of the word, perfectly captures the respect and admiration with which villagers venerated this force of justice and order, who at the same time terrified and inspired fear in them with his destructive power. Not surprisingly, it is exactly to this divinity’s shrine to which the khaol stage at Wat Svay Andet faces. At the same time, these teachers’ sentiments relegate khaol to a folksy village art unable to approach and touch the grace, grandeur, majesty, strength, vitality, and refinement of royal khaol, as gleaned through ancient inscriptions and glimpsed through the many powerful images of men in dance at the temples of Angkor.

Needless to say, the khaol of Wat Svay Andet holds a special place in the history of Khmer art and society. As evident through an analysis of Grandfather Say’s transcribed narration, it exemplifies the many ways in which cultural traditions take life from, respond to, and shape a people and their environment. In the case of the villagers surrounding Wat Svay Andet, the annual performance of khaol connected families and neighbors, and connected their community as a whole across multiple generations and times. This bond reflects a shared livelihood based on farming in the Khmer countryside, which many scholars have remarked as almost timeless and unchanging in the course of history.

Perhaps this continuity manifests most during the height of khaol performances at Wat Svay Andet, when “Os Lok” descend into the space by possessing the bodies of mediums. Called collectively in court honorifics by the Wat Svay Andet community, Os Lok, meaning something like “All Their Excellencies,” in turn have colloquial names such as Lok Ta Kai, Lok Ta Tossamok, Lok Ta Kamhaeng, and Chum Teav Hang, giving ancient Brahmanic deities such as Rama, Ravana, Hanuman, and Sarasvati ancestral, countryside kinship, place, and humility. The Os Lok interrupt performances, standing with stern faces on the stage ready to chastise and hit the dancers, musicians, and chanters for unacceptable behavior and performances. They have even been known to “demand . . . strict respect of tradition. They lament, for example, the reduced duration of the performance, and demand that at least the three-day version be maintained. They order villagers to reject popular culture emanating from Phnom Penh which threatens to bring on disaster. Only adherence to truly traditional practices, they say in menacing tones, will ensure the well-being of the community.”

For all this strictness, contrary to the use of sramaol (shadow) which can sometimes mean “ghost” or “spirit,” the villagers of Wat Svay Andet regard these entities as their “ponleu” or “light.” In doing so, they conjure the deep respect and admiration for kru in Khmer culture, which means “teacher” and is derived from the Sanskrit guru meaning, “one who rids of darkness.” The villagers ask the ponleu for forgiveness for any wrongs committed, performing until the spirits are satisfied and decide to bless the villagers with perfume and lustral water that signify the promise of life-giving waters, proper harvest, and freedom from disease and disorder.

In a world of automation and artificial intelligence—and the social changes technology brings—the meaning, form, and future of khaol remains uncertain. Nonetheless, until humanity assumes the role of gods, conquering and controlling nature and life itself, the people surrounding Wat Svay Andet, in some shape or form, will likely continue to gather once a year to dance, so as to ward off back luck and calamity, invoking in chant and praying in movement and music for the deliverance of rain, prosperity, and life. And if and when their sok should no longer rest on an agrarian livelihood and environment, for itself to survive, the khaol of Wat Svay Andet will likely take on new interpretations, and new paths and possibilities altogether.

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