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  • Writer's picturePrumsodun Ok

Dance of Rain, Dance of Life

Updated: Jan 4

The following is a transcript of a talk I delivered at the Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA Home Studio on April 9, 2023, in celebration of the Khmer New Year. An unscripted retelling of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso was made on that day, which has been replaced in this post with a TED-Ed animation I wrote. At the end of this transcript is a video documenting an excerpted, thirty-minute performance of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso from that evening.


Wooden window panels at the National Museum in Phnom Penh depict Ream Eyso's pursuit of Moni Mekhala through the skies. Interestingly, the goddess's name has been uniquely rendered here as Meghala, emphasizing her connection to the "megha" or rain clouds. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is today arguably the most sacred work of the Khmer classical dance canon. Performed annually in the elaborate buong suong ceremony, the nearly three-hour drama invokes the forces of water, earth, fire, air, and ether, is a prayer for the fall and flow of life-giving waters. A story exploring nature and cosmos, gender and leadership, ingenuity and innovation, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso has stood the tests of war and time, living in the hearts of Khmer people from one generation to the next, manifesting in the form of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, animation, and song.


In this talk, we will explore the origins, characters, and thematic elements of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, by examining a diverse array of multicultural and multidisciplinary sources spanning more than 1,000 years. In so doing, we will gain insight into and illuminate a beloved tale whose telling through body, voice, and sound is believed to stir the powers of life itself.


Therefore, to begin our journey, I will now share the story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, passed on to me from my teacher, who received it from her teachers, and so on.  



As we can see, the story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso revolves around five characters (or groups of characters). There is the heroine Moni Mekhala, goddess of the ocean, master of lightning, who represents water. There is Vorachhun, a human prince whose solo traditionally opens the dance drama, who represents earth. There is the thundering demon Ream Eyso, whose anger and fury represents fire. There are the gods and goddesses who protect Moni Mekhala, acting as clouds Ream Eyso must rip through in the dance drama; they represent air. And finally there is Lok Ta Moni Eisei, who creates space for his students by passing on his knowledge as a teacher, as well as space for the drama to unfold by conceiving of the competition and disappearing from the narrative thereafter. Lok Ta represents the force of ether. Our characters then, represent the five cosmic forces of the sacred universe.


To further understand the origins of this tale, let us now turn to an analysis of the three central characters.


The shining star of the drama is the sea goddess Moni Mekhala. In the standard Sanskrit spelling, her name means “girdle of gems” or “jeweled belt”—perhaps inspired by how a band of sunlight twinkles on water, or to glistening ocean, river, and lake waters themselves. Moni Mekhala appears in Buddhist jataka tales, ancient Tamil epic literature, and various versions of the Ramayana as found in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Some scholars posit that she is an indigenous Southeast Asian goddess, watching over the ocean from the southeast of India all the way to these shores of Suvarnabhumi (which was the ancient Indian name for Southeast Asia, and a name Khmers used since at least the seventh century). She conforms to an Asian pattern of female deities who protect travelers—exemplified by Lok Yeay Mao of Cambodia, Java’s Queen of the Southern Seas Nyai Roro Kidul, Ma-tsu and Tin Hau of Chinese cultures, and the Munakata Goddesses of Japan. Interestingly, this image of the nurturing, female life-saver may reflect the psyches and subconscious sexual desires of men at the mercy of the ocean; their psyches and subconscious sexual desires, as well as the tumultuous force of ocean and nature, may also reflect her image as a playful trickster as well.


Before moving on, I will now briefly highlight some mentions of the sea goddess Moni Mekhala.


In the Mahajanaka Jataka, which belongs to a large collection of tales exploring the Sakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives, Moni Mekhala saves the bodhisattva who has been floating in the ocean for seven days after a shipwreck. She had been too consumed by the dance and song of heavenly festivities, that she failed to notice him in his struggle.


In the ancient Tamil epic Manimekhalai, the heroine Manimekhalai is named after the sea goddess Manimekhala as the latter had once saved Manimekhalai’s ancestor. The goddess aids Manimekhalai in her avoidance of Prince Udayakumara, so that she can sever ties of karma and desire in her journey towards enlightenment. In a religiously diverse and competitive environment, the Manimekhalai describes the goddess as such:      


“Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean . . . [d]escended from heaven like a ray of light . . . the solitary and distant goddess, endowed with immense wisdom and knowledge of all things past and future . . . declaim[ed] the Buddha’s praise . . . Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean, like a glittering jewel . . . who in her heavenly form is as brilliant as lightning . . . Manimekhala, the divine protectress of the immense ocean, whom the whole world worships.”[1]


The epic goes on to relate how, distraught by the death of his half-naga child, “the Chola king Neduvil Killi . . . neglected to celebrate the annual festival in Indra’s honor, which provoked the god’s fury.  The sovereign of the gods then summoned Manimekhala, the sea goddess, to order the sea to swallow up Puhar.”[2]


In the literature of Cambodia, Moni Mekhala appears in the Reamker or Khmer version of the Ramayana, where, as recited by the bard Lok Ta Chak, she protects Neang Seda or Sita who has been cast into a box and thrown into the waters from Langka. She has the infant suckle on her finger as she delivers her to the safety of shore. In the oldest extant written Khmer version, composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Moni Mekhala tricks the destructive buffalo Dubhi into challenging Peali (Valin).


The setting sun creates a belt of light on the ocean waters of Seattle. This natural phenomenon may be an origin source for the name Manimekhala. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Let us now turn our attention to Ream Eyso. In the Reamker, he has additionally been named as Ream Boromasor, Reamasor, and Reamesor. Ream Boromasor, the name from the oldest extant Khmer text, can be translated as “Rama, the Supreme Sound” or “Rama, the Supreme Demon”. Despite being regarded as a demon in Khmer culture, Ream Eyso is actually Parasurama or Rama of the Axe, an avatar of the Hindu god Visnu. A symbol of strength, morality, and familial obeisance, he is celebrated by Hindus as an immortal who fought off the ocean to claim India’s southwestern coasts. The divine, sagely warrior Parasurama likely evolved into the demon Ream Eyso due to the complicated violence which surrounded his life.


One such example is how his brahmin father—feeling that his own wife was impure and filled with desire—ordered Parasurama to kill his own mother. Fulfilling his duty as a faithful son, Parasurama used his heavenly axe gifted from the god Siva to end her life. Receiving a boon from his father for his piety, Parasurama asks his father to restore his mother’s life. In another example, upon the murdering of his father by the king Arjuna Kartavirya, Parasurama kills and rids the world of the ksatriya caste—save a family to which he had descent.   


As a killer of mother and destroyer of royalty then, Parasurama turned Ream Eyso was antithetical to the values of Khmer elite. Although referred to as a “divine risi, a heavenly sage adorned and ruling with satyadharma,” in the sixteenth century Reamker, he was fatally painted as someone who is jealous, brash, haughty, violent, prideful, and foolish.[3] And, in Cambodia today, in this Buddhist country, Ream Eyso is often seen as a symbol of ignorance and darkness.  


Here is a brief excerpt from the Reamker, from a translation I have in progress, to give you an idea of his character:


That time,

Ramaparamasura, Rama the Supreme Sound, 

Vicious and aggressive, audacious and daring,

Great teacher of skillful, magic arrows.


Heard echoing, ‘Teja! Oh great glorious teja! Victory!’

In regards to Rama, royal son of the supreme,

Stainless venerable one full of flaming teja, Dasaratha.


Such a grandiose courage and bravery, a might ever real,

To even dare and choose,

That sacred name, ‘His Sacredness Lord Rama,’ ultimate and victorious.


Ramaparamasura, that demon he,

Thought in his heart,

Considering and examining, regretting his name.


Erupting in a vicious fury, burning and scorching in a powerful pained offense,

He flew off in bold and brash arrogance,

Intent with his weapons and arms.


Holding arrows and bows and even an axe,

Sharp, precise, and clear they were, as was his wish to destroy,

And to test his austere tapa ever imposing and majestic.


In that instant he floated upon the army of His Sacredness, the Great,

Janaka, royal father,

Of Lord Rama, one of blazing, glorious teja, and Lord Laksmana.


Saying, “Hey Dasaratha, why did you,

Choose for your own son,

My own sacred name, ‘Lord Rama.’


Your bing of a child transgressing teachers a weakling,

Only brave and valorous, having teja in accord with,

The sphere and domain of the human world.


Yet you dare to regard your son as divinity,

As a manifestation of god, calling him great,

Dragging our reputations down to the bottom, insulting us—a most heavy crime.


I will destroy and extinguish, rid the age and life,

Of your bing of a son,

Ruin him, now, oh in this very instant!”


His Sacred Feet Lord Dasaratha replied in return,

“Oh divine risi, heavenly sage adorned and ruling,

With satyadharma, with the true ways of the world.


Regarding the name of my son here,

I was not present,

To refer to you from my heart.


But the great risi of one hundred thousand holy chambers did conceive it,

Gathered around with their mastery and magic,

Including the great risi, the Muni.


The name was chosen for the reason, oh,

That my royal son, eldest and foremost,

Possesses a teja, a spiritual fire most powerful.


Therefore all those royal isi, courtly sages gathered round,

Along with the heavenly, the divine, the god that is Muni,

Endowed with sacred names and blessings.


They all called him Rama Deba, God Rama, excellent and exquisite,

Full of power, abundant,

Complete in punya, in unbreakable blessings and merit, oh for this reason.”[4]


Ream Boromasor then flies off to fight for his name with Preah Ream, to whom he loses.



Let us now turn to Vorachhun. In Cambodia, Vorachhun is regarded as a human prince. His death and revival in the dance drama is a symbol for the cycle and renewal of life. As such, his wearing of gold can be likened to a ripened rice field ready for harvest. In the dance drama, Vorachhun clashes with an angry Ream Eyso looking to pick a fight. The latter does so by—mirroring his confrontation with Dasaratha and Preah Ream—questioning Vorachhun if he knows his name which can be heard throughout the Treta Yuga. Vorachhun responds: “Hey now! As for my name, the name Vorachhun resounding throughout the Treta, I flew by way of the path in the sky, without stepping on anybody’s head. Even with the likes of ten-headed, twenty-armed Reab, I was victorious, capturing and binding him.”


From this detail in the dance drama, of Vorachhun besting Reab or Ravana, we know clearly that Vorachhun is Arjuna Kartavirya. The Valmiki Ramayana describes a scene in which Arjuna Kartavirya dams up a powerful river so that his wives may bathe. Ravana, full of lust, attempts to seize the women but he is engaged by Arjuna Kartavirya and beaten and humiliated. As a result, in other tellings of the Ramayana, Ravana is only freed after Parasurama kills Arjuna Kartavirya—when he kills the king who robbed and murdered his father.


It is interesting to explore how the name Arjuna can go to Vorachhun, or why it might have gone that way. In the Khmer language, there exists a pattern of labial and labio-dental sounds morphing into a guttural “a” sound. Examples of this include បណ្ឌិត (paṇḍit) to អណ្ទិត (aṇdit) and ភ្នំពេញ (Phnom Penh) to អំពេញ (Am Penh). It is not unlike the Japanese particle を, which was read as “wo” in ancient days, is read as “o” today, but is often read as “wo” in song and poetry. 


However, this sonic switch is likely a deliberate choice of Khmer poets to compound deities and embed further meaning into the drama. It is my hypothesis that Vorachhun, as he is known in Cambodia, is Arjuna Kartavirya conflated with the Vedic deity Parjunya—one of twelve aditya who take turns presiding over the sun. Specifically, Parjunya rules over the sun during the rainy season, bringing rain. This would further explain why the character is associated with the color gold in Khmer dance practice, and linguistic evidence further solidifies this relationship. Middle Khmer បស្សា (passā) is synonymous with the more standard Pali វស្សា (vassā) meaning “rain” and “rainy season”, which in turn makes us think about the popular Indian male name Varshan which means “Lord of Rain” or “Falling of Rain”. Ream Eyso throwing Vorachhun against Mount Meru then, represents the piercing and puncturing, the breaking of rain clouds to deliver the seeds of life.



What binds these three characters then is the Reamker. And the Reamker, and the many versions of the Ramayana, makes ample use of frame tales, or stories within stories that are used to foil and entangle characters and plots. So for example, the exiled Preah Ream and his half-brother Bhirut who assumes the throne of Ayudhyea are foiled against the monkey brothers Peali and Sugrib and demon brothers Reab and Biphek to explore what is the proper and improper thought and action of an elder and younger brother. When Neang Seda runs away from Preah Ream, who has faked his death to get her to return to Ayudhyea, he is likened to Reamesor pursuing Moni Mekhala through the skies. In fact, the indigenous-Buddhist sea goddess Moni Mekhala—who does not appear in South Asian versions of the Ramayana—foils Neang Seda in that she is never caught or overpowered by her aggressor. She also foils the apsara Rambha, dressed in blue regalia, who, in the Valmiki Ramayana, Ravana rapes mid-air as she makes her way to marry his nephew. The introduction of Moni Mekhala into the Reamker then, would have amplified and pronounced the tragedy and danger of Neang Seda’s abduction and confinement. And it would not be far of stretch to say that the tragedy of Rambha, as well as the Tamil heroine Manimekhalai’s avoidance of Prince Udayakumara in her pursuit of enlightenment, also might have informed ancient Khmer poets in constructing the image of Moni Mekhala who bears the image of a chaste, upright woman.


Looking inside and outside of the Reamker, we will understand Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso even further. For example, there are certain images and themes that connect the Ramayana with the Mahabharata. Specifically, the battles between the monkey brother’s Peali and Sugrib and the demi-god brothers Arjuna and Karna. In each of these pairs, one is the son of Indra, the god of thunder and storms, while the other is the son of Surya, the sun god. Their battles then become a symbol for the integral relationship and interplay of sun and rain that is essential to agricultural life. To perform these scenes then, beyond their moralistic aspects, may have been a ritualistic, cosmological invocation. In fact, conflict and rain are intertwined in the Khmer psyche as can be seen in the words ច្បាំងរាំងជល (chhbang ramng chul) which Samdech Choun Nath translates as having “war and drought.” Perhaps the rains will come when there is a winner.


Likewise, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is a drama rife with battles used to invoke the fall of rain and flow of water. The dance drama is opened by Vorachhun, whose name already suggests the seasonal and heavenly rains Cambodia had and continues to rely upon. He is killed by Ream Eyso which further releases water, for Vorachhun, as Arjuna Kartavirya, had dammed a mighty river in India’s epic literature. Ream Eyso’s engagement with Moni Mekhala, further stoking battle, then brings the conflict between female and male, passive and active, royal and ascetic, Buddhist and Hindu, indigenous and foreign to the fore. 


For it is in looking at the story as one of religious competition where we see the drama as one of competing cultic vajra. In Buddhism, vajra refers to “diamond.” It is the origin of the Khmer word ពេជ្រ (IAST: bejra, but commonly romanized as pich in Khmer transliteration conventions). In Hinduism however, vajra is generally interpreted as “thunder.”[5] Respectively, diamond and thunder represent “a nature that cannot be destroyed” and “a force that cannot be resisted.” Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is the story of these two opposing poles of thought, which come together in generative conflict to create lightning, thunder, rain, and life. It is the story of feminine, indigenous, and Buddhist triumph, manifested by a goddess whose cintamani or wish-fulfilling jewel shines with the power of her ingenuity, innovation, and leadership. She in fact, is herself the jewel, powerfully brilliant, flashing, and blinding, wonderfully rare, fleeting, and unattainable, like the joy and wonder of Buddhist enlightenment.



Excerpt of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso performed by dance artists of Prumsodun Ok & NATYARASA on April 9, 2023. Moni Mekhala is played by Soeurn Chamreoun; Ream Eyso by Morn Sopharoth; and Vorachhun by Dy Puthik. Music by Royal University of Fine Arts and Sophiline Arts Ensemble. Translation and subtitles by Prumsodun Ok.


[1] Merchant-Prince Shattan, translated by Alain Danielou.  Manimekhalai: The Dancer with the Magic Bowl.  New Directions Books, 1989.  Page 21 – 23, 120.

[2] Merchant-Prince Shattan, translated by Alain Danielou.  Manimekhalai: The Dancer with the Magic Bowl.  New Directions Books, 1989.  Page 150.

[3] Ramakerti. Buddhist Institute, 1995. Fascicle 1, page 21.

[4] Ramakerti. Buddhist Institute, 1995. Fascicle 1, page 20 - 22.

[5]  “Vajra or Dorje.” About.com Religion and Spirituality. Web. 24 Dec. 2023. http://buddhism.about.com/od/buddhismglossaryv/g/vajradef.htm.





  

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