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  • Writer's picturePrumsodun Ok

Searching for Sok: The Reamker of Khaol Master Pka Say

Updated: Dec 25, 2023

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

Reamker Chanted by Ta Say, featuring an image of the late khaol master. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

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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