A BEAUTY THAT DOESN'T BREAK
Tevoda at Angkor Wat. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.
When I first began my research for this project, I was struck by the many images of tevoda. Some of their limbs were missing and their bodies marked by bullets, cracks sometimes splitting like lightning through half of their faces. Despite all of this—despite the pressures of nature, war, and time—the spirits of these celestial women remained potent and powerfully intact. Even through the centuries of blemish, they radiated smiles of knowledge and love, and those of grace and strength as well. Ever so sacred, standing with a confident compassion, they are transcendent embodiments of a beauty that doesn’t break.
Walking through the temples in the summer of 2014, I took photos of them in as much detail possible with my phone. Tourists swarmed past me in groups, accompanied by tour guides speaking more than ten languages. The resulting feeling is like that of being in a theme park, which comes as no surprise since two million people visited Angkor in that same year. Unfortunately, this large and growing number of tourists is threatening the life span of the structures. This fact is made most evident for me in an image conjured by Chheng Phon: “The vibrations from jet airplanes . . . shake the foundations of the monuments.”
The disappearance of the temples is unlikely to happen overnight of course. Nor will it happen in hundreds of years even. But I can’t help but think: what will be left when the irresistible force of time finally prevails? Will the air breathe differently where the temples once stood? Will the birds sing differently and time not move the same? Is there a certain spirit that will remain alive in the earth? Or will nothing be left at all? From our moment in time this scenario seems unlikely however. For, just as our ancestors—Khmer and not alike—have done since the temples’ creations, we are in a continual process of restoration and giving new life, for our benefit and for that of humanity.
Like the temples—and all that is encapsulated in their bricks and stones—the art of Khmer classical dance has endured its share of difficult realities. And, like the temples, the tradition ceased to disappear because Khmer artists contributed to a constant process of redefinition, revision, rebuilding, and reimagining, pushing further and further towards “a beauty of the highest quality.” Born of the same legacy, these artistic and philosophical expressions are precious gifts left to us by our ancestors. One takes life in the materiality and false permanence of stone; the other, almost opposite in approach, is an art form of human bodies in a constant state of growth and decay, one that dies and disappears as it comes to life in space and time. Sure, the temples shall outlive my individual life—as they have and will for that of many others—but something tells me that the dance, more visibly in tune with the laws of change, transformation, and impermanence, is actually much older than the temples and shall outlive them as well.
Deeply rooted in ancestor worship and animist spiritual practices, Khmer classical dance evolved in its marriage to Hindu, Buddhist, and tantric schools of thought. Its aesthetic and formal values crystallized into how we recognize it today by the ninth century during the Angkor era, when dancers were both men and women, kings and royalty, common people and foreigners alike. These dancers trained inside and outside of the palace and were offered to temples where they prayed to the gods for the coming of rain and prosperity. They were also entertainers of kings and nobility, performing short dances that we know today as robam as well as dance dramas derived from Hindu and Buddhist lore.
The oldest and most sacred dances are Robam Tamng Buon and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso. They are always performed together in the buong suong ceremony as the narratives of Preah Thaong, Neang Neak, and Moni Mekhala have been linked since the time of Nokor Phnom, whose people identified as Kambuja as early as the first century. The two dances therefore reflect the creation of the Khmer nation and cosmos, two realms that have always been connected, bled into each other, and one in the same in Khmer art, politics, and religion.
By examining the thematic elements of these dance works—the tantric union of masculine and feminine, universal bodies of water, earth, fire, and wind—we can point the origin of these works to pre-Angkorean and Angkorean Cambodia. Sixth-century Chinese sources record that "burial by water . . . burial by fire . . . burial by earth . . . [and] burial by the birds" was practiced by ancient Khmer, and the creative, purifying power of the four cosmic forces likely manifested in sacred acts of performative and literary nature as well. Indeed, the association of Robam Tamng Buon with elemental mandala-bodies is supported further by the Buddhist understanding of mahaphutarub tamng buon, from which all matter is believed to be made of. Although the mahaphutarub tamng buon—“all those four great things that can be seen in the body”—are listed normally in the order of earth, water, fire, and wind, their reordering in the dance reflects the cycle of rain, nature, and life as well as a worldview shaped by the Khmer language. Ask a native Khmer speaker how they would order these elements with the most poetic flow and they would probably answer tuk (water), dei (earth), phleung (fire), kyal (wind). The short title, Robam Tamng Buon then, implies all four elements, all four dances, and all four melodies at the same time.
In the case of the dance drama, along with its clear association with the mahaphutarub tamng buon, we can associate it with the religious competition of the Khmer court. This competition is mirrored in motifs at Angkor Wat that meditate on the generative balance between opposing forces, a theme mirrored in the larger sphere of Khmer "arts, sports, games, dance, singing, music and holidays" that were carried over to Thailand, as evidenced by the Thai adoption of Khmer words such as prakuot (compete), prachol (combat), and pranamng (race). In fact, the Khmer word chbamng (battle) was adopted as a "name of a [poetic] meter that originally served to describe the arrangement of the army or a scene of war." Linguistically, it is important to note that the prefix pra in the prior mentioned words—which stresses a coming together of opposing entities—also appears in the Khmer word pralaing (play), which Varasarin describes as a "kind of opening dance performed before theatrical presentation."
In many ways, the creative power of complementary forces that drives Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso can be seen in other works of literature such as Preah Thaong Neang Neak and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, in which the battle, competition, and union of two forces gives life to Khmer people ourselves. It can be seen in a scene of the Mahabharata carved at Banteay Srei, in which Indra's battle with Arjuna is meant to save the burning Khandava forest. Interestingly fire, if depicted at all, is overshadowed by the arrows shot up by Arjuna, which simultaneously appears to be a heavy rain released by the king of gods. The Khmer emphasis was on life and creation in this struggle, not unlike how several hymns from the Rig Veda explain "creation as the result—often apparently a mere by-product—of a cosmic battle," such as Indra releasing the waters through the slaying of the naga Vritra. Whether of Vedic or Khmer origin—or very likely a harmonious mixture of both—Khmers still associate war, conflict, rain, and fertility together, as evidenced through the term chbamng ramng chul (to battle as the rains and waters are blocked).
The Mekhala Ramasun episode has been described as an opening dance since ancient times by Thai artists, and other Thai opening dances are described in Khmer terms as baeuk rong (open the theater). These facts indicate the adoption of certain dances and dance conventions from Angkor, and further points to the origination of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso in the Khmer court. Just as the Peali-Sugrib and Reab-Piphek episodes were antithetical to the Preah Ream-Bhirut story (Peali and Reab, who fail as kings and elder brothers, are opposed and killed by Preah Ream who is a good king and brother), the trickster sea goddess's victory over Ream Eyso contrasts with Seda who is duped and overpowered by Reab. This is made evident in the Middle Period Lpoek Nokor where the demon king of Langka is described as Krong Reab Paramasur (Sanskrit: Ravanaparasurama), demonizing him further with Buddhist flair as Krong Reabasur Kammea (Sanskrit/Pali: Ravanasurakamma, in reference to Kama the god of love and desire and the Pali kamma) and Tosamok Mear (Sanskrit: Dasamukhamara, in reference to Mara who tried to obstruct the Buddha’s enlightenment).[507a]
The performance of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso before, as a discreet opening dance required during sacred festivals, or as part of the Reamker, as a frame tale to heighten drama, would have given an especial tragedy to the appearance of the golden deer and to Seda's ensuing abduction. Either way, this can explain why the sea goddess—who some have described as an indigenous Southeast Asian deity, who does not appear in any South Asian versions of the Ramayana—would appear in later extant Khmer, Thai, and Lao versions which were all derived from the Old Khmer versions of the Reamker sung, danced, performed, and written at Angkor.
Furthermore, as the Khmer story possesses a certain tantric and Mahayana character—Moni Mekhala is a student who perfects her knowledge much like Mahasiddha Mekhala and Vajrasattva—we can gain a fuller understanding of the power of her jewel through the words of the ancient Mahayana Buddhist teacher Shantideva:
“Just as on a dark night black with clouds,
The sudden lightning glares and all is clearly shown,
Likewise rarely, through the Buddha’s power,
Virtuous thoughts rise, brief and transient, in the world.”
Even the fact that the goddess chooses to escape her adversary, never killing him despite having the power to do so, is mirrored in the teacher’s eighth-century words:
“Those whom arrogance destroys
Art thus defiled; they lack self-confidence.
Those who have true confidence escape the foe,
While others fall into the power of an evil pride.”
At home in the Khmer cultural world, a local Khmer Krom myth unknown in central Cambodia, one used to explain the cultural and environmental origins of the Mekong Delta, provides further illumination on the dance drama. Neang Chan, most beloved wife of the Khmer king, is falsely accused of trying to poison him (as she measures ingredients using her fingernails). She loads a ship and sails down from Angkor in escape, pursued by the king and his men. Seeing her ship being gained upon, she begins ridding her vessel of precious items and artifacts. But ultimately, her ship sinks and she drowns.[510a] Her body transforms into different parts of the river and its tributaries, as well as the plants and animals who provide life for its Khmer inhabitants. In some versions, Neang Chan herself is transformed into a dolphin or dugong, in which form she saves shipwrecked sailors.[510b]
The richness of how an Angkorean queen can be the source of ancient waters and creatures will not be examined here, especially seeing how it is believed by a people who “consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the Funanese, whom they describe straightforwardly as Khmers. They also attest that their region belonged to the succeeding Khmer empire, ruled from Angkor.”[510c] We must however, acknowledge that the pursuit of Neang Chan, her body as the force of river and ocean and all they contain, and her role as a protector of sailors bears direct relationship to Moni Mekhala.
“Poree-Maspero postulates that the myth of Neang Chan symbolizes the perennial oscillation between wet (humidité) and dry (secheresse) that is fundamental to Khmer agrarian life in this monsoon region. Neang Chan, who embodies lunar/female/wet season/flood principles, is pursued downstream by the king, symbolic of the solar/male/dry season/droughts.”[510d]
This is not unlike the common Khmer interpretation of Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso. And, although it may be impossible to identify the exact time and place of origin of the Neang Chan story, or that of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso for that matter, the history of cross-cultural trade which brought Hindu and Buddhist literature and culture to Cambodia, where it mixed with or sometimes served as superficial shells for local Khmer deities, ritual beliefs, and ways of being, best explains the story and dance drama as we know it today.
In fact, at the temple of Banteay Chhmar, a defaced female figure—as suggested by her gently pronounced bosom, slender frame, and spade-shaped crown outline—is seen seated on a throne-bearing naga, carrying, as if saving, a woman in her arms. Is this image, featured at a temple dominated by tantric Buddhist imagery, the earliest surviving Khmer depiction of Moni Mekhala? It is inconclusive to say. However, the serpent-vehicle-servant would prove a precursor to Middle Khmer descriptions of the goddess in the Reamker, the posture of the smaller figure and At the very least, we are faced with a feminine deity of the waters and seas, for whom the naga, makara, and other creatures are vehicles and subjects.
Naga-riding deity with woman in arms at Banteay Chhmar, whose pronounced bosom, slender frame, and spade-shaped crown suggests a female figure. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.
Dancing women at Banteay Chhmar, notice the similarity of their crowns to those above. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.
The fall of Angkor is misleadingly associated with a “dark age” in Khmer historiography, one where there are no written accounts of Khmer dance in the palace. However, when we examine the oral stories, iconographic evidence, literature, and other written accounts, we have no choice but to believe Chheng Phon’s claim that some dancers were carried to Ayutthaya while others went southwards to the new Khmer capital of Longvek. The country still remained prosperous during parts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, boasting trade relations with the Majapahit Empire of Java and later with the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and British among others.
In fact, King Ang Chan I’s transformation of Angkor Wat from a Hindu to Theravada Buddhist temple in the sixteenth century would leave us with clear, hard evidence for the presence of dance in the post-Angkor era. On a bas-relief on the temple’s northern gallery, sculptors of the time brought to life a Middle Period dancer with vivid life and clarity. Her gestures and pose are synonymous with her predecessors while her costume, although clearly derived from those before, reflect the evolving tastes and aesthetics of her day.
Carved on a section deemed as poor in workmanship however, and belonging to a less-celebrated period of Khmer history, this section of the temple feels largely ignored. A majority of tourists and visitors rarely circumvent Angkor Wat’s galleries to see it and, unlike the others, the bas-relief does not have any signage accompanying it. Consequently, it is easy to see how Khmer people and scholars have overlooked this dancer and all that she represents. And we are left here with a lesson: when we do not embrace and celebrate all parts of our history—the good and the bad, the beautiful and the painful—we can only lose. We lose sight of and connection to the stories, values, and peoples who have made us who we are and to the things that got us here today. How are we ever to move forward, to grow, to innovate meaningfully then?
Yes, Cambodia has seen centuries of war and violence. Yes, it is difficult to acknowledge the struggles of our ancestors, struggles that manifest in our lives today. But no, Cambodia never descended into any “dark age”—there is only the reality of life and its circumstances. We must therefore strive to view our past with clarity, strive to carry, understand, and value all parts of our history and being. For, just like the paintings re-popularized by Noel Hidalgo Tan, immensely important ideas, expressions, voices, and narratives might be right below our noses, blind to us because we have learned to pride and nationalize certain aspects of our identity and history at the cost of wholesome richness and fertile complexity.
Post-Angkor dancer depicted in sixteenth-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.
Indeed, what happened after the fall of Angkor was the splitting of the Khmer tradition, which already had various styles due to individual approaches, multiplicity of religious creeds, and geographic distance. History points to provincial Khmer schools associated with Vimayapura, Lavodayapura, and Sukhodayapura and more being consolidated with the central Khmer style of Angkor after 1431 in Ayutthaya, where it then evolved to reflect central Thai tastes in the early modern era. On the other hand, losing these territories, classical dance in Cambodia would become solely in the lineage of the central Khmer style of Angkor. This fact can be gleaned in the words of Thai scholar Mattani Mojdara Rutnin:
“It could be assumed that the tradition of temple dancing to glorify Shiva and the other gods was carried on in the Mahayana-Hindu temple in [Vimayapura] by Khmer dancers. This may have been the origin of the sacred ritualistic dance of Phra Phirap, the God or teacher of Thai classical dance and drama, which is still being performed by Thai dancers who have been initiated to perform this most sacred dance in the invocation ceremony, the Phithi Wai Kru ceremony, which pays homage to the spirits of the dance.”
This statement is evidence for a diversity of Khmer cult practices, the splitting of the tradition after Angkor, and the subsequent evolutions of distinctly Khmer and Thai styles of robam and khaol. Today even, this fact is manifested in our differing depictions of the ultimate teacher spirit of the dance—Lok Ta Moni Eisey in Khmer and Phra Ruesi in Thai. The Khmer mask of Lok Ta Moni Eisey, unlike his Thai counterpart, is crowned by four heads that face the cardinal directions. This symbolizes the ascestic’s universal knowledge and omniscient power, and references the fact that Bharata Muni, with whom the local “grandfather” spirit has been syncretized, received his knowledge from the four-faced Brahma.
Never after the fall of Angkor then was a classical dance or music tradition wholly imported from Ayutthaya or Bangkok to the west. Rather, the cyclical nature of history provides precedential and successive evidence for the dance form’s rebuilding and reconstruction immediately after 1431. Jayavarmann VII offered more than 1,600 dancers after the Chams sacked Angkor and carried away immense material and human treasures in 1177 CE; and, in 1981, only two years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a new generation of dancers had already emerged from the ashes of war and genocide to perform inside and outside of Cambodia due to the efforts of Khmer dance masters. Given all of the epigraphic, literary, and iconographic evidence available to us then, we can be confident that the practice and revival of rituals and customs—of which dance and music were integral—took place within Cambodia as Middle Period monarchs, elites, and common people worked to "rebuild in abundance like in the ancient era again." In fact, these are the words of Queen Socheata herself, inscribed onto the temple walls of Angkor in the year 1577, which remind us of the roles played by Queen Jayarajadevi who came before her and Queen Kossamak Nearyrath who came after.
Indeed Thais only came to politically dominate Cambodia in the eighteenth century. Even then, “Vietnamese and Thai sources agree that at several points in the eighteenth century (when it would be tempting to assert Cambodia had already been bled white), Cambodian forces managed to repel their invading armies.” The country, now focused and dependent on maritime trade, was only exasperated into its weakened state with the loss of the Mekong Delta to Vietnam. Despite being overshadowed by much stronger neighbors, what existed was a traditional system of vassalage, one of relative autonomy in the Khmer court and provinces. During this time, as was the case during Angkor and after, dancers of the time performed inside the palaces and homes of elite. Contrary to their predecessors however, they kept dance alive amongst the common people in Theravada Buddhist temples as well.
It is not until the return of King Ang Duong in the nineteenth century when we have clear written records of dance in the Khmer palace again. Sources, written by him and his descendants regarding the near disappearance of the dance before his arrival are not entirely reliable however, as they are politically motivated to establish his authority and right to rule. Even in the bleak picture that King Ang Duong constructs, evidence indicates that dance was alive before and upon his ascent. The major change was that he costumed dancers in the Chaktumok style, cloaking a different shell over a familiar form of movement. This introduction, whether from Thailand or not, bears roots in Khmer artistic, spiritual, and conceptual foundations as evidenced by the iconography, material culture, and language of Angkor. The innovation here then is not the nineteenth-century invention of these costumes, but, rather, their transformation. The story of Khmer costuming then, and of the dance form as a whole, is that of evolution and not revolution.
Mirroring his Khmer-Thai heritage, King Ang Duong began an approximately 100-year period in which Khmer and Thai styles co-existed with and rivaled one another inside Cambodia. Mirroring the way he secretly initiated contact with the French however, the Khmer court and its artists maintained a sense of independence and autonomy during an era of Thai political eminence. There were certainly dancers of Thai heritage in the palace during the modern era as they consisted a part of King Norodom’s harem, and certain works were indeed sung and performed in the Thai language and style. Yet the repertoire was never completely Thai nor did Thai artists ever subsume Khmer dancers at the Khmer court either.
Instead they were one of many women practicing a pre-standing and strong tradition, women who reflected the diversity of Southeast Asia. Even as early as the reign of King Norodom, a time in which the court was most open to Thai culture, one-sided sbai tol characteristic of Khmer dance reveal a local character, style, and spirit of independence. Furthermore, although certain dances may have been performed strictly in the Thai style, these dances became uniquely Khmer expressions when they were translated into the Khmer language beginning in the reign of King Sisowath, thereby shifting the music, movement, and choreography. This is the difference between translating ephemeral, performance-based dramatic arts as opposed to their reproducible counterparts such as photography, film, and studio-recorded music into new contexts and locations.
During the colonial era in which the Khmer court juggled alliances between the Thai and the French, the art form increasingly became an expression of “Khmerness” that stood in opposition to Thai and French dominance. Across the border to the west Thais responded to colonial pressures by imitating imperialist mentalities and strategies, co-opting and erasing Khmer cultural legacies that were once held with high regard by their ancestors from the pre-Thai Angkor and Ayutthaya eras into the modern Rattanakosin era. Thus both powers attempted to strip Khmer people of our cultural, historical, and political agency by distinguishing between two separate races: the Khom and Khamen in the Thai case and the Khmer and Cambodgienne in the French.
The arrival of colonialism would also see Khmer dance opened to the world and performed for an audience beyond Southeast Asia. This exposed some of the most influential European and American artists of the time to the art form, including Auguste Rodin, Ted Shawn, and Ruth St. Denis among others. These artists drew inspiration from the ancient art form to create singular works of art. And, in certain cases, they drew from Khmer dance and other art forms to pioneer a uniquely modern mode of expression from which the contemporary arts and dances of our day have evolved.
The French would vie for control of the dance and the country it represented during the colonial era but the brief Japanese occupation of Cambodia, their ceding of Khmer territory to Thailand and their encouragement of Khmer independence upon their withdrawal in 1945, would most pronouncedly stir the centuries-long Khmer desire for political eminence. The subsequent post-independence period of Khmer dance was spearheaded by Queen Kossamak Nearyrath, and was one of redefinition, restructuring, and re-envisioning to reintroduce Cambodia into the global arena of culture and politics. Significantly, the queen reintroduced men into the tradition of classical dance—a split that her great-grandfather King Ang Duong had made in the modern era—and commissioned the creation of new works such as Robam Apsara and Robam Tep Monorom which remain some of the most popular works today even.
This optimism and creative spirit would come to an end with the 1970 coup led by Lon Nol and the subsequent genocide initiated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. A heartbreaking and devastating majority of Khmer dance artists would die in the latter period, causing dancers to conceal their knowledge and identities. The expulsion of the Khmer Rouge initiated the spread of Khmer dance into refugee camps and into the diaspora but it also allowed for the revival of the ancient art form in Cambodia. Led by artists such as Chheng Phon, Chea Samy, and Soth Sam On, classical dance was resurrected from the horrors of war, genocide, loss, and trauma. It was most markedly refined in this period when fear of the art form’s extinction was most palpable.
The Lon Nol, Pol Pot, and post-Khmer Rouge eras show us how Khmer dance has survived amidst times of war and struggle; they also show us how Khmer dance has persisted and grown without the patronage of the monarchy. First and foremost then, these periods reveal the tradition as a prerogative of the artists themselves. The money, theaters, schools, organizations, and governments may disappear, but at the end of the day Khmer dance survives because a dancer is passing on her or his knowledge to the next generation. This said, however, everyone has a role to play in sustaining and growing our ancient art form. It will be most alive when people of all creeds recognize its value and work actively with fullness of heart to nurture an unending growth and vibrancy.
On this image of continuity, it is important to consider recent studies that have demonstrated how trauma can be passed on genetically. In 2013, scientists trained a group of mice to fear the scent of cherry blossoms by shocking them every time the smell was released. Their offspring expressed fear and anxiousness at the strange scent, even though no shocks accompanied its release. Furthermore, amongst humans, the descendants of Jewish holocaust survivors have been shown to carry altered genes; they demonstrate higher rates of stress disorders despite having never lived through the horrors of war and concentration camps either.
What are the ramifications of this for Khmer people all over the world, who are survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide or the descendants of the victims and perpetrators of this conflict? What does this mean for a people who are the product of centuries of on-going war, both as victors during the time of Angkor and then as the subjugated for the most part after? What are the beautiful, refreshing, inspirational, life-invigorating, and game-changing “cherry blossom scents” that Khmer people have learned to refuse, reject, and run away from as a result? And what does it mean when we as a people have been conditioned to fear?
Khmer social psychologist Seanglim Bit explains:
“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.”
Toni Shapiro-Phim, via David Chandler, enlightens the situation further:
“David Chandler has discussed Khmer concepts of moral, social, and physical order in a powerful essay (1982) which highlights the rooting of ‘order’ in the Cambodian past. ‘Wildness was to be feared, and so was innovation. ‘Don’t avoid a winding path,’ says a Cambodian proverb. ‘And don’t [automatically] take a straight one, either. Choose the path your ancestors have trod’ . . . Chandler points out that to encourage continuity and security amidst violence and uncertainty, people in Cambodia were ‘continually reliving, repeating or ‘restoring’ what was past.’”
So today, Khmer dance alive and in certain manners pushed to new heights, some artists in Cambodia and the diaspora still express their pride and nationalism by reconstructing the image of Angkor. They create an ethno-nostalgic image of the past by imitating the crowns, jewelry, and skirts visible in temple iconography, often without regard to differences in two- and three-dimensional artistic conventions. No matter how similar of course, these things are merely of the surface and will always be interpretations and transformations of the past. The absolute worst scenario in Khmer nationalism is when those who claim to know and love their culture and history most fail to accept all of its richness. Their deleterious actions are revealed in an anecdote my friend shared with me: “My teacher told me that the apsara and tevoda at Angkor Wat are actually not topless. They are wearing very tight shirts.”
The nature of this nonsensical “denial of reality” is accurately diagnosed by Seanglim Bit:
“A means of coping with the dichotomy between feelings of cultural superiority and humble present conditions is to selectively deny those aspects of reality which are in conflict. Selective denial can serve as an escape mechanism which defends old patterns of behavior and attitudes and thus justifies their continuation.”
Yet despite the misunderstandings of certain artists in Cambodia, despite the neo-imperialist assertions of some Thai nationalists, and despite the scholars who draw from their historiographies, Khmer classical dancers remain connected to the vibrant spirit that animates our tradition whether we try to or not. We are connected to the same legacy from which Angkor takes life, whether it is politicized or whether it is not. Surely, if trauma can be passed on through our blood and genes, so then can beauty and resilience, resistance and vision.
I am Khmer and I am the descendant of creative, innovative geniuses. I am Khmer and my ancestors made countless sacrifices for the survival of their loved ones and of our culture. I am Khmer, a Khmer classical dancer, and I carry the love and hope, magic and knowledge passed on from teacher to student, teacher to student, since before the time of Angkor in my individual body.
Tradition: it does in fact exist. For what are we to call the bodies of knowledge, practices, histories, and values passed on from one generation to the next? Even during the Angkorean era, our ancestors already referred to their traditions—our traditions—using the Sanskrit words krtya and pravaini, both of which are still in use today. The continuities of our culture, philosophy, and ways of being is manifested further in the Khmer term tamleam tamloap, which can be translated as "obligatory practice" or "demanded custom." And, based on diverse sources of evidence, we know that many practices such as the Water Festival—of which dance is crucial—has survived from the Angkor era to today.
Tradition then, exists but is never static, is constantly growing and evolving, shaped and redefined by the visionary devotion of singular artists. Tradition is by nature generative and creative and expansive, and not one practitioner holds nor carries nor owns nor animates it in the same way.
Despite inevitable changes and evolutions then—such is the law of life—the philosophical and aesthetic heritage of Khmer classical dance remains connected to its native roots. Its spiritual heritage can be seen clearly in the execution of Khmer dance rituals, where dancers continue to pray for rain, fertility, and well-being in buong suong as our tantric predecessors had done. The fearsome, flesh-eating yogini of tantric ritual may not be known anymore but their residue and all they represent is still palpable in Khmer dance tradition and in Cambodia today.
The yogini, for example, have their "precursors" in the yaksini (Pali: yakkhini), which then translates into the contemporary Khmer yeakanei (demoness). At this moment we must think of characters in the repertoire such as Preah Chinnavong and Preah Onaruth who flirt with, court, and sexually unite with the women of demon kingdoms. We must also think of the way that these young male protagonists often rival and overcome the older, mostly demon-king fathers of their lovers—especially in light of how tantric Buddhist and Hindu practices were overtaken by Theravada Buddhism.
Make no mistake, however. The yogini were feared even during their day. This is evidenced by the death of a brahmin named Shankalan who witnessed “a sorceress who danced . . . as though in a theater” rip and devour a dead corpse in the Manimekhalai. But even this is merely a Buddhist “remind[er for] all those who had loved the living body that it was only flesh, bone, and blood.” This violent path to transcendence, like the violent Churning of the Ocean of Milk carved at Angkor Wat, can be seen in a song of the Khmer smot tradition sung in Theravada Buddhist temples, in which Botum “breaks the body” of a lotus and “lifts it upon her head in prayer” as an offering.
Taking after David Gordon White then, the “hardcore” human body has been replaced with the “softcore” symbolism of the lotus flower in Cambodia, just as offerings such as coconut, jackfruit, and squash represented male blood-seed and betel and areca nut chew came to represent “the blood of defloration” in India. This same process occurred in Cambodia, perhaps during the time of Angkor even as evidenced by Khmer iconography’s subtle portrayal of sexuality and anger in relation to its Indian counterpart. But it must have especially become the case as Khmer monarchs, priests, and artists syncretized tantric Hindu and Buddhist philosophies with the austerity of the Theravada school.
So although some specific items and things of the surface may have changed, the gesture of the offering, and the intent behind the offering, the spirit of the offering—offerings of coconuts and fruits, betel leaves and areca nuts, flowers and food, dance and music—is wholly rooted in pre-Angkorean and Angkorean ritual understandings. And whether these rites are of animist, Hindu, or Buddhist nature, we must acknowledge that tantric thought forms are deeply embedded and alive in their practice and consequently, in Khmer dance today.
Culture can be evolved and transformed, but rarely ever is it fully uprooted or destroyed. Like the smao chinchean placed into the hair of students during sampeah kru, with “[o]ne dip in the morning dew and it comes back to life.” It is not surprising then that we honor the contributions, histories, and spirits of those who came before us, invoking the narratives and voices of the past to refresh and renew, to envision new paths for our future. And, thinking of the dance’s Brahmanic roots, the space of ritual designates the tradition as one of social and moral action too. With all of these purposes in mind—praying for life and well-being, recalling our past to find new possibilities for our future, elevating the world through the expression of our humanity—those initiated in and growing from the Khmer classical dance tradition will forever hold relevance and meaning in the world we live in.
Whether dancing in the traditional style or experimenting with the conceptual or technical foundations of our art form, Khmer classical dancers walk different paths to connect to the same spirit. Dancing, we strive to touch the highest capacity of the human experience as our predecessors did before us, and as fellow artists of different cultures and practices do all over the world. Carrying tradition and embodying contemporaneity—living nexi of past, present, and future—Khmer classical dancers now practice in a time of newfound democracy and independence. It is more than ever a heritage of humanity, belonging most to Khmer dance artists and not any more to one than the other.
Remember then, that sacred serpent from which the dance takes life. Trace it from its single, primordial tail planted deep in the ocean and earth to its many glorious heads—to all the artists, voices, approaches, and ideas that they represent in our day. Khmer classical dance artists belong to this one serpent-body-tradition. And it, as well as the country and world it has come to represent, needs all of us to grow and thrive. As this ancestor attempts to coil her way up the highest mountain to that one peak—to that universal beauty that is ever-meaningful and timeless, to transcendent knowledge that liberates us and rids the world of fear and ignorance, suffering and violence—know that the many paths, approaches, and strategies each artist offers will only ensure that she gets there. Know also, that Lok Ta Moni Eisey chose Moni Mekhala, his most visionary and innovative student, to lead his lineage.
Therefore, let us hold in heart the seventh to eighth-century dancers Nirupa ("formless"), Vrtavali ("circular"), and Mandalila ("slow and graceful").[531a] Let us take pride and confidence in how the intangible spirit, curvilinear aesthetic, and fluid movement quality valued in their names have survived to our day, like an amoghapasa or "unbreakable rope." Let us call upon and honor all our ancestor and teacher spirits and proclaim:
Sri! Siddhi! Svasti! Jaya!
May Lok Ta Moni Eisey, ultimate teacher spirit of the dance and arts, his eyes red like the fire that destroys illusion and transforms life, continue to look at us with love and openness as we work to keep our ancient art form alive. And may the spirits of the men and women who have dedicated themselves to this art form, may their hope, vision, love, and knowledge live on through our dancing bodies, through our words and through the dances that we create. May the tradition continue to embody the vajra, that irresistible force of thunder and that indestructible nature of diamond, growing and evolving from a core that remains unshakeable and true. May the spirit of the dance live forevermore, taking life with new generations in different mediums, places, and times. May the artists of the future carry forth our ancient heritage and breathe new life into it in a way that only they can. May the path of light be revealed to all living beings, for as long as any sun or moon should shine!
On this day of June 29, 2018, sadhu!
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