KHMER DANCE IN RITUAL AND THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST

A seven-headed naga, or serpent, lining the walkway to the central towers of Angkor Wat.  Notice the spade of which its head is shaped into.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The naga race, as depicted on the lowest register of the Terrace of the Leper King.  Twelfth century.  Notice how their crowns are fashioned after the naga.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Tevoda at Bayon.  Notice how the naga in the crown has been abstracted into flowers, leaving just the spade.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Tevoda at Angkor Wat.  Notice how the naga has been abstracted further, the spade shape implied.  Remember that it was a nine-headed serpent who visited the king nightly.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

A dancer framed in the naga-spade, a motif at the temple of Banteay Samre.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Praying ascetics in spade shape on door panel at Preah Khan.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Large spade-shaped tree sprouting from central tower of temple at Ta Prohm.  Notice the spade-shaped leaves with spirits in prayer; there would have been nine total.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The tep robam prepares to pass around the popil during a sampeah kru at the Khmer Arts Theater.  Photo by Chan Vitharin, courtesy of Khmer Arts.

Despite centuries of change and on-going war, the spiritual foundations of Khmer classical dance have remained intact into our day.  During the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, for example, the royal dancers performed buong suong ceremonies on behalf of the drought-stricken countryside.[459]  Decades later in 2012, in line with pre-Angkorean customs, fully costumed dancers from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia accompanied the late king’s funerary urn as it was processed through the streets of Phnom Penh.   

 

In more ways than one then Khmer classical dancers still embody the serpents from which the dance and nation took life, serving as bridges between heaven and earth in the performance of sacred choreographies.  In fact, it is indeed the space of ritual that offers the highest meaning and possibility for the art form in an increasingly secular and globalized world.  In order to see this however, let us now examine the potent spiritual rites of the ancient art form.

 

Before every performance, Khmer classical dancers pray to the spirits of our ancestors, teachers, and lineage for their assistance on stage.  We often ask to dance beautifully, to justly represent the tradition, and to be guided by the spirits of the gods and characters for which our bodies serve as vessels.  The gesture, however small and intimate, is a powerful manifestation of beliefs associated with animism and ancestor worship.  These convictions are so ever-present that they pervade the entirety of Khmer dance practice. 

 

Before getting to this point however, dancers must first be initiated into the tradition by making offerings to our teachers.  The specificity of these ritual items depend on the role a dancer has been casted into, but usually comes in the form of one candle, an odd number of incense sticks, fruits, meats, and baysei.  The latter are constructed of banana trunks and leaves, with either eggplant flowers or pka kngaok (literally, "peacock flowers") attached.[460]  On top of the baysei is a hard-boiled egg of which a candle is placed on top.  In their totality, Neak Kru Sophiline has described the baysei, trees stylized into mountain-temple towers, as “Shiva linga.”[461]  This idea is hard to argue when we examine the above relief carving of a sacred tree sprouting from a temple tower at Ta Prohm, and recall how the towers of Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples were indeed representative of mandala inspired by yonilinga.

 

Upon receiving these offerings, the teacher calls forth the spirits of deceased teachers to bear witness to the gesture, enjoy the offerings, and accept the student into their lineage.  They ask that their student learn quickly and dance beautifully, ask for their well-being and success in life and on stage.  In this context, Menh Kossany has described teachers as having mot tip (magic mouths) capable of voicing the precise and necessary words to ensure the proper development and fame of their students.[462]  Once initiated into the tradition and lineage, the dancer will engage in two distinct rituals that connect them to the spiritual, historical, and philosophical legacy of Angkor: buong suong and sampeah kru.

 

Literally meaning “prayer,” buong suong is staged to appease the ancestors, territorial spirits, and gods to propitiate the fall of crop-feeding and life-giving rains.  The ceremony is performed in the coming of the rainy season, at auspicious places such as Angkor, Oudong, Wat Phnom, and the royal palace in the present day capital of Phnom Penh.[463]  During the ritual, a splendid array of food, flowers, and ritual items are laid before an elaborate altar featuring the most important dance masks and crowns.  The mask of Lok Ta Moni Eisey, the first human to receive knowledge of the arts, sits at the center.  Sitting before the altar, the tep robam or hmathav makes a number of ritual calls that serve to avert danger, overcome enemies, and hasten the rains as was done by his tantric Hindu and Buddhist predecessors at Angkor.  Dance and music are the most potent offerings during the ceremony and two dance works must always be performed: Robam Tamng Buon and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso

 

There are sacred solos that may be offered as well such as Robam Buong Suong Yokon, Robam Buong Suong Tiyae, and Robam Chhuoy Chhay Buong Suong.  The first of these short dances draws upon the Hindu concept of the ardhanari, depicting a half-male and half-female brahmin who serves as messenger between heaven and earth.  In this case, the harmonious union of masculine and feminine that characterizes Robam Tamng Buon and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso has been encapsulated into the body of a single being.  There is cross-cultural evidence that some form of this dance may have originated in Cambodia since the pre-Angkor and Angkor eras during the dominance of Sivaite cults.  In the Shilappadikaram, dated from the second to sixth centuries CE, a dance is performed at King Shenguttavan’s coronation which bears a clear relationship to Robam Buong Suong Yokon which is also known as Robam Pream (Dance of the Brahmin): 

 

“To amuse the king, a Brahmin boy dancer from Puraiyur, famed for the art of its priests learned in the four Vedas, performed the dance of the hermaphrodite which the god Shiva once danced after uniting with Uma in a single body.”[464] 

 

The second of the solo dances, Buong Suong Tiyae, depicts a female character who journeys to a sacred place for the sake of her troubled land.  The temple reliefs around her cause an elevation in her psychological and physical state, inducing her possession by a deity of “efficacious power.”  This being then uses her (dancing) form to bestow the blessings that she sought.  Both of these short dances employ the four-by-four structure of Robam Tamng BuonChhuoy Chhay Buong Suong, a much later creation, uses this structure as well to invoke Indra, the king of heaven and lord of the atmosphere, to “descend by way of the clouds in the sky.”

 

It appears that in our modern times the staging of buong suong has solely been a prerogative of the royal court.  They legitimized their rule by patronizing and controlling the source to rain: the dancers and the musicians to whom they danced. This is not the case for the sampeah kru ceremony however.  Meaning “prayer to the teachers,” it “is prepared only for the sake of dancers themselves [and] is not connected to buong suong or any other ceremonies within the palace.”[465]  The ritual comes in two forms: sampeah kru toch (small sampeah kru) and sampeah kru thom (big sampeah kru).[466]

 

Sampeah kru toch can take multiple forms.  It can be done before a student learns a new role or before a performance.  If a dancer falls ill, she or he may ask for a full recovery from the teacher spirits by staging or promising to stage a sampeah kru later in their honor as well.[467]  As we have seen, dancers such as Vorn Savay resorted to this during the oppressive rule of the Khmer Rouge.  Sampeah kru is an essential practice of the tradition.  If it is not performed, dancers believe that “the teacher cannot successfully teach the student and can even fall sick.  As for the students, they will not be able to remember [teachings] well either.”[468]  Sampeah kru thom, on the other hand, was staged once every month or two months inside the palace before the 1970 coup.[469]  The ritual is “staged before the performances of big dance dramas, or for dancers who are retiring from the dance.  Or it can be staged at least once a year for the sake of the entire dance company.”[470] 

 

As in the case of buong suong, offerings of fruits, meats, flowers, incense, candles, and baysei are offered during sampeah kru.  And, as in the case of buong suong, these offerings are placed before an altar supporting the most important crowns and masks, again with the mask of Lok Ta Moni Eisey in the center.  Menh Kossany has noted that prior to the Pol Pot era, items associated with luring and taming elephants were placed upon the altar as well.[471]  This bears a direct association to the thngai ram or re ram described by Zhou Daguan in the thirteenth century, of which elephant combats associated with the day led Eveline Prorée-Maspero to draw a connection to the contemporary practice of laeung neak ta.[472] 

 

From my observation, elephants—in their dark-grey rounded forms, traveling in large herds—resemble rain clouds and symbolize the fertility and life that they brought.  Perhaps it is no surprise then that Indra, the god who is master of storms, is said to ride upon a three-headed elephant named Airavata.  The Manimekhalai sheds further light on the tantric relationship between Indra, elephants, drums, and ritual:

 

“The great drum used solely for [the festival to propitiate Indra and induce the fall of rain] was jealously guarded in the temple dedicated to the thunderbolt, Indra’s weapon.  It was pulled out and fixed by cords to the neck of the royal elephant.  The sound of this drum covered with buffalo hide was like thunder and so terrifying that the god of death himself dared not leave his lair.  The roar of this drum inspired heroic acts and it was venerated with offerings of blood.”[473]

 

We do not know if Khmer drums were venerated in this same exact manner throughout history.  However, we do know that blood held potent meaning and function in tantric rituals of the Angkor era.  Furthermore, we know that Khmer dancers and musicians connect to our roots at Angkor when we place offerings of food, flowers, candles, and incense before the double-headed samphor drum.  It is the only instrument in the pin peat ensemble venerated as such as it is considered the “favorite instrument of the spirits of music.”[474]

 

Although one may question the significance of rain with the sampeah kru ritual, it can be said that the rain symbolizes a refreshing and renewal of artistic generations.  Very concretely however, as sampeah kru honors pedagogical relationships at its core, we must note that the instruments once included on the altar are a “buffalo hide rope, a vine or rattan chamnong, an elephant goad, and more.”[475]  The chamnong (noose, knot, tie, bond) and goad are attributes of Ganesha, the Hindu god of learning who is the remover of obstacles and the protector of children.  And here one can see the significance for their placement on the altar during sampeah kru.  These instruments may also have a tantric Buddhist significance, as Prajñaparamita—the "perfection of wisdom" who is the mother of Buddhas—was associated with an elephant goad and Vajrapani with a noose in a tenth-century Khmer sculpture.[476]

 

It is interesting to note here that the chamnong placed on the altar may be made of rattan, or phdao in Khmer.  That same material is also used in the form of sticks which teachers sometimes use to beat students into shape.  So just as Indra controls magnificent atmospheric elephants possessing the potential to deliver rain, good Khmer dance teachers transform the wild egos and inexperienced bodies of our students into artists capable of caring for our lineage and world, into expressions of art and knowledge, power and beauty, love and spiritual transcendence.  This cultural understanding of elephants echoes the words of the Mahayana Buddhist teacher Shantideva, who was active in the eighth century:

 

“Wandering where it will, the elephant of mind,

Will bring us down to torment in the hell of Unrelenting Pain.

No worldly beast, however wild and crazed,

Could bring upon such calamities.

 

If, with mindfulness’ rope,

The elephant of mind is tethered all around,

Our fears will come to nothing,

Every virtue drop into our hands.”[477]

 

Toni Shapiro-Phim has spoken of this transformation using another metaphor:

 

“Precious stones are of the earth, cut and refined by trained experts to ideal specifications.  Khmer dancers, like the jewelled ball Moni Mekhala so proudly embraces, shaped and perfected through the touch—physical, spiritual, and emotional—of their teachers, mediate a relationship between people and their history by means of movement and ritual.  They represent a sacred and a natural continuity across time and space, and have become a symbol of Cambodia.”[478]

 

Sampeah kru thom begins with students offering candles and incense to the teachers.  The latter, as during initiation rites, call upon the spirits of the art form to bless the dancers.  Chea Samy, for example, once called:

 

“This is my student named Menh Kossany.  Please help me teach her the role of Moni Mekhala.  Please accept her as Moni Mekhala.  Please help her dance beautifully and show her the way because she will be the one to carry on our tradition.”[479]

 

From my experience, the naming of the student always occurs during this process.  And it serves the purpose of establishing the student’s place in a lineage that is more than 1,000 years old.

 

After the offerings of candles and incense, the tep robam calls forth the gods as well as ancestor, teacher, and territorial spirits to inhabit the space and the crowns and masks upon the altar.  He calls forth melodies that are played by the pin peat ensemble, bringing forth the deities and teachers associated with them.  Additionally, during a sampeah kru thom I participated in at the Khmer Arts Theater in August 2014, tantric pleas to avert danger and overcome enemies were expressed as well.

 

With the spirits now present and bearing witness, candles and incense lit, smoke carrying prayers to the heavens, offerings of dance begin.  First, condensed versions of the movement fundamentals are performed beginning with demon roles, monkey roles, and then finally with male and female roles dancing together.  After this a select work or many may be performed, with traditional works first and new creations at the end.  During a sampeah kru thom I participated in for example, the dances performed were excerpts from Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso (of which Neak Kru Sophiline was getting ready to stage) followed by excerpts from new creations made by her students including myself (of which we were set to perform that weekend).

 

After the offerings of dance, the ritual closes with certain rites.  This includes the turning of popil, in which dancers of all generations sit encircling the altar and “pass the light” to one another.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that the naga-shaped popil, ritual items derived from gold banyan leaves originally gifted from Shiva,[480] are passed around to a melody known as Neang Neak (Serpent Lady).[481]  After this, the tying of raw cotton strings known as chamnong, which had been sitting in a bowl of tuk mont (mantra water), takes place.  The strings are tied around the wrists of students by their teachers, the latter imparting further words of blessing as they do so.  The tep robam splashes tuk mont upon the dancers and then leach (popped rice) is thrown upon the masks and crowns as the spirits are asked to return to their abodes.

 

Sampeah kru is a significant moment of intergenerational connection, a time and space in which dancers both young and old connect to our ancient lineage and its legacy.  Acting as gatekeepers to a venerable tradition, teachers bridge past, present, and future through their recollections and their blessings.  Their students then embody and enliven these histories and forms of knowledge through the act of dance. 

 

Certainly, with the teacher spirits and the historical, spiritual, conceptual, and philosophical foundations from which they take life as witness, sampeah kru is a moment in which love, history, hope, and knowledge are passed on from teacher to student, teacher to student.  It is a moment of gratitude and of reflection; it is a moment of celebration and honoring.  Given the deleterious efforts of the Khmer Rouge and that of other forces, sampeah kru becomes a powerful testament of and commitment to the continuity of the Khmer dance tradition.  Even more, in the offering of new works—and the new ideas, approaches, and communities that they encapsulate—it is a moment to grow, expand, and transform the tradition and the larger society it exists in as well.

 

Of sampeah kru and buong suong, Toni Shapiro-Phim has precisely written:

 

“Khmer dance, with its rituals of re-membering, its power of mediation with the spirits of the land, the ancestors, the deities, and the royalty, and with its sheer beauty, speaks to the need to create or forge a grounding.  Yet it is a ‘grounding’ in a community and space unfettered by boundaries of geography, and even time.”[482] 

 

Yet there is more significance to be had from the living sacred foundations of Khmer dance. 

 

When examining the story of Lok Ta Moni Eisey, whose mask bears a four-faced representation of Brahma on top of his ascetic’s crown, we find an equally paramount purpose for the Khmer classical dancer in our day and future.  Indeed, it is a charge for all artists really.  To find out what that is, let me now recount the origins of the Hindu theater, of which I first encountered in Rene Daumal’s Rasa, or Knowledge of the Self.

 

The world is in a state of moral decay.  People rob, cheat, and kill one another; we plunder the earth of all of its resources.  As such, the human race has weakened and our bodies, hearts, and minds have become plagued with illness and disease.  Seeing the mortal world in this state—increasingly under the influence of the demons—the gods thought about what to do.  Gathering in a council, they decided they must equip humans with knowledge of the arts so that we may find truth and transcendence in a world headed for destruction.

 

They implored Brahma, the god of creation, to gather the heavenly knowledge for us humans.  The four-faced god then appeared before Bharata Muni, a wise and virtuous ascetic, and imparted the sacred knowledge unto him.  The latter then compiled it into a text called the Natyashastra and began to teach his newfound knowledge to his one hundred sons.  Seeing their skill, the gods rejoiced and sent the apsara and gandharva of heaven to teach them their secret techniques and musical scales.  The humans studied and perfected this knowledge in due time.

 

When he was ready, Bharata Muni summoned the gods, humans, and demons for the very first performance of this sacred theater.  He and his disciples performed a scene in which the gods triumphed over the demons, planting the seeds of righteousness in the world.  Angered, the demons threatened to kill Bharata Muni and his entire lineage.  However, the wise ascetic prayed to Brahma asking for his protection.  The latter then shared knowledge of rituals that would keep Bharata Muni safe on stage.  The ascetic performed these rites, and so begins the origins of art and theater in our world.

 

In its Brahmanic roots then, the art of Khmer classical dance is also a tool for social change and transformation.  The story deals with issues of censorship and freedom of speech, with the stage serving as a divinely sanctioned place to voice concern and envision higher possibilities for our world.  When we examine the story we realize that art is a vehicle for moral, intellectual, physical, and spiritual enlightenment.  And, pairing this with the regenerative and renewing aspects of sampeah kru and the purpose of buong suong—the purpose of sustaining and giving life—the Khmer classical dancer has a most meaningful purpose and responsibility.

 

The world is not where it needs to be.  So how do we get it there?  How do we conquer the demons of blindness, ignorance, violence, fear, and suffering that live inside us, and have become the status quo around the world?  One path: we make art.  And in this art, we cry for those whose tears have run dry, scream for those who have lost their voices, and dance for those who have had the power to stand robbed from their legs.  We push our world forward by shaking, quaking, and awakening people from the inside, inspiring them to see clearly and think critically, to speak precisely, to re-imagine creatively, to care compassionately, to love tenderly, and to collaborate efficaciously for the sake of all life. 

 

In order to do so, we must constantly find new ways of understanding, approaching, practicing, performing, and sharing Khmer classical dance—everything from the most traditional to the most experimental.  After all, taking care of a heritage is like climbing to the top of a mountain: there is only one peak that we all want to get to but there are many paths to get there.  Some people can walk only one of those paths while others may be able to walk multiple at the same time.  This sentiment is mirrored in the Mahabharata, that ancient epic carved onto the walls of Angkor Wat but now vague to Khmer culture, in which the virtuous Pandava brothers who seem to be five aspects of one being vanquish the evil and decrepit Kaurava brothers who are 100 people with one mind and identity.  The Pandava conquer the Kaurava with the help of Krishna—individual symbol of universal consciousness—even when their enemies have the aid of Krishna’s faceless, 10,000-strong army.

 

Diversity of approach, cross-pollination of ideas, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary awareness, and individual voice are what will keep the art of Khmer classical dance alive and relevant for our world today and in its future.  In fact, these are the things that have always sustained and grown the art form.  Even during the time of Angkor, a time many people essentialize to be most Khmer, a tenth-century inscription regarding King Yasovarmann I notes:

 

“[T]he women of the Masters of the Earth danced in his presence taking from him the rhythm which he gave them by clapping his hands . . . As for his glory, it danced without having learned, to the sound of the songs which were heard from the wives of warriors vanquished by him.”[483]  

 

These enemy “warriors” would have been both Khmer and foreign alike.

 

Given this, let us now examine contemporary works rooted in the tradition of Khmer classical dance.  I laundry list these videos, so that the viewer may understand the differences in approach and value for themselves.  Successful or not, each work offers a seed of possibility from which a new path in Khmer dance can grow.  This is important as even in Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso—the most important dance drama in our tradition, one performed for rain and the sustenance and renewal of life—Lok Ta Moni Eisey chose Mekhala, his most innovative student, to carry his lineage into the future.  It is in the goddess’s hands, and in the hands of visionary artists and thinkers like her, that the love and knowledge of Lok Ta Moni Eisey will illuminate our universe most powerfully.

 

NEXT

[459] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 125.

[460] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 17.

[461] Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, direct communication.  August 2014.

[462] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 27.

[463] Ok, Prumsodun and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. “A Teacher’s Gift.”  Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso.  Create Space Self-Publishing, 2013.  Pages 15 - 26.

[464] Prince Ilango Adigal, translated by Alain Danielou.  Shilappadikaram: The Ankle Bracelet.  New Directions Books, 1965.  Page 182.

[465] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 15.

[466] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 16.

[467] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 16.

[468] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 16.

[469] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 15.

[470] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 16.

[471] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 18.

[472] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 125.

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

[474] Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  National Archives and Records Administration.  1965.

[475] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 18.

[476] Lammerts, D. Christian. Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2015. Page 224.

[477] Shantideva.  The Way of the Bodhisattva.  Shambala Publications Inc., 2006.  Page 61.

[478] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Pages 434 – 435. 

[479] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Pages 9 - 10.

[480] Royal Ballet of Cambodia.  National Archives and Records Administration.  1965.

[481] Menh, Kossany.  Pithi Sampeah Kru Lakhaon.  American Embassy in Phnom Penh.  Page 127.

[482] Shapiro-Phim, Toni.  Dance and the Spirit of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1994.  Page 439.

[483] Cravath, Paul.  Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance of Cambodia.  University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 75.  

Popil used in a sampeah kru ceremony by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.