Sacred Roots II: Two Rain Dances

Robam Tamng Buon is considered by some to be the oldest Khmer classical dance.  Beyond the introduction and closing melodies, it consists of four dances each with four verses of singing that are in turn followed by musical sections.  The numeric play of four in the work’s structure gives it its name, which means, “All Four Dances.”  This four-by-four structure evokes the image of a balanced square and yoni for me, an image that in turn evokes the mandala after which temples like Angkor Wat are modeled.  This is not farfetched as a birds-eye view above the temple reveals the mountain-like central towers with their surrounding walls to take the same form as a yonilinga.  And, just as ritual fluids were poured over these abstractions of the feminine and masculine principle to inspire fertility, Angkor Wat and other temples were watered with rain from the heavens, it falling first upon the tip of the central towers and flowing out to sanctify the entire kingdom.  The dancers in Robam Tamng Buon then are like the central and highest tower of a conceptual temple (the serpent, after all, is a common phallic symbol).  Their bodies, dancing in the center of a sacred choreographic structure, reach out to the gods for life and deliver it to humanity.

Bird’s-eye view over the twelfth-century temple of Angkor Wat.  Image: ©2015 CNES/Astrium, DigitalGlobe, Cnes/Spot Image, Map data ©2015 Google.

Yonilinga surrounded by linga carved into the riverbed at Kbal Spean.  These waters flowed down to Angkor—notice the similar shapes of Angkor Wat above and the yonilinga.  Eleventh to twelfth centuries.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The dancing in Robam Tamng Buon is intensely slower than usual, with each dance bleeding into one another like light bleeding into the sky at dawn.  On the surface, it may appear that the work merely depicts pairs of gods and goddesses who “pralaing lo leng,” who play with and tease one another.  But their joyous courtship is nothing less than a symbolic union of masculine and feminine energies, a harmonious image of heaven given shape and form in the human realm to inspire the divine order and creative power of the prior into the latter.

 

Finally, the last lyrical section of Robam Tamng Buon, Melim, is almost exactly the same as a melody used solely for flight in the contemporary repertoire.  In this section, the dancers are likened to beautiful kenar (Sanskrit: kinnara), creatures who are half-bird and half-human.  In India, these creatures were identified with the shape-shifting yogini who, possessed with the power of flight, met their tantrika lovers in open-air temples much like Phimeanakas.  That ancient Khmers would have understood the yogini and kenar in this manner is evidenced by the yogini of Banteay Chhmar who "have third vajra eyes and hold flowers with outstretched, feathered arms and stand astride on Garuda legs."[28]  

With Zhou Daguan’s account of how only musicians came to the palace to perform during the thngai ram (according to Cravath’s text), with knowledge of the king’s sacred lovemaking that took place at Phimeanakas inside the palace compound, and with awareness of a stele recording dance ritual found at this same temple (to be discussed later), perhaps it can be argued that dancers were in fact the serpent-yogini women who appeared nightly to make love to the king.  Indeed the dancer, whose body served as a vehicle for the gods and territorial spirits, would have been a most potent, strategic, and efficacious agent to unite with.  Whatever the case, this song of flight—a desired power (siddhih) of the tantric practitioner—further indicates the dance’s tantric roots and sets the scene for the other performance work that I hold to originate during this era.

That second dance, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, is a dramatic work that illustrates the creation of rain to speed its fall in our world.  It is an expression of what Ian Mabbett and David Chandler describe as “cosmological thought,” in which “[a]ctions or objects in the profane, physical world are thought to influence the invisible, transcendent world when they imitate its structure.”[29]  This is a way of seeing the world that is alive in the many dances and cultural practices of Cambodia, and one not out of line with David Gordon White’s definition of tantra.

In the story, three students of a powerful ascetic named Lok Ta Moni Eisey (who may or may not be the same as the ultimate teacher spirit of Khmer dance) end their studies and compete in a contest where they must collect morning dew for him.  Instead of waking up early to collect individual drops like her male peers Vorachhun (Prince of the Earth) and Ream Eyso (The Storm Demon), Moni Mekhala merely leaves her sbai out overnight, lets it soak up dew, and wrings the water into her glass.  She presents her glass first and wins with this clever strategy.

Proud of all his students, Lok Ta Moni Eisey transforms each of their glasses of dew into precious prizes.  Vorachhun is given a magic dagger, Ream Eyso a diamond axe, and Mekhala a diamond ball that radiates a brilliant light when she holds it.  Covetous and jealous, Ream Eyso decides to steal the jewel from Mekhala.  He first kills Vorachhun before pursuing the goddess through the clouds and the two engage in battle: Moni Mekhala’s diamond ball unleashing lightning and Ream Eyso’s axe cutting through air and clouds creating the sound of thunder.  Mekhala blinds Ream Eyso and avoids further violence by escaping into the clouds.  The union of their unleashed energies, of lightning and thunder, of feminine and masculine, of good will and bad will, creates rain, falling upon the earth to bring Vorachhun back to life.  Rejoicing his revival, Mekhala and Vorachhun join the other gods in dance.  They form a makar (crocodilian sea monster) as they fly through the sky, delivering life-giving water to the world.

According to Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, Vorachhun represents the earth, Ream Eyso’s passionate anger the fire, heat, and light of the sun, and Mekhala the water—all essential elements in an agricultural society.[30]  Each character is associated with a color as well: kheav (blue) for the goddess of the ocean; chheam chruk (pig’s blood), a rich burgundy, for Ream Eyso; and meas (gold) for Vorachhun.  It is interesting to note that blood-colored items are attested in ancient Khmer epigraphy through the Sanskrit word rudhira.[31]  And although green or brown are colors that we associate with the earth today, it is important to note that gold and yellow conjures a rice field ready for harvest and their association with earth is also a convention of tantric Buddhist iconography.  Ratnasambhava, for example, is a jina, a victorious aspect of the Buddha, who is associated with the earth and depicted with gold skin.[32]

 

Furthermore, tantric relationships to the Khmer story become stronger when we realize that the vajra, from which Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism takes its name, means both diamond and thunderbolt and respectively represents indestructible nature and “irresistible force.”[33]  In its form as diamond, the vajra was associated with the color blue and represented water in tantric iconography much like the Khmer goddess of the ocean and her jewel.[34]  Indeed, the dual meaning of vajra is mirrored in Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso who are feminine and masculine expressions of a single teacher’s heritage and the lightning and thunder of a single rainstorm.  The goddess, associated with the diamond nature, is the “passive but persistent victor” whereas Ream Eyso represents the thunderbolt nature in his “role as destroyer of life, a doer and initiator.”[35]  Musicologist Curt Sachs, who “classified fertility dances as rain charms,” further reveals the tantric nature of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso by interpreting the dance as “a courtship dance that ends in sexual union . . . The male is exhausted and the female continues on her way.”[36]  This interpretation is supported by the fact that the vajra as a thunderbolt was often a “thinly veiled” symbol for the penis amongst tantric practitioners.[37]

 

•••••

 

Both Robam Tamng Buon and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso exist in the modern Thai repertoire but I believe they are specifically Khmer in origin.  Dhanit Yupho, in the 1952 book Classical Siamese Theatre, writes that the melodies of Rabam Si Bot (Dance of Four Songs) “are understood to be very old . . . are infer[r]ed to have come down from the days when Sukhothai was the capital of Siam.”[38]  This seems unlikely however when examining these dances with scrutiny.

 

First off, the name Sukhothai is derivative of Sukhodayapura, as the Khmer city was originally known.  There is evidence that the first Thai king of Sukhothai was educated at Lavo in the Khmer fashion and adopted Khmer cultural forms—a pattern that we will see amongst other early Thai nations.[39]  There is further evidence that the first queen of Sukhothai may have in fact been Khmer and that this king’s rule was only validated with the authority of the Khmer king at Angkor.[40]

More than anything, this assertion reflects modern Thai attitudes for Sukhothai as:

“Luang Wichit Wathakan (1898 – 1962), an influential nationalist and popular historian in modern Thai historiography, though now highly criticized and discredited by counter-official-nationalist discourse academics, is most responsible for the nationalist emplotment of Thai history and the idealization of Sukhothai.  He constructed two contrasting paradigms of Thai rules: Sukhothai as an ideal, pure Thai-Buddhist society and culture, and Ayutthaya as a destructive, declining, degraded era, contaminated by Khmer culture and ideology.”[41]

  

Secondly, Yupho says the work is also known as “The Great Dance."[42]  This for me conjures the mahotsava, the “great festivals” staged by Khmer kings of Angkor.  It is not unlikely that the “great dances” were performed at their “great festivals” by pedanataka (groups of dancers) who sometimes numbered in the hundreds according to Khmer and foreign sources.[43] 

 

Thirdly, the work employs a great deal of Khmer in its lyrics with varying degrees of success.  In some instances in which Thai follows Khmer, like the third and fourth verses of Phra Thawng, there is a clear loss of alliteration and rhyme that breaks the poeticism of the music.  Interestingly, there are fifth and sixth lyrical verses in the dance that do not appear in the Khmer versions.  They display this disjointed quality as well and break with the sacred numerology that is the inherent structure of the Khmer version.  It is my hypothesis that these were added in a later period as Thai dance increasingly evolved into an entertainment of the royal court and into a symbol of Thai nationhood.  Phya Anuman Rajadhon, for example, stated in the introduction of the same publication:

“In its original form dancing was ‘Rabam’ . . . Since the ‘Rabam’ is a set of dance-movements with no connecting theme, it has been considered less interesting than the dancing of other kinds, and has not therefore been very popular [in Thailand].  Thus, even though the ‘Rabam’ has been retained it was made to approximate its rival by taking the dancers to represent mythological characters like Mekhala, Ramasun and Orajun.”[44]

 

This explanation for the development of dance drama and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is not sufficient however.  And, in fact, the four-by-four mandala structure of Robam Tamng Buon—nothing less than a symbol of cosmic omniscience and the creative power of the universe—is mirrored in many aspects of Khmer art, architecture, and religion.  For example, King Jayavarmann VII commissioned towers of the four-faced Lokesvara at the Bayon in the form of his smiling face.  This play on fours can be seen in the four purification ponds believed to cure pilgrims of disease and rid them of sin at the temple of Neak Poan as well.  Each pond respectively represented the elements of water, earth, fire, and wind and were believed to internally balance these forces within the body of those who entered them.

 

It is my belief that Robam Tamng Buon serves the same purpose as the purification ponds: Preah Thaong, explained below, is associated with water; Balut, a little bit heavier in its melody, with earth; Sarabarong, a little bit lighter with a twisting and rising quality, with fire; and Melim, in association with kenar and flight as mentioned earlier, with wind.  Just as these ponds were supposed to balance these elements within the body—healing, curing, and ridding of sin—the dances balanced these elements in the bodies of the dancers and the world they danced for.  In a sense, Robam Tamng Buon can be seen as a purity of water, earth, fire, and wind and purification by these means as well.  The order in which they appear indicates a cycle of life which starts with a cosmic, primordial ocean that touches the earth that sprouts flowers and forests, which are then burned causing smoke to rise to the heavens and return to their oceanic source in the form of rain.

While presenting this idea to dancers of the Sophiline Arts Ensemble during a trip to Cambodia in August 2014, Neak Kru Sophiline noted that Robam Tamng Buon is always performed with twelve dancers and thus breaks the play of four-by-four which would require sixteen dancers.  There are very specific reasons for this however.

 

The very last verse of Melim, the final dance, are: “Pralaing lo leng, thlai euy mul maitrei, tevea krop reasei, sain sokha.”  In other words, “Playing and teasing, oh precious ones full of compassionate love, gods of every reasei, so very tranquil.”  It is important to note that reasei literally means “path” or “level.”  In Khmer culture, however, people are believed to mean reasei or “have reasei.”  The implication then is that we as human beings possess a level of vital and essential life forces that can rise and fall at certain points of our lives, and thus dictate our earthly circumstances.

 

Reasei is derived from the Sanskrit rashi, the twelve cosmological directions of Vedic astrology that are each associated with a part and force of the body.  This last line suggests qualities of fullness and completeness in the lyrics and it is interesting to note that the word mul, which I have translated as “full” above, literally means “round” or “circular” in Khmer.  In this, the image of a Vedic astrological chart, sometimes depicted as a circle with twelve congruent segments, is conjured.  This last line then, is a nod to tantric conceptions of the universe as a body and the body as universe.  It is expressive of an overarching tantric idea that takes multiple artistic and material forms, one which perceives “holy sites as an internal mandala identical with the structure of the practitioner’s body.”[45]

Tying these sacred landscapes, universal directions, vital life forces, essential elements, and cosmo-human bodies with Robam Tamng Buon further, it is interesting to look at a tantric rite that was used to induce possession in young girls and boys in China.  In order to seek the advice of ancestor and territorial spirits, of whom the young children served as vessels for, the tantric priest was instructed to:

“Then, with his hand forming a Mudra he touches and thus empowers the five parts of his own body and then with the same Mudra he touches the girl’s head, her mouth, his heart, and his navel visualizing in these the symbols of fire, water, earth, and wind respectively.”[46]

Again, as with Indian tantric practices, we will never know if this exact ritual took place in Cambodia.  However, its essence—the body as a vehicle in the state of spirit possession, a universal and human body made of and balanced by the four elements of water, earth, fire, and wind—clearly exist in Khmer tantric beliefs and can be associated with Robam Tamng Buon.

 

To further demonstrate the connection of Robam Tamng Buon to the elements and argue for the dance’s genesis at the Khmer courts of Angkor and perhaps before, let us examine Preah Thaong (Thai: Phra Thawng), the name of the first melody of Robam Tamng Buon.  In Cambodia, Preah Thaong is none other than a colloquial name for Kaundinya—a brahmin who is father of the Khmer lunar dynasty.  He is associated with the kingdoms we now know as Nokor Phnom (Funan) and later Chenla, both Khmer polities before the Angkor era. 

Setting sail from either India or an Indianized state in the Malay peninsula, guided by a dream, Preah Thaong sailed into unknown waters.  He is confronted by Neang Neak, daughter of the king of the naga (serpents), and both sides go to war.  Preah Thaong finally shoots an arrow into the bow of the naga princess’s ship and she surrenders herself when realizing its magic nature.  Preah Thaong demands that she marry him, she agrees, and he clothes her naked form. The two can only be properly wed in the subterranean domain of the naga so Neang Neak, taking her true serpent form, has Preah Thaong hold onto her tail as they travel into the abyss.  The creatures of the water world sing for the bride and groom in celebration of their union.  And, after their marriage, the two return and the naga king sucks up a sea to reveal a most fertile land for them to rule: Kambujadesa, which we now know as Kampuchea or Cambodia.

Hang Thun Hak, one of Cambodia’s pre-eminent artists and a prime minister before the Khmer Rouge regime, has stated that the Preah Thaong melody is the oldest melody in all of Khmer dance.  He states that, according to Khmer tradition, the melody was brought from the depths of the ocean by the brahmin himself; it is the song that the naga race sang in commemoration of the wedding.[47]  Listening to the Khmer version of the melody, and the melody that proceeds it—which is almost exclusively used for journeys by sea—a maritime quality is especially conjured for me in the vocals and beating of the drums.  This makes Hang Thun Hak’s words hard to argue and further ties the dance to water and Robam Tamng Buon to the four elements of a cosmic mandala.

That said, the essence of Hang Thun Hak’s claim—the dance’s and music’s root in this narrative and the society that produced it—grows harder to dispute when considering the story’s influence on the larger sphere of Khmer culture including wedding tradition and dress.  For example, Preah Thaong clothed his wife with a piece of cloth now known as a sbai, which is worn today by Khmer dancers of female roles.  Also worn by brides, it is held by a groom as he follows behind his bride in the final rite of a Khmer wedding: one that mimics Preah Thaong’s and Neang Neak’s descent into the primordial ocean. 

Thaong then, may possibly come from the Khmer word taong meaning to “hang onto.”  This is mirrored in the way that amulets and pendants—usually of gold, precious stones and metals, wood, teeth, or bone, materials and objects of great religious, spiritual, and social value in ancient days—are today known as p’taong.  Possibly a corruption of preah taong, they hang onto the serpentine chains that wrap around the wearer’s neck.  

Preah Thaong’s name then can mean “His Sacredness Who Hangs Onto.”  His mundane and functional name—functional as in, associated with a defining narrative action and therefore easy to remember and pass on in oral storytelling—is only mirrored by the way his wife has come to be known in everyday Khmer as Neang Neak which means “Serpent Lady.”  As mentioned in temple inscriptions, she was actually known as Saoma—a lunar deity, or a plant or root that was squeezed in Vedic ritual to procure amrita, a nectar or elixir believed to grant immortality.  This transformation of taong to thaong is supported further by how Sanskrit mekala (belt) now survives as mekhala, vina (harp) as pin, and so on.

As one last point, it is important to note that thaong is conventionally taken to mean “gold,” thereby creating a clear relationship to the Thai word thawng.  Whatever the case, all roads lead back to Cambodia.  For kampu, from which our mythological father takes his name, is nothing but a Pali word for “gold.”  Although Preah Thaong is most commonly associated with the Sanskrit name Kaundinya, Peter Harris notes that: “In Cambodian mythology, Kambuja was named after the founding ancestor, Kambu, an Indian who arrived by ship, married the daughter of the local serpent king, and founded a dynasty with her.  This myth may explain the story of the Cambodian king’s nightly coupling with a serpent spirit.”[48]

  

•••••

When we are young, we are taught in an oversimplified linear fashion and consequently understand our world in the same manner.  And often, in our history texts, a monumental Buddhism is cited as a factor that brought about the fall of an oversimplified and nostalgic Hindu Angkor.  It would be hard then to associate the Khmer Buddhist story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso with this cultural legacy.  This is further compounded by the fact that we have a “complete blank” in Old Khmer literature which Saveros Pou accounts for:

“Unlike short official texts which could be easily engraved on stone, the main literary works would have been copied down in large manuscripts made of perishable materials such as paper or palm-leaves, easily destroyed by the elements or through wars and battles accompanied by looting.”[49]

To further complicate the issue, to my knowledge, for such an important drama, there are no known depictions of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso on the reliefs of Angkorean temples.  However, this is not enough evidence to disassociate the dance drama from the era, as despite being father and mother of the Khmer people, to my knowledge, no images of Kampu and Mera are actually known to exist either—not from the Angkor period nor from the eras of Chenla and Nokor Phnom before.

We do know however that Angkor was a religiously diverse society in which multiple forms of Buddhism held a place inside and outside of the palace.  Peter D. Shamrock notes how, from 1080 CE to 1270 CE—at the height of Angkor's power—five out of six kings were Buddhist.[49a]  Even the thirteenth-century Treatise on the Various Foreigners, a Chinese text, “mentions three hundred dancing girls responsible for offering food to the devoutly worshipped Buddha” at Angkor.[50]  So if we look closely then, we can find that Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, as we know it as a dance drama, has its origins in the Khmer dance tradition.  Before I illustrate this though, it is important that I share a differing opinion.

Dhanit Yupho, again from Classical Siamese Theatre, notes that the drama, “from ancient times . . . has served to introduce longer performances.”[51]  Yupho’s words hint at the dance work as a form of pure entertainment, one pre-existing more recent artistic creations of greater relevance to the Thai people.  This is in contrast to the drama in Cambodia, which, approximately two hours in length, is the climax of dance offerings during the buong suong ritual.  Yupho then contradicts himself by stating, “The words of the songs are from the version of the ‘Ramakian’ [Thai version of the Ramayana] composed by King Rama I, and the instrumental music for the dance was originally chosen for them by the Prince of Nakon Rajasima.”[52]  King Rama I, who began his reign in 1782—only 170 years prior to Yupho’s writing—hardly makes it into what we would call “ancient times.”

He adds further, “There is also a minor addition to the story which says that, in fact, Ramasun [Khmer: Ream Eyso] wanted for himself only the person of Mekhala.  As for the gem, he had been ordered to take it to Phra In [Indra], the king of heaven.”[53]  This re-framing of the narrative, which posits Moni Mekhala as a thief who stole the crystal from Indra, is indicative of a cultural transition in which men were increasingly seen as more righteous, moral, and superior.  Today, in Thailand and Cambodia, this male-dominant philosophy is structurally enforced through Theravada Buddhism.  And in September 2015, for example, “rebel” female Thai monks made headlines as:

 

“Thailand's top Buddhist authority bars women from becoming monks.  They can only become white-cloaked nuns, who are routinely treated as domestic servants.  Many here believe women are inferior beings who had better perform plenty of good deeds to ensure they will be reborn as men [in order to attain enlightenment].”[54] 

 

This sentiment is hardly the case of the Khmer version of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, which more readily reflects how the “Mahayana branch of Buddhism practiced in East Asia [and formerly in Cambodia] has historically ordained women.”[55]  This is most evident in the name of the goddess, explored later.

 

In fact, the dance drama demonstrates a clear relationship to Robam Tamng Buon and tantric Buddhist ideas and practices.  The dance is performed annually during the New Year in an elaborate propitiation ceremony known as buong suong to induce the fall of rain.  As mentioned earlier, this is known as varsapanam and ativrstidharanam in the tantric conception.  Further, as mentioned above, Neak Kru Sophiline has associated Moni Mekhala with water, Vorachhun with earth, and Ream Eyso with fire.  This is a traditional association and I would add that the tevoda, the minor characters of the story who exist solely in the skies of heaven and symbolize clouds in the dance, represent wind.  These characters then represent the four essential elements and sacred directions of a cosmic mandala, all surrounding the central figure and knowledge of Lok Ta Moni Eisey.  In this regard, the story represents the chaos and conflict that ensues as power shifts to a new center.

Although Moni Mekhala can be found in the Mahajanaka Jataka, where she is “a daughter of the gods . . . appointed guardian of the sea by the four guardians of the world,”[56] she plays an almost minor and “obscure” role by restoring the shipwrecked protagonist to his destination.[57]  This is in great contrast to Moni Mekhala in the Khmer dance drama—who is none other than goddess of the sea and master of lightning, the chosen leader of her teacher’s lineage, a feminine triumph in a masculine-dominated universe.  This powerful image of woman and womanhood has a clear place in the pre-classical and classical societies of Cambodia, from the commanding statue of the Lady of Koh Krieng to Neang Neak, female master of the land, to the thousands of tevoda and apsara and yogini flanking temple walls.  Furthermore, from history, we know that Queen Indradevi was celebrated as an educated woman who aided her husband in administering the kingdom.  It was she who composed the stele at Phimeanakas, which celebrated the life of her deceased sister Queen Jayarajadevi.  In addition to this, “Chinese writers praise[d] the women of Cambodia for their knowledge of astrology and government and say the women of the royal family sometimes held high political posts, including that of judge.”[58]  Finally, as larger testament to the relative importance of Khmer women, the whole of Khmer society was matrilineal: evidenced through the word me (mother, master, leader) and in the fact that Jayavarmann II was only able to unify the nation in 802 CE through a series of marriages.[59]

So who is Moni Mekhala?  Apparently, she comes in multiple manifestations throughout the world.  Just like how other stories have been shared and localized, imbued with new meaning and transformed to fit the cultural values of each community and time, her story has undergone the same process.  Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is a mixture of both indigenous and external narratives, character types, landscapes, and mores, shaped to fit the needs of the local, in this case Khmer, people.

For example, Preah Thaong Neang Neak is nearly identical to the story of Toyotama-bime and Yamasachi-biko, which first appears in the eighth-century Kojiki and explains the origins of Japan’s imperial family.  Interestingly, relating to Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, the latter describes how Yamasachi-biko was gifted tide-ebbing and tide-raising jewels by his sea deity father-in-law to subdue his brother Umisachi-biko. And, like Preah Thaong Neang Neak, the episode details the origins of certain forms of performance as “the various postures of [Umisachi-biko’s] drowning motions have been presented until today.” As we shall see, similar stories can be found in Indian and Javanese cultures, and even as far as the Caroline Islands and Pacific Northwest.[59a]  

 

Further cross-cultural connections can be found in the Khmer dance drama of Roeung Kailas, in which the daughters of the king of heaven descend upon our world using sbai that allow them to travel between heaven and earth.  While bathing in a river, the sbai of the youngest sister is stolen by a prince and her sisters are forced to leave her in lonesome abandon.  At this moment, the smitten prince approaches her and woos her, offers her the sbai and the chance to return.  But she chooses to stay and be his wife. 

In Japan, this archetypal narrative is given life in the popular Noh play Hagoromo.  In it, a tennyo—a celestial woman—descends upon the human world using the magic of a hagoromo or feathered plume.  While bathing in the river by moonlight, a fisherman steals her powerful garment.  She begs for its return, feeling her power and divinity drain from her being due to the human’s possession of the hagoromo.  He agrees to return it on the condition that she reveal to him the sacred dancing of heaven.  She does so after receiving the feathered plume, and disappears into the mist of night. 

In both Cambodia and Japan, there are variations upon this story.  They are in fact an example of how Buddhist jataka mixed with local cultures and evolved into singular expressions taking the form of dance, theater, literature, and more.  Even today, these stories continue to be adapted and given new meaning and life.  The Japanese anime series Ayashi No Ceres is but one example.

In the case of Moni Mekhala, we find many similarities in tantric Buddhist stories of Mahasiddha Mekhala from Tibet:

“In Devikotta, an elderly widower was burdened with [two] unmarried daughters.  It wasn’t that bad, but the [two] girls were infamous for their playfulness and mischievous tricks.  Eventually the girls were married into a fisherman’s family, and miserable their husbands were.  Finally, the younger one suggested that they run away, but Mekhala, for the first time spoke wisely to her sister, ‘You know, I suspect that we deserve what we get.  We bring it on ourselves.  I hate to tell you this, but we’re going to have to stay – it isn’t going to be different anywhere else because we take ourselves with us.’

At that very moment, the guru Krsnacarya passed by with 700 dakas and dakinis in attendance.  Impulsively, the sisters threw themselves at his feet and begged for his instruction.  Krsna gave them initiation and instructed them in the Vajra Varahi path that unites vision and action.

 

The [two] sisters meditated diligently for [twelve] years and successfully attained their goal.  They then decided to visit their guru and seek further instruction.  When they found him, they humbly prostrated themselves and walked about him in reverential circles.  The guru received them kindly, but it was quite obvious he did not know who they were.  The sisters then said they were the [two] unhappy married sisters that he initiated [twelve] years ago.

The guru then bellowed, ‘If I gave you initiation, then why haven’t you brought me any offerings!’  In reply, the sisters said they were at his service and asked what the guru would like.  Krsnacarya said ‘Your heads!’  Without any hesitation, the sisters pulled a sword of pure awareness and decapitated themselves and as they made their offering to their guru, the severed heads sang a beautiful song for their guru.  Krsnacarya then replaced their heads perfectly and the sisters came to be known as the Headless Yoginis.

In gratitude, the sisters knelt before their guru and touched his feet in reverence.  No sooner had they done so than they attained Mahamudra-siddhi.  For many years thereafter they worked selflessly for the benefit of all sentient beings and were assumed bodily into the Paradise of the Dakinis.”[60]

Miranda Shaw recounts a slightly different version worth noting in which the guru did in fact know who the students were but wanted to test their devotion.  In addition to singing for the guru the sisters also “danced away and devoted the rest of their lives to liberating others.”[61]  Nonetheless, taking these two versions of the tale of Mekhala’s ascent as a mahasiddha, or a tantric practitioner who “embodies and cultivates the ‘siddhi of perfection’ . . . who through the practice of sadhana [ritual meditation], attains the realization of the siddhis, psychic and spiritual abilities and powers,” we will note striking similarities to the Khmer image of Moni Mekhala.[62]

 

Mahasiddha Mekhala.  Notice the size of the two heads, compatible to the crystal of Moni Mekhala.  Image source: http://www.thenon2.com/en/knowledge/mahasiddhas/6-mahasiddha-mekhala-“-elder-severed-headed-sister”.

First off, we will see Mekhala’s association with water.  In the Tibetan version, she is married to a hopelessly poor fisherman.  Whereas, in the Khmer version she is goddess of the seas and caretaker of the ocean, an integral force in the creation of rain.  Secondly, there is her association with dance—Moni Mekhala is often described as dancing with the tevoda in the skies of heaven, sometimes nearly forgetting her obligations in the Mahajanaka Jataka.  Thirdly, the playful and “mischievous” Mekhala of tantric Tibet is mirrored in the Khmer dance drama by the way Moni Mekhala teases and taunts Ream Eyso in the face of his violent threats.  Finally, they have similar relationships to men. 

 

Mekhala of Tibet, although eventually married, seems to return to her unmarried state by leaving her husband for a life of ritual meditation.  In Cambodia, despite the flirtatious advances of Vorachhun and Ream Eyso—the prior in honest play and the latter in a devious attempt to own her power—Moni Mekhala refuses to give them her jewel.  The mahasiddha and goddess are therefore single women in the pursuit of transcendent knowledge.  In one culture, the attainment of this knowledge is symbolized by a decapitated head.  In another: a radiant gem.  These things, both round in form, are gifted to the women by their teachers.  One emits knowledge in the form of sound whereas the other emits it as light.  In both cases, the gifts are fashioned from offerings made to the teacher.

In this sense, both Mahasiddha Mekhala and Moni Mekhala serve as images of a devoted student.  They echo tantric Buddhist Vajrasattva who was depicted in Cambodia, an “esoteric aspect of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra . . . commonly associated with the student practitioner who through the master's teachings, attains an ever-enriching subtle and rarefied grounding in their esoteric practice.”[63]  Likewise Mahasiddha Mekhala and Moni Mekhala successfully complete their teachers’ tests—one ascending from a human to divine state as a result and the other, already divine, being the chosen leader of her teacher’s lineage.  A case in point, when I recounted the Tibetan version to Neak Kru Sophiline, without hesitation, she said, “It’s a story about the master-apprentice relationship.  Mekhala cutting off her head is a symbol of conquering her ego as a student.”[64]  She does so out of respect to her teacher, for the sake of her own growth, and for the illuminating and liberating power of his knowledge.

 

When we analyze their names, this point becomes especially clear in the Khmer version.  First off, the difference between a mahasiddha and a moni (Sanskrit: muni) may not be much at all.  Secondly, Mekhala literally means “girdle” or “belt” and in the tantric concept it was made of finely filigreed bone, tying its wearer to the yogini and to funerary rites.[65]  This tantric association still resonates in Cambodia today, as the master of funerary rites is known as an achar yogi.[65a]  In fact, the mahasiddha are a special class of yogi and yogini: those who have perfected their knowledge and therefore have attained a divine state of being.  

 

Moni Mekhala, when spelled as Mani Mekhala, on the other hand is often translated as “girdle of gems” or “jeweled belt.”  This name likely derives from a belt of golden sunlight glistening on the ocean, rivers, lakes, or other bodies of water, and cross-cultural associations with jewel and water are futher emphasized by Toyotama-bime which can mean “Abundant Jewel Princess.”[65b]  Khmer artists have made a special point to describe the radiant qualities of the sea goddess’s mekhala in the dance drama.  To avoid repetition they instead refer to it as khimkhat, an antiquated Khmer word for “belt,” thereby revealing a localization and vitality of imported tantric concepts. In addition however, the goddess’s name can also be interpreted as “Mekhala, of Moni [lineage].”  A case in point is that Ream Eyso’s name, derived from the Hindu figure of Parashurama (addressed later), can mean “Rama, of Isvara” and therefore “Rama, of Shiva,” as “Khmers have always called [the] god Siva: Isvara, Isvar, Isur (modern pronunciation /isoo/).”[66]  And, when we look at things this way, we realize the Khmer drama of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso is also the story of competing religious sects.

In the Tamil Buddhist epic Manimekhalai, written during the sixth century of the Common Era, this competition between Buddhist and a diversity of Hindu cults becomes especially evident.  In the story, a dancer and courtesan named Manimekhalai renounces palace life after her father’s death.  Alongside her mother Madhavi, she devotes herself to a life of austerity in accordance with Buddhist values and avoids the advances of Prince Udayakumara with whom she is karmically bound (they were lovers in their past lives).  At the end of the story, Manimekhalai reveals the shortcomings of Jain, Shivaite, Vishnuite, and Brahmaite logic and in turn celebrates the teachings of the Buddha in a treatise on how to reason towards ultimate reality. 

Before this however, she is aided by the goddess Manimekhala who once saved her shipwrecked ancestor and for whom she was thus named after as an act of gratitude.  It is the goddess who transports Manimekhalai to the island of Manipallavam where she learns of her past life by touching a pedestal with the Buddha’s footprint on it.  There, the heroine also discovers a magic bowl called "Cow of Abundance" which allows her to pass out a never-ending supply of food to the poor.  It is worth mentioning that this precious gift emerges from a pond, mirroring the way Moni Mekhala’s crystal was fashioned from water.  When we look closely at the story then—which begins in Puhar with a festival in honor of Indra, a story in which the ocean is an ever-present force, a story of “women of such great virtue that they have the power of making the rain fall”[67]—the Tamil goddess becomes completely synonymous with Khmer conceptions of Moni Mekhala:

“Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean . . . [d]escended from heaven like a ray of light . . . the solitary and distant goddess, endowed with immense wisdom and knowledge of all things past and future . . . declaim[ed] the Buddha’s praise . . . Manimekhala, the goddess of the ocean, like a glittering jewel . . . who in her heavenly form is as brilliant as lightning . . . Manimekhala, the divine protectress of the immense ocean, whom the whole world worships.”[68]

This global veneration was not all exaggeration, as "a statuette of Manimekhala, heroine [goddess] of the Tamil epic" was "recovered from the ashes of Pompeii" which was buried by Mount Vesuvius's 79 CE eruption.[68a]  That said, the story also details the immense power of Manimekhala in the tragic fate of Puhar.  Distraught by the death of his half-naga child, “the Chola king Neduvil Killi . . . neglected to celebrate the annual festival in Indra’s honor, which provoked the god’s fury.  The sovereign of the gods then summoned Manimekhala, the sea goddess, to order the sea to swallow up Puhar.”[69]

This scene is significant as it mirrors other South Indian images of a violent and powerful ocean.  For example, the Puranas—known to Khmers alongside the Ramayana and Mahabharata since the sixth century[70]—record the story of Parashurama (Rama of the Axe) who battled with the Hindu god of the ocean Varuna.  Defeating the deity, he fought back the disastrous onslaught of the Arabian Sea and invoked the Naga King to fertilize the newly safe lands of Konkan, Malabar, and Kerala.[71]  Parashurama’s war against the kshatriya is mentioned briefly in Danielou’s translation of the Manimekhalai, but it is most significant to note here the narrative element of a fight between an ocean deity and an axe-wielder which is the climactic height of the Khmer drama.  This process of adaptation, appropriation, and competition is especially significant in the Khmer context when considering Emile Senart's examination of the tenth-century inscription of Wat Sithor:

"'The purohita is the Brahmanic priest of the house of the king . . . Is it the intent to suppress this position?  By no means, but his duties will be modified.  He will become 'versed in the knowledge and letters of Buddhist ceremonies', he will bathe the image of the Buddha on festival occasions, he will replace hymns with Buddhist teachings, the Vedas with Buddhist chants."[72]

 

We must also note that Varuna is considered a god of the western seas.  And, like the Hindu deity, Mazu of the South China Sea, and Nyai Roro Kidul of Java’s Southern Sea, Manimekhala is described by Sylvain Levi as “precisely associated with a locality.”

“Her original residence was at Puhar, in the port, where the great river of the South, the Kaveri, empties itself and which was one of the great centres of traffic between India and the islands of the Archipelago.  She had her temple, her cult and her festivities at Kanchi (not far from Madras), the holy city of Buddhism in the south of India.  She is one of the numerous deities, ‘the guardians of the sea,’ but her proper domain is that region of the ocean which extends from Cape Comorin to the marvelous El Dorado of the Far East.  Beyond this zone of the earth and water she is unknown.  The Jatakas in which she appears and plays the role which agrees so closely with her local functions could not have been imagined except in Puhar or Kanchi.”[73]

 

Levi’s conclusion of localism (and not necessarily location) is accurate for in the Shilappadikaram, of which the Manimekhalai is a sequel, Manimekhala is the “goddess who has long been the protectress of [the protagonist Kovalan’s] clan.”[74]  She co-exists in the story alongside a male god of the ocean, who may possibly be Varuna.  In the Shilappadikaram—which is not a Buddhist story—Kovalan, consumed by his passion for the dancer Madhavi, abandons his wife Kannaki.  Fate has him and the dancer split however and the story mentions Madhavi’s conversion to Buddhism after her lover’s death as well as Manimekhalai’s renunciation of court life as it closes.

 

Interestingly, a tenth-century Buddhist inscription from Beng Veang in Cambodia mentions two female ancestors of the temple’s founder:

 

“[T]he eldest was named Madhavi, and her sister Kunti.  The daughter of Madhavi became the wife of the fortunate [King] Rajendravarman; her elder brother the heavenly Vasudeva was skilled in the art of dance.  He who made the Law prosper built this tiered tower for the Muni . . . Kunti, named Kumara, skillful in the art of dance, was made the head of the family.  Here, to Jina [were presented] without cease, music, dances, and songs.”[75]

 

Madhavi, the Buddhist Khmer court woman, may have possibly been named after the Madhavi of lore, or at the very least could have had an awareness of her as they belonged to a shared cultural sphere.  Of this, Monious notes: "The Manimekalai is not simply forward-looking but also outward-looking, imagining and defining a Buddhist community through space and time.  The boundaries of that reimagined space extend not only to the borders of Tamil-speaking southern India but also to the distant shores of Southeast Asia."[76]  Note further that offerings were made to a Buddhist jina, to the Muni (Khmer: Moni, an epithet of the Buddha here), so perhaps we can say then that the Shilappadikaram, Manimekhalai, and the goddess Moni Mekhala were known to Khmer people by the tenth century CE. 

 

Khmer contacts with Indian traders and priests however, who sailed through the goddess’s domain, probably make this a much earlier reality.  Even today, Khmers with Indian-like features, for example, are referred to as kon Khling which literally means “Kalinga child.”  This reference to the eastern Indian kingdom conquered by Emperor Asoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE) reveals pre-Common Era contacts between Khmers and peoples of the Indian subcontinent, a fact that is only supported by evidence of oceanic trade between the peoples of Taiwan, Philippines, and mainland Southeast Asia as early as 3,000 BCE.[77]  More pertinently, David Chandler notes: “Trade between prehistoric India and Cambodia probably began long before India itself was Sanskritized.”[78]

     

Nonetheless, Levi’s “El Dorado of the Far East” is a reference to ancient Indian descriptions of Suvarnabhumi (Khmer: Sovannaphum) or the “land of gold.”  Many of the jataka describe Indian traders who sought riches in this land, including the shipwrecked Prince Mahajanaka who was saved by Moni Mekhala.  Suvarnabhumi’s exact location is the subject of much scholarly and nationalist debate but so famed was this land that Ptolemy, who lived during the first and second century CE in Alexandria, described an “Aurea Regio” whose “city of Thina, or Sina, was . . . the capital city of the country on the eastern shores of the Sinus Magnus (Great Gulf, the Gulf of Thailand), at that time the kingdom of [Nokor Phnom]. The main port of this kingdom was Cattigara Sinarum statio (Kattigara the port of Sinae).”[79] 

 

Scholars such as George Coedes and Albrecht Dihle believe that Kattigara was none other than a Nokor Phnom city located in present day Óc Eo in Vietnam, which is derived from the Khmer name Or Kaiv (crystal canal).[80]  The association of Suvarnabhumi with Nokor Phnom is hard to argue when considering findings at Or Kaiv of Greek, Roman, Indian, and Persian artifacts contemporary to Ptolemy’s time.[81]  Furthermore, archeological findings reveal that Nokor Phnom was the oldest Indianized state in Southeast Asia which possessed “sailing ships up to fifty meters long which had four sails one behind the other, carr[ying] up to seven hundred men and transport[ing] a thousand metric tons of merchandise.”[82]  Its city at Or Kaiv “eventually controlled much of the earliest international trade route through South East Asia.”[83]  Finally, it is important to note that the name Kambuja, which first appears in fifth-century Chinese records describing tribute made in the first century,[84] is but another name for Suvarnabhumi or Sovannaphum itself.  For quite literally, the name Kambuja—from which Kampuchea, Cambodia, and Cambodge are derivatives—can be translated as “born of gold” and Kambujadesa as literally "land of gold."

 

Records indicate that Nokor Phnom gave to China gifts in the form of exotic animals, musicians, and translations of Buddhist texts.[85]  The Chinese historians in turn noted the significant relationship of dance, water, ocean, and ritual for their southern neighbors:

 

“Whatever the status of the deceased, the body is wrapped, carried to the shore of the sea or of a river accompanied by the sound of drums and by dances, and then burned on a pyre set up by those present.  When a king’s body is burned, the bones spared by the fire are put in a golden urn and thrown into the sea.”[86]

 

Chinese and local sources also trace the origins of Nokor Phnom to Kaundinya and Saoma, figures that (as priorly mentioned) Khmer people now know as Preah Thaong and Neang Neak.  This is most important when we consider the union of man and serpent-woman in the Manimekhalai:

                                                  

“King Killi . . . clasped her to him, his eyes delighted in the beauty of her limbs, his ears echoed to her sweet words, his mouth tasted the savor of her saliva, and his nose breathed the perfume of her body.  He trembled at her touch and he, who had so often been amused at the sight of kings’ backs fleeing from his invincible spear . . . now stooped before a woman and rendered her all the small services she desired of him.  Then, at the end of the month, she suddenly vanished without a trace . . . This charming woman is the daughter of Vasamayila, the wife of Valaivanam, the valiant sovereign of the Serpent People, the Nagas . . . Never again will [King Killi] see this woman like a liana in flower.  Her son will return to [him] alone.”[87]

 

This story bears striking similarities (and differences) to Khmer mytho-historical accounts.  First off, the association of King Killi with a spear is significant as by certain accounts, Preah Thaong was guided by a spear or javelin and not a bow.[88]  Secondly, Preah Thaong Neang Neak does not end happily ever after either.  In some retellings Neang Neak wants to return to the ocean after the golden egg she gives birth to is buried in the west at the furious shame of her husband.[89]  

 

The Manimekhalai further details the conversion of the naga races by traveling merchants:

 

“‘His eyes red like fire, the Naga chief then prostrated himself at the feet of Shaduvan the merchant, considering him a sage, and asked him, ‘If we cease to drink palm-wine and to eat meat and fish, how can we maintain this life which, according to you, resides in our body?  Explain to me the principles of your religion so that we can observe its rules for the rest of our lives . . . We have plundered all the goods [traders] carried, their cargoes of precious aloes and sweet-scented sandalwood, their bales of cloth, their precious objects—gold, diamonds, and rubies—and other booty of shipwreck.  You may take all these things away.  Anything among our possessions which is of some value to you is yours.’”[90]

 

By some accounts, in line with the story of Shaduvan, Neang Neak tried to rob Preah Thaong.  Furthermore, she was sometimes described as being naked the way that the naga peoples were depicted in the Manimekhalai.  In addition, in the glossary accompanying Alain Danielou’s translation, Kadamba is both defined as a “seaside oak” and “an empire beyond the seas, conquered by Shenguttuvan: probably Champa (modern day Cambodia).”[91]  It is important to note that the word kadamba was used in ancient Khmer inscriptions[92] and that in modern Khmer accounts, Preah Thaong arrived upon Kok Thlok, the “land of thlok [trees]” and it is inside such a tree that he first finds Neang Neak.  Danielou’s association of Champa with modern day Cambodia is not completely incorrect, as an inscription of Cham provenance traces the king’s lineage and legitimacy to the Khmer king Isanavarmann I and further through him to Preah Thaong and Neang Neak.[93] [94]

 

I am not suggesting here that the Khmer creation myth was wholly brought from India as:

 

“The indigenous complex of moon, water, and serpent mythology that assumed Indian names (the name [Saoma] is Indian) . . . has deep and strong autochthonous roots . . . naga, is not an Indo-European word; it was incorporated from the pre-Aryan vocabulary of people for whom snakes, water and earth had special sanctity, and these people were linked culturally with the many inhabitants of Southeast Asia.”[95]

 

Cravath further elaborates that the Manimekhalai was “undoubtedly evolved from other [non-Indian] traditions—including Southeast Asian—for the purpose of dynastic legitimization.”[96]  The Pallava king Nandivarman II, then the youngest prince of Kambujadesa for example, was brought to the Indian subcontinent to rule after the previous Pallava king died without leaving an heir to the throne in the eighth century.[97]  Whatever the origin of this mythological motif however, these narrative commonalities reveal a robust economic, religious, and cultural network established between pre-Angkorean Cambodia and the kingdoms of India.  And, when we add tantric Tibetan conceptions of Mekhala with the intertwined stories of the Manimekhalai—of a converted race of snake people, of an ocean goddess who destroys an entire city, of Buddhism’s competition with other religions—we find powerful connective resonances with the Khmer story of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso.  The presence of the brahmin-naga princess narrative in Cambodia therefore meant the presence of the goddess Moni Mekhala in the country as well.  In the dance drama, perhaps not by coincidence, Moni Mekhala herself is likened to the movement of a snake in the way that she pen pot (twists and turns in circular curves).  This association is further grounded by the way that lightning, of which the goddess is master, whips and lashes through the sky like a luminous serpent descending from the heavens.         

Seventh-century painting from the Ajanta Caves in India depicting a scene from the Mahajanaka Jataka.  By Meister des Mahâjanaka Jâtaka [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Moving along then, there is clear cross-cultural evidence for the existence of both Moni Mekhala and Ream Eyso from Brahmanic and tantric Buddhist traditions in Cambodia.  The Vajrayana school of Buddhism, or tantric Buddhism, developed by the sixth or seventh century of the Common Era (although tantric texts were produced as early as the third century).[98]  And given that the Jataka have been dated to the fourth century BCE [99] and knowing that seventh century CE paintings from the Ajanta Caves clearly illustrate images from the Mahajanaka Jataka—and that certain Khmer sculptural elements are “directly borrowed from the period that encompasses the last caves of Ajanta and the first caves of Ellora”[100]—it becomes especially clear that elemental ingredients for the genesis of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso as a dance drama were already in place as the Jataka and other Buddhist stories became localized amongst the sea-faring and goddess-worshipping[101] pre-Angkorean Khmer people.  They syncretized Hindu and Buddhist beliefs according to early Chinese sources,[102] during a time when “trade between India and China was intense [and which] one of the principal components of the trade was Buddhist religious objects.”[103]

If it was not initially choreographed during the era of Nokor Phnom—of which a sixth century CE inscription indicates “a literary basis for dramatic performance existed”[104] and of which time Parashurama was sculpted in youthful grace by Khmer artists—it may have possibly been developed by or during the time of Angkor, a society with a strong dance and dance drama tradition that continued to revere the feminine. The probability that narratives of Moni Mekhala were filtered, synthesized, and evolved into Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso at Angkor is especially strong, since tantric priests of Brahmanic and Buddhist creeds competed for the patronage of the king and royal family there.  King Yasovarmann I, for example, built monasteries “for sects that honored Siva, Visnu, and the Buddha.”[105] 

This competition resulted in syncretized rituals where different sects appropriated and repurposed one another’s teachings.  The Sanskrit word vajra, for example, “[w]hen used in Buddhist literature . . . usually is defined ‘diamond’ or ‘adamantine.’  It can also mean ‘thunderbolt,’ although this definition of vajra is more associated with Hinduism.”[106]  As a possible example of this appropriation and competition, Moni Mekhala substitutes Varuna in battle against the Hindu axe-wielder in the Khmer dance drama.  Varuna’s name is likewise important: Phirun, his Khmer epithet, is the poetic word for rain.  And the god is generally, like the goddess, associated with water.  The ocean god’s mount symbolic of water and fertility, the makara (Khmer: makar), is the creature that Moni Mekhala, Vorachhun, and the tevoda form as they dance through the sky at the end of the Khmer dance drama.

As another example of this creativity in rivalry, it is possible that the name Vorachhun may be derived or inspired by Parjanya, a Vedic god "who is the personification of the rain-cloud . . . Closely associated with thunder and lightning, [who] inspires vegetation and produces fertility in cows, mares, and women."[107]  Verses from the Rig Veda note how Parjanya, "freely flowing with luscious drops, places his seed in the plants as an embryo . . . The sap of life quickens in every creature when Parjanya refreshes the earth with his seed."[108]  In other words, he is a rain god closely associated with the earth, described as a fierce warrior and often associated with frogs and plants which indicate his presence through water.  Parjanya is also one of many Aditya who take turns shining "as the Sun-God . . . As Parjanya, he showers down rain."[109]  

 

Could this be another possibility for why Vorachhun wears gold?  And why would the sacred dance drama start with a solo by a relatively minor character such as the prince?  And why, in the traditional version, does the battle between Vorachhun and Ream Eyso take place after the latter's climatic battle with Moni Mekhala?  The best explanation is that Vorachhun is not a minor character.  Thematic elements and dramaturgical choices suggest that he is, is related to, or is inspired by, Parjanya, whose name means "rain cloud."  

 

Linguistic evidence drawn from old Khmer epigraphy demonstrates how the interchange of ja and sa can happen, as exemplified by the words virendravijaya and virendravisaya which Pou translates as "a most powerful victory of Indra."[110] Vorachhun's battle with Ream Eyso then, is an intention of the artists who brought him to life through dance and song, the breaking of the varsa or "rain cloud" against a mountain reflecting the cosmic union of earth and wind (cloud, sky) and releasing the fall of rain and fertility. Therefore the name Vorachhun may also bear a direct relationship to the contemporary and popular Indian name Varshan which can mean "falling of rain" or "Lord of Rain."  An analysis of Middle Khmer provides clues as to how such a change in pronounciation and spelling may come about: as “rainy season” is attested by both vassa and pasa; with the interchange of ja, ca, and sa exemplified in words such as srangom and chrangom, sampeay and champeay, sarabab and charabab; and satra and sutra providing an example of how janya might become chhun (IAST: jhuna).[110a] 

That an ancient Vedic deity could be known, sublimated, or repurposed in ancient Cambodia should not be surprising, and can be evidenced by the Vedic deity Varuna (Khmer: Preah Phirun), "a sky god . . . who by the time of the Rig Veda . . . had developed into a god whose primary role was watching over the deeds of men."[111] David Chandler, recounting a Khmer folk tale explaining the origin of the konlok bird, reveals the continuity and resilience of this Vedic purpose when an arak tevoda (guardian spirit) flies to heaven to report the crimes of an abusive mother to Varuna.[112]  Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Moni Mekhala, in yet another similarity to her fellow water deity, assesses the virtue of men before saving them from peril at sea.

 

That said, competition between cults also led to other directly confrontational artistic expressions such as the yogini depicted at Vimayapura.  There, they do not dance on just any corpses—they dance and “trample on the corpses of Hindu and Vedic deities that symbolize the passions, prejudices, and misconceptions the cult adherents leave behind.”[113]  At Angkor Wat, where decorative motifs contemplate the generative balance between competing forces, Hindu and Buddhist confrontations can be seen in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, where the asora wear crowns and earrings that conjure tantric Buddhist iconography.  Conflicts are further manifested in images of warring tevea and asora, predators and prey, and in a decorative pattern that shows two birds colliding and spiraling into one another, creating a whole with two halves that conjures the symbol for yin and yang as well as the way Mekhala and Ream Eyso chhvat chhveal (circle) in the choreography and poetry.

 

Indeed, the competition resulting from religious diversity at Angkor was strong for, after King Jayavarmann VII’s Mahayana Buddhist reign, many art works of Buddhist nature were destroyed by Jayavarmann VIII and his Hindu followers.[114]  Speaking of this, David Chandler has noted “it is likely the thirteenth century, one of the least recorded of the Angkorean centuries in terms of datable inscriptions, was marked at Angkor by a serious religious upheaval or by a succession of upheavals, which had political causes and effects as well.”[115]  It would not be wrong then to assume artistic consequences of this.  Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, after all, is the story of warring religious cults and their respective vajra, an astra or type of “weapon operated by throwing,” which the rivals precisely do at the climatic height of the drama.[116]  

A Tibetan thangka painting of Mañjushri, bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, illustrates striking similarities in headdress and earrings to asora depicted at Angkor Wat.  Image source: http://www.virtualvinodh.com/wp/vajra-ananga-manjushri-the-buddhist-kamadeva/.

Asora in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat.  Notice their five-crested frontal diadems and earrings that tie them to tantric Buddhist iconography (see Mañjushri and Mahasiddha Mekhala above).  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Tevea (gods) and asora (demons) bracing for combat on this decorative relief at Angkor Wat.  Notice how the interlinked loops around them—which end as birds and signify flight—help to suggest speed, turning, and motion in the air.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Predator and prey, man and nature, at Angkor Wat, opposing forces again linked by circles.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Decorative relief at Angkor Wat, with bird-like creatures who chhvat chhveal, collide and spiral into one another.  This spiraling bird motif appears again at the Bayon.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Composed before this backlash though, a stele found at Phimeanakas relays that Queen Jayarajadevi, fearing for the life of her husband Jayavarmann VII who was on a campaign against Champa, staged a ritual for his safe return.  This same queen “charged her own dancers to perform and to give representations drawn from the Jataka.”[117]  While we do not know which of the stories were performed, the evidence above indicates that Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso—again, if not already choreographed and performed before this—may also have took its genesis at this historical moment.

In the goddess’s capacity as caretaker of the ocean and protector of travelers, Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso would have been a special priority for Queen Jayarajadevi.  Although Angkor was further inland, the ocean and the rivers remained important geographical and cosmological points as they continued to bring visitors, traders, and enemies to the people.  Supporting this, Mabbet and Chandler have noted that “[l]uxuries and curiosities from the whole of the known world converged upon the capital by barge and cart.”[118]  Furthermore:

“The Khmer sources for [a twelfth-century] Cham victory refer to a surprise naval attack, sending up a fleet up the Tonle Sap to the Great Lake.  This illustrates the importance of shipping, for naval warfare as well as commerce; the Khmers, long accustomed to navigation on the Lake and the great waterways that seamed their territory, were not backward when it came to war at sea, and in one twelfth-century war against the Vietnamese it was claimed that they sent a fleet of 700 vessels round the coast.”[119]

 

Furthermore, oceans figure in both the founding stories of the Khmer people; they manifested in the life-giving ocean of milk in stone carvings at Angkor Wat, were symbolized in the form of baray and moats surrounding the temples, and took the form of bathing ponds such as Sras Srei inside the palace compound at Angkor Thom (which features a naga race looking over it).  The horse Balaha—an incarnation of the Buddhist deity Lokesvara with whom King Jayavarmann VII identified—is also depicted delivering shipwrecked sailors into the healing waters of Neak Poan.  The king fashioned himself in the image of the gods at Neak Poan and Bayon to assert his authority; his queen was also known for fashioning portraits of herself and family members in this manner,[120] and likely had the same impetus when she brought certain works of the jataka to life when Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism seemed to prevail over the historically dominant Shivaite and Vishnuite cults.  These latter two were precisely symbolized in Ream Eyso, who wears the color chheam chrukwhich is not far off from the Sanskrit pingala (brown, dark red color of Shiva) of old Khmer epigraphy.[121]  More importantly, in his manifestation as Parashurama, he was an incarnation of Vishnu who received his powerful axe from Shiva.  These two gods, in a more peaceful image, “sometimes shared the same cult, since the dawn of history, under the figure of Hari-Hara.”[122]  

Hindu and Mahayana cults would become subsumed however with the rise of Theravada Buddhism after the thirteenth century CE, which for the most part “rejected Mahayana ‘innovations’ such as tantric practices.”[123] The austere religion propagated by Jayavarmann VII’s son Tamilinda rejected “the oppressive burden of maintaining the god-king religion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.”[124]  The dance drama of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso then, whose heroine is both a tantric and Mahayana Buddhist figure, would therefore have been choreographed before Cambodia’s peaceful “Theravada revolution”[125] which only occurred after the thirteenth century.  Iconographic evidence seems to confirm this fact as, from my observation, relief carvings from Jayavarmann VII’s reign and as early back to Angkor Wat include flying apsara whose elbows touch their feet that are kicked backward into deav—Moni Mekhala’s signature gesture for flight.  

Finally, the ritual significance of Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso, will allow for us to place the drama before the thirteenth century by examining ideas from two of Saveros Pou’s essays:

“The success of Mahayana under [the reign of King Jayavarmann VII] seemed to entail a growing Tantric tendency as illustrated by the cult of Hevajra . . . a deity who at times was assimilated with Siva, the former being consorted with yogini-s and the latter being the lord of the yogi-s.  This assimilation reinforced the affinity between the two creeds and consequently fostered the part of magic therein, at least amongst popular practice.  We could even further assume, fairly safely, that this swollen tantric trend fitted well into the everlasting magic of animism, and eventually increased the dimension and the potentiality of magic practice in the life of ancient Khmer.”[126]

“Mediaeval Cambodia was a Theravadin country, deeply steeped in ‘faith’ in the Buddha’s teaching, or saddha.  The new religious system did not wipe out the Brahmanic legacy, as some authors have misleadingly said . . . nor did it rule out some beliefs and practices inherited from ancient Mahayana.  The old heritage, as it were, stood firmly in the background of Khmer society, up and down the country.  At its highest level, it was maintained . . . at the court, where it supplied the ritual for ensuring the welfare and prosperity of the state, because Theravada could not offer anything appropriate.”[127]

Neak Poan.  Notice the horse Balaha on the left.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Notice the flying apsara on the right, their elbows having the impression of touching their feet in this Angkor Wat relief.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

In short, both Khmer and Thai sources confirm that Robam Tamng Buon and Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso are among the oldest dances.  They are crucial to the buong suong ritual, a kingly obligation with origins in the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods.  Based on cross-cultural literary evidence which illustrates the interlinked narratives of Preah Thaong Neang Neak and Moni Mekhala—which may explain why these two dances are always performed together—we know the necessary elements for their creation was in place since the emergence of Cambodia's first founding myth.  The relationship between the dances are solidified further in their tantric conception, through themes of water, earth, fire, and wind, and in the generative competition and union of masculine and feminine energies.  This latter idea is echoed in other rituals of the Angkor era and in iconographic themes at Angkor Wat, as well as in the larger sphere of Khmer culture and politics including religious competition at various Khmer courts.

 

That said, the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods were times in which dancers and artists occupied a most beautiful role and function in their society, times where the art form was conceived as nothing less than a mirror of heaven.  Executing sacred choreographies, dancers spoke to the gods, acted as vessels for the spirits, and prayed for the rain that gave people life.  Beyond their roles as mediums, they were also carriers of stories and performers of them, court entertainers, and, in such a case as the latter, were likely a part of the king’s harem.  Nurtured and sustained inside and outside of the palace at temples and the homes of nobility, and amongst the people, they were living gifts charged with ensuring the spiritual and agricultural prosperity of the nation. 

This sacred foundation and the movement form borne of it is commonly thought to have been destroyed, Khmer cultural linkages to this era “broken,” when the Siamese army sacked Angkor in 1431.  This notion is gravely incorrect however.  So long as Moni Mekhala continues to toss her crystal in the four cardinal directions—as she does today in honor of the Catummaharajika who charged her with caring for the ocean—the goddess illuminates the cosmos with the power of her omniscient knowledge and connects Khmer classical dancers to our ancient, living roots.

NEXT

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