SACRED ROOTS I: THE ORIGINS OF KHMER DANCE

Dance has always held a great significance in the cultures of Southeast Asia, as indicated by bronze funerary drums featuring images of dancers excavated in Cambodia and throughout the region.  The earliest inscriptions mentioning Khmer dance however date to the sixth century of the Common Era,[1] and early epigraphy tells us that dancers, besides their ancient association with funeral rites, were offered to both Hindu and Buddhist temples as kñum vrah rapam (servants of the sacred dance).[2]  Their primary responsibilities were to perform sacred choreographies believed to invoke the fall of life-giving rains, thus ensuring the fertility and prosperity of the land and the people.

So valued and integral was the art form that dancers came from the full spectrum of Khmer society.  Both women and men, they were likely trained in the homes of nobility and royalty and later offered as acts of devotion and merit making.  This ritual function of the dancer was so potent and omnipresent in the Khmer belief that even King Jayavarmann I (r. 657 – 690 CE) and King Yasovarmann I (r. 889 – 910 CE) were noted to be skilled dancers.[3]  Certainly, in the Khmer conception, a ruler whose form was a vessel for the gods and ancestor spirits, whose body was capable of channeling the flow of essential waters, would have been a righteous and efficacious one.

As further evidence of the dancer’s elevated place—and that of singers, musicians, puppeteers, and other artists—they were often listed in temple inscriptions immediately after the officials who founded the temple.[4]  They boasted Sanskrit names compared to the mundane Khmer names of other “slaves”[5] and some were able to amass a large amount of property[6] and “even had their own slaves.”[7]  This celebrated, high social status is only appropriate for a group of people who are seen as nothing less than semidivine, living bridges between heaven and earth.

Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan, who visited the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura in 1296 CE (now known as Angkor), noted that the best musicians were sent to the palace to perform during the ngai lan which took place during New Year festivities.[8]  George Coedes translates this to the Khmer thngai ram or “day(s) of dancing”[9] whereas Peter Harris—translating directly from the Chinese text—transcribes the term as ailan, explaining that it was “a dance that selected female dancers perform daily in the palace.”[10]  Taking clues from other descriptions of the event however, Eveline Porée-Maspero has suggested that the ceremony is compatible to the contemporary practice of laeung neak ta​​; she believes it was “a performance in which the dancers became possessed by the territorial spirits of the kingdom for the purpose of obtaining rain.”[11]

 

Other inscriptions noted the utsava or “festivals” of which part the offering of and performance by dancers took place.  These festivals were staged four and sometimes five times a year and were referred to as mahotsava (the great festivals) and pañcotsava (the five religious festivals).[12]  Khmer linguist Saveros Pou has likened the former to the contemporary mahaosrab, a festival in which the king would make performances and games available to the public inside the palace.

Inscriptions also indicate that dancers performed rpam, short dances now known as robam, as well as dramatic works from the Jataka (a collection of stories retelling the many incarnations of the Buddha).[13]  Given the historical dominance of Brahmanism at the Khmer court and evidence for dramatic performance since the sixth century, Paul Cravath has suggested that Hindu works of narrative nature were performed as well.[14]  Certainly, when at the twelfth-century temple of Banteay Samre, whose lintels depict scenes from the Jataka and the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Hindu Ramayana), whose ornamental panels feature dancers in a variety of poses, it becomes easier to believe that dance drama was a highly developed art form during the Angkor era if not before.  Drama, storytelling, and narrative art, in fact, are carved all over the temples of the ancient era. 

 

Reflecting the Khmer religious practice of syncretism, these dances and dramas—and the practice around them—possessed a prominent, foundational character of indigenous spiritual belief, that is, animism and ancestor worship.  Further evidence for the dance’s potent native roots are the fact that the earliest Khmer language inscriptions, which date from the seventh century, all use “the ancient Khmer root ram, which transforms to [r]amam or rapam, an identical term used consistently in modern Khmer.”[15]

The most vivid evidence of Khmer dance in this period, and sometimes the most overlooked and misunderstood, are the thousands of figures carved into relief at the temples of Angkor.  Some scholars posit that these figures were modeled after the dance form itself—an idea which I believe too.

 

The sculptors carved images of gods and kings, goddesses and human dancers, scenes from daily life and history, and Buddhist and Hindu tales alike.  In dialogue with the larger sphere of Khmer art and culture, they rendered the arched backs, flexed fingers, and curvilinear postures of their dancing peers to bring these scenes to life.  What results is the documentation of an aesthetic value and quality that can still be seen in the body of the Khmer classical dancer today, from the centered, strongly uplifted torso to the angular relationship of the arms and hands to the figure’s body.  The sculptors captured formal qualities from the gentle curling of the toes to the deep smile that today's most skilled of Khmer dancers are able to express.

Scholars such as Paul Cravath believe the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, as carved onto the walls of Angkor Wat, is an actual depiction of khaol, or male masked dance.[16]  He believes the performance was enacted during coronation ceremonies to assert the king’s role as the central force presiding over the kingdom and the cosmos it represented, whose harmonious control of these forces produced the apsara, celestial dancers, themselves.  Cravath notes that Thai dance experts believe this ritual was introduced to Thailand by way of Khmer artists, where it was known as the len dukdamban and performed as late as the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868 – 1911).[17]

Indra, wielding a vajra (thunderbolt), sits on the three-headed elephant Airavata.  The way he is seated is still used today in martial dances of the repertoire.  Notice the flexed fingers of his left hand, the height and angle of his right arm and hand, and the parallel angles on the left side of his face and the left side of his torso—all formal qualities recognizable in the dancer today.  Banteay Srei, tenth century.  © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / , via Wikimedia Commons.

A dancer, dressed as a demonic figure, amidst an ensemble of dancing women.  Notice the strong arch in the back which creates a powerful sense of lifting up.  With legs spread wide apart and arms spread wide and high into the air, hand wielding a club-like weapon, the dancer demonstrates the same energy and posture required of yeak or demon roles today.  Interestingly, this is the same gesture Ream Eyso makes as he rips through an ensemble of tevoda.  Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

This form of leveling, and the gesture of grabbing the leg during combat, can still be seen in contemporary works of the repertoire such as Moni Mekhala Ream Eyso and the Reamker, as well as in the Thai version known as the Ramakian.  Bayon, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Dancers in various postures are carved into spade patterns that frame the doorways throughout the temple of Banteay Samre.  The lintels of this temple depict scenes from the Reamker and the Jataka, perhaps indicating them as sources for performance.  Twelfth century.  Image: Prumsodun Ok.

Dancers carved onto a door panel at the temple of Pre Rup.  The left arm is in the stuoy gesture.  Combined with right arm in front as depicted, the gesture means “great” or “beautiful” or “wonderful” in contemporary practice.  Tenth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat.  Notice the flying figures above Vishnu—they kick their legs back and up into the waist just how Khmer dancers suggest flight today.  Twelfth century.  Photo courtesy of Kent Davis, Devata.org.

Ironically, the images of dancers proper—celestial women known popularly as apsara—are less dynamic than those from narrative reliefs and ornamental door panels.  One pose boasted by the apsara, that of flight, with one leg kicking back up and into the waist, is still in use in Cambodia and known today as deav.  The other, much more prevalent, is a pose indicating the actual act of dancing—one that is the source of both confusion and inspiration for many of today’s practitioners, scholars, and audiences.  With the ball of one foot on the ground and that leg deeply bent, the dancer kicks the other knee high into the air and tucks the foot of that knee in towards the prior leg.  What results is a difficult, if not impossible, gravity defying posture suggesting highly animated movement, one that seemingly breaks from Khmer dance conventions today. 

 

But there are two reasons for this.

 

First off, these figures, often small in scale, are identical to one another.  They appear side by side in a cookie-cutter fashion, creating a lively decorative motif.  The extreme angles in their legs reflect the limitations of sculptors tasked with rendering the most dynamic image in a rigidly frontal art form.  As an example, the many images of female tevoda (celestial deities) at Angkor Wat feature fully frontal bodies with the exception of feet turned dramatically ninety degrees.  Furthermore, to achieve a sense of softness in the hard weight of stone, Khmer sculptors depicted hands and fingers with an often relaxed and delicate grace.  Therefore, in the way that a painting or photograph will never be its subject but rather a transformation of it, this recurring image of dancing women is a dramatic visual stylization of the actual reality.  For those skeptical of this idea however, there is no arguing that this posture is more or less executed by performers of neay rong (male) and yeak (demon) roles today, altered to conform with contemporary taste if you are so to believe.  

Yogini in pose denoting dance at Preah Khan.  Twelfth century.  By McKay Savage from London, UK (Cambodia '08 - 165 - Preah Khan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Tibetan yogini.  Notice the crown and garment flowing around her body, similar to the crown and garland around the Khmer image.  Also, notice the flower pedestal that both figures dance upon.  Image source: http://thuptendhargyeychoeling.weebly.com/nectar-for-the-ear/ceaseless-blessings.

Second, and more importantly, I believe the motif is a direct borrowing from tantric iconography of the yogini, supernatural women associated with trees, animals, graves, and sexual rites whose dancing on corpses represented transcendence over ignorance.  For the most part, there are no sculpted corpses below these dancing images we call “apsara” today, but at Angkor Wat, which served as temple, observatory, and mausoleum, it can be said that they dance on the tomb of the king himself.

 

David Gordon White defines tantra as:

“That Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways.”[18]

 

In other words, unlike ascetic traditions that believe spiritual transcendence is only possible through a disconnection from the materiality of a corrupting body and world, tantric practitioners saw divinity in all aspects of life.  Using their bodies and drawing upon their natural environments, they created songs and dances, sculptures and temples, texts and rituals to speak to, appease, and mirror the gods of heaven.  Tantric practitioners used “Mantras, Mudras, visualization and fire-sacrifice (homah)” to create “a new and more powerful means of attaining Buddha-hood but also, as in the Saiva case, [to enable] the production of supernatural effects (siddhih) such as the averting of danger (santih), the harming of enemies (abhicarah), and the control of the rain (varsapanam and ativrstidharanam).”[19]

We know clearly that tantric ideas pervaded all levels of Khmer society during the Angkor era.  Zhou Daguan, for example, described the king as wearing “a crown of gold like those worn on the head of Vajradhara,”[20] or the “Holder of the Diamond,”[21] thereby connecting the ruler to Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism.  This is further evidenced by iconography of tantric deities such as Hevajra and yogini in the form of bronze statues, as well as in stone relief at the Khmer temple of Vimayapura (now in modern day Thailand, known as Phimai).  Furthermore, according to a stele inscription at Wat Sithor, “a Mahayana Buddhist scholar and tantric expert became the Guru of King Jayavarmann V (r. 968 – 1001) and was engaged by him to perform frequent fire-sacrifices in the palace for the protection of the kingdom.”[22]  Zhou Daguan even described a tantric deflowering of virgin girls by Buddhist and those he mistook as “Taoist” priests:

 

“I have heard that when the time comes the monk goes into a room with the girl and takes away her virginity with his hand, which he then puts into some wine.  Some say the parents, relatives and neighbors mark their foreheads with it, others say they all taste it.  Some say the monk and girl have sex together, others say they don’t.  They don’t let Chinese see this, though, so I don’t really know.”[23]

Although the sexual union of this account sounds more like racist imaginings fanned by “the distorting lens of Chinese doctrines”[24]—as the girls were between seven and nine years-old amongst noble families and eleven at the latest amongst the poor—this ritual echoes tantric practices in the larger cultural sphere.  In India, for example, sexual rites involved the mixing of liquor, menstrual blood, and semen that was then consumed in order to grant practitioners with magic powers.[25]  We do not know if Khmer tantrika drank these ritually potent fluids exactly as their Indian counterparts had.  However, the esoterically sexual nature of tantric practice was indeed known in Cambodia.  Zhou Daguan recorded another ritual that took place at Phimeanakas, this time with the indigenous Khmer element of the neak fulfilling the sexual role of the yogini:

“All the local people claim that in the tower lies the spirit of a nine-headed serpent, master of all the soil of all the kingdom.  Every night he appears in the form of a woman with whom the king sleeps and then unites . . . If, one night, the spirit of the serpent does not appear, the king’s death is at hand.  If the king fails to keep his appointment, some tragedy befalls the nation.”[26]

It is possible that this ritual existed long before Zhou Daguan’s visit, as evidenced by a ninth-century inscription which describes “Dharani [Goddess of the Earth] . . . as wife of King Yasovarman and as such ‘full to overflowing with virtue, pleasure and wealth.’”[27]  That said, the conceptual foundation of these tantric rites—in which the union of masculine and feminine energies regenerate all of life—made their way into the ecstatic practice of Khmer dance.  And today, centuries later, two distinct works strike me as especially tantric in nature and are therefore traceable to the Angkor period if not before.  They are both regarded as the oldest and most sacred works in the canon and are performed in the buong suong (prayer) ceremony to induce the fall of rain.

NEXT

[1] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 37.

[2] Jacob, Judith M.  "Pre-Angkor Cambodia: Evidence from the Inscriptions Concerning Common People and their Environment".  http://sealang.net/sala/archives/pdf8/jacob1993pre-angkor.pdf.  Note, in contemporary Khmer this phrase is knhom preah robam.

[3] Mehta, Julie B.  Dance of Life.  Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., 2001.  Page 11.

[4] Pou, Saveros.  “Music and Dance in Ancient Cambodia as Evidenced by Old Khmer Epigraphy.” East and West Vol. 47, No. ¼ (December 1997): 229 - 248.  Electronic.  Published by: Instituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).

[5] Chandler, David.  A History of Cambodia.  Westview Press, 2008.  Page 30.

[6] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 38.

[7] Mabbett, Ian and David Chandler.  The Khmers.  Blackwell Publishers, 1996.  Pages 173.

[8] Khmer Sculpture. Asia House Gallery, 1961. Page 52.

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

[10] Daguan, Zhou.  A Record of Cambodia.  Translated by Peter Harris.  Silkworm Books, 2007.  Page 63.

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

[12] Pou, Saveros.  “Music and Dance in Ancient Cambodia as Evidenced by Old Khmer Epigraphy.” East and West Vol. 47, No. ¼ (December 1997): 229 - 248.  Electronic.  Published by: Instituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).

[13] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 38 and 76.

[14] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 102.

[15] Mehta, Julie B.  Dance of Life.  Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., 2001.  Page 204.

[16] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 89.

[17] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Page 126.

[18] White, David Gordon.  Tantra in Practice.  Princeton University Press, 2000.  Page 9.

[19] Einoo, Shingo.  Genesis and Development of Tantrism.  Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, March 2009.  Page 124.

[20] Khmer Sculpture. Asia House Gallery, 1961. Page 38.

[21] Daguan, Zhou.  A Record of Cambodia.  Translated by Peter Harris.  Silkworm Books, 2007.  Page 50.

[22] Einoo, Shingo.  Genesis and Development of Tantrism.  Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo, March 2009.  Page 124.

[23] Daguan, Zhou.  A Record of Cambodia.  Translated by Peter Harris.  Silkworm Books, 2007.  Page 57 – 58.

[24] Daguan, Zhou.  A Record of Cambodia.  Translated by Peter Harris.  Silkworm Books, 2007.  Page 28.

[25] White, David Gordon. Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Context.  University of Chicago Press, 2006.  Page 76.

[26] Khmer Sculpture. Asia House Gallery, 1961. Page 38. 

[27] Pou, Saveros.  Selected Papers on Khmerology.  Reyum Publishing, 2003.  Page 221.