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Sacred Transformations: The Khmer Classical Dancer’s Costume

Anyone who looks at the costumes of a Khmer classical dancer today will notice it is strikingly different from those of many of the figures depicted in Cambodia’s pre-classical and classical art.  The heavy, tight fitting costumes of sequins and gold thread is almost at odds with the barren minimalism of Angkor-style dress.  In fact, the costumes worn by dancers today are known as the Chaktumok style, taking their name after the era upon which they came into vogue.  Although they became the standard with the ascension of King Ang Duong at a time of Thai political eminence, they actually have their prototypes in Khmer art and fashion, which can be seen in the sculptural evidence available to us.

Before we trace the roots of the modern Khmer classical dance costume though, it is crucial to do some visualizing:

Your country has been completely ravaged by war.  Libraries have been burnt.  Buildings of all sorts collapsed.  All that is left behind are advertisements—images of hotel suites, of nice cars, of models wearing fashionable clothes.  Now imagine that an alien race discovers your nation in ruin and these advertisements are all they use to construct an image of your entire culture and society.  Imagine the alternatives that they would not see, the types of bodies and beauty and communities that existed alongside these images—the sheer diversity of your people that they would miss!

This is not completely synonymous with Cambodia.  However, somewhat similarly, although dancers of the Angkor era very likely dressed in the manner depicted on temple walls, we cannot allow ourselves to think that that is all they wore.  A case in point is that only images of women striking a singular, conventional dancing pose are considered apsara or yogini.  With closer scrutiny though, we know that a greater breadth and richness of dance from the time can be seen in narrative and ornamental relief carvings.  As another example, we know clearly that there were male dancers during that time but they rarely, relatively, were depicted as “dancers” or are interpreted as such in the iconography.  Instead, what we have are images of male figures in the act of dance. 


On a final note to this, there are more than 1,000 female tevoda carved onto the walls of Angkor Wat.  Although there is a clear body type that they all feature, each figure has a singular presence with differences in facial expression, ornamentation, and stance.  And, when looking at these women, I get the feeling that the sculptors are just barely tapping the surface of the clothing and jewelry of their time.  This fact is made clear by the words of Emma C. Bunker and Douglas A.J. Latchford in the book Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods:

“The Khmer also created superb secular jewelry that is almost completely unknown to scholarship and the wider world.  The most spectacular pieces are flexible gold necklaces made to resemble jasmine-flower garlands . . . Such necklaces are not included in the representations of jewelry on the various Khmer sacred stone and bronze images, and do not appear to have been produced in any other contemporary Southeast Asian cultures, although imitations have appeared on the art market recently.”[192]


That said, we do know that King Yasovarmann I offered “a great number of beautiful [women] dancers . . . [and] a great number of handsome, mature men skillful in dance and the other arts, well dressed and adorned with ornament” during the Angkor era.[193]  And we know that their costumes were of great value, as indicated by this inscription from a Buddhist temple dated 982 CE:

“Those who, having no other desire than to squander their own wealth, plunder the fields, the golden ornaments and precious stones and all that the founder has given to the farmers, to the dancers and the musicians, will see terrible punishment in hell.”[194]

Finally, a particularly telling piece of epigraphy reflects the ageless interconnectedness of heaven and earth as manifested through dance, jewelry, and iconography in the Khmer conception, revealed through the word samastabharana.  Pou defines this Sanskrit term as "adorned fully in ornaments," a composite of sama-asta-abharana which describes a dancing Shiva "adorned in a sangvar (or jewelry) all over his body."[195]  


With this in mind, let us now examine the Khmer classical dancer's costume from head to toe.

The most important part of a Khmer classical dancer’s costume is the crown or mkot (Sanskrit: makuta).  Crowns (and masks) are venerated in the tradition, as they are believed to hold the spirits of deceased teachers as well as that of the characters of the dance.  They are usually worn last to complete a dancer’s transformation from human to deity, elevate her or him from the mundane to the divine world.

Today, in Cambodia, characters of spiritual and political maturity wear what we call a mkot sruoch, a pointed crown that is reminiscent of a chedei or Buddhist stupa.  In fact, during my beginnings as a dancer, my older brother once told me a story of a man who fell asleep before a temple.  The man had a dream that giant, dancing figures rose from the earth with the temple towers on their heads.  When this man woke up he immediately began to realize the movements and costumes that he saw, thus beginning Khmer dance.  Although this is probably not how Khmer dance began, there is some truth to it of course.

A stone chedei at Preah Khan, installed into the temple during the post-Angkor era of Khmer history.  By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Preah Khan - Central Stupa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Chedei are believed by some to have first appeared in Khmer art during the reign of King Jayavarmann VIII (1243 – 1295).[196]  They emerged alongside vihear (worship halls) where Theravada Buddhists participated in religious service.  Due to the temporality of the wood from which both structural forms were constructed, and a history of war, none of the Angkor era are known to exist.  All that remain of them today are their foundations.


When looking at chedei from a bird’s-eye view however, one can see their relationship and lineage to the towers of Angkor Wat in the way that they open from one center.  In this sense, both are but different expressions of a mandala.  Furthermore, they are both stylized mountains meant to reach out into the heavens, channeling its energy at their highest points, funneling it down, and—like a flower opening—radiate it out onto the land they rest upon or the bodies of the dancers wearing them (who then radiate it out into the surroundings in their act of dancing).  This association with mountain is not insignificant as, in their Hindu expressions, these towers represented Mount Meru, home of the gods.  And further, they “represented both a powerful local or ancestor spirit—one who had returned to the ancestral mountain abode—as well as a more universal deity in the form of Shiva.”[197]

When you look at the mkot sruoch of a male character today, you’ll find that it more readily resembles a chedei.  The mkot sruoch of a female character however has an additional diadem known as a khbamng in front.  And, in this case, it is easy to see how this crown was derived from Khmer crowns worn by both men and women alike, one that featured a diadem surrounding a lotus-like chignon cover which harkens to the predominant style of Khmer towers. 


However, there is stronger evidence that this style of headdress was developed during an earlier time of Angkor as indicated by a carving of a tevoda at Angkor Wat.  Contrary to her peers, she boasts a diadem whose center is sharply pointed.  Behind this, her tiered chignon cover rises higher than conventional crowns of the Angkor era, sharply into a point more readily associated with a Buddhist stupa.  What looks like leaves protrude from her crown but these are actually what we call nhar, or “shakers,” which are still in use as secular jewelry.  In today’s mkot sruoch though, the nhar are much smaller and take the form of tiny crystal-studded flowers attached to springs.

With closer study, I realized that this type of crown was worn by a few other tevoda at Angkor Wat.  Further, it became especially synonymous with its contemporary derivative in a relief carving of celestial women inside their heavenly palace.  And, much like the way the most popular, spade-shaped crowns worn by apsara, tevoda, and yogini were abstracted into plant and hair forms, the mkot sruoch was also abstracted into a tiered flower hairpin and singular bands of hair at the same temple as well.  That ancient Khmers would have intentionally done so can be seen in their use of the name Sikhasiva, "Lord Shiva whose chignon is sharply raised up.  Lord Shiva who has a most amazing power."[198]  We can be sure then, based on epigraphic and iconographic evidence, that the mkot sruoch was in existence by the twelfth century.

The earlier origination of this type of crown is also supported by the fact that before the Common Era, “the Buddha was represented symbolically, in the form of the stupa.  Thus, halls were made with stupas to venerate the Buddha.”[199]  We have no surviving examples of pre-classical and classical stupa or chedei in Cambodia because, probably like their counterparts throughout the world, monasteries “were built in less durable media, such as wood, brick, and stone.”[200]  In some form or another though, these structural forms probably existed before the reign of King Jayavarmann VIII.  This is attested by Buddha images from the Nokor Phnom and Chenla eras which can indicate the presence of Buddhist art in other forms prior to Angkor.  In fact, a Nokor Phnom mission to China included two ivory stupas[201] and there are in fact remains of chedei from the twelfth century.[202]  Furthermore, the roof of a palanquin carved at Angkor Wat and the roof of a building carved earlier at Baphuon already shows a direct relationship to modern Buddhist vihear in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.  As most concrete evidence for the earlier origination of the mkot sruoch, a votive stupa dated between the twelfth to thirteenth century bears a clear resemblance to iconography at Angkor Wat.  Its rounded base is like a crown or helmet worn by a tevoda while the spire that rises conjures those on the crowns of tevoda in the central gallery.

A ritual object is crowned with a pointed cap that resembles modern chedei.  The object is carried in the procession of King Suryavarmann II carved at Angkor Wat.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Angkor Wat tevoda wearing mkot sruoch.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Celestial women wearing mkot sruoch in an Angkor Wat bas-relief.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Female figure wearing pointed crown at Beng Melea.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

A tiered hairpin at Angkor Wat which abstracts the concept of a mkot sruoch.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The bands in this crown or helmet can be seen in a votive stupa from the twelfth or thirteenth century.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

The pointed chignon covers on the crowns of this tevoda at Angkor Wat’s central gallery bears direct relationship to a votive stupa dated from the twelfth to thirteenth century.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Khmer copper alloy votive stupa dated from twelfth to thirteenth century CE.  Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

Crowns worn by characters of lower rank in Cambodia today include a khbamng for female characters and panhcharet for male characters.  These crowns have a clear precursor in the diadems of the Angkor era and the prior can be worn by young male characters as well as characters who are half-male and half-female.  Worn only by female characters, the last crown is what we call a rot khlaov; it features the rounded base of a chedei but is topped by a finial known as kantuy hang (swan tail).  As they were the mount of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, hang can be found in the iconography of classical Khmer art.  An example can be seen in a lintel carving from Phnom Rong in modern day Thailand, in which Vishnu reclines as Brahma spouts out of his navel atop a lotus.  Above Vishnu’s head you can see a swan and its stylized tail, which clearly lends its shape to the distinctive finials of a modern rot khlaov.  The crown is worn with two almost elven accessories that frame the ears, which again have their predecessor in Khmer jewelry as can be seen in reliefs at Angkor Wat and in an image of Lokesvara from around the eleventh century currently housed at the Seattle Art Museum.[203]

Reclining Vishnu with Brahma at Phnom Rong (tenth – thirteenth century CE).  Notice the hang and its tail in the upper left hand corner of the image. By Thanyakij at Thai Wikipedia (Transferred from th.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Deity in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat.  Notice the way his diadem rises sharply above the ears and then runs down behind the ears, curling up at the end.  Remember the earrings and diadem worn by Mañjushri in the prior thangka image.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Notice the sharply rising points above the ear of these men’s diadems at Angkor Wat.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Finally, on all Khmer dance crowns today, a close examination will reveal incised patterns derived from flowers and foliage.  This is not by coincidence as flowers, like the lotus bud-shaped towers of many Khmer temples, are natural forms of mandala.  They are often depicted as the seats of the gods, of the Buddha, of dancing apsara and yogini.  A Tibetan thangka illustrates the divine power of flowers in the tantric concept, with a host of meditating Buddhas springing forth from them.


Appropriately so, flowers and nature figure prominently as ornamental patterns on the temples of Cambodia.  They also held great significance in the dress of Khmer people during the Angkor era, of which, according to Zhou Daguan, “floral patterns, woven into the cloth, are reserved for the prince.”[204]  This is only logical in the Khmer conception since the royal family was perceived as a mirror of the gods—and to wear these flowers was to channel and radiate the power of heaven.  This aesthetic and spiritual device can still be seen in the costumes worn by Khmer classical dancers today, and is strikingly synonymous to a Bayon-era depiction of King Jayavarmann VII as the Buddhist deity Lokesvara.  Instead of flowers however, Buddhas of various sizes create a chainmail-like texture that is both reminiscent of the Tibetan thangka image, the Khmer copper alloy votive stupa, and Khmer dance costumes today.

Bayon-era Lokesvara.  Twelfth to thirteenth century.  By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (Bodhisattva Lokesvara irradiant (musée Guimet)) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Detail of relief at Angkor Wat, inspired by contemporary textile prints of the time.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

This diamond-floral pattern known as chakkachan, with degrees of variation, has become the standard in Khmer classical dance costumes today.  It can be seen in the skirts, sbai, and shirts of male, female, and demon characters.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

A military officer in a chakkachan print uniform at Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Another example of the flower as diamond, this time seen in the body of a makar (Sanskrit: makara) at Banteay Srei (tenth century CE).  The flowered serpent is an apt metaphor for the Khmer classical dancer.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

In line with the time of Angkor, the silk skirts worn by a Khmer classical dancer have flowers woven into them.  The current standard in Cambodia are those that feature a diamond-floral pattern known as chakkachan, and these flowers repeat themselves in the sbai worn by female characters as well as the shirts worn by male and demon characters.  Sculptural evidence from Sambor Prei Kuk makes it clear that this was already a Khmer form of patterning and ornamentation by the seventh century, one that can be seen in royal textiles and military uniforms carved later at Angkor Wat.  This pattern is significant as it creates the impression of serpent scales, rendering the dancer a flowered serpent, the dancer's body an ordered, fertile landscape.  This connects dancers to the old animist roots that animate our movement tradition as well as the images of apsara, yogini, and tevoda who, surrounded by ornamental patterns of stylized foliage and wearing crowns and prints full of flowers, are simultaneously expressions of nature and the divine feminine.

Even though the sbai, as worn by female characters today, is not readily seen worn in the iconography of Angkor era, we know that those in mainland Southeast Asia are Khmer-derived.  Chinese annals describe how Preah Thaong, mytho-historical father of the Khmer people, was “unhappy to see [his wife Neang Neak] naked, he folded a piece of material to make a garment through which he had her pass her head.”[205]  Unless it is being wrapped around and sewn onto a dancer immediately, the process described above is the only way in which a pre-sewn sbai can be worn today.  And the reality is that the sbai, as known in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, can be traced to precursors in the Angkor era as linguistically, monosyllable Khmer loan words become bi-syllable in Thai with phka (flower) to phaka, spean (bridge) to sapan, and sbai to sabai.  Ancient Khmers also referred to this garment in Sanskrit terms such as kapata and uttarasanga.[206]  An early seventh-century inscription, in fact, names the singer Stanottari, whose name means "sbai covering the breasts."[206a]

In fact, at many of the temples, textile patterns were carved onto the temple walls as a form of ornamentation and in some cases as curtains for false windows.  Along the columns of Angkor Wat, textiles in the same proportion of contemporary sbai were carved.  And, like the sbai, they featured a decorative bottom section that delineated itself from the top part of the sbai.  Further, when the inside of the top section of these textile carvings are given floral patterns, the relationship to contemporary sbai is especially striking. 


Those currently worn in Cambodia are known as sbai tol and leave the right shoulder bare, wrapping around the breasts and falling down the back to cover the buttocks.  This mirrors how the Buddha was expressly described as baring his right shoulder before preaching in the Lotus Sutra​ (which may have been known to Khmers by the tenth century),[207] therefore possibly indicating a cultic association with the garment. 


That said, many of the images of tevoda feature two long folds of cloth that have been tucked into the side of the skirt.  These may have been the sadaka mentioned in inscriptions, which Pou translates as "pieces of fabric for wrapping around the waist, secured from the inside of the skirt."[208]  The tevoda wrap their arms around and sometimes hold these pieces of fabric, clearly indicating that they are to be manipulated, wrapped around their bodies from the front or the back.  In fact, one carving at Angkor Wat demonstrates this clearly: three tevoda are depicted, with one in the act of wrapping the cloth from the back, another covering her breast, and another with the cloth dangling in the front from her bent elbow, suggesting that it can be wrapped from the front like a sbai as well. 

In fact, in Java—where there is a historical connection as evidenced through language, technical similarities in dance, trade, and narratives of war, where two folds of cloth still fall from the belt of the dancer’s costume—the pieces of cloth are sometimes thrown diagonally around the torso in this manner.  That Khmer people in the Angkor era would have done the same can be gathered from the fact that:

“There is no doubt that some cultural contact with Java is responsible for many artistic styles and jewelry forms that developed during the ninth through eleventh centuries in Cambodia, but how these features were introduced into the Khmer world is unclear.  Numerous jewelry forms found in Khmer culture can also be traced back to traditions that developed far earlier in India, as demonstrated by the plethora of jewels represented in mural paintings at Ajanta.”[209]

False window with curtain bearing a chakkachan pattern at Bayon.  Twelfth to thirteenth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Column at Angkor Wat with textile, perhaps sbai, carved on the side.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Detail of column carving at Angkor Wat.  Notice the border on the edge of (and surrounding) the floral print, which creates a chakkachan diamond-floral pattern in the use of negative space.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Column, right, foreground, featuring a roundel pattern.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Three tevoda at Angkor Wat demonstrate the many uses for the pieces of fabric hanging from their belts.  Twelfth century.  Photo by Kent Davis,

Angkor Wat tevoda in the process of covering herself.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

A Javanese classical dancer, one of his saffron-colored folds of cloth slung across his torso similar to how tevoda figures in Cambodia would have done.  By Viault (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Khmer Buddha made of bronze from the twelfth century CE.  Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second type of sbai is known as a sbai phluoh (twin sbai) or sbai thom (large sbai) and can be seen in Khmer sculptural depictions of the Buddha.  They are reminiscent in design and proportion to false doors at temples as early as ninth-century Preah Ko.  In nineteenth-century Cambodia and in Thailand today, this cape-like garment started at a point above the belt where it was tucked, covering the breasts, and falling down the dancer’s back to the end of the skirt.  Interestingly though, the sbai worn by Lao dancers today most closely resembles that of Khmer Buddha images.

This is significant as one of the Lao classical dances they are used in, Fon Nang Keo (Dance of Nang Keo), references a history in which Fa Ngum (1316 – 1393 CE), a Lao prince exiled to the Khmer court of Angkor, would return with 10,000 soldiers to consolidate the Lao states into the kingdom of Lan Xang.[210]  He brought his wife with him, the Khmer princess Nang Keo Kengkanya.  Nang Keo, whose historical Khmer name is not known, brought with her an emerald Buddha and a troupe of dancers.[211]  And, according to her wishes, Fa Ngum instituted Theravada Buddhism as the national religion.[212]

The sbai phluoh is no longer used in Cambodia.  It began to fall into obscurity as early as the reign of King Norodom and was obsolete by the time of Queen Kossamak Nearyrath (although there have been contemporary reconstructions by khaol dance troupes).  This is very likely due to Khmer nationalist efforts but more importantly to the fact that it covered the shape of the body and crucial gestures such as deav.  This sbai phluoh—along with fundamental differences in Khmer and Thai music (to be discussed later)—is probably what has lent to the extreme bending in the torso and elongated arm angles that characterize Thai dance today.  It is the only way that the body will be seen through the costume, a fact made evident by the way a Thai dancer of female roles can best execute a deav off to the side of the sbai, facing off-center to the audience.  In Cambodia, instead of sacrificing the beautiful height of this gesture, the sbai was eventually shortened.  The sbai tol, the preference of Khmer artists today, gives a sensual hint of its roots to the fashion of the bare-breasted tevoda at Angkor Wat.

False door at Preah Ko, reminiscent of sbai phluoh.  Ninth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

A community ensemble of Thai classical dancers.  Notice how the female character’s body and deav (far left) is covered by her sbai.  By Milei.vencel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


Moving on to the costumes of male and demon characters, you’ll notice the epaulets that give the dancer a sense of being strong and broad shouldered.  Known as intanu in Khmer, they may have their roots in neak (serpent) and neak-shaped finials that can be seen in all of Khmer art and architecture.  In fact, like my brother’s story, associating dancers with sacred architecture is not farfetched as our bodies are traditionally seen as vessels for the gods and ancestor spirits—just as temples housed images of these beings and their powerful essences.


All masculine characters—neay rong, yeak, and sva—wear a sangvar, a piece of jewelry consisting of two crisscrossing bands which the head and arms must be passed through.  Sangvar were worn by women and men in the Angkor era, as evidenced by depictions of tevoda and that of Suryavarmann II among others.  Additionally, yeak characters of great importance wear a kris that wraps around the torso just below the sternum.  These have a clear precursor in gold bands found in Khmer statuary jewelry and in temple iconography.

Breaking away from much of the Angkorean iconography, in which men and women wear sampot chang khbin (skirts tied into pantaloons), dancers of masculine roles wear two layers of pants today.  The underlying layer is fitted, ending with ornamentation below the knees.  The rest of this pant is covered by a sampot chang khbin, of which that of male characters feature a pleated “tail” that falls between the legs.  Demon and monkey characters have a fold of cloth that covers the back end of the khbin where it is tied at the base of the spine, with the latter sporting a literalized tail.  This two-layered convention can be seen in later images of a meditating ascetic at Angkor Wat, dating back to the sixteenth century.  However, the two layers of lower garments have earlier precursors in sculptural depictions of the pre-Angkor era and it should be noted that the word khbin is attested through ancient Khmer epigraphy through the Sanskrit kuben.[213]


Royal woman carried on palanquin.  Notice the neak finials on the roof that lend their shape to intanu worn by dancers today.  Notice how, as mentioned above, the tiered roof already bears resemblance to those of modern Buddhist vihear.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

King Suryavarmann II on his throne, sangvar tucked under his srang ka (collar piece) just as dancers wear these two today.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  By Michael Gunther (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


Tevoda with sangvar.  Notice the diamond-shaped flower at the point of intersection, a precursor to the po, which is only worn by masculine characters today.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Meditating ascetic at Angkor Wat.  Notice his two layers of pants, precursor to the two layers worn by masculine characters today.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Of the masculine characters, the two major types to wear masks are monkeys and demon characters.  The masks of these characters clearly demonstrate a relationship to the iconography of Angkor.  At that time, masks were sometimes known as varanaka and likely suvarnaracita objects, or "accented or lacquered with gold."[214]  Although a history of war and looting has left us with none from the era, these images can give us a sense of what masked dancers may have looked like at the time.​

First off, when looking at an image of Peali (Sanskrit: Valin) in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk at Angkor Wat,[215] you will see the open mouth, sharp teeth, and protruding tongue that characterize a modern monkey mask.  Furthermore, his mouth is framed by a hairline, one that is often colored green today.  There are even circular lines incised into the face of the carving, a pattern which, now taking the form of spirals, is seen on contemporary monkey masks and their shirts.

Secondly, when looking at Khmer relief carvings from the Angkor era, you will see that Reab—ten-headed and twenty-armed—has a three-tiered head.  The highest tier shows one face or head, the middle tier shows three heads, and the bottom shows three as well.  We are still missing three though.  However, when you look at the bottom tier you will see that there is clearly a prime face, one that is attached to the neck and aligned with the body, one that is engaged in narrative action.  The two heads, which protrude out of this one, look either which way and have a sense of being less significant.  In fact, the sculptors have cleverly portrayed them this way to indicate a figure in the round and imply the presence of unseen heads. 

Given the manner in which the tiers are fullest at the bottom and smallest at the top, as indicated by head size and width, we can gather that Reab—as depicted in Khmer iconography of the Angkor era—had one head on top, four heads below this facing the cardinal directions, and five heads at the bottom level.  The contemporary Reab mask is three-tiered in this manner.  And, like the ancient carvings, there is one prime head on the lowest level.  The less significant heads of this tier are significantly smaller and placed in a row at the back, revealing the way different mediums and dimensions lend different expressive possibilities.  Lastly, one only has to look at the details in Reab’s face as well as those of the anthropomorphic creatures and singha (lions) around him to see the fangs and unibrows that further connect our masks today to the art of the Angkor era.

Detail of Peali at Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Monkey (left) in the Battle of Langka at Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Reab inspires fear amongst the creatures of the land in a relief carving at Banteay Srei.  Tenth century.  By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Banteay Srei, Cambodia) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Notice the unibrows, fangs, and beards of these demon characters—all conventions of the modern demon mask today.  Notice the kris band around the torso of the demon far-right.  Notice the rosettes placed above the ear.  Bakong, ninth century CE.  Courtesy of Johann Reinhart Zeiger,

The Khmer classical dancer wears a great many bracelets, anklets, armlets, belts, and necklaces—all of which were either depicted or had their precursors in the dress of Angkor.  For example, rudraksha-inspired bracelets known as kantrum have been featured around the wrists of tevoda and it is clear to see from where the contemporary chi and po have developed.  In fact, the places upon which these pieces of jewelry are worn upon the body—on the head in the form of a crown, in the hair, on the ears, around the neck, below the shoulder around the bicep, around the wrists, around the torso, around the waist, around the ankles—come clearly from the stylistic conventions of the Angkor era.  Even the flowers worn on the side of crowns today have their precursors in golden rosettes of Khmer statuary jewelry, which in turn were likely stylizations of actual flowers.

So, although the Chaktumok style costumes may have possibly come to us in the modern era by way of Thailand, they have their firm roots in the Khmer art, court, and culture of Angkor.  They are only as Thai as they are Khmer-derived.  In fact, considering how Angkor at its height was a society in artistic and religious transition—a cultural evolution largely lost to us due to a history of war and destruction—we may never know the exact scale to which these costumes were directly transferred to the court of Ayutthaya.  However, even as Thai classical dance costumes are given new vigor by Peeramon Chomdhavat and others today, many of the patterns, shapes, symbols, and concepts that give these objects and fabrics life point clearly to their lineage in Khmer art and dress.  This is no surprise as the monarchs of Ayutthaya and even those of the Rattanakosin era held Khmer classical culture with high regard.


Of course Khmer aesthetic values have been localized into uniquely Thai expressions throughout history.  But this process is only mirrored in the way that Khmer artists have injected our own tastes and sensibilities into Chaktumok costumes as well.  Today an untrained and insensitive eye would easily mistake the costumes of either traditions for one another.  But for practitioners and those who care for the art forms, the differences could not be more significant as details, small as they are, are what build the entire form and reveal the values and spirits of individual artists and the communities they create in.

When King Ang Duong, son of a Thai mother, set these costumes on the bodies of Khmer dancers, he seems to have entangled the two schools for the first time in modern Cambodia.  Ultimately though, Ang Duong merely gave an existing court tradition another path to connect to its initial roots—a cultural and artistic legacy it was already aware of and connected to.  The king used “the court dance as a demonstration of the modern Cambodian throne’s legitimacy in the Angkorean lineage, which the court at Bangkok had so persistently attempted to destroy.”[216]  This is not out of line with the way he secretly initiated contact with the French to end threats from Siam and Vietnam.

In the end, this aspect of Thai influence does not “break” the Khmer dance tradition.  It does not severe the art form’s ties to its ancient history.  Popular notions that people of the Angkor era only went bare-breasted have confused many, leading some people to say that the tradition was wholly imported from Thailand along with the costumes.  In fact, contrary to this mistaken belief, sculptural iconography from Angkor clearly indicates the use of shirts, armor, and sbai.  Are we to assume that people of that time were invincible to sickness or cold weather?  Or that they weren’t keen to fashion and self-expression?

King Suryavarmann II’s soldiers wearing shirts, armor, and crowns which curve backward, reminding us of rot khlaov.  Angkor Wat, twelfth century. Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Armored warriors at Angkor Wat.  Notice the shirts below their armor and their animal-headed crowns, precursor to the deer crowns of today.  Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Merry revelers, dancing and playing music, on a boat depicted at Angkor Wat.  Notice their long, chakkachan frocks that are cinched by a belt. Twelfth century.  Photo: Prumsodun Ok.

Further, there was a tradition of statuary textiles—cloths and fabrics adorning sacred images—alongside that of statuary jewelry, which would have had a relationship to those worn by dancers today.  Khmer inscriptions, for example, mention a cumbala (diadem or crown) and hemakavaca which Pou describes as "a short skirt for women that was made of gold and offered to the gods."[217]  Furthermore, modern day silk skirts of gold brocade harken back to the Angkor era as well, as indicated through suvarnavasana or subarnavasana, "skirts adorned with gold" that were "likely skirts weaved with gold stripes."[218] The Khmer claim for artistic and cultural continuity from Angkor to the present day is further solidified when examining the lineage of Khmer textiles:

“In the post-Angkor period, the mid-fifteenth century onwards, information about silk weaving in Cambodia is hard to find . . . By the mid-nineteenth century, however, extant textiles with a clear provenance at last make an appearance.  In 1856 a Royal ‘Gift of Mutual Respect’ from Siamese monarch King Mongkut and the Second King Phra Pin Klao, were presented to the American President Franklin Pierce.  The gift included three silk weft hol-patterned silk sampot [chang khbin] hipwrappers and a similarly-patterned silk shoulder cloth.  These textiles demonstrate a level of sophistication in silk weft hol weaving of the highest order in both technique and design.  The confidence and skill displayed in the realization of these textiles’ patterns speaks to a highly-developed and refined ability prevailing for a significant length of time previous to the mid-nineteenth century.  In addition their uneven twill groundweave, a technical characteristic almost exclusive to Cambodian weavers, strongly asserts the origin of the weavers.  Interestingly, this technical feature has continued uninterrupted in Cambodian silk weft hol weaving to the present, 150 years later.”[219]

The degree to which one can claim costumes of the Rattanakosin or Chaktumok eras as uniquely Thai becomes especially complicated then, given the manner in which Thai monarchs and people continued to value and absorb Khmer textile culture in the early modern period—so much so that Khmer artistry served as ambassadorial gifts and emblems of Thai national culture and identity.  Furthermore, when examining the linguistic evidence, Varasarin notes that words such as sabai (Khmer: sbai), krabin (Khmer: khbin), sangwan (Khmer: sangvar), kahbangna (Khmer: khbamng), kancheak (Khmer: tracheak, the elven pieces framing the ears) and kravin (Khmer: kravil, earrings) point to the direct origination and adoption of Khmer jewelry and textile objects.[220]  Ancient Khmers in turn referred to some of these items through Sanskrit terms such as kanci (a belt worn by women) and kanthi (a type of jewelry for wearing around the neck, chest, or pectoral), as well as sarangi which survives in modern Khmer as srang ka.[221] 


So, much like the way Theravada Buddhism has acted as a thin veil over the tradition’s much older and omnipresent sacred roots, Chaktumok costumes are merely a more recent shell over the body of a dancer performing Khmer classical dance, a shell that connects to the artistic, philosophical, and material precedents of Angkor.  They represent a different style, but not a different form.  No matter how different in feeling, Chaktumok costumes do not conceal the living Khmer foundations of the art form.  Known as robam kbach boran, the “dance of ancient gestures” only requires the moving body and the spirit and philosophy of which those movements are born.  And, as we will see, costumes can change, along with music and language too, and even then it is still possible to have Khmer classical dance.


[192] Bunker, Emma C., and A.J. Douglas Latchford.  Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods.  Douglas A.J. Latchford in association with Art Media Resources, Inc, 2008.  Page 85.

[193] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 66.

[194] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 69.

[195] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 495.

[196] "Chronology." APSARA -. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

[197] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 35.

[198] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 570.

[199] "Ajanta Caves." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

[200] "Ajanta Caves." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

[201] Mabbett, Ian and David Chandler.  The Khmers.  Blackwell Publishers, 1996.  Page 75.

[202] Mabbett, Ian and David Chandler.  The Khmers.  Blackwell Publishers, 1996.  Page 186.

[203] I could not obtain permission to publish this image.  However, it is featured in the book Khmer Sculpture published by Asia House Gallery, which is in my possession.

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

[205] Yung Wai-Chuen, Peter.  Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals. Oxford University Press, 2000.  Page 10.

[206] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Pages 203 and 180, respectively.

[206a] Long, Seam. Dictionnaire du Khmer Ancien. Phnom Penh Printing House, 2000. Page 595.

[207] Lammerts, D. Christian. Buddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2015. Page 225.

[208] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 564.

[209] Bunker, Emma C., and Douglas A.J. Latchford. Khmer Gold.  Douglas A.J. Latchford in association with Art Media Resources, Inc, 2008.  Pages 74 -75.

[210] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 127.

[211] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 127.

[212] "When Lanka Gifted Buddhism to Laos." The Sunday Times Plus Section. 8 Nov. 1998. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

[213] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 207.

[214] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 533.

[215] Roveda, Vittorio.  The World of Khmer Mythology.  APSARA National Authority, 2013.  Pages 32 – 35.  It is interesting to note that contemporary stagings of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Ministry of Culture replace Peali for Hanuman, extracting the monkey general (who is more known and celebrated in Khmer culture) to represent the force of good.

[216] Cravath, Paul. Earth in Flower: An Historical and Descriptive Study of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia. University Microfilms International, 1987.  Pages 153.

[217] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 241 and 618.

[218] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Page 533.

[219] Green, Gillian.  Traditional Textiles of Cambodia.  River Books, 2003.  Page 45.

[220] Varasarin, Uraisi.  Les Elements Khmers Dans La Formation De La Langue Siamoise.  Societe D'etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France, 1984. Pages 113 - 115.

[221] Pou, Saveros.  Lexique de Sanskrit-Khmer-Français (Sanskrit Utilise au Cambodge).  Editions Angkor, 2013.  Pages 190, 191, and 504.

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