Cambodian Music: Pinn Peat

Southeast Asian music has a rich history, especially Khmer music. Daily village life played a huge role in the development of music and when music was played. Since early village life was dictated mainly by agricultural cycles, music most often coincided with harvest festivals. This also means that during the rainy season, music was not as prevalent. While Khmer music was possibly influenced by Indian sources, any of its Western influences were largely destroyed under the Khmer Rouge.
The terror of the Khmer Rough occurred between 1975-1979 and was an attempt to completely reinvent Cambodian culture and society. Music and the arts were brutally repressed during this time. Under the Khmer Rouge, many of the masters of Khmer Music, including those of Pinn Peat, were murdered. Despite the extreme political turmoil, some traditional forms of music survived with aid from many non-governmental organizations and Australia.
Luckily, Pinn Peat music was one of those salvaged art forms. Pinn Peat is a form of Khmer folk music that was used for royal court events, shadow puppet theater, weddings, religious ceremonies and funerals. It is still used to accompany many of these same events today. Pinn Peat music is typically in either a pentatonic scale or a heptatonic scale, meaning there are either five or seven pitches. In Western musical terms, it is usually on a G scale.
The most popular Pinn Peat orchestra is the Vung Phleng Pinn Peat. This was the main court ensemble, dating back more than a thousand years. The Vung Phleng Pinn Peat consists of eleven instruments including vocals. These instruments are two oboes (sralai tauch and sralai thomm), two bamboo xylophones (roneat ek and roneat thomm), one metal xylophone (roneat dek), two drums (skor thomm and sampho), two gongs (korng tauch and korng thomm), one pair of small cymbals (cching) and vocalists (naek chrieng). The words thomm and tauch mean “big” and “small” respectively. Together these instruments create music that can either be used as an accompaniment or played alone.
Modernization brought many changes to Southeast Asian music in general.  Agriculture no longer dictates daily life as it once did. Due to urbanization, more people are living in bigger cities rather than in villages. Tourism further complicates this issue. Tourism helps keep traditional music alive and brings wealth to the nation, but it also brings many corrupting forces, such as prostitution and drugs. Luckily for Cambodia, the country is not as popular  a tourist destination as Thailand or Indonesia, so it does not suffer as much from these negative influences. Revival movements and the fact that Pinn Peat is still used in ceremonies help keep this and other musical traditions alive so that we can continue to appreciate and enjoy them.
Further reading:
* Pinn Peat Orchestra in Wat Bo Temple, Siem Reap (2011)

Cambodia Folktales

Cambodia has a literary tradition that dates all the way back to the 7th century. The classical works of Khmer literature were first inscribed on stones and written in verse form. These works were heavily influenced by Indian culture and included metaphors as well as strong Buddhist overtones. The Jataka Tales were an important genre of Cambodian literature. This compendium of tales included 547 different stories about the lives of the Buddha. The Chbap or didactic codes were advice for daily life that were also central to the Cambodian literary tradition. By the 1930s, Cambodia began producing modern novels, but this stopped during the tyranny of the Khmer Rogue. After 1979, there was a revival of Khmer literature. Many Khmer works were published in refugee camps, including the timeless Cambodian folktales.
Cambodian folktales, like many other regional folktales, were passed down orally from generation to generation.  These tales were first recorded on palm leaves. Although many of the records of these stories were destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, there has since been a revival of them in Cambodian pop culture. While Buddhism influenced many of these folktales, there was also a strong focus on animals and nature. The two most prevalent themes in Cambodian folktales are deception and humor.
We see these two themes blended in the rabbit as a character. Featured in many Cambodian folktales, as well as other Southeastern Asian traditions, the rabbit is often seen as a clever trickster. Judge Rabbit (Subhā Dansāy) is a character that solves cases and ridicules or punishes the guilty party. Through his 51a2lUJzU3L._SX384_BO1,204,203,200_cleverness he is able to act as a fair judge. In The Man Who Engages the Wife, a man is promised to a young woman by her parents if he stands in cold water for three days. Her parents accuse him of trying to warm up through a faraway fire. To prove the young man’s innocence Judge Rabbit cooks soup, but places the salt far away from the soup. When the parents complain, Judge Rabbit responds that if the salt does not flavor the soup when it’s far away then the fire would not warm the young man.
This shrewdness is why he is considered a hero in Cambodian folktales. While Judge Rabbit is a hero for others, he occasionally uses his cleverness for personal gain. In The Story of Judge Rabbit in prose (Subhā Dansāy Jā Bāky Rāy) the Judge Rabbit gets himself stuck in a plantation and continuously tricks a toad into helping him through persuasion. Although he promises the toad a reward, he does not keep his promise in the end. 
The stories of Judge Rabbit exhibit values important to Cambodia culture and the literary tradition. Judge Rabbit helps and entertains others, while exhibiting cleverness to defend and enrich himself.
Further reading:
* Cathy Spagnoli’s retelling of Judge Rabbit and the Snails (2015)
* Kent Davis’ Tales of the Hare (2011)

Reamker Mural

“Then and Now: Historical Photographs of Cambodia.” Northern Illinois University Libraries - Southeast Asia Digital Library (June 23, 2007).

“Then and Now: Historical Photographs of Cambodia.” Northern Illinois University Libraries – Southeast Asia Digital Library (June 23, 2007).

Notable among Khmer art are the series of episodic murals situated in the vihara of Wat Bo in Siem Reap province, Cambodia.

Founded at the end of the 18th century, Wat Bo, also known as Wat Rajabo, is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist temples in Cambodia and is renowned for its traditional arts and crafts and music.

Located inside the main vihara of the complex is the painted narrative of the Indian epic of Rama, known as the Reamker in Cambodia. The Reamker is fairly faithful in content to the Indian poet Valmiki’s version, the Ramayana, though many of the proper names have been modified or changed to accommodate differences in the Cambodian language.

In addition, the Reamker contains allusions to both Hinduism and Buddhism since Cambodia is a predominantly Buddhist society. For example, Rama is referred to as both the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and the Buddha.

The paintings of the Reamker at Wat Bo date back to the 19th century. They depict 111 scenes in a “patchwork” arrangement of story panels. Although some of the panels are damaged and in need of repair, the mural is remembered for its unique and vibrant colors that can still be seen today. Additionally, there are depictions of Chinese merchants and French colonial officers in the paintings, giving an interesting insight into the historical setting in which the Reamker mural was executed.

The Reamker mural at Wat Bo is an important work of art in that it provides not only a distinctive depiction of Indian culture’s formative role in the country, but also a source for understanding Cambodian sentiment, history, and religion.


Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Temple LayoutAngkor Wat, meaning “Temple City” or “City of Temples,” was built during the reign of Khmer King Suryavarman II during the first half of the 12th century in the city of Angkor in Cambodia. It was meant to serve both as the capital of the Khmer Empire and the State Temple dedicated to Vishnu.

It is the largest religious temple complex in the world with a total area of almost 200 hectares. The temple is unique in that it combines two major features of Khmer architecture: a pyramid and concentric galleries. Pyramids had long been a symbol for Mount Meru, a representation of the cosmos and the center of the Hindu universe in Khmer architecture. Galleries only began to appear at the beginning of the 11th century. Angkor Wat combines these two features to create an innovation in Khmer architecture.  In addition, Angkor Wat is oriented towards the west, an uncommon feature of most Angkorian temples.

The geography and symmetrical layout of the temple is imbued with symbolic significance.

The moat surrounding the temple represents the mythical ocean surrounding the earth. The succession of concentric galleries represents the mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru, the home of the gods. The towers symbolize the mountain peaks, the ascent to the central shrine embodying the rise of the soul. The ascent is structured by strict social rules, with the laity being admitted only to the lowest levels.

The galleries of Angkor Wat are decorated with many notable reliefs, the most notable being “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.”

This relief is sculpted in the southern wing of the eastern gallery and is approximately 50 meters long. At the center of the panel is an unfinished depiction of Vishnu in front of Mount Mandara, which serves as the churning pole, supported by Vishnu’s avatar, the tortoise Kurma, wearing a small crown. Vishnu is directing the devas (benevolent divine beings) and asura (demigods) who are pulling the great Vasuki (king serpent) around the post. The asura are distinguished from the devas through their crested helmets. The devas wear conical crowns.

The relief depicts an episode in which Vishnu intervenes during a thousand year battle between the devas and asuras in order to obtain amrita, an elixir that would grant immortality and incorruptibility. With Vishnu’s help, the asuras and devas begin churning the Ocean of Milk by using Mount Mandara as the pivot and the five-headed naga Vasuki as the rope. When Mount Mandara begins to sink, Vishnu incarnates as the tortoise Karma to support the sinking mountain. The turtle is an important figure in Hinduism as it represents creative power. Many other gods such as Indra also assist in the pivoting of the mountain. At the bottom of the panel, sea creatures and fish are shown being sucked into the vortex of the agitated liquid.

The Ocean of Milk is churned for another thousands years before finally producing the elixir, among other treasures. Unfortunately, another battle ensues to decide who will gain possession of the amrita.

Vishnu intervenes once again—this time as the beautiful girl Mohini. He removes the amrita to prevent its misuse. When peace is finally restored to the universe, Indra is reinstalled as the King of the Gods.