Indigenization of Ramayana in Cambodia

by Saveros Pou

Through some telling instances of 'indigenization', how Valmiki's Ramayana morphed into Ramakerti, an epic tale and a source of inspiration for Cambodians.

Pbdschool Jan2022

Publication: Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 51, pp 89-102

Published: 1992

Author: Saveros Pou

Pages: 14

Language : English

Author of major studies in the philologic, ethnographic historiographic, aspects of the Ramakerti (Reamker), Prof. Saveros Pou has opted here for exploring the specificity of the Khmer Ramayana through colorful (and sometimes quite hilarious, see the monkeys section below!) examples:

  • Agni and his new vahana (mount), the rhinoceros: "[In the Ramakerti],the list of gods and their mounts apparently accords with the Indian tradition, except for Agni. In India the god of fire was riding a ram—an animal which did not belong to the Khmer environment and culture. A substitute had to be found for it, and the rhinoceros, native in Cambodia, was prima facie the best fit for god Agni on account of its fierce and fiery temperament.(...) In the famous Angkor Vat bas-reliefs of the twelfth century the god is seated on a rhinoceros. So the substitution of this animal for the ram took place in Cambodia many centuries prior to the creation of Ramakerti I. We could then surmise that, if there were extant any written version of Ramayana in Old Khmer, it would have had the same mention of god Agni as a suitor riding his rhinoceros, as he was depicted on stone at Angkor Vat. (...) In sum, this tradition of Agni riding a rhinoceros has evidently spanned some ten centuries, if not more; and we can safely say that the Ramakerti has contributed to fixing it in the Khmer collective memory."
  • The re-casting of Rama : "Khmer authors would have no problems about retaining the original geographical setting [of the Ramayana]. On the contrary, the association with Indian culture, especially with Valmlki, would add more flavor, prestige, and even exoticism to their epic. However, the question is bound to arise in regard to the whole body ot dramatis personae. Could the main characters as conceived by Valmlki fit into the Khmer intellectual and spiritual system? The answer is, this was not likely. Surely, after the introduction of Ramayana to Cambodia (the fifth century), many characters could have been reshaped by the ancient Khmers through the sheer process of natural adjustment. Later on, Theravada introduced to Khmer people, and taught them, a new system of moral values that brought about many changes in society, in attitudes, and in behavior. Therefore it was bound to remodel Ram and the other characters, too, along the lines of the Buddhist tenets, at least as they were understood by the Khmer folk. (...) If we add up these different aspects of Ram [Rama]’s behavior, we find behind them a firm and steadfast motivation made up of metta (friendship), karuna (compassion), mudita (altruistic joy), and upekkha (equanimity), which together form the foremost and most sublime tenet of the Buddhists, called brahmavihdra^ or blissful state of mind. This analysis illustrates the most important and effective contribution of Theravada, which taught an austere way to reach the ultimate goal of blissful arhatship. In practical terms, it took care of the epic characters held sacred and rid them of those passionate, disorderly, turbid, and violent features that are commonly found in human beings."
  • Monkeys (a particularly significative instance for the author, so here we quote the whole section in extenso): "Monkeys deserve more serious attention because so far they have been viewed merely in connection with their pranks and antics—a very superficial view, indeed, and one that has not done justice at all to Khmer literature and culture. They were all soldiers in Ram's army and were led by famous officers of their own species. Now, how could Khmer people in the first instance welcome monkeys of the Indian model as servants of Ram, i.e., as good and deserving creatures, standing on the side of divine princes, and serving a good cause? This question is not a rhetorical or facetious one. For Khmer people of Mon-Khmer origin have always shared with their kinsmen in Southeast Asia strong feelings against monkeys. They find them ugly to start with; they blame them for being too noisy, restless, inquisitive, mischievous, and sly, if not vicious —in brief, prone to troublemaking. They do not wish monkeys any harm, though; as a rule, they maintain an attitude of indifference to them and tolerate them, mentally relegating them to where they belong, i.e., to “the forest” in a bad sense. Finally, they despise them for trying to ape humans. The evidence thereof can be found in every nook and cranny of Khmer culture: in the language, literature, and folklore. Any present-day Cambodian, when asked about monkeys, would either answer casually that he has no feelings whatsoever for them, or answer more emotionally that he loathes them! So, long ago, the ancient Khmers must have been in a predicament when they learned about monkeys in the Indian epic, portrayed in a way totally alien to their thinking. Should they wipe them out of the story and find some substitute for them, as they did away with the ram of god Agni? The answer was no—despite their instinctive reluctance —because of a) the great number of monkeys in the epic they would have to deal with, and b) the true habitat of monkeys in the forests of Cambodia itself. To make matters worse, two leading monkey-officers were semi-divine creatures: Hanuman was born from the god of wind, Vayu, and Sugrib from the sun. They were thus demi-gods, while monkeys in the Cambodian context are just base-born creatures! Obviously, it was a difficult task for Khmer forefathers to reconcile their instinctive feelings and ancestral legacy with their reverence for the great Indian epic. How they came to terms with this, we can surmise by scrutinizing Middle Khmer Ramakerti and its impact on the culture. Monkeys were given therein two faces. The first one, foreign to Khmer culture, was a composite of high moral values, a capability to see right and wrong and then to choose the good cause, an unquestioning loyalty and devotion to their masters, a martial skill tinged with magic, and, to crown all this, a physical attraction and beauty! The second one derived from all the traits, physical and moral, that Khmer people had always attributed to them since time immemorial, which I described above and which represented the reverse of the first face. Khmer authors put these two faces together very skillfully, and this device is present in all the existing forms of Ramakerti: written literary texts, oral storytelling, and dramatic performance. To see how they went about this problem I propose to call one face formal and the other one informal. The formal,a foreign importation, has little relevance to our subject, and I shall not elaborate on it further. The informal, on the contrary, must be stressed, for its effectiveness is not easily perceived by foreign observers. It is linked with indigenous culture, therefore very close to reality. This is where Khmer authors felt at home, so to say, and indulged in free speech. Their view of monkeys was aired through two channels. In the first instance, and circumstances permitting (e.g., when the princes were not present), they made personal comment on monkeys, always disparagingly. The second way was to put their views into the mouths of demons—and this is the more frequent case. The epic demons, especially their leader Rab, harbored a deep contempt and aversion for monkeys, the more so as they belonged to the enemy’s army. In the mouth of Rab and some of his relatives, the word “monkey” had a very bad connotation, particularly in a moral sense. (...) A last word, not the least important, should be said about Ramakerti in performance. I have already noted (Pou 1977a, 1977b,1979) that written versions of Ramakerti in Middle Khmer were essentially libretti for a dramatic representation of a specific sort that has been very famous in Cambodia, even until now. The actors mime the story, which is beautifully recited by a quasi-professional narrator accompanied by a traditional orchestra. Either some particularly meaningful sections of Ramakerti can be staged, or the entire story. Here I want to examine the second type of performance, as it is more relevant to our subject. Tradition had it that funerals of eminent abbots of monasteries should entail at least a week of ceremonies and include nightly performances of Ramakerti. The dramatic side of the ritual had a terrific impact on the community. This facet has not been properly assessed so far. The audience at such performances consisted of people living in the village(s), i.e., the local grassroots. They came with their families not only for the obvious purpose of paying homage to the defunct abbot but also to have an entertaining and relaxing time—which, as we all know, is very rare in country life. These villagers would surely appreciate the moral message of Ramakerti, but in the Khmer context they missed out on the intellectual and spiritual one. What they were looking for was twofold: pathos and a good laugh. Who could better furnish mirth than monkeys on the stage ? All producers of Ramakerti were perfectly aware of this. They were genuinely keen to provide many merry interludes to meet the no less genuine longing for merriment of their fellowmen. In this respect, the narrator joined efforts with them by providing excellent and appropriate cues mimed by monkeys. These, in their comical acting, were supposed to have a witty, lusty, and sometimes obscene language, such as is expected by any populace in the world in search of entertainment. As a result—and I want to stress this as much as possible—this light side of Ramakerti performances, comical and crude at times, “stole the show” in the public’s consciousness. Villagers, young and old, in their simplicity, were satisfied that they had attended and appreciated “a play of monkeys” (in Khmer, Ikhon khol) hence the widespread popularity of this name in the entire Cambodian community and even beyond Cambodia’s border (it occurs in Siamese: khon/khoon/). At this juncture we can confidently conclude that Valmlki's Ramayana as indigenized in Cambodia had a good grip on the popular mind and took on a quasi-magical aura that then swelled and increased in size and power to reach into other parts of Khmer everyday life."
  • The Magic of Ramakerti: "The word magic should be taken here in both its proper sense and a figurative sense. The figurative sense, hinted at in all the preceding discussion, hardly needs elaboration. Ram, despite his human nature, was held to be sacred and became an object of veneration not unlike the Buddha. His magnificent epic, injected with Theravadin spirituality, took on a glorious and awe-inspiring aura. It was, as it were, reserved on a high shelf for weighty occasions. Besides the above-mentioned ritual use of Ramakerti in performance, we must note that the texts themselves have sometimes been stored for safekeeping in monasteries as part of the ancestral legacy. The texts have been used in the past as reading books and copied on palm leaves—an excellent and meritorious engraving practice—by many hands of anonymous novices. Hence their partial preservation until the present day, as I have alreadynoted in a previous paper. But magic in the proper sense is an even more important, and very fascinating, aspect of Ramakerti on account of its social implications, which are not very well known to people outside the Cambodian community. The ingredients of magic can be traced back in the oldest available text, Ramakerti I. The epic as such involves superhuman beings backed up by gods and other aeities, and prodigious feats performed by characters of all classes (princes,demons, monkey-officers) as a result of their “supernatural power.” The poets, righteous and unconsciously biased, praised the fiery energy and efficacy of the divine princes and ultimately their meritorious deeds. But when they described demons in action, they would not bother to use hyperbolical or euphemistic phrases; they just spoke of “magic” (agam, mantr). (...) This magico-sacred nature of Ramakerti will account for two quasi vital customs in the Khmer community. When seasonal rain fails to fill ponds, lakes, and streams and to soak the farmland deeply, so that the prospect of a drought looms disturbingly up, villagers get together to have parts of Ramakerti performed. The most popular selection is the so-called “release of waters” that occurs in the following episode. During the great battle of Lanka, Kumbhakar was commissioned by his brother Rab to cut off the water supply to the host of monkeys on Ram's side. He magically assumed his most gigantic shape, then lay down across the river. The monkeys became terribly upset, reported to Ram, and pressed him for urgent help. Hanuman and Angad were sent by the prince to sort out the danger. They performed magical tricks to rouse the giant from the riverbed and consequently succeeded in “releasing” the bountiful water and rescuing all creatures. The second custom concerns communities as well as individuals. When individuals or groups of individuals face a serious problem that absolutely requires a solution, when they are confused to the point of despair, they can go to a monastery and ask to “consult sacred texts” or kambi. These consist of all Buddhist texts and the Ramakerti. A ritual divination then usually takes place, as follows. The monk brings out of safekeeping a palm-leaf copy of the sacred texts. He performs a short invocatory and auspicious ceremony, then hands the individual or the group leader a stick, which he or she slips between any two pages of the texts. The monk opens the book to that place, reads out the passage of text, and interprets it to the audience."
  • Ramayana and Cambodian syncretism: "In olden times Valmlki's epic was made to fit the spiritual trends current in the Khmer community, which were themselves based on Brahmanic tradition and Buddhist beliefs (Mahayanist and Hinayanist). Then along came Theravada, in mediaeval Cambodia, to impregnate the epic with an austere and pragmatic spirit. The Indian importations, processed all through the centuries, merged into the everlasting animistic Khmer system that has stood firm in the background and provided many magical notions and practices. The term “syncretism,” applied by historians and sociologists to the Khmer spiritual system, of ancient times or today, needs no additional demonstration.".

Photo: Rehearsing a tableau from the Ramakerti, HRH Princess Buppha Devi Dance School at Aquation Phnom Penh, Dec. 2021

Tags: Reamker, Ramakerti, dance, aesthetics, Khmer culture, Queens & Kings of Cambodia, Ramayana, monkeys, lakhon khol, magic, Indian influences, syncretism, Khmer religion, Khmer dance, divination

About the Author


Saveros Pou

Saveros Pou (Saveros Lewitz in the 1960s-1970s) ពៅ សាវរស (1929, Phnom Penh- 25 May 2020, France) was a French linguist of Cambodian origin. A retired research director of the CNRS in Paris, a specialist of the Khmer language and civilization, she carried out extensive work of Khmer epigraphy, starting as a young researcher with her teachers George Cœdès and Jean Filliozat.

Born in a high-society and learned family -- her uncle, Nhieuk Nou (1900-1982), was 'okhnya mahamantri', Royal Palace secretary, and her grandfather, Ker Nou (1864-1958), a judge and 'pandit' (sage) --, Saveros Pou went to the Sutharot Girls School and Lycée Sisowath before moving to France for higher education, to become a leading researcher in linguistics and social history of Cambodia, as well as a respected teacher for several generations. Residing in England in the 1970s and 1980s, she furthered her research in several US universities, in particular in Hawaii.

Her work in the field of etymology, specifically applied to old Khmer (from 6th to 14th centuries) was seminal, while her varied skills enabled her to tackle areas such as the very rich processes of derivation in Khmer, religion, codes of conduct, zoology and botany, culinary art, etc. This encyclopedic approach is reflected in her Dictionnaire vieux khmer-français-anglais.

She is the author of more than 150 books and articles, published in several orientalist journals such as the Journal Asiatique and the Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. Saveros Pou's last book published before her death was Un dictionnaire du khmer-moyen (Phnom Penh, Buddhist Institue, Sāstrā Publishing House, 2017).


Saveros Pou in 1970 (photo Reyum/Mikaelian)