Music and Dance in Ancient Cambodia as Evidenced by Old Khmer Epigraphy

by Saveros Pou

Author(s): Saveros Pou Source:

Saveros Pou Music Dance

Publication: East and West, Vol. 47, No. 1/4, pp. 229-248 | Istituto Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente (IsIAO) via

Published: December 1997

Author: Saveros Pou

Pages: 20

Language : English

View publication

pdf 2.7 MB

Revisiting Bernard Philippe Groslier's 1965 study on the subject, the famous linguist and epigraphist first makes an important point: "In Khmer epigraphy there is no such text as dealing with history (chronicles, diaries, annals, etc.), let alone with art. All Khmer stone inscriptions relate facts connected with three main themes: a) religion, b) the rulers of the land, i.e. kings, and c) the land itself. (...) All the information we have collected on music and dance is of an incidental nature."

The centrality of dance and music in Angkorean rituals is established by linguistical observations: "From len derived, as evidenced by Mid. and Mod. Khm., the nouns bhlen 'music', and Ipaen 'games, entertainment, amusement, etc.'. We must always bear in mind that games and music have been the most significant instruments of worship in Cambodia's ritual system, whether people worshipped brahmanic gods, animistic spirits, or even the Buddha."

From the offerings to Sarasvati, the goddess of eloquence and arts, to the development of music and dance as court entertainment, the author takes us through exciting considerations. As for the gender and social status of artists, she remarks: "Some statements made by contemporary observers need amendments in the light of the present survey, if we want to keep Khmer culture in the right perspective. For instance, it has been pointed out that Khmer musicians are mainly, if not solely, males. Epigraphy, though, bears witness to the presence of female instrumentalists in ancient Cambodia, plucking strings of various instruments, and even beating drums. This apparently out-of-place picture was still to be seen in my childhood, and also recorded in many past publications and postcards. Therefore, scholars should remember to consult documents of the past before assessing facts of modern times.

"The second instance regards the social status of musicians and dancers of old. They have been said to belong only to the low class, tied down -- some would even say 'enslaved' -- to serving the gods on behalf of their masters. Now, Angkorian texts provide a different picture altogether. Indeed, the master could be the state represented by the king. This alone suggests that music and dance had reached a climax to become an institution. We have seen the term varna rnam or 'corporation of dancers'."

We'll also note the author's comments on "sacred" and "sensuality": "We all agree on the sacred aspect of music and dance -- and games for that matter -- in Cambodia. Ample evidence thereof is provided by epigraphy, in particular through numerous lists of servants. The present paper goes a bit further as to assess the purport of proper names. The first remark is that many are anything but sacred. Such names as stanottari 'having huge breasts' or rativindu 'bearing the mark of love', borne by temple dancers might shock some foreign minds or lead them to some out-of-the-way interpretation. The same fact could be observed in modern Cambodia, too, actually.

"There is then a discrepancy, apparently, between the sacred function of artists and the onomastic reference to their sensuality. In order to clarify the matter, we must evoke another dimension of it, i.e. the human one represented by the donator or patron who organized ceremonies, made lavish offerings to the gods, and owned large staffs of servants. This well-off master and donator was called yajamana or sthapaka, according to the sort of ceremonies he performed. Now, if a ballet-girl was called rattimatti 'delightul' or priyaseni 'the beloved servant', reference thereof should be made to the master, not to the god. This brings us very near to the 19th century, or even early 20th century, when many high officials, rich men, owned artistic troops, sometimes comparable with small harems, and had them perform for their own official duty and pleasure, and occasionally for worship. Thus, the sensuousness as found in some artists' proper names must be given a social definition, and does not by any means tamper with the sacredness of art.

"A final onomastic remark concerns the names manohara, -ri, -rika, as meaning 'ravishing, enrapturing, fascinating, charming'. This popular name of artist is not to be found in modern times. Nevertheless, the common vocabulary has kept after Angkor the form manohari, shortened into mahori, to designate a type of music."

Photo: Angkor Thom (beg. 12th century), A sword-swallower flanked by a female cymbalist and a drum-beater.

Tags: music, dance, epigraphy, linguistics, sacred, sensuality, women, gender roles

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)