Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Module no. 9: Cambodian Literature
Posted by: Beverly Abelon
Cambodian or Khmer literature has a very ancient origin. Like most Southeast Asian national literatures its traditional corpus has two distinct aspects or levels:
The written literature, mostly restricted to the royal courts or the Buddhist monasteries.
The oral literature, which is based on local folklore. It is heavily influenced by Buddhism, the predominant religion, as well as by the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Ancient stone inscriptions
A testimony of the antiquity of the Khmer language are the multitude of epigraphic inscriptions on stone. The first written proof that has allowed the history of the Khmer empire to be reconstructed are those inscriptions.
These writings on columns, stelae and walls throw light on the royal lineages, religious edicts, territorial conquests and internal organization of the kingdom.
Following the stone inscriptions, some of the oldest Khmer documents are translations and commentaries of the Pali Buddhist texts of the Tripitaka written in the Khmer script.
These texts were written with stencils by the monks on palmyra palm leaves. They were kept in various monasteries throughout the country and many did not escape the destruction of the Khmer Rouge.
The Reamker or Ram Ker (Rama's fame) is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, the famous Indian epic. The Reamker comes in rhymed verses and is staged in sections that are adapted to Cambodian dance movements interpreted by local artists.
The Reamker is the oldest form of Cambodian theatre. The Robam Sovann Maccha - a certain dance from the Reamker about Hanuman and Suvannamaccha, the golden mermaid, is one of the most renowned pieces of classical dance in Cambodia.
King Thommaracha II (1629–1634) wrote a poem directed to the Khmer young generation which is still a well loved traditional piece of poetry.
King Ang Duong (1841–1860) is known in Khmer literature for being not only a king but a famous classical writer in prose. His novel Kakey or Ka key (from the Sanskrit word for a "female crow"), is inspired in a Jataka tale and has elements of regional folktales. It narrates the story about a woman that is unfaithful to her husband and ends up being punished by him for her betrayal. It contains specific moral lessons that were used in texts in Cambodian schools. Kakey social norms were traditionally taught to high-born young Khmer girls and the story's values have cultural relevance even in present times.
Another work by Ang Duong, also probably inspired in an ancient legend, is Puthisen Neang Kong Rey, a novel about a faithful wife ready to sacrifice her life for her husband. Khmer poets and songwriters have used the words "Kakey" for a woman who is unfaithful to her man and "Neang Kong Rey" for a very faithful woman.
Vorvong & Sorvong Tale illustration. Khmer 19th century drawing.
Cambodia had a rich and varied traditional oral literature. There are many legends, tales and songs of very ancient origin that were not put into writing until the 19th and 20th centuries and that until then had been memorized and told for generations.
Many of these tales borrow features and plots from the Indian epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as from the Buddhist Jataka tales. They also often show Siamese influence.
The oral-tradition legends were often extremely long stories in rhyming verses. Their heroes were mostly princes and supernatural beings and the scenarios were often connected to the palaces and the monasteries. One important purpose of these legends and stories handed down for centuries, was to transmit norms and values. Most stories emphasize the peaceful resolution of conflicts. References to geographical landmarks and the meanings of the names of Cambodian locations were also transmitted through the traditional tales.
One of the most representative of these tales was the story of Vorvong and Sorvong, a long story of the Khmer oral tradition about two Khmer princes that fell into disgrace, but after a series of ordeals regained their status. Vorvong and Sorvong was first put into writing by Auguste Pavie as "Vorvong and Saurivong"; this French civil servant claimed that he had obtained the folk legend version he wrote down from a certain "Old Uncle Nip" in Somrontong District. This story was put into writing in Battambang.
There are two hills in Kirirom National Park, Phnom Sruoch District, Kampong Speu Province, named after the two heroic princely brothers, Vorvong and Sorvong.
Another Khmer folktale with a local mountain as a reference is Puthisan Neang Kong Rei.
In 2006 the Vorvong and Sorvong story was enacted in dance form by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.
Tum Teav is a classic tragic love story set in Kampong Cham that has been told throughout the country since at least mid 19th century. It is based on 17th or 18th century poem of uncertain origin, probably having originated in a more ancient Cambodian folk legend. Nowadays Tum Teav has oral, literary, theatre, and film versions in Khmer. Although its first translation in French had been made by Étienne Aymonier already in 1880, Tum Teav was popularized abroad when writer George Chigas translated the 1915 literary version by the venerable Buddhist monk Preah Botumthera Som or Padumatthera Som, known also as Som.
The era of French domination brought about a requestioning of the role of the literature in Cambodia. The first book in the Khmer script in a modern printing press was printed in Pnom Penh in 1908. It was a classical text on wisdom, "The recommendations of Old Mas", published under the auspices of Adhémard Leclère.
The influence of French-promoted modern school education in Cambodia would produce a generation of novelists in the Khmer language beginning in the early decades of the 20th century. These new writers would write in prose, illustrating themes of average Khmer people, set against scenarios of ordinary Cambodian life.
The clean break with the ancient Indian and Siamese influence was not abrupt. Some of the first modern Cambodian literary works keep the influences of the versified traditional literature, like the 1911 novel Dik ram phka ram (The Dancing Water and the Dancing Flower), Tum Teav (1915) by the venerable Som, the 1900 work Bimba bilap (Bimba's Lamentation) by female novelist Sou Seth, or even Dav Ek by Nou Kan, which appeared in 1942.
1. What is the big contribution of buddhism to cambodian literature?
2. What is the popular legend in Cambodia?
3. Give atleast one writer during King Ang Duong era.