Cambodian Art and Culture(Khmer: វប្បធម៌ និង សិល្បះកម្ពុជា) Throughout Cambodia’s history, religious principles guided and inspired its arts. A unique Khmer style emerged from the combination of indigenous animistic beliefs and the originally Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These two religions, along with the Sanskrit language and other elements of Indian civilization, arrived in mainland Southeast Asia during the first few centuries ad. Seafaring merchants following the coast from India to China brought them to the port cities along the Gulf of Thailand, which were then controlled by the state of Funan in Cambodia. At varying times, Cambodian culture also absorbed Javanese, Chinese, and Thai influences.
Music, Dance, and Theater
Art and Architecture
Between the 9th and 15th centuries, a prosperous and powerful empire flourished in northwestern Cambodia. The Khmer kingdom of Angkor, named for its capital city, dominated much of what is now Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The kingdom drew its religious and political inspiration from India. The literary language of the court was Sanskrit; the spoken language was Khmer. Massive temples from this period, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon at Angkor Thum, testify to the power of Angkor and the grandeur of its architecture and decorative art. The unparalleled achievements in art, architecture, music, and dance during this period served as models for later cultural development in Cambodia.
Angkor faded into obscurity after the capital moved south to Phnom Penh in the 15th century, probably due in part to frequent invasions by the neighboring Thais. The jungle rapidly grew over the monuments. In the centuries that followed, frequent wars reduced the territory, wealth, and power of Cambodian monarchs. However, an independent state with its capital near Phnom Penh survived until the 19th century. The most important work of Cambodian literature, the Reamker (a Khmer-language version of the Indian myth of the Ramayana), was composed during this time.
France, which began administering Cambodia in 1863, rediscovered the temples at Angkor and worked to preserve them beginning in the early 20th century. Cambodia’s traditional culture and the monuments of Angkor were endangered between 1970 and 1990 due to civil war. The Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which opposed and mistrusted religion and education, banned all of Cambodia’s traditional arts and its written language. Since 1991, when Cambodia’s warring factions signed a peace accord, international organizations have helped the Cambodian government restore the sites at Angkor and revive Cambodia’s traditional crafts.
Music, Dance, and Theater
Khmer classical dance derived from Indian court dance, which traces its origins to the apsarases of Hindu mythology, heavenly female nymphs who were born to dance for the gods. The traditions of Thailand and Java (in Indonesia) also influenced the music and dance of Cambodia. In classical Cambodian dance, women, dressed in brightly colored costumes with elaborate headdresses, perform slow, graceful movements accompanied by a percussive ensemble known as the pinpeat. Pinpeat orchestras include drums, gongs, and bamboo xylophones. In Cambodia’s villages, plays performed by actors wearing masks are popular. Shadow plays, performed using black leather puppets that enact scenes from the Reamker, are also enjoyed. Folk dancing is popular in rural Cambodia and is performed spontaneously to a drumbeat.
Myths and legends passed down orally through the generations form the heart of Cambodian literature. These popular legends are based on the great epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and on the Jataka tales, stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. Episodes from the Reamker have been portrayed throughout history in all Cambodian arts, from scenes carved in stone at Angkor to mural paintings on the enclosure wall of the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s earliest written documents are stone slabs inscribed in Sanskrit (dating from the 6th century) and Khmer (dating from the early 7th century), which provide a genealogy of Khmer kings and their endowments to the temples.
The first Cambodian novel, Suphat, by Rim Kin, was published in 1938 after the French introduced printing techniques to Cambodia. During the Khmer Rouge regime, literature was restricted to poems, written on themes of peasant and agricultural development, and revolutionary songs. Most Cambodian literary works published during the late 20th century were written by Cambodian refugees living abroad, mainly in France and Thailand.
Art and Architecture
To ensure order and harmony in the universe, Angkor’s architects and sculptors created stone temples that symbolized the cosmic world and decorated them with wall carvings and sculptures of Hindu gods and the Buddha. Religious guidelines dictated that a basic temple layout include a central shrine, a courtyard, an enclosing wall, and a moat. More than 60 of these temple complexes survive in the Angkor region. In addition, several stone bridges and reservoirs built in the Angkor period are still in use. Many Cambodian public buildings, such as the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, are decorated in the Khmer architectural style and use motifs such as the garuda, a mythical bird in the Hindu religion.
After the devastation of culture in the Khmer Rouge era, the traditional arts and handicrafts of Cambodia are reviving. Notable among these traditional arts are textiles, silver work, basketry, woodcarving, stone sculpture, and painting. Artisans use cotton to weave the krama, a rectangular scarf made in colorful checks and stripes, and the sampot, a skirt for women. Beautiful silk sampots with elaborate, multicolored patterns, often entwined with gold or silver thread, are woven using the ikat technique, in which each individual thread is tied. Cambodia’s long tradition of metal work nearly disappeared, but the French revived it in the early 20th century. Silversmiths produced popular items of the period, such as animal-shaped boxes, intricately decorated, that were used to hold the ingredients of a preparation known as betel, which is chewed as a stimulant and tonic.
The Khmer Rouge closed cultural institutions during their rule, but many were reopened in the 1980s. The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s largest museum, with objects dating from prehistory to the 18th century. The museum houses the largest collection of Khmer art in the world and is renowned for its Angkor-era bronze and stone images. The museum’s exhibits also include ceramics, wooden ornaments, musical instruments, weaving looms, lacquer, and silver. The University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is responsible for preserving Khmer culture. It has reopened with departments in music, dance, painting, architecture, and the plastic arts.The Tuol Sleng Museum (Museum of Genocide), also in Phnom Penh, is a former high school that was used by the Khmer Rouge as a killing center and since then has been converted into a museum. Displays focus on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and include torture instruments and photographs of those killed.