Khmer art and literature in Cambodia

This stone head will always see you coming!

The history of art and literature in Cambodia stretches back to the ancient crafts of centuries ago, with Khmer art reaching its pinnacle during the golden age of Angkor. Presently going through a modern revival thanks to global exposure, modern art and literature had been all but wiped out in the time of the Khmer Rouge. Thanks to international interest, notably through tourism and foreign government backed NGOs, contemporary Cambodia is enjoying its own artistic renaissance.

Art in Cambodia

While some traces of stone and brick culture have been traced back to the early kingdoms of Chenla and Funan, with pre-Angkorian ruins found throughout Southern Cambodia, the evolution of Khmer art reached its heights at Angkor. Dominated by pottery and architecture, the decorations and inscriptions had their origins in ancient Buddhism and displayed a series of mystical and religious motifs. The most celebrated cultural images were Apsaras (celestial nymphs) which have become the symbol of Khmer artistic expression.

Typifying the ideal of feminine beauty, these were carved into ornate jewellery and woven into the latest Angkor fashion wear. These, along with the sacred aquatic snake Nagas, both taken from Hindu mythology, to this day define traditional Khmer art. The fabled architectural masterpiece of Angkor Wat stands as the epitome of Khmer artistic expression, an evocation of the home of the gods in Indian cosmology. This timeless representation of the unearthly Mt Meru, with its five symmetrical towers, is found on the Cambodian flag and has become the symbol of Khmer culture.

Prehistoric sites, where stone and bronze tools date back to the Neolithic period, have been uncovered at several locations around Kampong Thom and near present day Vietnam, while a large number of ceramics have been unearthed in the north. By the 9th century, glazed pottery had appeared near the Rolous Temples in Siem Reap, and by the 13th century these were in abundance in both Cambodia and Thailand, with animal decorations increasingly common.

The bas-reliefs on many Khmer temples depict the use of vessels for food and liquids, cooking, perfumes and cosmetics, many of which are still used today. While the graphic arts have experienced a modern resurgence, they are often regarded as trivial and hold little artistic honour. Since the opening of its borders in the 1990s, most Cambodian painters have been involved in the restoration of temple murals.

Literature in Cambodia

Cambodia has a long tradition of literature, centred on ancient religious texts, epic poetry and royal chronicles. However, modern literature is gravely undeveloped. The first known dated inscriptions of Khmer writing are from the 7th century, although writing likely developed under Indianisation in the 3rd Century.

Based on Pali, the language of Buddhist scripture, the growth of literary study was confined mainly to monks and courtly artisans. Oral literature, based on folklore and storytelling, was influenced by the Hindu epics, Mahabharata, Tripitaka and the Ramanyana. The Ram Ker, or Rama’s fame, is the Khmer version of the latter, and its staging in sections to rhymed verses is the oldest form of Cambodian theatre.

The tradition of oral literature in Cambodia is rich and varied, as the Khmers recounted fables through storytelling and song, as opposed to the written word which only came to prominence with the arrival of the Europeans. The most well known stories are of Vorvong and Saurivong, an epic tale of two Khmer princes that has recently been adopted by the Royal ballet of Cambodia, and Tum Teav. The latter is renowned as the greatest Khmer literary work, a local version of Romeo and Juliet.

Studied in schools and portrayed in many forms, it garnered worldwide attention in 1915 when writer George Chigas translated the tale from legendary monk Padumatthera Som, one of Cambodia’s leading writers. King Ang Duong (1841-1860) and King Thommaracha II (1629-1634) celebrated literature in their courts, with Ang Doung famed for his novel about an unfaithful woman, Kakey.

Years of colonisation and political turmoil meant the educated population was often dependent on second languages, with Vietnamese, Thai, French and English all in strong demand for the perceived opportunities they provided, and the production of local literature was virtually non-existent. Under the Khmer Rouge, writers either fled or were executed. The 1980s was dominated by socialist and communist propaganda, and while greater freedom has slowly developed since 1991, there remain precious few modern literary works.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, great efforts have been made to restore the traditional art and culture that was destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, notably in the past decade as Cambodian culture has been discovered on the world stage. Although foreign NGOs and investors have sought to resurrect many movements, they are very much catered towards the interest of tourists rather than true aficionados.