​The court of Norodom, descendant of Vishnu: French explorers meet an oriental monarch | Phnom Penh Post

The court of Norodom, descendant of Vishnu: French explorers meet an oriental monarch


Publication date
23 July 1999 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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Cheam Sokorng, far left.

Norodom, barely five feet in height, crowned king in 1864 when 28 years old, he had no doubts as to the rights he should enjoy over his country even if these were seldom translated into reality. He died in 1904.

In the second half of the opening chapter of Milton Osborne's revised version

of his book

River Road to China the six French explorers enjoy the hospitality of King Norodom

but finally decide it is time for the real adventure to begin

T HE CITY to which Norodom brought his court in 1866 is best seen for the first time

from the river. In 1866, indeed, it could not be reached in any other way during

the rainy season, and this was how the explorers came.

Phnom Penh in 1866 bore little relation to the city that in the early 1960s had a

population of 500,000 and that had grown by 1974, as war swept over Cambodia, to

a figure well in excess of one million. In 1866, Phnom Penh numbered perhaps 35,000

souls. Most were not Cambodians. There were Chinese and Vietnamese traders in the

great market. Merchants from as far away as Laos sold their wares in Phnom Penh before

making a slow ascent back up the Mekong. Malay fishermen cast their nets in the Mekong

and its tributary the Tonle Sap and sold their catches to the city's inhabitants.

Indian traders sold cloth and lent money, and by 1866 there was even a small resident

European commercial community.

These varied groups were crowded into a jumble of wooden houses that straggled along

the river bank. They seemed unconscious of the stench that rose from the garbage-filled

streets, the primitive drains and canals that inefficiently carried away human waste

matter in this city that lacked any organized sanitation.

Yet not all the smells that were so characteristic of this busy market town were

offensive, or certainly not to the inhabitants. Scents of incense drifted from the

Chinese and Vietnamese pagodas. Curries and spices added their contribution in the

kitchens behind the Indian traders' houses, as did the distinctive smell of nuoc-mam,

the pungent fermented fish sauce that was, and is, an essential of Vietnamese cuisine.

Nor was life for these merchants and coolies just a matter of philosophically accepting

an existence that promised so many of them an early death from incurable disease.

This was also a city of raucous gaiety, ceremony, and parade. Hawkers shouted their

wares with distinctive street cries, and the brassy ring of cymbals and gongs marked

the passage of Chinese processions of celebration as well as those that accompanied

the rites of death and mourning. Just to the north of the city limits the muezzins

called the followers of Islam to prayer. At the edge of the city itself, the bells

of the Catholic mission rang for the Vietnamese converts. With the onset of the sudden

tropical night the city was lit by the gaudy paper lanterns that hung outside Chinese

shops, and the click and rattle of innumerable mah-jong games sounded through the


Yet, however much this cosmopolitan bustle and bargaining were part of Phnom Penh,

there were sections of the city that were unmistakably Cambodian: the royal palace,

the Buddhist temples, and the hill itself from which the city took its name.

Built at the confluence of two wide rivers, Phnom Penh sits on dead flat ground.

The phnom (hill) from which it takes its name is not large, rising only some 80 feet

(24 meters) above the ground. It is topped by a stupa, a Buddhist monument that rises

a further 90 feet (27m) above the top of the phnom itself. In a flat land this combined

height of the hill and its monument was enough for it to dominate the city.

Then, as now, it was a favorite spot for fortune tellers and for Buddhist monks in

their yellow robes. These monks were a constant reminder that this city existed in

a different world from that which the Frenchmen had known in Saigon. There were Buddhist

monks to be seen in Saigon, some even followers of the same branch of Buddhism as

that practiced in Cambodia. But there was nothing like this.

With the dawn of each day the monks streamed into the streets from their monasteries

to beg for food from the faithful. At any Cambodian ceremony the monks would be present,

their yellow robes providing a splash of color, their voices tirelessly murmuring

the prayers and rituals that gain merit through constant, almost trance-like repetition.

The French visitors sat at a long table facing the floor on which the dancers performed, waited upon by palace servants who crawled along the floor so that they should remain below the level of the King, seated at the head of the banqueting table.

(Drawing by Louis Delaporte)

The King himself had been a monk for a time: had entered a monastery, taken the robe,

and had his head shaven. One of the French explorers was later to write that Norodom

mocked the Buddha at times when he felt well and happy. This was the mockery of a

true believer. For the King exemplified the rule that "to be a Cambodian was

to be Buddhist."

Yet to be Cambodian was also to be a follower of other religions. For the peasants,

animism was the dominant belief. For the royal family, Brahmanic rituals, borrowed

some fifteen hundred years before from India, still played a part alongside the other

Indian religion, Buddhism, that was proclaimed the faith of the state.

With their departure set for the next day, the French explorers were summoned to

the royal palace to dine with Norodom on July 6. If this was no new experience for

Doudart de Lagrée, the occasion fascinated the other, younger members of the

party. To enter the royal palace was to come close to the most vital and mystical

features of King Norodom's world.

The supreme guides to court ritual were the Brahman priests. Centuries before their

ancestors had been truly knowledgeable in the philosophies of India. Their 19th-century

descendants preserved the ritual but had little understanding of the philosophy that

lay beneath it. Their long hair caught up in the traditional "buns" of

their Indian counterparts, these Cambodian Brahmans cast horoscopes and were the

interpreters of signs and portents for the King and his family.

Possibly their most solemn duty was to guard the famous sacred sword of the kingdom,

the preah khan. This sword, that had been passed to the ruler's remote ancestors

by the gods, was a symbol and a measure of the kingdom's prosperity. It was, in the

words of the Cambodian coronation ceremony, "the lightning of Indra", the

king of the gods. None save the Brahmans could touch it, and even they were forbidden

to touch the naked blade with their bare hands. The most terrible disaster would

follow if the sword were lost or captured. Should the blade grow rusty or discolored,

the fate of the kingdom would be less terrible but grave nonetheless.

Norodom's palace was not grand, if judged against Versailles, the Vatican, or the

residences of lesser European rulers both spiritual and temporal. But it had its

own dignity, not least for the Cambodians, who saw the palace as a symbol of man's

place within the universe, the earthly center of their existence that was the dwelling

place of a semi-divine monarch.

When the explorers came to the palace, they saw but the beginnings of what by the

end of the 19th century was to be a vast complex of buildings within a compound surrounded

by a castellated wall. Already, however, there was a throne hall, a pavilion for

the royal ballet's performances, and another pavilion where the king met his officials

in daily audience and received the petitions of his subjects. These were wooden buildings,

richly carved along the eaves and lintels, painted and gilded, and roofed with glistening

tiles of blue and yellow that shone in the tropical sun and provided a fitting completion

to this architecture of fantasy.

A few years later, following the opening of the Suez Canal, the Phnom Penh palace

was enriched by a new French gift to the King: the prefabricated cast-iron palace

that had been used by the Empress Eugenie at the opening ceremonies for De Lesseps's

canal. Shipped out to Cambodia and re-erected, it became, if we may believe the repeated

claims of French authors, Norodom's favorite building in the royal compound.

It was not architecture alone that made the palace a matter of interest and wonder.

There was the abiding fascination provided by the members of the court: the officials,

the court dancers, the royal guard and the royal orchestras, the hereditary servants

who tended the royal elephants, paddled the King's barges, and daily risked death

at the King's passionate whim.

Norodom was not a rich ruler, by whatever standards were used to judge him, but his

wealth was sufficient for a court of 2000 persons. A devoted admirer of the traditional

Cambodian orchestra composed of flutes, stringed instruments, and a range of drums,

gongs, and xylophones, he listened with equal pleasure to his band of Filipinos who

played in the Western style. His cavalry was led by men from Thailand. His gunners

were the mixed-blood descendants of Iberian adventurers who had settled in Cambodia

in earlier centuries.

Guards and servants were clothed in reds and blues and wore hats that seemed to have

remained unchanged in design from those shown on the low-relief sculptures of the

temples at Angkor. The more elevated members of the court, both male and female,

wore a rich silk sarong, a sampot in the Cambodian language, drawing its hem up between

their legs to fasten at the back and give the impression of loose, floppy breeches

rather like the loosefitting trousers worn by Dutchmen in so many 17th-century paintings.

Each day of the week had its own color; the sampot worn on a Friday, the day of the

planet Venus, would be blue; those worn on Wednesday, the day of Mercury, would be

green. None of this daily exoticism, however, came near to the impression created

by the entertainment the explorers had been summoned to the palace to see: the special

splendor of the royal troupe of dancers.

Whatever judgments 19th-century Frenchmen made of Norodom - and most of them

were harsh - all agreed on two aspects of his character. He loved both banquets and

the dancing of his court ballet that was an essential accompaniment to the feasting.

There are men still alive in Cambodia who remember, from the early days of the present

century, being told by their parents of the mammoth feasting that took place within

the palace at Norodom's command. Royal banquets would last as long as the King's

endurance. European wine and brandy flowed alongside locally distilled spirits, and

course followed course in a seemingly endless profusion, served from the heavy chiseled

silver dishes made by the royal silversmiths. As the banquet progressed the royal

ballet provided an ever-changing backdrop.

The dancing that Lagrée and his companions witnessed was quite unknown to

all but a very few in Europe. When, 50 years later, Norodom's half-brother and successor,

King Sisowath, took the Cambodian ballet to France, it was a true succès de

théâtre. The artist Rodin led Paris society in lauding the dancers'

grace and beauty.

Dressed in the richest silk shot through with gold and silver thread, wearing golden

tiered crowns or the masks of chimerical beasts and decked with jewels, the court

dancers performed a repertoire that drew on the ancient Indian epics for its subjects:

the heroic deeds of Rama and the legends enshrined in the Mahabharata. But the dances

were not Indian in form. They were slower and more measured, less sensual but no

less full of meaning. Gestures with hand and finger meant as much as a sudden movement

with the whole body. In some cases, as when the monkey gods joined in battle, the

dances were realistic to an almost buffoonish degree. The dancers in their monkey

masks struck simian poses, bent-legged with outstretched arms or thoughtfully scratching

their armpits for fleas. On other occasions, the motions of individuals and groups

were as intricately abstract yet as disciplined as those of a wheeling flock of birds.

The French visitors watched the dances by the soft light of candles, with the incense

blown through the pavilion by the river breeze that floated from the water a bare

300 yards away. They sat at a long table facing the floor on which the dancers performed,

waited upon by palace servants who crawled along the floor so that they should remain

below the level of the King.

Seated at the head of the banqueting table, Norodom mixed banter with a more serious

purpose. Which of the dancers, he inquired, struck the Frenchmen as the most beautiful

and accomplished? They gratified their host by correctly pointing to the King's current

favorite; Norodom's attentive gaze had made their choice none too difficult.

More earnestly, in conversation with Lagrée, the King strove to press a bar

of gold upon the group's leader for their expenses along the way. Doudart de Lagrée

refused. He realized that Norodom hoped in offering them this gift, to ask in return

for their further delay. For if the banqueting and dancing kept the Frenchmen from

daily cares that were soon to be frequent and demanding, these diversions had a similar

part to play for Norodom. As he savored his brandy and watched with a connois-seur's

appreciation the steps that his dancers performed, he knew a rebel-lion was already

under way in the eastern provinces of his kingdom which could threaten his hold on

the throne.

The real world beckoned the explorers. The river was visible from the dancing pavilion,

and it was why they were here. Fantasy would be in short measure in a little while,

but this night's experience could not be prolonged. Norodom might stay watching the

ballet, but the explorers took their leave, following the strict naval discipline

that Lagrée's orders demanded that he preserve.

The next day the expedition left Phnom Penh. Their route lay north up the Mekong,

as the smoke from their final cannon salute drifted behind them and towards the shore.

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