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Tracing the combined influences that created the Khmer identity

Tracing the combined influences that created the Khmer identity


Definition of syncretism (from the Oxford English Dictionary)
1 – the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.
2 – (in Linguistics) the merging of different inflectional varieties of a word during the development of a language.

Behind Khmer New Year: the origins of Khmer civilisation

Khmer New Year, in Khmer Coul chnam thmey, which means literally “enter new year”, originates in religion just like the various New Year traditions and ceremonies all around the world.

In the case of Khmer civilisation, it is particularly hard, not to say impossible, to track the precise religious origins of the three days which constitute Khmer New Year: Hindu, Buddhist and very certainly more ancient elements contribute simultaneously to the ceremony. To take a simple example, we ask the question: to which religious tradition does the erection of a sand hillock on the ground of a temple on the second day of Khmer New Year belong to? A realistic answer would be to all three religious traditions.

As we will see in the following lines, to start with this syncretism may offer a useful approach to Khmer spirituality, a door to Khmer soul and civilisation. But we have to stay on our guard and not, as it is done too often, to analyse Khmer civilisation as a kind of irrational piling up of various successive layers. On the contrary, Khmer social space has to be understood as a whole which presents deeply original characteristics.

At the annual meeting of the Indian History Congress in December 2001, Karan Singh appealed to its members to give attention to “the history of the great cultural efflorescence from India that spread throughout South and Southeast Asia”. He lamented that “our historians” neglect “our own cultural expansion” and appealed to them to “link us to the greater India, in cultural terms that lies far beyond our shores”. The reference to “greater India” is a throwback to an earlier era in Indian intellectual life. During the early and mid-20th century pan-Asianism had captured the imagination of many Indian intellectuals. This vision which bears the name of Pan Asiatism was particularly popular amongst many Indian intellectuals before independence.

In such a way of looking at things, Hinduiaed Southeast Asia, and particularly Cambodia, would be but a mere by product of India. To size up this Pan Asiatic conception requires a prior examination of the contributions of India to Cambodian civilisation.

From the first centuries of the Common Era, there has been a huge moving of men, techniques and of course ideas from India to peninsular and insular Southeast Asia. Later history was to conceptualised this moving and create the label of “Hinduisation”. The causes of such moving are obviously numerous and can’t be easily reduced to unity. The great French epigraphist Georges Coédès had nevertheless stressed the vital necessity India had to stock up with gold, a task difficult to carry out after the edict of Antonin the Pious (86-161) which had forbidden gold export to India.

The subsequent artistic and intellectual dimensions of this adventure were mostly to be remembered, but as it is often the case in similar movements, everything began with trade.  What was going to be dubbed “Greater India” or “outer India” was born with the emergence of the first Hinduised kingdoms in Cambodia such as Funan (1st–7th century AD) and Chenla (7th–9th century AD). Curiously, our main sources of information about these kingdoms are Chinese documents which were compiled much later.

As soon as the end of 6th century AD, the results of the process can be truly seen: centralised conception of the state, creation of a script, new religious and artistic forms. This shows the efficiency of the Indian contribution, but on the other side it shows also the ability of the Khmer land to absorb it and, far more important, to transform it through a slow adaptation to local conditions.  

What was going to change radically the face of the Khmer land was first of all a new conception of the state. Local chieftainships of which the authority didn’t exceed the limits of the village were going to be replaced by much stronger state entities.

Here, just like in many other places all over the world, a new vision of the state was to be coupled with new religious forms and the emergence of a script.

More than a century of research has allowed tracing the origins and development of Khmer script: a script used in South East India to write Sanskrit language.

Steles were first written in Sanskrit language and the most ancient one dates back to second century AD: the Vo Canh stele discovered near the present town of Nha Trang.

Slowly, this script has been extended to Khmer language and the first stele in Khmer to have been discovered is the Angkor Borei stele also known as K 600. This venerable text can be exactly dated to the year 611AD.

From the 7th Century onward, Khmer land was to be characterised by a linguistic duality, Sanskrit and old Khmer, with an essential precision: the two languages complemented each other never carried a similar content.

In the following centuries, Khmer writing displays a remarkable continuity, contrary to Cham and Mon writing: Let’s simply consider that we can follow with the steles the evolution of Khmer language and writing from the 7th to the 15th century without interruption. The result is that Khmer space constitutes an essential key to the understanding of the past of the region.

Why to insist so much about writing? Because it is an essential metaphor which allows us to understand the singularity of Khmer civilisation. Contrary to what is often believed, Sanskrit and Khmer are no more related than English and Arabic, but the medium to write Sanskrit could be successfully adapted to write Khmer, and Khmer hasn’t been transformed into Sanskrit for all that.

The religious dimension was also to play an essential part. Predominating animist religious forms, without disappearing at all, were progressively replaced at an official level by Indian religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. Here too, the situation is highly complex because Hinduism can’t be easily adapted, as we can’t imagine a transposition of the caste system in an environment different from India. The reality was that the practice of Hinduism was reduced to power circles and has been playing the part of a state religion for many centuries.

As concerns Buddhism, it offers a unique example of a religion cast out by the very civilization which creates it. Buddhism doesn’t exist anymore in India, but it remains very much associated to Indianity in Cambodia. Here again, we can see the polymorphous nature of Hinduization: Hindu religion for the highest levels of government or as a spiritual support of power, Buddhist religion for the others. To be more exact, we would have to add various animist worships which still exist today.

Here again, Khmer land is in no way India’s obedient child.

A controversial artistic production
The most visible part of India’s influence is made up of artistic creations which began at the end of the Kingdom of Funan (style of Phnom Da, 6th century AD) and went on after the 15th century with a very original Buddhist art.

Khmer art is very religious in its essence and its models originated in the Indian thought. Temples and statuary are impregnated with Hindu ideology. Then, would archeological remnants, Cambodian temples, and Khmer statuary be a simple transplantation of Indian genius into Khmer land?

The iconographic ideology on the one side and the achievement of the artistic work on the other, are worlds apart. An eloquent example would be the temple of Angkor Wat: the biggest Hindu temple ever built. The conception of the temple is of course based on Indian mythology, the epics displayed, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are amongst masterpieces of Indian literature, so then... we have to avoid hasty conclusions. First Angkor Wat wasn’t built in India, but in Cambodia, then, and it is the essential point, Angkor Wat has no equivalent in India and this is true of most of Khmer temples. Even if the conception of the mountain temple is Hindu, it has never been implemented in India -- but in Cambodia -- and this fact provides Khmer architecture with a great originality.

The statuary is also most controversial as it originates in Indian mythology, but there is no Indian equivalent of Pre Angkor and Angkor statues which can be admired in Phnom Penh National Museum. Only a small part of the Indian Pantheon is represented and the selection has certainly been done on the base of Khmer deities which existed prior to Hinduization, and here too, continuity is the rule.

The name of a god in one thing, the way to represent the god, to translate it into sandstone is another one as Khmer aesthetics constantly challenge Indian iconographic codes. Moreover, an Indian god was even invented in Cambodia: radiant Boddhisatva Avalokiteçvara; although this god has an existence in Indian religious thought but has never been represented in India.


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