2 - Ancient Cambodia

Our knowledge of ancient Cambodia derives from three sources; - the interpretation of the bas-reliefs, the writings of Chinese travellers and the reading of the inscriptions on stone. Nothing remains of the tinted parchment manuscripts, written in chalk, or the latania leaves on which the inscribed characters were blackened with a pad. These essentially perishable records were able to resist neither fire, the humidity nor the termites.


The scenes sculpted on the bas-reliefs - in particular at the Bayon - often show almost exactly, if one has the time to study them closely, a picture of daily rural life that has barely since changed. One can see there the same kinds of dwellings, the same carts or canoes, the same costumes, the same instruments for cultivation, hunting, fishing or for music, the same habits and the same manual trades.


The most complete of the Chinese chronicles - and the most descriptive - are those of Tcheou Ta-Kouan who, in 1296, just after the first wars with the Siamese and at the beginning of the period of decadence, accompanied a Sino-Mongole envoy to Angkor. His "Memoirs on the Customs of Cambodia", translated by Paul Pelliot and published in the Bulletin of the École Française d'Extrême-Orient of 1902, give an idea of the conditions of life in Cambodia at the end of the 13th century. He says of the inhabitants:

"The customs common to all the southern barbarians are found throughout Cambodia, whose inhabitants are coarse people, ugly and deeply sunburned. This is true not only of those living in the remote villages of the sea islands, but of the dwellers in centres of population. Only the ladies of the court and the womenfolk of the noble houses are white like jade, their pallor coming from being shuttered away from the strong sunlight.

"Generally speaking, the women, like the men, wear only a strip of cloth, bound round the waist, showing bare breasts of milky whiteness. They fasten their hair in a knot, and go barefoot - even the wives of the King, who are five in number, one of whom dwells in the central palace and one at each of the four cardinal points. As for the concubines and palace girls, I have heard that there are from three to five thousand of them, separated into various categories, though they are seldom seen beyond the palace gates. When a family has a beautiful daughter, no time is lost in sending her to the palace.

"In a lower category are the women who do errands for the palace, of whom there are at least two thousand. They are all married, and live throughout the city. The hair of their forehead is shaved high in the manner of the northern people and a vermilion mark is made here and on each temple. Only these women are allowed entry to the palace, which is forbidden to all of a lesser rank.

"The women of the people knot their hair, but with no hairpin or comb, nor any other adornment of the head. On their arms they wear gold bracelets and on their fingers, rings of gold - a fashion also observed by the palace women and the court ladies. Men and women alike are anointed with perfumes compounded of sandalwood, musk and other essences.

"Worship of the Buddha is universal...".


The epigraphy is less anecdotal in nature and describes the other Cambodia, particularly its history, offering a more serious documentation. Together with the studies in the history of art it has enabled the accurate dating of the monuments.

Inseparable are the names of Barth, Bargaigne, Kern and Aymonier, then of Louis Finot and of Georges Cœdes, all of whom dedicated themselves to their task with an impressive methodology and a rigorous discipline. Due to the number of discoveries their science soon became of major importance.

The earliest known inscriptions date from the 7th century and relate to the central Indian "Saka" era. Later than the Christian era by 78 years, this must have been introduced to the Indian Archipelago and Indo-China by Hindu astronomers.

"From the beginning" - we are told by Mr Cœdes - "they simultaneously used two languages - a scholarly language, Sanskrit, reserved for the genealogy of royalty or dignitaries, for the panegyric of the monuments' foundation or for that of the revered donors - and a common language, Khmer or Cambodian, reserved for the disposition of the foundation and the listing of servants or objects donated to the temple. Sanskrit texts are only written in verse: these are the compositions that the Indians call 'Kavya'".

Sanskrit ceased to be the scholarly language used in Indochina when, towards the 14th and 15th centuries, the Brahmanic and Mahayana (or Large Vehicle) Buddhist religions were replaced by Hinayana (or Small Vehicle) Buddhism, and the language used became Pali, also of Hindu origin. As for the old Khmer, Mr Cœdes remarks that "it differed far less from present day Cambodian than the language of Chanson de Roland differed from French".

The inscriptions were engraved with a burin or etcher's chisel in letters of less than a centimetre in height on steles, on tablets and on the door openings of the sanctuaries. The steles, whose location varied between monuments, generally stood in a special shelter, either as rectangular slabs with two inscribed faces or as bornes with four sides, in a hard, polished stone and fixed to the ground or to a base by means of a tenon. Many were found in open countryside.

The text on the jambs of the door openings often covered most of their surface. Towards the end of the classic period it became usual to recount in one or many lines the setting of a statue - a god or a divinity - in the sanctuary, either in reserving a smooth place in the decorative surface of the stone or in scraping a patch clear: this is also true for the identification of certain scenes in the bas-reliefs. Finally, on many of the blocks, roughly inscribed characters can be seen which must have been made by the masons.