Angkor Wat and the Khmer heritage
The cultural heritage of the Khmer dynasties is of great importance not only to Cambodia but also to Southeast Asia as a whole. From the Angkorian high culture (9th to 15th centuries) only the largest buildings are preserved today, among which Angkor Wat stands out as the largest sacral building in the world, for the construction of which more stones were required than for the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Built in the twelfth century, Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple “) was originally dedicated to the god Vishnu and thus a Hindu temple.
The entire construction follows the ancient Hindu mythology and its conception of the nature of the world. Thus Angkor Wat symbolically represents the Hindu universe with a primordial ocean and five central towers shaped like lotus blossoms. The entire system extends to 1500 by 1300 meters and is pyramidal. The interior of the sanctuary, which in the past could only be entered by monks and the king, begins with the colonnades, in which the huge bas-reliefs mainly depict motifs from the Indian Ramayana national myth.
According to Naturegnosis.com, the temple itself has been used by Buddhist monks for centuries. Away from the tourist streams, which are mainly attracted by the detail-obsessed artistry of the stone cutters of the time, there are still a few places where they pursue their spiritual rites. Nevertheless, Angkor’s culmination point, the central 65-meter-high tower in the middle, is generally accessible. He represents Mount Meru, the center of the universe. In order to get there, however, visitors have to wait a few steep ascents – after all, they should reach the goal with humility and respect.
Even if the place no longer has any special religious significance, it is undisputed that Angkor’s towers today represent the core of Cambodian identity, national pride and patriotism. So it seems only logical that the old Khmer culture is reflected everywhere in today’s Cambodia. The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and many other central structures are built in the traditional architectural style of the ancient Khmer. Important architectural ornament motifs such as the Garuda or the Naga come from Hindu mythology, especially from the epic Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. Scenes from it not only adorn the bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat, but are also played out in the classical dances of the Khmer, for example in the dance of the golden mermaid.
The dance of the Apsaras
The classic Cambodian dance depicts scenes from the epic Reamker and legends of the Hindu and Brahmanic worlds of gods. Apsaras, divine nymphs, who have been assigned a divine status as mediators between heaven and earth, are often at the center. According to legend, the Apsaras are said to have initiated the Khmer into the art of dance. Thousands of individual Apsara figures in the temples of Angkor still bear witness to the veneration that was once bestowed on the Apsaras in Cambodia.
The break with their own culture that the Khmer Rouge carried out during their reign of terror also had an impact on the knowledge of the numerous Apsara dances. Few people still remember the varied repertoire that was performed by the Royal Ballet until the 1970’s. Today the classical dances are taught again at the Royal University of Fine Arts and performed publicly every evening in Siem Reap. The best known include Robam Tep Apsara, Robam Sovan Macha and Robam Chun Por (see below).
The oldest and best-known written record of the historical Khmer empire comes from the Chinese Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor as a member of a diplomatic mission from 1296-1297. In addition to the written texts, oral traditions such as folklore dominated the image of traditional Cambodian literature. The Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are considered influential. Legends, stories and songs developed from this, which also play a role in the present and are reflected in legends, fairy tales and proverbs, among other things. As in other cultures of Southeast Asia, Cambodia included written literature only religious and courtly traditions. Countless inscriptions in Pali and Sanskrit on the temples and steles of the Angkorian era bear witness to this. Later it was King Ang Duong (1796-1860) who also went down in history as a well-known prose writer. The Buddhist monasteries, in turn, wrote religious texts and prayer formulas on palm leaves and thus contributed significantly to the emergence of the Khmer alphabet. These leaves were kept for centuries, but most of them were destroyed under Pol Pot.
Literature for the masses, usually fiction, did not find its way into Cambodian society until the 1960’s. In today’s present, many authors are dominated by the examination of the experiences of the Khmer Rouge. Numerous authors, not infrequently Cambodian exiles all over the world, grapple with the horrors of the past and thus contribute to the reappraisal of history – from which Cambodian literature has not yet fully recovered.
Music is very important in everyday Cambodian life. While traditional pieces are usually performed on official and other festive occasions, the focus is otherwise on songs and performers whose melodies are influenced by Western influences. The pioneer of this development was the singer and songwriter Sin Sisamouth (1932-1976), who, with an extensive repertoire, is considered the most important representative of modern Cambodian music. His plays are extremely popular to this day, and his own history – Sinn Sisamouth was assassinated by the Khmer Rouge – reflects the entire tragedy of Cambodia.
Today’s pop music in Cambodia is heavily influenced by Thailand. Nevertheless, the texts are still mainly in the national language, interpreters singing in English are rarely in demand. One of the most famous “Cambodian” bands is Dengue Fever from Los Angeles, whose six members combine Cambodian pop music and lyrics with psychedelic rock. In addition, the band The Cambodian Space Project has achieved some international fame.
A cultural highlight is the annual international music festival in Phnom Penh that has been held since 2004 and is organized by the Art + Foundation, a German non-profit organization. At the festivals, pieces of European classical music are performed by international performers and virtuosos – with the aim of making this music generally accessible and not restricting it to an elite circle.
Cinema and films
Cambodia’s cinematic tradition began in the 1950’s with films by Roeum Sophon, Ieu Pannakar and Sun Bun Ly. Prince Sihanouk was also an enthusiastic filmmaker and, as a producer, director and / or screenwriter, banned more than 30 cinema and short films on celluloid from the 1940’s onwards. Today the 1960’s are described as the “golden age of Cambodian film”, when more than 300 films were made and shown abroad.
Under the Khmer Rouge, many films were irretrievably destroyed, many filmmakers murdered or forced to flee. From the 1980’s onwards, only foreign productions were shown in Cambodia. Cambodian films were only made very sporadically during this time, while foreign directors and producers discovered Cambodia as a subject. The most famous film of this time is The Killing Fields, in which the fate of the journalist Dith Pran is told. Its actor Haing S. Ngor was the only Cambodian to win an Oscar for best supporting actor in 1985.
It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the scene slowly began to revitalize. The fruits are now visible again, and some Cambodian filmmakers have made a name for themselves internationally: In the multi-award-winning documentary Enemies of the People from 2009, the background to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge is illuminated, in which the journalist Thet Sambath the former ” Brother number 2 “Nuon Chea interviewed. After Rithy Panh, who received an Oscar nomination for his film The Missing Image in 2014, Angelina Jolie also recently dealt with recent Cambodian history.
In addition, many young filmmakers have also established themselves, whose potential has become known beyond the Cambodian national borders. For many, the German-Cambodian cultural center Meta House in Phnom Penh, where their films are broadcast regularly, is an important point of contact. The international film festival, which took place for the eighth time in 2018, would like to build on the old glamor of Cambodian cinema.