Texts, photos, videos: © Patrick Kersalé 1998-2020, except special mention.
The representation of flutes are rare. Therefore, we give here an almost exhaustive overview of our discoveries. The only type existing in pre-Angkorian times is the transverse flute. There is no epigraphic occurrence in the Angkor period.
In 16th century, in the north gallery of Angkor Wat, a wind instrument that could be a blockflute is also represented.
The flute through the Pre-Angkorian iconography
Transverse flutes are visible on two lintels from the 7th century. exhibited at the National Museum of Cambodia (photos 1, 2), both from the archaeological site of Sambor Prei Kuk (Kompong Thom province), and a third from Phnom Bakheng (3).
The flute (veṇu) through the Pre-Angkorian epigraphy
The foundation stele of Preah Ko temple (late 9th century) mentions several generic Sanskrit terms referring to servants specializing in music and singing, the names of three instruments including a flute and some words related to the playing itself.
narttakyaśśobhanā bahvyo gāyanyo vādikās tathā
Original translation by G. Cœdès, 1937. Inscriptions du Cambodge, vol.I, p.22:XXXV
"Un grand nombre de belles danseuses, chanteuses, récitantes, musiciennes, joueuses de vīṇā et autres (instruments), habiles à frapper des cliquettes."
"A large number of beautiful dancers, singers, reciters, female musicians, vīṇā players and others (instruments), skilled for knocking the rattle."
Vocabulary related to music and dance
A great number of beautiful dancers, singers, reciters, female musicians, zither players and others (instruments), of flute, skilled in clinking the small cymbals.
The ancient Khmer word kluy appears on the pedestal of the central sanctuary of Kuk Prasat (994 AD) in a list of goods donations to the temple alongside two other instruments: "k[l]uy 1, kinara 1, chko 1" , "1 flute, 1 stick zither, 1 chko (unidentified instrument)". If the term kluy is perfectly identifiable, the nature of the flute remains unknown. However, if one refers to the Ancient Khmer, Indian and Borobudur iconography, only transverse flutes are represented.
The term kluy has been transmitted in the modern Khmer (khluy).
In the north gallery of Angkor Wat (16th century) appears a trio of wind instruments. It could be either a blockflute as the modern Khmer khloy, or the ancestor of the pei ar oboe; these two instruments still existing today in Cambodia. It could also be a bamboo or brass free reed aerophone. The reed is embedded laterally near the upper end. The musician engages a few centimeters of the instrument in his mouth until covering the reed. This instrument is usually played at an angle of 45 °, which doesn't seem to be the case here.
The presence of three aerophones is remarkable. Indeed, instruments, whatever their nature, are always represented unitarily or by pair. But here we have the only example that escapes this rule. The author of this bas-relief may have wished that these instruments were numerous. Sets of processional flutes (transverse flute too) still exist today in Nepal to the Newar people in the Kathmandu valley. On the other hand, we don't know of any examples of pei ar oboes ensemble more than two in Asia. Therefore, our provisional conclusion would be to consider these three instruments as blockflutes.