The voice in Angkorian times

Last update: May 11, 2021

The voice is also an instrument whose bas-reliefs are echoed. Epigraphy also mentions various functions of singers and reciters, men and women: singers of vocal ensembles serving worship, singers of praise, singers accompanying themselves by a musical instrument. The voice, like the instrument of music, is a matter of specialist. The texts mention the skill of the musicians and the quality of the singers' voice.

The voice through the Angkorian epigraphy

In Angkorian times, singers occupy a prominent place in the temples both hierarchically and quantitatively. In the 9th century, in the lists of temple servants, strictly ordered, they are generally mentioned immediately after the dancers. In Lolei and Preah Kô temples, singers are twenty to twenty-two for only three dancers. In the first part of these lists, the caṃryyaṅ singers are distinguished from the caṃryyaṅ stutī praise singers; one and the other probably working in the heart of the sanctuary. Although mentioned in the first part of the list, the praise singers were not to work with the singers properly so called because between them are inserted drum players. In India and Nepal, the praise songs are still to be found today, accompanied by drums and small cymbals in the bhajan devotional songs. In the second part of the lists, singers accompanied by śikharā, caṃryyāṅ śikharā in Lolei and singers of praise caṃryyaṅ stutī in Prasat Kravan are mentioned with various guardians and logisticians. We can also note, in both parts of the lists, gandharva whose function remains obscure; they were perhaps both musicians and singers as mentioned above. Let us note that the śikharā could be the crocodile zither known among contemporary Khmer as kropeu. This instrument is mentioned in the Xīn Táng shū (新唐書New Book of Tang) relating the coming in 802 in Chengdu of musicians sent by the King of Pyu (actual Myanmar): “Two crocodile-headed zithers (guishou zheng) with nine strings and eighteen frets in the left and the right”. (According to a translation by François Picard)

The voice through the Kok Roka inscription

According to the stele of Kok Roka (opposite), the name of the singers informs us about the aesthetic perception during the pre-Angkorian period, the canons or the relation to music. Thus, the first singer on the list has a voice that sings melodious sounds, the second makes the gāndhāra sound (third of the seven primary notes of the Indian music system), others produce well articulated sounds, have passionate voice, contracted vocal cords or singing with the throat, others have the voice comparable to that of the heron or the wild goose. The choir does not seem to be the result of a casting tending towards uniformity, but rather towards an assemblage of diversity.


Singing through Sanskrit poetry

The song is considered as a major discipline, as indicated by the writing in Sanskrit of the Lolei's stele (9th century).

yas sarvvaśāstraastreshu      ilpabhshlipishv api

nittagtdivijñne-                 shv dikariteva padita

“In all sciences and fencing, in the arts, languages and scriptures, in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he is as clever as if he had been the first inventor [as if he had been Brahmā himself].”


Sanskrit poetic epigraphy refers to singing as a praise vector. Thus, on the foundation stele of Pre Rup (10th century), we find the glory of the dedicatee sung by the living as well as by the dead.

yaobhir udyadbhir udttagtais

tirohita yasya yao nyadyam

vrdd ivdypi samhta sat

kvpi prayti svaritopagtam

“The glory of others, who had been eclipsed by her rising glory, sung very loudly, and which to this day has been, as if by shame, withdrawn somewhere, prowls sung by the dead.”


French translation of Lolei's stele: Bergaigne A.,1893. Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale et autres bibliothèques. Tome XXVII, 2e fascicule, p.398.

French translation of Pre Rup's stele: Cœdès G. IC I p.88 XCIX.

The Kok Roka inscription (K.155)

The inscription entirely in Khmer language. Its  provenance is uncertain. It was dated from the 7th or 8th c. according the typology of its writing. It is a list of servants of the temple. We give here only the two lists related to the female singers.


care / Female singers (first citation)

All the singers have a name in direct relation to their function with the exception of ku Padminī.

ku Racitasvanā: Who performs melodious sounds

ku Gāndhārasvanā: Who makes resonate the “Gāndhāra” sound (Sanskrit) that is to say the scale (Shadj (Sa), Rishabh (Re), Gandhar (Ga), Madhyam (Ma), Pancham (Pa), Dhaivat (Dha), Nishad (Ni)

Ku Raktasvanā: With passionate voice

ku Suvivṛtā: That produces well articulated sounds

ku Susaṛvṛtā: To the vocal cords well contracted

ku Sārasikā: With the voice of the female heron

Ku Padminī: Lotus. Excellent woman.


care / Female singers (second citation)

The name of the second and fourth singers does not qualify their voice.

ku Sugītā: Who sings well

ku Suracitā: Well-dressed

ku Kaṇṭhagītā: Who sings from the throat

ku Muditā: Joy sympathizing joy

ku Ka-oṅ: ?
ku Kītakī: Panegyrist

Khmer translations according to Saveros Pou, Dictionnaire de Vieux Khmer-Français-Anglais (2004).

The voice through the Angkorian iconography

The bas-reliefs portray characters singing. They are recognized by various signs: open mouth, tight index or specific hairstyle, sometimes these three elements simultaneously.

In Bayon temple, in the court orchestras depicted on bas-reliefs, we can see one or two female singers (below). The first one always sit in front of the orchestra with a raised hand; she isn't crowned like instrumentalists but capped of a single or double bun. The second singer is probably the player of small cymbals if judged by the similarity of her hairstyle.

Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singers a bun.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singers a bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singer a double bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singer a double bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.

This Circus scene of Bayon shows, as part of physical and the white weapon's jousts, a singing joust accompanied by string orchestras. Two ‘teams’ clash. We can clearly see on both sides of jugglers and acrobats, the two singers on the right side expressing themselves with vehemence while the left one, alone and introspective, prepares his reply. The singing jousts are known until now in Cambodia, especially those accompanied by the chapei dang veng lute.

Given the nature of the instruments, low volume, we do not think that they accompanied the games presented in the scenes above.