Texts, photos, videos: © Patrick Kersalé 1998-2020, except special mention.
‘When Shiva hammers the Mount Kailasha with his rhythmic steps, rock crystal bursts spring up into the sky and illuminate it; here are the stars also born from skulls pieces projected into the universe during the dance.’ (Shri Harsha)
The scenes depicting Shiva's Dance in pre-Angkorian and Angkorian iconography provide an opportunity to discover a part of the Khmer musical instruments. The oldest presentations date back to the first quarter of the seventh century. One may wonder, however, whether the instruments depicted in these mythological scenes were actually played by the Khmers or whether they are only representations inherited from India. The answer is categorical: the instruments that animate the Shiva Dances express a tangible reality. Indeed, they exist in scenes illustrating the life of the temples, the court or the army, with the exception of the “Shiva drum” itself. But this instrument was found in archaeological digs! The musical instrument is a special object that artists cannot invent. In addition, the relationship between the musician and his instrument is generally well represented in Khmer iconography. All these elements attest to the veracity of the subject.
If Shiva is the god of dance, his artistic skills don't stop there. He knows sixty-four forms of art which, for what interests us here: the dance, the song, the theater and the practice of the
musical instruments. In India, the best-known Shiva dance is that where the god appears in the singular posture known as Naṭarāja or King of Dance. Shiva is considered as the destroyer of
the world, but he is also interpreted in India as the supreme Creator. He does not utter the world, he dances it and his dance represents the animation of the universe.
In India, Shiva holds in his right upper hand, an hourglass-shaped drum with whipping balls, ḍamaru or ḍamarin (Sanskrit), with which he rhythmizes the destruction and creation of the world. In his upper left hand, he carries fire, symbol of destruction. His lower right hand is in abhaya-mudrā, a protection gesture, while his lower left hand shows his raised leg symbolizing the liberation's hope (moksa). He tramples on the dwarf demon Muyalaka who represents the forces of ignorance and disorder. He is encircled by flames that symbolize the succession of cosmic cycles.
In Cambodia, the two oldest representations
of the Shiva Dance date back to the first quarter of the 7th century. They are two lintels, referenced 1748 and 1757 (hereinafter), today exposed to the National Museum of Cambodia in
Phnom Penh. In these two cases, the god is represented as a man with two arms surrounded by musicians on both sides.
In the Angkorian period, in most scenes, Shiva is depicted with ten arms, dancing on Kala's head. He presents the creation of the dance alphabet - in the form of 108 karana (positions, transitions) described in the Nāṭya Śāstra - by performing a vigorous dance at the time of the twilight: sandya-tandava. We can clearly see some carefully carved mudrās in Banteay Srei. This type of representation is however not systematic.
Kâla is a creature that can be seen throughout the Khmer history. Many interpretations have been given about its visible face in the lower register of many lintels and pediments. It is also called Kirtimukha. This term consists of two Sanskrit words: kirti “glory” and mukha ‘face, mouth or entrance, opening’. In all cases, its features are: a round face, a wide upper jaw, protruding teeth and dilated nostrils in a lion-like snout. The lower jaw is sometimes present but most of the time, only the triangular tongue is visible. Garlands of foliage escape from his mouth. According to an Indian legend, the voracious Kâla demanded a victim to Shiva: the god was very angry about its request and demanded that the creature devours itself. Then Kâla began to execute, until only its face and its upper jaw remained. Shiva then ordered it to play the role of temple guard and remind devotees of the gods' power to protect or destroy. According to this interpretation, Kâla commits everyone to determine whether its own actions are worthy of the gods.
Along with Shiva and the musicians, there is, in several scenes, a female character who appears for the first time in the 10th century: Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. “Her name means ‘Mother/Woman from Kāraikkāl’ in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. She was probably the first poet to write hymns to the god Shiva in the Tamil language, in approximately the mid-6th century. Speaking to god in one’s mother tongue, rather than Sanskrit, was pivotal to the development of Hindu bhakti or devotionalism that arose in response to the religions of Jainism and Buddhism, which reached the apex of their popularity in South India during the 5th and 6th centuries. She is considered the author of 143 poems organized into four works of poetry that are included in the eleventh book of the Tirumuṟai, the Śaiva canon: Aṟputat Tiruvantāti (Sacred Linked Verses of Wonder), with 101 veṇpā verses; Tiruviraṭṭai Maṇimālai (The Sacred Garland of Double Gems), with 20 stanzas alternating in veṇpā and kaṭṭalaik kalittuṟai; and the two patikams called Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Mūtta Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ (First Sacred Verses on Tiruvālaṅkāṭu), which are ten-verse poems with an eleventh “signature” verse each and which are set to music (some texts call the first patikam Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Mūtta Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ and the second patikam simply Tiruvālaṅkāṭṭu Tiruppatikaṅkaḷ, or Sacred Verses on Tiruvālaṅkāṭu). Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār’s poetry reveals a fascinating portrait of the localization of the pan-Indian god Shiva in the Tamil country and the early formation of a self-conscious community of devotees dedicated to him. In several of her verses, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār identifies herself as a pēy (demon or ghoul), a member of Shiva’s troupe of ghouls that dance with him in the cremation ground. In the state of Tamil Nadu, Śaiva Siddhānta developed over many centuries to become the dominant philosophical, theological, and ritual system associated with the god Shiva. The tradition was systematized between the 12th and 14th centuries but draws its devotional perspectives from the stories and hymns of the Nāyaṉmār (“leaders,” singular nāyaṉār), the sixty-three devotees of Shiva who were canonized as saints in Cēkkiḻār’s 12th-century hagiography, the Periya Purāṇam, and who continue to be venerated in the Tamil Śaiva tradition today; Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is the only female poet among them. In Cēkkiḻār’s narrative, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār is a beautiful, devoted wife and ardent Shiva devotee whose husband is frightened by the manifestations of Shiva’s grace she has earned and thus abandons her. Ammaiyār then asks Shiva to take away her earthly beauty and give her a demon form in which she can properly worship him.”
We will begin by presenting two Shiva's dances from the 7th century, then we will continue chronologically. On the other hand, we will only talk about scenes in which at least one musical instrument appears and we will limit ourselves by describing the musicians and their instrument.
Reading the lintel from left to right:
The style of this high relief can be related to that of the same period in South India (below). Shiva's hairstyle and the nature of the musical instruments are comparable.
Reading the lintel from left to right:
On a Banteay Srei pediment, a musician animates the dance of Shiva with two drums of different sizes; they stand vertically with a
slight inclination. In this case, the two sound pitches are produced by two different sizes instruments. These two drums seem to replace the symbolic drum-rattle ḍamaru or
ḍamarin, one of the usual attributes of Shiva. Such drums have been found in excavations.
On the far left is Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. Her open mouth shows her teeth, proof that she sings her hymns to the Shiva's glory. In her right hand, she holds a ball and in her left one, it seems to be a stick. The ball has an orifice which, if not due to erosion, could mean that the object is hollowed out. It could then be a wooden percussion as is still used today in China or Vietnam to accompany the chanting of the sacred texts of Buddhism.
At Phnom Chisor, Shiva plays the monochord stick zither. He is accompanied on his left by Vishnu on the drum and Brahma on the small cymbals. The hairstyle and position of the drummer's arms are
similar to those of Banteay Srei. On the other hand, the nature of the drum is not identifiable. The small cymbals and the string that unites the two elements are clearly visible. To the right of
Shiva, as in Banteay Srei, there is again Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. The character holds, in her right hand, what we identify as a flapper and in her open left hand, a cylindrical object. This
instrument is similar to that of the Sambor Prei Kuk's high relief ref. 1748. The shape and holding of the object in the left hand are similar. This instrument and playing position are never
represented outside the Shiva's Dances.
What would then be the real nature of this instrument? The part held in the left corolla-shaped hand of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār could be a block of wood on which a small cymbal would be attached. As
for the object held in the right hand, it could be a simple wooden stick.
On the Phnom Penh Museum's high relief ref. 1763 (see above), Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār holds an object in her left hand while her right hand lies on the ground. This object is oblong in the near part of its head; its diameter narrows and hangs outside the hand. For now, its remains unidentified.
Under construction !
At Preah Vihear, Shiva dances on an elephant head surmounting Kâla. The god plays a monochord sitck zither. The particular position of his right hand clearly indicates the playing technique where it is appropriate to generate a ‘partial’ (sometimes improperly called ‘harmonic’) and not a note produced by the whole length of the string. This playing technique is similar to that of contemporary ksae diev. To the left of the deity is a drummer. His instrument could be a goblet drum given its inclination which aims to let the shock wave escape through the open foot. In front of this drummer, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār again. The sculpture is degraded but reveals however her emaciated body; her right hand is placed on the ground as in the sculpture of the National Museum of Cambodia, her left knee is raised. On the other hand, no instrument is discernible.
This beautiful engraving of a Shiva dancing probably dates from the period of the Shiva reaction following the reign of King Jayavarman VII. It is part of a similar set of engravings adorning a hall of the Preah Khan temple of Angkor. The god dances on a lotus flower, adorned with jewelry typical of Khmer royalty and as well as the clothes of sacred dancers. To his left stands Ganesha, his son who claps his hands.
This high relief, today at the Battambang Museum, could come from Wat Baset. Shiva dances on Kâla's head while playing a monochord stick zither. To the right of the deity, a woman hits a drum. This is an extremely rare event. The only drummers represented outside the Shiva's Dances play in military music ensembles and are, as such, always men. The few identified drummers who animate Shiva's Dance are those of Banteay Srei and Preah Vihar. The instrument shown here could be, as Preah Vihar, a goglet drum given its inclination. To the left of Shiva, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. The sculpture is, once again, too eroded to discern what she holds in her right hand.
The so-called “Preah Pithu” archaeological complex consists of a group of five monuments located northeast of the royal palace area, just north of the Prasat Suor Prat towers. From the start, they were designated by five letters T, U, V, X and Y due to the general uncertainty regarding their date of construction. The APSARA Authority, which recently installed information markers, gave them Khmer names.
The west lintel of the U Sanctuary of Preah Pithu's temple represents a Shiva dancing on a Kâla's head. He is surrounded by the two other great gods of the Trimurti: Brahma and Vishnu. The dance
is animated by a harpist, below, to the left of Shiva. The instrument is an arched harp, the classical model of the properly Angkorian era . The chord plane is visible but not the strings
themselves. A foot at the front of the instrument is also discernible. Ganesha, Shiva's elephant-headed son, faces the harpist. The position of his superimposed hands could suggest that he plays
small cymbals, even if they are not represented. Brahma and Vishnu also have their hands superimposed, but the small cymbals are not represented either. In the ancient Khmer orchestra, there is
still only one pair of small cymbals whose two interlocking elements represent the sun and the moon. Then, the two divinities may strike simply in their hands.
On the far left, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār. She once again holds a unidentified object in her right hand.
In May 2020, during an umpteenth visit to the temples of Preah Pithu, we discovered, among the hundreds of blocks strewn around the T sanctuary, two elements in high relief which formerly constituted a pediment representing a dance of Shiva. Given the geographic position of the two blocks, it could be that of the west gate, east side, the natural orientation of Shiva. It is very likely that other elements are buried somewhere in this chaos.
The upper block shows Shiva's torso and three left arms. Above the divinity, on the right, an apsara.
The lower block represents, on the left, Brahma or Vishnu playing small cymbals; on the right, the lower part of Shiva's garment and his damaged left foot. Below, three characters including, in the center, Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār: his gaze is raised to Shiva and his mouth is open to sing the hymns; she is wearing a shiva chignon. To the left of the bun, there remains an element of pointed shape which could be the object which it usually holds and which is, among the Khmers, always of an improbable nature.
To determine which of Brahma or Vishnu plays cymbals, other blocks will have to be found.
French ethnomusicologist Jacques Brunet reports a Khmer legend collected in Battambang, in the 1960s, from a former musician at the Royal Palace in Phnom-Penh, named Meas Run. (In : L'orchestre
de mariage cambodgien et ses instruments. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. Volume 66, 1979. pp. 206). "In ancient times, Shiva wanted to give a dance lesson to the world. At that
time he went down to India, which was the center of the world. Then Brahma's wife played pin, Indra played the khloy flute while Vishnu played chhing cymbals and his
wife Laksmi sang. This orchestra made Shiva dance in an admirable way. (...) »
This legend thus corroborates the presence of four instruments represented in the Khmer bas-reliefs: the pin (restrictively the harp or widened, a stringed instrument), the khloy flute appearing in a single occurrence, in the seventh century to Sambor Prei Kuk, chhing small cymbals and voice.
In the pre-Angkorian period, the Khmers and Chams were two Hindu peoples. The iconography and the texts from the 7th to the 9th centuries show that they had same nature
musical instruments. Four sculptures of the Danang Museum (Vietnam), representing Cham Shiva's Dances, demonstrate this.
On picture 01 a harpist and a percussionist accompany a sixteen-armed Shiva. The harpist is surrounded by two dancers, recognizable by their arm in hyper-extension. Praying women overhang the musicians.
In picture 02, a twenty-eight-armed Shiva plays a monochord stick zither. The upper resonator and clearly visible.
On picture 03, a twenty-four arms' Shiva on his Nandi mount, dating from the 11th-12th centuries, plays a zither. The upper resonator is visible above his shoulder. The playing position of the right hand is not in line with the playing technic of the single-headed zither as described above: it could be a two-stringed fret zither. We can not prove it, but preserve it as a hypothesis already made about some 12th century Khmer double-resonator zithers.
On picture 04, Shiva's Dance is accompanied by a flute, three barrel drums and a small hourglass drum with whipping balls. The latter is, compared to our research, the most important. Indeed, it's to our knowledge the only iconographic evidence of this type of instrument. In India, in the Shiva-Naṭarāja representations, the hourglass drum is always in the upper right hand of the deity. It's also here, the only testimony of the outsourcing of the proper ‘Shiva drum’. This situation could shed light on the nature of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār's instrument on the 1763 sculpture of the National Museum of Cambodia and perhaps also that of Preah Pithu.
The Shiva's Dances studied here echo the many artistic skills of the deity and, by extension, his teaching. In the seventh century scenes, dance, instrumental music and singing are clearly
The musical instruments and instrumental associations that accompany the Shiva's Dances are eclectic. If we link the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian eras, we distinguish two categories of instruments: melodic ones (monochord zither, two-strings fretted zither, arched harp, flute, conch) and rhythmic ones (small cymbals, drums) wood-block (?), hitting hands). Both are self-sufficient or associate. These instrumental associations depict the reality of the orchestras accompanying sacred dance in temples.
The musical instruments are shown according to two configurations:
The nature of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār's percussion instruments is not fully understood. The Indian representations of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār show her playing cymbals sometimes with handles or a link connecting the two elements. We are inclined to think that Khmer sculptors represented an instrument whose nature they did not understand, as has often been the case throughout the history of sculpture and painting around the world. In terms of organology, visual artists represent what they see and, in the best of cases, what they understand about the operation of musical instruments. Here, in this case, there are inconsistencies: if Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār really played cymbals, both hands should be busy with. But in the case of the sculpture of the National Museum and Preah Pithu, one of her hands lie on the ground. By comparing the Khmer sculptures with those of India, we note that the handle of the cymbals is represented in the Khmer iconography but not the cymbals themselves, which would attest to the misunderstanding of the sculptors or the incompleteness of the original pattern, if he existed.
This article contains a large Indian iconography of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār in high definition.