In this page, we will examine the nature, function and decorations of the dance halls of three large religious buildings built by the Royal Triad: Preah Khan of Angkor and Banteay Kdei, to whom we will add the Bayon while comparing them to the dancers' gallery of Angkor Wat. We are here overlooking the Ta Prohm one, whose dance hall is inaccessible for several years because of restoration work and Banteay Chmar in ruins.
These halls are so called because of the many representations of female dancers. Several studies don’t conclude as to their final destination. Olivier Cunin, in DE TA PROHM AU BAYON - Analyse
comparative de l’histoire architecturale des principaux monuments du style du Bayon (Volume 1 - p.56) writes: (our translation) "The function of these "dancer’s halls" remains still today an
enigma. The friezes of apsaras or dancers adorning the interior of this type of building are the origin of their current name. This denomination, convenient to designate them, was with time
assimilated to their original function. Nowadays, commonly associated with the execution of ritual dances that were to be performed by the dancers' corps associated with the large complexes with
such a building. Ta Prohm, Preah Khan of Angkor, Banteay Kdei and Banteay Chmar are the only complexes of Jayavarman VII with such a dancers' hall."
We will rise here an error of interpretation concerning the termination "friezes of apsaras" which, in our opinion, does not correspond to the reality. See our article: Apsaras or sacred dancers?. Moreover, if the Bayon doesn’t have a dancers' hall built on the model of the four temples cited by Olivier Cunin, it has spaces with similar characteristics in terms of architecture (halls with columns located outside the main sanctuary) than iconography (dancers engraved on the inner pillars and dance masters on the pilasters of the entrances).
Today, new clues are shedding new light on the so-called ‘enigmatic’ function, or more precisely unconfirmed, of these dancers' halls.
In the dance halls of the three aforementioned temples show performances of female dancers. It is the same in the Bayon on the pillars of the outer gallery and the eight axial pavilions. But pillars and pilasters in Banteay Kdei and Bayon also show figures that we will call here “female dance masters”. We will briefly describe the locations where they are depicted.
In Bayon, large-format dancers are represented in high relief on the pediments of the doors opening onto the inner courtyard. On the pillars of the axial pavilions at the four main orients and four intermediate orients, dancers are shown alone, in mirrored pairs, or in threes (one large dancer in the upper register and two smaller ones in the lower, mirrored register). The outer gallery of the Bayon is lined with two rows of pillars. Most of the four sides of the inner row are decorated with a female dancer. The pilasters in the forebodies of these pavilions are carved with images of female dance masters, more rarely of dancers getting ready, and in two cases, a harpist.
In Preah Khan, on the interior pediments of the dance hall, high relief friezes depict dancers symmetrically on either side of a larger central dancer. Most of the pillars are carved with two dancers.
In Banteay Kdei, the pillars of the dance hall are carved with pairs of dancers.
In Bayon and Banteay Kdei, the pilasters of the forebodies of the axial pavilions are engraved, inside and/or outside, with scenes showing dancing mistresses and, more rarely, female musicians. Detailed typologies of these scenes will be developed later.
The Bayon, a state temple during the reign of the Royal Triad (Jayavarman VII and the Jayarājadevī and Indradevī), has eight dance halls distributed to the eight orients. Hypothetically, it is possible that each of these halls was dedicated to the people of the eight geographic areas of the kingdom as defined by the inscriptions on the eight alcoves of the central tower.
The dance halls of the three temples mentioned above, and more broadly in Bayon, the pillars of the outer gallery and the axial pavilions, show depictions of dancers. But pillars and pilasters,
in Banteay Kdei and Bayon, also show characters that we will call here ‘female dance masters’ here. We will briefly describe the locations where all these characters are depicted.
In Bayon, large-scale dancers are depicted in high relief on the pediments of the doors opening onto the inner courtyard. On the pillars of the axial pavilions located at the four main orients and the four intermediate ones, dancers are represented alone, by two in mirror or by three (a large figure in the upper register and two smaller ones in the lower register, in mirror). The outer gallery of Bayon is lined with two rows of pillars. Most of the four faces of the inner row are decorated with a female dancer. As for the pilasters of the fore-bodies of these pavilions, they are engraved with images of dancing masters, more rarely dancers preparing themselves and, in two cases, a harpist.
In Preah Khan, on the interior pediments of the dancers' hall, friezes in high relief represent dancers in symmetry on both sides of a larger central dancer. Most of the pillars are engraved with two dancers.
In Banteay Kdei, the pillars of the dancers' hall are engraved with duets of dancers.
In Bayon and Banteay Kdei, the pilasters of the forequarters of the axial pavilions are engraved, inside and / or outside, with scenes showing dance masters and, more rarely, female musicians. We will develop further the detailed typologies of these scenes.
We know from the epigraphy that a large number of servants, and especially dancers, were attached to the temples. The Ta Prohm’s stele translated by G. Coedès (1906) reveals figures that make you
LXIII ... There are 400 men here, 18 main officiants, 2,740 officiants
LXIV ... 2,232 assistants, among whom 615 dancers (nāṭikāḥ)
LXV ... In total 12,640 people, including those entitled to housing
LXVI ... 66,625 men and women do the service of the gods
LXVII ... In total 79,365 with the Burmese, the Chams, etc.
In Preah Khan (Preah Khan's stele, inscription K. 908), the number of dancers is more important:
4,606 men are cooks and other
2,298 are serving; 1,000 female dancers (nāṭikāḥ)
Could we define the nature of the ballet corps’ personnel? As already mentioned above, the iconography of the pillars of the dancers’ halls shows us two types of characters:
Apart from these two types of characters, there is in Bayon, quite exceptionally, a single harpist and a singer accompanied by a harpist, corroborating the nature of string orchestras developed on wider bas-reliefs at the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar in other contexts (court music and festivities).
We have just mentioned the existence of scenes representing dancers (or novices) paying tribute or listening to a female dance master. The training of the dancers and the rehearsals were to be an
important part of the ballet corps’ schedule. Today, it takes about ten years to teach an accomplished dancer in the royal ballet of Cambodia.
During the long Brahmanic period that preceded the reign of the Royal Triad, dance was an offering to the Hindou deities as well as material offerings. But who were these dancers addressing in the days of the Royal Triad? The answer may be contained in the iconography of the pillars in Bayon and Banteay Kdei. In these two temples, a Buddha was systematically carved above each dancer. But almost all are gone. Indeed, after the death of King Jayavarman VII, ensued an iconoclastic period with the return of Shaivite Brahmanism. All iconographic references to the historical Buddha and Buddhist triad were systematically erased. Concerning the Buddhas represented above the dancers on the pillars, this effacement took three forms:
1. The Buddhas have been totally erased until they no longer see any outline
2. Buddhas have been erased but the form is generally visible
3. Buddhas have been transformed into floral decorations.
Some of them, however, have been forgotten in the destructive madness and have survived intact. They are usually located in less visible or less well-lit areas. They would have escaped the vigilance of the foremen responsible for the verification of the work of borage. Unless workers who disagree with the Brahman hierarchy have disobeyed by failing to burn them. One could also think that when the general form remains visible, the destroyer had the same intellectual step. But this remains an enigma.
The Hindu temple is built in the image of a perfectly ordered universe. When the devotee enters it, he actually travels an initiatory path within his own body, while symbolically traveling through the solar system. In the temple, the planets of our solar system, of which there were nine at that time, are assigned a function of the highest order:
Sun: Preah Sûrya ព្រះសុរិយា or Preah Atit ព្រះអាទិត្យ (is always on the far left in the alignment)
Moon: Preah Chan ព្រះច័ន្ទ (is always in second position from the left)
March: Preah Angkear ព្រះអង្គារ
Mercury: Preah Puth ព្រះព
Jupiter: Preah Prasat ព្រះប្រហស្សត៍
Venus: Preah Sok ព្រះសុក្រ
Saturn: Preah Saw ព្រះសៅរ
Rahu, the ascending node of the moon, or the eclipse (head of the dragon): រហូ (is always in second position from the right)
Ketu, the knot coming down from the moon, or the comet (tail of the dragon): កេតុ (always on the far right)
In the Khmer temple, the planets are represented by nine deities, Navagraha, called in Khmer នពគ្រោះ (នព is the number "nine" in Pali and Sanskrit as written in Khmer, គ្រោះ designates the celestial bodies) or ផ្កាយនពគ្រ (ផ្កាយ designates generically the celestial bodies).
Those of the Bayon remain in situ in the heaps of cut stones in the western courtyard near the entrance.
What was the nature of ritual dances in the temples? Katia Légeret, researcher specialized in classical dances of India, enlighten us as to the vocation of the dancers of ancient India: "For
millennia, the myth of the Creation was transmitted orally in the form of a symbolic gesture which combines dance, music and poetry, in other words a "total theater". The temple dancers regularly
performed the ritual of the nine planets. The Nâtya-Shâstra, the oldest treatise devoted to dramatic art, does not envisage the construction of a scene or a public performance without a prior
invocation of the planets. Even today, the dancers of Bharata-Nātyam for example, at the beginning of each show, at the time of the offering of flowers (pushpanjali), invoke the planets
and divinities of the cardinal points, soliciting their benevolence."
This ceremony is reminiscent of ceremonies for ancestors and masters celebrated before any "artistic" performance of a ritual or performative nature.
Let us now return to images other than those of practicing dancers, carved on the pillars of the dancers' halls and the Bayon's axial pavilions. Let's take a look at some of them. Several images show us dancers looking at each other in a mirror.
Here, the dancer prepares alone. Her bracelets and harness are not visible. In front of her, a box containing perhaps her jewels.
An engraving of Bayon shows us a dancer preparing to dance. The image is of poor quality but most of the information is present. The dancer is sitting like in Occident. She wears the standard jewels of temple dancers (crown, necklace, shoulder belt, bracelets, ear pendant). She looks at herself in a mirror. She is dressed by a mature woman recognizable by her hanging breasts. Her garment is bordered and decorated with four-petal flowers (pka chan).
On other images, we discover dancers paying tribute to their dance master or receiving advice. This practice is still alive in contemporary Cambodia. The ritual utensils, including a ewer and a pot whose destination is unknown, are clearly visible under the seat of the dance master.
In this image, the engraver brings us several information. The presence of the curtain reveals the intimacy of the place. The character sitting on the stool is a mature dancer. She is wears a traditional bun. Her belly is bounced and her breasts slightly drooping. Her garment shows two folds in a triangle, typical of those of the dancers. Her right arm curved outward is undeniably that of a dancer. Although many Khmer women have this anatomical feature, the work of extending the arm at the elbow is one of the exercises that dancers must undergo during their training. It is part of the aesthetics of Khmer dance until today. Her tense finger indicates she is speaking; here she is probably giving advice. The student sits on the floor as a sign of submission to authority, feeling accentuated by the arched back. Her two arms are folded as a sign of listening (canonical representation). Her short hair says she is single. At the foot of the stool, a ewer that is used by the dance teacher to symbolically purify her pupil.
This character is unusual. He seems to be very fleshy. Indeed, between her chin and what we suppose to be two necklaces, the skin of the neck forms a bead, her breast is big. Her hair seems braided with her thick eyebrow. The sculptor represented the pupil of the eye, which is unusual in this kind of sculpture. The decor of the bracelets is also unusual. (Given the degradation of the sculpture, we don't guarantee the accuracy of the clipping).
This dance master gives advice to a dancer in action. Her hand is up but her index is not pointed. This case is unusual since verbal or sung communication is always accompanied by a pointing index. On the other hand, her mouth is open.
This image presents the same general ingredients as the previous one but the position of the master differs. She doesn’t openly offer advice. It seems to be a verbal exchange. The student's hand is in contact with the master's knee, reinforcing the intimate nature of the exchange. Also differ objects at the foot of the stool. It could be here a kit to prepare betel quid.
In this picture, the dance master listens to her pupil sitting in front of her. She has her arms folded in respect, but her back is straight. Note the floral decor of the curtain and the making of the bun. The sculptor used continuous lines to signify the hair and the decor of the garment reminiscent of unfinished work but ultimately very aesthetic. At the foot of the stool, an ewer and a box.
The body positions of the female dance masters are diverse. Some clearly show their role in relation to the sacred dancers. If the quality of the sculpture is heterogeneous, the attitudes and the message they carry are perfectly identifiable. Two attitudes coupled with the expression of the faces stand out:
On the picture opposite, the female dance master with a seemingly strong character is holding a kid! Its use among dance masters in Cambodia is still in use today (video opposite). It is used to mark the authority of the dance master, to correct the positions of the students or to strike the musical pulse.
In his 1913 book "Ancient and Modern Cambodian Dancers", George Groslier wrote: "The scenes are learned to the sound of the tam-tam (drum). Severe and attentive, fifteen mistresses currently supervise (under the reign of S. M. Sisowath) the rehearsals. They have different grades (...) They are former dancers and first dancers who were driven out of ballet by age. A part lives in the Palace and is the incessant guard of the dancers. They punish with bitter blows of rattan the faults, the inattentions or the bad wills of the pupils."
Reasoned use of the kid in 2020.
Female dance master holding a kid. Bayon.
During the Bayon era, we don’t have any texts describing precisely the composition of the personnel serving the deities. On the other hand, we know some texts dating back to the 9th
century. Certainly, we are four centuries later, in a Buddhist context and no longer a Brahmanic one. However, a number of structural elements seem unchanged:
• Persistence of dance masters both at the Royal Palace and Bayon style temples. In the 9th century, in the hierarchical administrative texts of the Roluos group sanctuaries, a female inspector (taṃrvac) appears at the head of the list, who seems to be a general supervisor of the dancers, singers and musicians.
• Persistence of dancers and singers
• Presence of string orchestras with a hierarchy that seems unchanged.
Female characters at the Banteay Kdei dancer hall could be dance inspectors. The image of one of them, South side, is particularly neat. His bun is adorned with decorative accessories of indefinable nature. This woman seems to differentiate herself from everyone else by her elegance.
Through the presence of this particular iconography, we can see the control of the comings and goings of the actors as dancers, singers ans musicians inside the ritual space. To this day, dance and music masters are respected by their followers according to strict codes that are reflected in these images. Note that in the Angkorian era, the image has a spiritual or magical force. It's not less so today. Do not devotees prostrate themselves before the two or three dimensional images of the Buddha, of various divinities, or of kingship? The presence, at the four directions, of inspectors and / or dance masters is therefore not innocent. It is then appropriate to consider this index as a presumption of proof that these vast halls were intended for offerings rituals of which dance, songs and music constituted an essential, even indispensable component.
In Angkor Wat, the ‘dancers gallery’ located West just past the moat, is rich with young female characters, sitting, seeming to control the West and East entrances and exits, and the passages between the various interior sections of the gallery. What differentiates Bayon dance masters from those of Angkor Wat is their apparent youth. Indeed, their breasts are firm and not pendent as in the Jayavarman VII's temples. If we examine the attributes of some of Angkor Wat's dance masters, we find that some of them bear the symbol of power that King Suryavarman II holds on the image where he is represented in majesty in the South gallery. Princes, princesses and some devatas, perhaps of royal blood, wear this same emblem. The epigraphic texts teach us that dance and music were among the virtues of well-educated people. So it's conceivable that the control of the good education of the dance was entrusted at that time to women of royal blood. Moreover, if we compare the representation of these dance masters (with probably some inspectors), let us say provisionally, of royal blood, with the representation of the characters of the bas-reliefs of paradise and the underworld (Southern gallery), we see that the body of women who go to heaven has not aged, while those who go to hell have their breasts hanging. This portrayal of bodily youth in spite of advanced age could be the key to understanding the apparent youthfulness of Angkor Wat's dance masters.
The dance masters of Angkor Wat, if any, are not represented in front of their static student but in front of the dancers in action. None are represented with exterior accessories such as an ewer
or box. None is expressed verbally (stretched index not shown). Either they are in listening position, or they hold a lotus flower bud or something else. But it could also be a panel of diverse
characters: students, dancers at rest, dance masters or inspectors.
In this picture 01 we can discern a difference of status between the two characters. The one on the left is represented above, her hairstyle and her clothes seem richer.
On the picture 02 the character holds an object similar to that of King Suryavarman II. It could therefore be an emblem of power; the character would then be someone from the court.
On the picture 03, the character holds some indefinable in her left hand.
The character in the 04 image holds a fan.
The character of the picture 05 holds a lotus flower bud.
The character 06 looks juvenile. She is small. She holds something indefinable in his right hand near her mouth. Her right elbow is also very low compared to her knee, of which not a character of power.
The characters of the pictures 07 to 09 have the arched arm. But it is advisable to compare the hairstyles with those of the dancers. Sometimes some of them seem less rich.
In all four great temples of the Bayon era (Preah Khan of Angkor, Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Banteay Chmar) the dancers' halls are located upstream of the central sanctuary, entering from the East. They could certainly be bypassed. In Angkor Wat, the Dancers' Gallery is the first space to cross from the West (this temple is normally oriented as well). In any case, the location of the dancers' halls seems to tell us that there were rituals of offerings in which dance had a preponderant place. This might indicate that ordinary people didn’t have access to the rest of the temple and had to make offerings in or near these places. The presence of the great Vishnu of Angkor Wat could be a presumption of proof.
The qualitative diversity of the dance masters' sculptures raises questions both in Bayon and in Banteay Kdei. The sensation that emerges is that of a sculpture laboratory where novice sculptors would have been trained. On the other hand, in Angkor Wat, the sculpture is very neat, like that of the dancers.
On the walls and pillars of the main Angkorian temples lie hundreds of dancers represented in positions quite different from those of the Apsaras proper. The largest number of performances is located into the dancers’ halls and, in Bayon and Angkor Vat, in the external galleries.
The position of the dancers corresponds to a constant canon in the 12th and 13th century. One foot is placed on the ground, another raised, legs bent, two arms up or an arm up and one down. This is not only a canon of representation, but a basic position of religious narrative dances. By ‘narrative dance’ we mean a choreographic corpus that can replace the words and syntax of a text to describe a situation or tell a story. Religious dance is, like the verb, a tool of communication with the deities. Words replace gestures of hands (mudras / seal) and a set of bodily positions. In the South Indian tradition, the mudras reinforce the sacred word (mantra) or mental intention (bhavana) when it exists.
One can be surprised by the longevity of the dancers’ existence in Hindu temples. What were the motivations of such a craze? If dancing was offered as entertainment for the gods, what was the
benefit to the devotees? If the argument of the religious approach is insufficient, then the answer is plural.
It exists a universal component of humanity that is beauty. It attracts and unites humanity. Art exists in all latitudes. Its first tangible traces date back to the Upper Paleolithic with rock paintings. At that time, music and dance were already existing concepts. Although dance is offered to divinities, the plastic of moving bodies and adornments have always been a source of wonder for ‘spectators’ and a social performance (sometimes competitive) for performers. It was, and still is, an entertainment of choice. In temples, for men (and to a lesser extent for women, depending on sexual orientation), the body of the dancers was a source of fantasy and desire. A fantasy and a desire that inevitably led to the overtaking of the white line and the prohibition of devadasi in Hindu temples by the prudish English settlers in the middle of the 19th century. The best proof of the relevance of the argument is that following the prohibition of dance in Hindu temples, some of these dancers have converted and put their art on the stage: the Indian classical dances are today internationally recognized. These dances bear various names according to the regions of India: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri, Mohiniyattam, Chhau, Yakshagana and Bhagavata Mela.
Another reason for temples to keep dancers comes from the first one. A competition with the beauty center and aim to attract the devotees and their donations. This argument remains alive in the 21st century regardless of religion. Even if the religious centers (churches, mosques, temples, pagodas, synagogues) have for primary vocation to serve the interests of the population of a nearby geographical area, a competition between the neighboring religious centers, even distant ones, does exist. In the Angkorian era, competitiveness among temples was probably less crucial because no transportation and therefore walking distances required additional physical effort to go further.
Except for the harp of the Bayon's southeastern forefoot, no other musical instrument is depicted in the dancers' halls. The only epigraphic texts evoking musical instruments in Hindu sanctuaries
date from the 9th century in Roluos. They mention zithers, harps, lutes, small cymbals, scrapers and percussion whose nature isn't revealed. However, instruments sculpted outside the
dancers’ halls inform us about their nature and their general shape. Instruments of the same kind are apparently used both at the court and inside temples. Rare Bayon and Preah Khan of Angkor's
sculptures show us ensembles composed of zither, harp and small cymbals. Other instruments certainly existed but are never represented as for example the scraper, present in the court orchestras
and quoted by the epigraphy of Roluos.
But let's go back to the Bayon harp. It's an arched harp, standard model of the Angkorian era. The number of strings is relatively indefinite. However, despite the mediocre image, the engraver represented the tuning pegs and a foot located at the front of the sound box. Above the harpist, a singer recognizable by her open mouth and finger extended.
The place where this bas-relief is located is cramped. The stone on which this scene is carved blocks access to the south-east dance hall of the Bayon. It seems to be a series of reused blocks because they have many holes for technical use, such as transportation and polishing of the joined faces. Generally, the bas-reliefs are carved on blank faces.
For a long time, we have wondered about the place occupied by the musicians and singers in charge of the animation of the sacred dances. The south-east dance hall of the Bayon seems to offer us the best answer. We said earlier that the door to the vestibule adjacent to the north side of the south-east dance hall had been closed (which is also the case for the doors of the seven other dance halls). According to Olivier Cunin, this is a construction technique and this false door would have been naturally obstructed from the beginning. The study of this bas-relief, in relation to the architecture of the south-east dance hall and its adjacent vestibules, shows that the sculptor represented the place by unfolding it and arranging the perspective. Musicians, dancers and guests are shown sometimes in front and sometimes behind the pillars. Seen from the outside, there are seven bays but here, for reasons of space, only five. The central bay is the dance hall. From the outside, the roof and its decoration have disappeared, but the capitals on the interior pillars match perfectly those of the dance hall and adjacent vestibules. We believe that the musicians and singers were seated in the north vestibule, where this bas-relief is located.
At the time of the Bayon, all the halls were covered and the proximity of the orchestra to the dancers is perfectly consistent. We know that the string instruments, the one-stringed zither and the harp, are not very powerful, but the singing and the percussion are enough to guide the dancers. We also mentioned that the string orchestras of the ancient Khmer never show the drums. However, we believe that drums were part of all string orchestras, whether religious or palatine. This assertion, certainly peremptory, is attested by the fact that all the string orchestras of India at the time of Gupta (5th century), Borobudur, Java (9th c.), Roluos (9th century epigraphy), Cham, Vietnam (8th-10th century), Ayutthaya, Siam (18th century) ... had drums. Indeed, there is always a drum conductor who is the link between the dancers and the orchestra, a conductor in a way. Even if the string musicians did not see the dancers, they simply followed the drummer's directions and the drummer followed the dancers. Today the samphor drummer is the conductor of the pin peat orchestra. In the mobile pin peat of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, mounted on wheels, the samphor is in front and the skor thom just behind.
The iconographic elements of the decoration of the pillars and the pedestals of the dance halls show that :
If we are in a Buddhist setting, we must not forget that the Preah Khan of Angkor and Ta Prohm were temples dedicated respectively to the father and mother of King Jayavarman VII and to some illustrious figures. Worship was thus given to both the Buddhist triad and the deceased.