Shadow theater in Angkor Wat

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The Reamker and Angkor Wat

The Reamker is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for visual artists. Angkor Wat (early 12th c.) is the best example of this. Episodes of the epic emerge everywhere in the temple: in the medallions' tapestries of the door jambs, on the pediments and, apotheosis, the Battle of Lanka, whose prestigious bas-relief stretches on about fifty meters length and two meters height.

We know that in India, the country of origin of the epic, and in Southeast Asia, Rāmāyaṇa has been declined in all possible and imaginable forms: sculpture, painting, comics, reading, masked theater, cinema and ... shadow theater. Everyone agrees that this last form has been developed in Cambodia for a long time, but evidence of its antiquity is lacking. We have seen in our chapter The Great Leather Theater: Sbek Thom that, as early as the 7th c., the recitation of Rāmāyana was a way to acquire merits. But we do not know if this "reading" was accompanied or not by a play of actors or leather figures. A recent discovery made by Sounds of Angkor in Angkor Wat offers evidence of a practice of shadow theater in the early 12th century.

An exceptional discovery

On June 22, 2020, in Angkor Wat, on a door jambs separating the southwest corner pavilion from the third south gallery, we discovered a scene attesting to the practice of shadow theater. For a long time, we had been looking for such proof through iconography!

The scene shows the ingredients of a representation of the Reamker. Depending on their artistic conception, the door jambs' medallions can sometimes be read as more or less complex and complete comic strips. 

In this case, the part in green depicts the forest. It shows four owls (red circles). The representation of this nocturnal bird is uncommon, but here, there are four of them! On one of them, we can see the eyes and the beak. The multiple presence of this nocturnal bird and of herbivores appearing quiet, indicate that the scene takes place at night and out of the presence of tigers, present on many door jambs; in short, an atmosphere conducive to the holding of a shadow theater session. This scene has as its central character Preah Ream, who names the epic of the Reamker. One will notice, given the importance of this character in the story, that his head exceeds the frame of the medallion. 

The same for his younger half-brother, Preah Leak, but to a lesser extent by hierarchical convention. All around, other characters, human and animal. Above Preah Ream, the narrator-singer of the Reamker (purple circle); note the peculiar position of his hand turned towards his own mouth and not the outstretched hand as if he were expressing himself in the manner of a singer or a caller. Once again, the Khmer sculptors were able to adapt so as not to confuse the actors. This is the only representation of this type in all Angkor Wat. Behind the narrator, a flutist (blue circle) holding a bow. There are two interpretative solutions concerning this musician: either he embodies the image of the orchestra that supports the action of the Reamker, or he accompanies the narrator-singer alone. We know that the flute, in the border regions of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, plays following the song with a certain shift, moreover, paraphrases and magnifies it. In Cambodia, especially in the singing of the arak ceremonies, which we consider to be one of the oldest in Cambodia, the flute is replaced by the tro fiddle which offers the same technical possibilities.

In front of the narrator-singer (white circle), a shapeless object, unique among all the medallions of Angkor Wat and, to our knowledge, in all the Khmer temples. This is the screen on which the shadows of the characters are projected! We do not know its size or the material used at that time, but if we stick to the strict reality of this image, it could be an animal skin stretched over a frame; however, a woven canvas is not to be excluded either.

Finally, in the yellow circle, there is a figure firing a bow at 45° downwards. He is aiming at a monkey. This seems to be the scene in which Preah Ream kills the Bali monkey that had taken power from his younger brother Sugrîb. But the most extraordinary is the fire represented behind him, which is none other than that of the shadow theater. This medallion (see colored version below) is unique in all the iconography of Angkor Wat.

Analysis of the scene and adjacent contexts

A complementary element comes to accredit the thesis of the scenography of a shadow theater: the particular position of this door jamb. First, it is located west of the temple, that is, at sunset; the shadow theater is performed after sunset. Second, it is in line with a famous bas-relief in the southwest corner pavilion of the third gallery on the north side, the one we like to call the "Scene of Pleasures", where the King and his entourage engage in all sorts of secular games and dances (below). The door jamb is not directly in the plane of the Scene of Pleasures, but slightly out of step since it is the access door to the south gallery.

Many Angkor Wat's door jambs depict scenes from the Reamker, but in a more dynamic way. Here we have both static characters (Preah Ream, Preah Leak, Seda and Hanuman or Sugrîb) and more dynamic ones (monkeys of Hanuman's army...). One does not feel a willingness on the part of the artist to bring an episode of Reamker to life, but rather to plant the characters, charging the narrator, the manipulators and the musician to give substance to the story. If the medallions really represent the characters as they are shown in shadow, it is understandable that some of them are in a dynamic position. Two hypotheses can be put forward to understand this panel:

  1. As close as possible to the representation: it would be an equivalent of the current Sbek Touch ស្បែកតូច (small shadow theater) played with limited means, in a village setting (small skin or canvas screen, small leather characters, easy to transport, orchestra reduced to a musician (flutist).
  2. Allegorical representation: it would be a Sbek Thom ស្បែកធំ troupe playing in front of a large screen (here the representation of the screen is constrained by the size of the medallion and its circular shape). The flutist is an allegory of the orchestra in the same way as the small cymbals played by the drunk men of the Scene of Pleasures. We know from the multiplicity of examples discovered in Angkorian bas-reliefs that these two instruments, and only these, are allegories of music.

We are aware that the reading, declamation or dramatized representation of the Reamker is not only a "pleasure". However, the understanding of the epic can be perceived at various levels of reading. Shadow theater, beyond a deep understanding of the text, is an attractive medium that can appeal to all social classes and ages of Khmer society. Isn't the best proof of this today its representation in front of crowds of foreign tourists ignorant of the Khmer language?

Shadow zone

We do not know for the moment the nature of the two porters standing respectively behind Preah Ream and Preah Leak.

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