Texts, photos, videos: © Patrick Kersalé 1998-2020, except special mention.
Our study of the Khmer harp began in Cambodia in 2006. But the reality of its existence goes far beyond the current borders of the country since the instrument we know today has its roots and its name in India. It is by following the roads of the expansion of Hinduism and Buddhism at the beginning of the first millennium that we will be able to follow its course. There are memorial traces of it in India, of course, but also in Afghanistan, Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, at least as far as the "bowed harp" is concerned.
There are many types of harps throughout the world. The Khmer instrument is characterized by its so-called arched or boat shape, close to one of the last survivors of Southeast Asia, the Burmese saùng-gauk.
During the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods, the harp existed in Cambodia, but we lose its track towards the middle of the 13th century. Indeed, after the death of King Jayavarman VII, very few durable constructions were built on which harps could have been carved. In addition, no lapidary writings mention the instrument beyond the 9th century. As much to say that we do not know much!
However, thanks to science and the possible cross-checking of various sources, we have been able to retrace part of his odyssey, from southern India to northern China, passing through Java and Champa. His name has not been forgotten and is still today associated with certain stringed instruments. Its name derives from the Sanskrit word vīṇā वीणा which in India was used to designate all kinds of zithers. But in Cambodia, the old Khmer term vīṇa refers to the harp. The modern Khmer term (pin ពិណ) derives directly from the latter. By extension, pin has become the generic name for Khmer plucked string instruments: chapei, ksae diev or ksae muoy, takhê. The Thai term phin พิณ refers to a long neck lute originating from the Isan region of Thailand and played mainly by ethnic Laotians in that country and in Laos. This term also applied, in the past, to the Thai krajappi lute, equivalent to the Khmer chapei dang veng. It is therefore not easy to know to what extent the memory of the harp has been preserved.
In the 1960s, the French ethnomusicologist Jacques Brunet met a musician from Battambang named Meas Run, and he reported: "In ancient times, pin had only one string (an allusion to the one-stringed zither). Later, the musicians perfected them and gave them up to 21 strings (probably an allusion to the ancient harp that disappeared from Cambodia). This number 21 is confirmed by two bas-reliefs from the Bayon temple. Perhaps this informant had himself observed these sculptures? We see here clearly the confusion induced by this all-purpose word.
Nevertheless, we can see that a mental image of the instrument has been preserved since some Buddhist monasteries in Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century are decorated with this instrument.