Khmer martial orchestras in Bayon

Last update : July 30, 2021


The Bayon (late 12th-early 13th century) is the richest temple in Khmer musical iconography. Various types of orchestras are depicted: Khmer religious and palatine string orchestras, Cham and Khmer martial orchestras. This page is dedicated to this last category. We publish here the complete bas-reliefs of the temple to which we have added a high relief in the Bayon style belonging to the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) of Singapore.

These orchestras are structured around a large shoulder carried drum (and not a gong!) whose organological typology we do not know if it was "barrel-shaped type" or "frame type"; perhaps both versions coexisted because the diameters of all the drums represented vary. It is conceivable that a small war drum is barrel-shaped (examples exist in Vietnam and Thailand at the Bangkok National Museum), but once the drum is too big and heavy, it becomes a handicap. Sometimes the orchestral representation is limited to the mere presence of a large drum. Around this instrument, there are other types of drums, trumpets, conches and cymbals.

Most of the drummers playing the large drum are small and atypical in their attire. We think, about their size, that this is a formal way of representing them so that the drum can be perceived with as much surface area as possible, especially since it is sometimes covered with engraved floral decorations. In Angkor Wat, sculptors have shown great artistic genius in depicting both the drummer and his instrument. Some drummers are depicted in the same position as the sacred dancers; better still, some spin without touching the ground. As for their attire, the question is more enigmatic. Some wear a headdress and a necklace similar to those of the "dancing jesters" visible in string orchestras with Garuda harp.


Note: the numbering of the orchestras, used below when there are several of them in the same bas-relief, is arbitrary.

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 1

This gigantic bas-relief in the east gallery, south wing, shows King Jayavarman VII and his two wives, Queens Jayarajadevi and Indradevi carried in palanquins. They are accompanied by cohorts of high-ranking soldiers, soldiers, two string orchestras, logistics, and so on.

The drummer, small in stature, flies; his right foot does not rest on the ground. The practice of this type of drumming was perhaps considered a "dance art" with its own choreographic rules. In front of him, a conch player with imprecise contours. Behind the posterior wearer, a drummer; the lower part of his instrument seems to be broken, but it could be that the sculptor did not know how to apprehend the nature of this instrument. A second curiosity is that the carrying strap follows the contour of the musician's bust and hand instead of being taut. In spirit, this instrument resembles the goblet drums of Angkor Wat, placed between the legs (or on the side?). But here we are not dealing with this configuration. The enigma remains... From the perspective of the large drum, two atypical trumpeters, the one on the left may be made of bamboo and the one on the right of metal (?). Behind the conch player, the cymbalist; the instrument is not visible, but the position of the right arm is enough to inform us. The same configuration exists in the royal parade orchestra of King Suryavarman II, in the scene of the Great Angkor Wat Parade (south gallery, west wing). The cymbals are held horizontally and not vertically, as the whole of Angkorian iconography tells us; they are an inescapable component of orchestras, whether martial, palatine or religious. 

To sum up, the instruments from right to left: conch, cymbals, large drum, two atypical unpaired trumpets, drum not identifiable but probably "goblet shaped".

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 2

The bas-relief is in poor condition. This orchestra accompanies King Jayavarman VII to war. The large drum is decorated with motifs of which fragments remain. All the musicians wear flared jackets with short sleeves. The drummer is shown in the position of a sacred dancer, but this time he has one foot on the ground. Behind the front drummer is the conch player, whose instrument is invisible. Behind him, an atypical trumpet player ending with a conical bell rather than a "makara mouth". Behind the posterior bearer, a drummer, also atypical; it is probably a goblet drum, but the carver did not know how to position it correctly. From the perspective of this drummer, a figure holds up a pair of cymbals. This representation is unique in all known Khmer iconography. Moreover, they are placed juxtaposed and not superimposed as in the standard set, i.e. in front of the chest.

In summary, the instruments from right to left: conch, large drum, atypical horn, cymbals, drum not identifiable but probably "goblet-shaped".

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 3

The large drum is decorated with floral motifs. The Bangkok National Museum presents several examples of martial drums with floral decoration (see photo below). The drummer, in addition to the clothing elements mentioned above, wears a flared jacket with short sleeves. He flies around. From the perspective of the front wearer, a trumpet player, probably made of bamboo; behind him, a conch player. You will find a description of these two instruments by clicking on the links. The cymbals player is not identifiable.

In summary, the instruments from left to right: trumpet, conch, large drum.


Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 4

The orchestra here is minimized: only three characters. Musicians and soldiers wear the same type of flared jackets. The shoulder carrying drum is small and decorated with floral motifs. The instrument is struck by the posterior wearer. Behind the latter, a trumpet player. 

Here we offer images taken under various lights.

In summary, instruments from right to left: shoulder carrying drum, trumpet.

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 5

The musicians are represented in a smaller size than the soldiers, probably for the sake of visual efficiency. The drummer has both feet on the ground. He wears a bun and a short-sleeved jacket. His face is seen in profile. The drum is suspended from the carrying bar by a ring when viewed from the front and not from the side as in reality. In front of the front wearer, a player of thimila drum, hourglass-shaped, rarely seen in Khmer martial orchestras, but rather in those of the Chams, who are numerous in Bayon. From the perspective of the large drum, a trumpet player.

In summary, the instruments from left to right: hourglass drum, trumpet, large drum.

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 6

Six musicians, including the two drummers, precede the transport of the Sacred Fire. All wear flared jackets. For reasons of perspective, the sculptor has adapted the size of the soldiers, five musicians, and the drummer, whose headdress is at the top of the headdress next to the rim of the drum. The first musician seems to be a cymbalist (his instrument is difficult to see because it is at the junction of two blocks of stone). Behind him, a conch player whose contours are imprecise. Finally, behind the posterior bearer, a drummer of an indeterminate nature, but probably "goblet-shaped".

In summary, the instruments from right to left: cymbals, conch, large drum, drum of indeterminate nature but probably "goblet-shaped".

Exterior east gallery, south wing. Orchestra 7

The orchestra is composed of six musicians, including the two carriers of the large drum. The size of the dancing drummer is extremely small, once again with the sole purpose of letting the drum show through and not obscuring the figures in perspective. Between the two bearers are two trumpeters. At the back, a drummer of an unidentifiable nature.

In summary, the instruments from right to left: two trumpets, large drum, not identifiable drum.

Exterior east gallery, north wing

Here the orchestra is reduced to two porters and a drummer. The latter is dressed in the manner of "jesters" accompanied by the harp with Garuda's head; he wears a ponytail. Several errors seem to have been deliberately introduced by the sculptor, such as the "jester scene" in the southern gallery, east wing. 

  1. The percussion stick on the left hand is straight, not curved. In all the other representations, both sticks are curved.
  2. The face of the drum is fragmented and not circular. 

One will notice, in front of the group of musicians, a dancing warrior. There is probably a causal link between them.

Exterior north gallery, east wing

Six (or seven?) musicians are staged. The sculptor was content to align the characters without dynamics. The drummer, of normal size, has an arched back. It is therefore understandable why the other artists have represented small, twirling figures, without however equaling the dynamics and power of the drummers of Angkor Wat. Through his experiments in experimental archaeomusicology, we understood how difficult it was for a normal-sized drummer to strike the large drum while walking. Here, the sculptor demonstrates this. On the left, in the perspective of the large drum, the cymbalist and, on the right, a character with an unidentified role. To the left of the cymbalist is a trumpet player. In front of the front wearer, a conch (or trumpet?) player. In front of him, a thimila hourglass drummer.

In summary, the instruments from left to right: hourglass drum, conch, trumpetlarge drum, cymbals.

Interior north gallery, west wing

The sculpture of this seven-character orchestra was probably made after the death of King Jayavarman VII. The style is different and the carving of poor quality. The drum is large, so large that it requires three bearers. However, there is one detail not visible elsewhere: The drum hangs from a hook attached to the carrying bar. In other cases, the suspension ring can be seen from the front, but not the hook. Sometimes, the picture suggests (perhaps wrongly) that the carrying bar is passing through the ring. This feature allows the drum to be easily uncoupled during breaks or for storage.

In front of the orchestra, a figure with his index finger outstretched, indicating that he is speaking or singing. Behind him, two porters. Behind the two front porters, a trumpet player, and behind him, a conch player.

In summary, the instruments from right to left: voice (?), trumpet, large drum, conch.

A high relief at the Museum of Asian Civilizations in Singapore

A high relief belonging to the Asian Civilisation Museum (ACM) in Singapore shows a classical martial orchestra from the Bayon period. It consists of a drum on stand (two bearers and a drummer), a thimila drum and a trumpet or conch (the instrument is damaged). At the far right of the wide plane, an elephant bell. Two elements in this scene are of interest to us.

  1. The musician who strikes the large drum is of normal height but very low, supporting our thesis that it is neither small people, dwarves, nor children.
  2. The thimila drum is one of the few in high relief at that time. One can perfectly see the position of the musician's left hand pressing the (not visible) links and the carrying system with the shoulder strap passing over the back.