Post-Angkorian orchestras from the 16th century onwards

Last update: February 13, 2021

The oldest post-Angkorian orchestras dated with certainty are those represented in the north gallery of Angkor Wat.

The orchestras of the Northern Gallery of Angkor Wat

The large bas-relief of Krishna's Victory on the Asura Bāna, - north gallery, east wing (middle of the 16th c.) - shows new instruments and technical innovations compared to those of the 12th c. However, it must be taken into account that the realization of this large panel is poor and involves a number of interpretation errors on the part of the sculptors, because some Angkorian instruments may have already disappeared in the 16th c. or the sculptors had never seen them. Moreover, on a stage, instruments of all kinds, without apparent acoustic coherence, are displayed before our eyes. What are the new instruments and innovations compared to the existing ones?

Most of these instrumental archetypes have survived in contemporary Cambodia. The only ones to have disappeared are the metal trumpets. Concerning the orchestra represented below, we have devoted an analysis of its structure in relation to an Angkorian inscription. See below.


From L. to R.: dancer, hourglass drum with variable tension, pair of trumpets or horns, barrel drum with integrated support, conch, nine gongs chime, pair of oboe, pair of bossed gongs on stand, large shoulder carried drum with support, cymbals, single resonator stick zither, three flutes with terminal mouthpiece. Angkor Wat northern gallery, Krishna's Victory on the Asura Bāna. 16th c.

Two exceptional frescoes in the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat

Two frescoes depicting painted orchestral ensembles have recently been spotted in the central shrine (bakan) of Angkor Wat, one to the south and the other to the east. The first is complete; the second partial due to natural deterioration caused by humidity.

The first fresco was mentioned in an article published in 2014 by Noel Hidalgo Tan: "The hidden paintings of Angkor Wat". The second is the result of our own research.

  1. These two discoveries are important for more than one reason:
  2. They highlight the antiquity of the pin peat ensemble of Cambodia and its Thai and Laotian cousins.
  3. If most of the instruments, in their definitive or archaic form, were known to us from the bas-reliefs in the north gallery of Angkor Wat, their reunion into a coherent whole was hitherto unknown.
  4. The xylophones composing the contemporary pin peat appear here for the first time in the musical history of Cambodia.

The Southern Orchestra

The fresco should be read from left to right, the direction of the Khmer writing. The original, very muted colors (photo 1) have been enhanced thanks to a chromatic manipulation technique developed by us (2).


1. Original vision of the Southern Orchestra.
1. Original vision of the Southern Orchestra.
2. Southern Orchestra after digital processing by Patrick Kersalé.
2. Southern Orchestra after digital processing by Patrick Kersalé.

The fresco is structured on two levels. At the bottom, eight instruments are represented with their musician. At the top, three seated figures (one on the left and two on the right) but their role cannot be defined for the moment.

The six seated musicians wear a long piece of cloth covering their legs and conical hats with a brim symbolizing lotus petals. Similar headdresses are always worn on special occasions by some servants of the royal court of Cambodia.

This fresco shows us eight instrumental elements. From left to right: two gongs, two drums, a gong chime, a xylophone, an oboe, and a horn.

  • Gongs: at the extreme left, a musician holds a mallet in his right hand. In front of him, two bossed gongs of different sizes are suspended from a carrier by two links forming a triangle. The upper left side of the rack appears ornate.
  • Drums: To the right of these two gongs, two barrel drums stand on a field, one behind the other. To the right of the drums stands the drum player. A vertical band between his sarong and headdress represents the playing stick or sticks.
  • Gong chime: In the middle of the fresco, a carillon of eight gongs with two triangular decorative elements at the ends. In the center of the instrument stands the musician with two mallets.
  • Xylophone: the cradle-shaped instrument to the right of the gong carillon is obviously a xylophone. The likelihood of a metallophone with bronze or iron blades still present in contemporary pin peat must be excluded because of the cradle shape. Indeed, the heavy metal slats are always laid flat, whereas those of xylophones, made of wood or bamboo, follow the curved line of the soundboard. The ends seem to curl up like volutes. Above, one can see the musician with two mallets. This is the first representation of a xylophone in Cambodia.
  • Oboe: To the right and partly above the xylophone, an oboe without bell has an oblong pirouette similar to that of contemporary Khmer instruments, cut out of a coconut.
  • Trumpet: on the far right, a trumpet player. The instrument, long and thin, ends in a conical bell. There is little doubt that this instrument must have been made of metal.

The Eastern Orchestra

The painting of the East is very degraded. In contrast to the southern one, it is spread over both a large section of wall facing east and a narrow corner return facing north. The left side of the large panel is definitely illegible.


3. Original vision of the Eastern Orchestra.
3. Original vision of the Eastern Orchestra.
4. Eastern Orchestra after digital processing by Patrick Kersalé.
4. Eastern Orchestra after digital processing by Patrick Kersalé.

On this very degraded fresco six instruments remain. From left to right: a trumpet, a gong chime, a xylophone, a cylindrical drum, a barrel drum, an oboe.

  • Trumpet: At the far left, the trumpet is similar to the one in the south panel, forming a 45° angle with the axes of the floor and wall. The pavilion faces north, while the pavilion in the east panel faces west.
  • Faded instrument(s): To the left of the carillon is the back of a musician's garment shown in profile. One or two instruments seem to have disappeared.
  • Gong chime: It appears to have nine gongs. If we compare it graphically to the southern carillon, the artist has represented the gongs by a single colored round without distinction of the nipple. By comparing the representation of these two chimes with those of the bas-reliefs in the north gallery of Angkor Wat, the counting of eight and nine gongs is corroborated.
  • Xylophone: its representation is similar in all respects to that of the south.
  • Barrel drum: To the right of the xylophone is the outline of a barrel drum similar to the present Cambodian skor samphor. The support, if it existed, is not visible.
  • "Long" drum: To the right of the barrel drum is a "long" drum. This type of instrument is also shown in the pin peat ensemble of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh in the scene of the marriage between Ream and Seda. Its use persists but has become rare in Cambodia. We refer to this drum simply as a "long drum" because it could be cylindrical, slightly conical or in the shape of an elongated barrel. The typologies still vary today.
  • Oboe: its representation is in all points similar to that of the south.
5. On the East side, an additional fresco on a corner return shows a musician playing small cymbals. The figure is wearing a conical headdress similar to the other frescoes.
5. On the East side, an additional fresco on a corner return shows a musician playing small cymbals. The figure is wearing a conical headdress similar to the other frescoes.

Comparison of Southern and Eastern instruments

A question arises: are we talking about two orchestras or just one? We have mentioned that on the fresco of the South, there are no small cymbals, which is indispensable in orchestras if we refer to the first iconography from the 7th c. to the present time. However, the small cymbals are painted on the North corner return, as if they represented a link between the two frescos. The presence of two gong chimes, two xylophones and a barrel drum (skor samphor style) is consistent with what we know today in the pin peat ensemble.

We know that the pin peat ensemble consists of female and male instruments of different heights. In playing configuration, they are usually arranged in pairs, one next to the other, but for graphic needs, they have been dissociated into two sections with as structural link the small cymbals that underline the pulsation.


6. Pin peat orchestra belonging to the Reamker fresco of the Silver Pagoda in the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh (1903). Most of the modernized ingredients can be found there, from L. to R.: roneat ek xylophone, skor sang na drum, kong vong gong chime, skor daey drum, skor thom drum, chhing small cymbals, skor samphor drum,  sralay oboe,  roneat tong xylophone. 


Instrument arrangement

The arrangement of the instruments is not a matter of chance. From left to right, they structure the musical cycle, from the lowest to the highest, from the slowest to the fastest. The higher the instrument, the more notes it generates. Given what is still known today with the pin peat ensemble, the xylophone plays the same time division as the gong chime, but allows for greater velocity and therefore subdivides time more deeply.

The decorative band under the orchestra

The decorative band under the Southern Orchestra is not there by chance either. Seven symbolic lotus flowers are visible, but they were probably originally eight. Each consists of four large and four small petals located at the four cardinal points and at the four directions in between. Each flower is framed by a black line. They probably represent a kind of symbolic score of musical temporality. The large petals would represent the main sequencing of the cycle, underlined by the gongs and the small petals, the temporal mark of the drums. If there really are eight flowers, this could indicate that the music was structured over eight cycles or a combination of eight cycles.


The painter and dating

There is no doubt that the author of these two frescoes is the same person. This artist is probably responsible for many of the paintings throughout Angkor Wat temple, judging by some of the details. These paintings could be dated according to the nature of a sailboat present in the Angkor Wat frescoes collection. It could be a Dutch ship of the 16th century. In addition, the eight and nine gong chimes are attested in the 16th c. on the bas-reliefs of the north gallery of Angkor Wat. In the 17th c., an inscription (IMA 36)* of donation to the temple of Angkor Wat mentions a sixteen-gong carillon. It could therefore be later. These paintings could then be between the 16th and 17th centuries.

*Pou-Lewitz I Inscriptions modernes d'Angkor 35, 36, 37 et 39 I In: Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient. Tome 61, 1974. pp. 303-308.

Continuity of string orchestras from Sambor Prei Kuk to the fall of Ayutthaya at the end of the eighteenth century in Siam

Iconographic and historical sources are lacking to understand precisely a possible continuity between the court orchestras depicted on the Bayon bas-reliefs (last and only testimonies dating from the end of the 12th and beginning of the 13th centuries) before the sack of Angkor in 1431-32. It is not unlikely that the Siam army captured artists from the Angkor Court, including musicians (men and women) and took them to the Court of Ayutthaya. We have no evidence of this, but such practices were common in those days.

We do not know the precise structure of string orchestras through time, but we will try to compare the orchestral configurations: the Bayon court orchestras and the Mahori orchestras represented in the Buddhaisawan Chapel in Bangkok (late 18th c.). Let us recall that these paintings date from the beginning of Rattanakosin's period (1782-1932, of King Rama I), that is to say just at the end of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767) but depict the life at the court of Ayutthaya. They are a precious testimony because they show ensembles and instruments played during ceremonies. However, their reality must be weighed up.

The instruments depicted in Buddhaisawan are certainly not those of the Bayon period, but there is a structural logic that we will try to bring together:

  1. We know that the main instrument of the mahori orchestra is the saw sam sai fiddle. This fact is attested even in contemporary "traditional" orchestras in Thailand. In the Angkorian period, we think that the leading instrument was the monochord zither kinnara since the hierarchical lists of Lolei's musicians (K. 324-327-330-331; 9th century - See table below) mention this instrument at the head of the cordophones [zither, harp, lutes (?)]. On the other hand, in the lists of the temples of Preah Ko (K. 318) and Prasat Kravan (K. 270), the kinnara is the only cordophone mentioned, which proves its importance.
  2. In the orchestra of the Bayon, the harp is always present alongside the monochord zither. It is named viṇā in old Khmer. However, the instrument that takes the place of the second stringed instrument in the mahori as represented in the Buddhaisawan Chapel is the krajappi; its ancient name is phin, a term still in use in the Thai region of Isan and in Laos to designate the lute with a long neck and low frets.
  3. The cymbals are the "beating heart" of the mahori ensemble. They are present in all Angkorian orchestras, whether martial, religious or palatine. They represent the Sun and the Moon. As such, they structure time. In Angkorian iconography, they sometimes symbolize music alone.
  4. One instrument - which is controversial in the world of archaeomusicology of the Bayon period - is what we call a scraper and which polemicists see as the tro Khmer  or a mouth resonator fiddle! It's up to each one to judge... The oldest musical practices of continental Southeast Asia, including those of the so-called mountain populations of the border regions of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, demonstrate a complementarity/opposition between metal and wood. The best remaining example is probably that of Myanmar with its pair of percussion si (စည်း) (metal) and wa (ဝါး) (wood). The single phonation of the words si/wa already makes you hear the clink of the metal (bronze) and the warmth of the wood or bamboo. There is no doubt that this complementarity/opposition existed at the court of the Bayon, and probably long before that, in the pre-Angkorian period, since percussion instruments not properly named are included in the lists of donations to the temples of Lolei (see below). In the mahori orchestra of Ayutthaya, the metal is materialized by the bronze cymbals and the wood by the  krap phuang  whose blades could be made of wood or ivory.
  5. Angkorian iconography does not represent any other percussion in court orchestras. However, we have a strong belief that drums were used. First, the iconography of the 7th century (Sambor Prei Kuk) and that of Borobudur (9th c.) show drums in orchestral formations that could have been both religious and palatine. This double belonging is moreover confirmed by the iconography of the Bayon. Secondly, the available surfaces on the walls of the Bayon led the designers of the bas-reliefs to make strategic and symbolic choices, notably to exclude the drums. Third, throughout Southeast Asia, the drum is the leading instrument of the orchestra; it controls the starts, the cadence and the stops. So why shouldn't it be the same in the Bayon court orchestra?
  6. The flute is the great absentee in Angkorian orchestras. There are a few rare examples in pre-Angkorian iconography, then nothing afterwards. However, we believe that this instrument continued to exist, in its form commonly known as transverse (lateral mouthpiece) or straight (arranged terminal mouthpiece) that we find on a 16th c. bas-relief of the northeast gallery of Angkor Wat.
  7. Finally, let's not forget the singers who are present in both Angkor and Ayutthaya.

Court orchestras from the 7th century onwards in Southeast Asia

We are now going to make a spatio-temporal journey to some places in Southeast Asia where Hinduism and Buddhism have taken root, and for which we have received an iconography of palatine or religious orchestras, both of which are intertwined: Hindu orchestras (Cambodia, Champa), Hindu-Buddhist orchestras (Khmer Empire of the Bayon period) or Buddhist orchestras (Borobudur).

We present below, a summary table whose reference base is the list of donations from the temple of Lolei (9th c.). Lolei's original list does not directly mention "musical instruments" but "players of musical instruments". For practical reasons, we have chosen to mention only the names of the instruments.

The hierarchy is perfectly demonstrated here since the dancers, singers, percussionists and cymbalettes have survived through time. As for the original cordophones, namely the zither and the harp, they are replaced, in the Mahori orchestra, by the saw sam sai fiddle and the phin/krajappi lute.

Other instruments, of lesser importance, are mentioned beyond the harp in Lolei's list. Although they found continuity in the Angkorian period, they have never been represented or mentioned. Some seem to be lutes, if we refer to the etymology of the terms. This is notably the case for trisarī which would be a three-stringed lute of Indian origin appearing in the iconography of the same period in Borobudur, Champa and Siam. In no case, in this hierarchical logic, has the phin/krajappi followed the lute(s) of secondary importance. It is indeed the harp called vīṇā in old Khmer (a term of Sanskrit origin, but in reality a false friend because it designates zithers of various natures in this language!) and from which the terms pin ពិណ in modern Khmer and phin พิณ in Thai derive.

In addition, there are two percussion quotes in Lolei's list. Some of them should therefore be considered as major (conducting drum?) and others minor (wooden blocks?). For the moment the mystery remains. 

There are several configurations of the Mahori orchestra including cordophones but also melodic percussions such as gong chimes that can be seen on an 18th century cabinet in the National Museum of Bangkok. However, the illuminators of the Buddhaisawan Chapel seem to have represented the oldest and most delicate form of the mahori ensemble, excluding the melodic percussion. As these orchestras are directly related to the life of the Buddha, popular belief probably dates their origin to His time. They should therefore be seen more as a metaphor - with very real structural links - than as a tangible reality. Artists have included nostalgia for lost worlds, for the Buddha's time and for the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.


The celestial orchestra and the symbolism of the number five

If Khmer architecture is mainly structured around the number five - the number of degrees and top towers of mountain temples in particular, featuring the five peaks of Mount Meru described in Hindu sacred texts -, the celestial orchestra and certain sound instruments respond to this same canon. The inscription K.294 of the Bayon reveals an important sentence concerning the structural symbolism of the celestial orchestra: it refers to pañcāṅgikatūryya translated by Georges Cœdès as "ritual orchestra of five musicians". One wonders whether this translation reflects the original spirit. There are indeed, in India and Nepal, orchestral ensembles designated by the prefix derived from pañcā (five). The number five refers only to the nature of the instruments and not to their duplication. Let us quote two cases:

  • In the south of India, in the state of Kerala, the ritual instrumental ensemble called panchavadyam is made up of five instruments including three drums -suddha-maddalam, edakka, timila- a pair of elathalam cymbals and a kombu trumpet;
  • in Nepal, the traditional Damai orchestra is called pancai baja. It consists of five types of instruments, some of which are duplicated in pairs: sahnai oboe, large damaha kettle drum, small tyamko kettle drum, dolakhi cylindrical drum and jhyali cymbals.

These two examples demonstrate the importance of the symbolic number five in the structure of orchestral formations. Today, this symbolism has less importance and it is not uncommon to find orchestras that have had part of their limbs amputated. The structure of the Angkorian orchestras was probably organized around the number five, but the lists of donations to the temples and the iconography do not suggest this because we do not know whether or not instrumental duplication was taken into account. As for the iconography, we are convinced that not all the instruments are represented.


Instruments from L. to R.: hourglass drum, pair of horns, barrel drum with integrated stand, conch, gong chime, pair of oboes, couple of bossed gongs, large drum on stand, cymbals, monochord zither with single resonator, three block flutes. Angkor Wat, north gallery, Krishna's victory on the Asura Bāna. 16th c.


paṭaha: drum

tāla: cymbals

karadi: instrument (idiophone?) giving rhythm

timila: hourglass drum or idiophone

vīṇā: stick zither

veṇu: flute with lateral mouth (traverse)

ghaṇṭā: bell

mṅdaṅga: drum in barrel or biconical

purava: drum (?)

paṇava: drum (?)

bherī: trumpet (or kettledrum)

kāhalā: trumpet

aṅkha: conch




Gong chime (?)

Hourglass drum

Monochord stick zither

Block flutes

No. Replaced by the gongs?

Portable barrel drum

Barrel/frame drum or oboe

Barrel/frame drum or oboe




The bas-relief is missing some occurrences from the original list, but instruments, unknown at the time the original text was written, did not exist (oboe, bossed gong, gong chimes). We cannot draw any conclusions from this projection, only ask ourselves the question of the coherence between the ancient text and the "modern" bas-relief.