The voice in Angkorian times

Last update: December 6, 2023

The voice is also an instrument whose bas-reliefs are echoed. Epigraphy also mentions various functions of singers and reciters, men and women: singers of vocal ensembles serving worship, singers of praise, singers accompanying themselves by a musical instrument. The voice, like the instrument of music, is a matter of specialist. The texts mention the skill of the musicians and the quality of the singers' voice.

The voice through the Angkorian epigraphy

In Angkorian times, singers occupy a prominent place in the temples both hierarchically and quantitatively. In the 9th century, in the lists of temple servants, strictly ordered, they are generally mentioned immediately after the dancers. In Lolei and Preah Kô temples, singers are twenty to twenty-two for only three dancers. In the first part of these lists, the caṃryyaṅ singers are distinguished from the caṃryyaṅ stutī praise singers; one and the other probably working in the heart of the sanctuary. Although mentioned in the first part of the list, the praise singers were not to work with the singers properly so called because between them are inserted drum players. In India and Nepal, the praise songs are still to be found today, accompanied by drums and small cymbals in the bhajan devotional songs. In the second part of the lists, singers accompanied by śikharā, caṃryyāṅ śikharā in Lolei and singers of praise caṃryyaṅ stutī in Prasat Kravan are mentioned with various guardians and logisticians. We can also note, in both parts of the lists, gandharva whose function remains obscure; they were perhaps both musicians and singers as mentioned above. Let us note that the śikharā could be the crocodile zither known among contemporary Khmer as kropeu. This instrument is mentioned in the Xīn Táng shū (新唐書New Book of Tang) relating the coming in 802 in Chengdu of musicians sent by the King of Pyu (actual Myanmar): “Two crocodile-headed zithers (guishou zheng) with nine strings and eighteen frets in the left and the right”. (According to a translation by François Picard)

The voice through the Kok Roka inscription

According to the stele of Kok Roka (opposite), the name of the singers informs us about the aesthetic perception during the pre-Angkorian period, the canons or the relation to music. Thus, the first singer on the list has a voice that sings melodious sounds, the second makes the gāndhāra sound (third of the seven primary notes of the Indian music system), others produce well articulated sounds, have passionate voice, contracted vocal cords or singing with the throat, others have the voice comparable to that of the heron or the wild goose. The choir does not seem to be the result of a casting tending towards uniformity, but rather towards an assemblage of diversity.


Singing through Sanskrit poetry

The song is considered as a major discipline, as indicated by the writing in Sanskrit of the Lolei's stele (9th c.).


yas sarvvaśāstraastreshu      ilpabhshlipishv api

nittagtdivijñne-                 shv dikariteva padita


“In all sciences and fencing, in the arts, languages and scriptures, in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he is as clever as if he had been the first inventor [as if he had been Brahmā himself].”


Sanskrit poetic epigraphy refers to singing as a praise vector. Thus, on the foundation stele of Pre Rup (10th c.), we find the glory of the dedicatee sung by the living as well as by the dead.


yaobhir udyadbhir udttagtais

tirohita yasya yao nyadyam

vrdd ivdypi samhta sat

kvpi prayti svaritopagtam


“The glory of others, who had been eclipsed by her rising glory, sung very loudly, and which to this day has been, as if by shame, withdrawn somewhere, prowls sung by the dead.”


French translation of Lolei's stele: Bergaigne A.,1893. Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale et autres bibliothèques. Tome XXVII, 2e fascicule, p.398.

French translation of Pre Rup's stele: Cœdès G. IC I p.88 XCIX.

The Kok Roka inscription (K. 155)


The inscription entirely in Khmer language. Its  provenance is uncertain. It was dated from the 7th or 8th c. according the typology of its writing. It is a list of servants of the temple. We give here only the two lists related to the female singers.


care / Female singers (first citation)

All the singers have a name in direct relation to their function with the exception of ku Padminī.

ku Racitasvanā: Who performs melodious sounds

ku Gāndhārasvanā: Who makes resonate the “Gāndhāra” sound (Sanskrit) that is to say the scale (Shadj (Sa), Rishabh (Re), Gandhar (Ga), Madhyam (Ma), Pancham (Pa), Dhaivat (Dha), Nishad (Ni)

ku Raktasvanā: With passionate voice

ku Suvivṛtā: That produces well articulated sounds

ku Susaṛvṛtā: To the vocal cords well contracted

ku Sārasikā: With the voice of the female heron

ku Padminī: Lotus. Excellent woman.


care / Female singers (second citation)

The name of the second and fourth singers does not qualify their voice.

ku Sugītā: Who sings well

ku Suracitā: Well-dressed

ku Kaṇṭhagītā: Who sings from the throat

ku Muditā: Joy sympathizing joy

ku Ka-oṅ: ?
ku Kītakī: Panegyrist

Khmer translations according to Saveros Pou, Dictionnaire de Vieux Khmer-Français-Anglais (2004).

The voice through the Angkorian iconography

The bas-reliefs portray characters singing. They are recognized by various signs: open mouth, tight index or specific hairstyle, sometimes these three elements simultaneously.

In Bayon temple, in the court orchestras depicted on bas-reliefs, we can see one or two female singers (below). The first one always sit in front of the orchestra with a raised hand; she isn't crowned like instrumentalists but capped of a single or double bun. The second singer is probably the player of small cymbals if judged by the similarity of her hairstyle.


Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singers a bun.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singers a bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singer a double bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.
Court orchestra. Female musician wear crowns but singer a double bun. Bayon. Late 12th-early 13th c.

This Circus scene of Bayon shows, as part of physical and the white weapon's jousts, a singing joust accompanied by string orchestras. Two ‘teams’ clash. We can clearly see on both sides of jugglers and acrobats, the two singers on the right side expressing themselves with vehemence while the left one, alone and introspective, prepares his reply. The singing jousts are known until now in Cambodia, especially those accompanied by the chapei dang veng lute.

Given the nature of the instruments, low volume, we do not think that they accompanied the games presented in the scenes above.


Female characters with curly bun(s)

Since the 9th century, no one has been able to confirm the true identity of the female figures depicted on foot in Khmer temples, usually referred to as devata or tevada. 

At Angkor Wat, the presence of such figures both in full-length figures (1827 counted for this temple alone) and in the historiated bas-reliefs in the third gallery on the south side of the west wing, is confusing. We think we've lost the reading codes that differentiate these women. It's likely that well-informed ancient Khmer were able to recognize the roles of these women by their hairstyles, clothes and attitudes, just as we would today recognize a soldier by the color of his costume, his rank and his insignia.

In monuments from the Bayon period (reign of King Jayavarman VII), we've seen that female dancers are depicted with a single- or double-loop bun, while musicians and dancers wear a crown. In the small funerary shrines of temples from this period, female figures wearing such buns adorn the outer walls. Some, at the entrance to dance halls (Bayon, Preah Khan d'Angkor), even wear a triple-loop bun. 

Apart from religious or palatine orchestras, no other bas-relief depicts such figures. There are Khmer-style buns forming a ball of hair, but no curly buns.We know that the ancient Khmers had very precise standards for depicting such and such a character or object, so as not to confuse them. We therefore propose a new hypothesis, namely to consider these female figures with curly bun(s) as singers, and perhaps even praise singers. The recent identification of a particular female musician at Banteay Chhmar could validate this hypothesis.


Singer and scraper player from Banteay Chhmar.
Singer and scraper player from Banteay Chhmar.

This female singer plays the scraper, an instrument still used in Cambodia today.

We know that, in the past, according to G. Groslier's written testimonies, but also thanks to a black and white film shot during the reign of King Sisowath (reign 1904-1927), court singers used to accompany themselves with clappers (not clippers) to mark the dance steps. The context of this bas-relief is self-explanatory: one (or two) orchestra(s), perhaps the ancestor of today's mahori, spread out on either side of the divinity's lotiform pedestal, in which a single female singer wearing a curly bun is depicted. In the center of the bun is a piece of jewelry, perhaps a large pin set with precious stones.All the other musicians wear conical tiaras, and the dancers wear crowns or elaborate diadems.

The joint between the stones prevents us from seeing whether the musician's mouth is open or not.

We do have evidence that scraper players sang.It can be found in Java. The image above clearly shows the grooves on the scraper and the open mouth. The hair at the back appears to be curled.

Female singer and her scraper. Central Java. 19th c.

We don't know what they sang, but we do know from epigraphy that there were female singers of sacred texts (Hindu or Buddhist) and female praise singers.

We also know that, in South-East Asia, singers sing praises for the dead.In Siem Reap, even today, the musicians of the kantoam ming កន្ទាំមីង ensemble play and sing "lullabies" (paṃbe) for the departed.These characters could therefore be singers accompanying the deceased into their future life to praise them or soothe their soul.Temples such as Angkor's Preah Khan and Ta Prohm were funerary temples, respectively for the father and mother of King Jayavarman VII, who paid tribute to illustrious figures, including high-ranking soldiers who had served the kingdom nobly and at great risk to their lives, by allowing them to build their sanctuary within the temple enclosure.

To illustrate this point, we offer below a catalog of photographs classified by temple.



Female characters with buns from the Preah Khan of Angkor

Most of the female figures shown here adorn the small shrines of Angkor's Preah Khan.

The chignons sometimes display a certain level of complexity, perhaps marking a hierarchy or specialization in a certain form of singing.

Two figures at the north entrance to the dance hall, on the interior side, wear a triple chignon.

Female characters with buns from Ta Prohm

Female characters with buns from Ta Nei

Female characters from the Prasat Chrung of the Angkor Thom moat

Four prasat from the Bayon period are built at the interior corners of the Angkor Thom moat. Three of them feature female figures with curled buns. Many of them are damaged.


Prasat Chrung Nord-Est

Prasat Chrung Nord-Ouest

Prasat Chrung Sud-Ouest