Music in Cambodian Religious Context

The state religion of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, to which the majority of the population subscribes. Buddhism constitutes the moral fiber of Cambodian lifestyle, and includes tenets of Hinduism and animistic religions as well. Buddhists believe that life is a cycle of death and rebirth in which the individual passes through a succession on incarnations. Depending upon the person's conduct in previous lives, an incarnation may be in a higher or lower status. Buddhists strive to perfect their souls in order to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth and on to the state of enlightenment, or nirvana.

In the traditional Cambodian society, men must enter the monkhood for at least three months during their lifetime, often at the age of twelve or thirteen. During this time, they learn Buddhist philosophy, social morality, and practice chanting. The wat (temples) where they study are centers of Cambodian life, not only for prayer but also for education, medical care, and administrative organization. Since the 1950s, the Buddhist education has been systematically organized to include general modern knowledge from the primary level of education to the university level. The religious institution where Buddhist knowledge could be acquired included the High School of Pali, the Buddhist Institute, and the Buddhist University. The monks (bonzes) who reside in these wat are at the highest level for achieving nirvana. They wear their distinctive saffron robes and shaven heads, and set out each morning to collect food from the local people.

Cambodian Poetic Texts in Religious Recitation

One meter, when being applied to different styles, will change its rhyme-structure. The manner in which all the techniques are used determines the quality of a poem. By and large, the more patterns, variations and combinations used in a poem, the better the poem will be. A good poet is he who has the ability to demonstrate many different patterns in his poems. However, in general, the plain, or basic, meter tends to predominate.

Pathya Vat

1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8
9 10 11 8
13 14 15 16

17 18 19 20
21 22 23 16
25 26 27 16
29 30 31 32

In the pathya vat meter, the end-syllable 8 of the third line must rhyme with end-syllable 8 of the second line. When having more than one stanza, the end-syllable 16 of the second line of the new stanza must rhyme with the end-syllable 16 of the fourth line of the previous stanza.

Khnhomm saum bangkum
champuoh Preah Puth
trung kung khpuoh phott
leu trai loka
Neam Preah Kodamm
baramm sasda
chambang leu moha
neak prach taing lay


I salute
the Lord Buddha
who resides the highest
of the tri-world.
The name is Preah Kodamm
the Supreme
who is greater than
all sages.

All the existing materials on Cambodian poetry indicate that only those traditional meters of the early periods have specific designations in their usages, as described earlier. The more modern meters of longer forms, consisting of twenty-eight syllables or more, have been used in various situations according to the poet's intention.

Of all sources, only Pich 1987 and Sam 1988 mention the pathya vat meter--one which serves as the basis of about seventy percent of all Cambodian song texts. The pathya vat meter, as well as "Cambodian poetry" as a whole, is perhaps known more to teachers and students of the Faculty of Choreographic Arts of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh than to others, as it was taught there by the respected professor and former monk Mr. Thach Prang (poetry class: 1970s).

Cambodian poems are written to be read aloud, but are more often recited. As recitation could perhaps be considered the most ancient form of utterance which transmits, for instance, the famous epic of Ream Ker (Ramayana) is executed in many different styles. They are kmeng vatt (temple boy), piporanea (description), tumnuonh (grief), smaut (reciting), kamhoeung (anger), chbapp (traditional code), ka-ek lot (crow hops), and ka-ek baul (crow calls), etc. In fact, the beauty of Cambodian poetry lies not only in the writing styles--internal and end-rhymes and various stylistic meters--but also in the rich reciting styles, which provide the final touches to evoke the soul of Cambodian poetry.

From Buddhist scriptures to classical literature, from epics to fables, from books of games to dance manuals, the written forms are sometimes in prose, but most often are in verse. In dance and theatre, the poetic writing is adapted and set to song and music. The recitation of Cambodian poems is perhaps better referred to as "singing," as we really sing the poems rather than recite them. Cambodian recitation is therefore considered to be sweet, melodious, and musical. The poetic singing is executed in a rubato style devoid of strict pulsation. Its melody is not found in any musical piece. The songs, on the other hand, have their own melodies and are set to their prescribed rhythm. The distinction between the recitation and song is that the former is sung in a rubato style, whereas the latter is more metrical (sung in musical meters). It is not that recitation is less musical; the Cambodians can simply tell the difference between the two styles and refer to them accordingly.

Chanting in Pali (mostly), some in vernacular Cambodian.

Today, many Cambodians feel that chanting in Pali does not make much sense as Buddhists who do not have a mastery of Pali do not understand it. More and more, chanting in Cambodian has increased.

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