A Modern Prayer Echoed on Angkor’s Walls

One of the first Khmer poems to be inscribed in stone—an ode to the Buddha’s enlightenment carved into the walls of Angkor Wat in 1702—was long heralded as an original composition, an example of its author’s linguistic brilliance and deep faith.

Composed by Jayanand, a “pious donor” who wanted to express both his own meritorious deeds and his wishes for the future, the poem, it turns out, contains snippets of a traditional prayer, the “Lotus Flower Offer­ing,” which is still sung in Cambodia today.

Trent Walker and Prum Ut pose near a waterfall in Siem Reap province in 2006. (Trent Walker)
Trent Walker and Prum Ut pose near a waterfall in Siem Reap province in 2006. (Trent Walker)

The surprising insights into the temple etchings came not from an archaeologist, but from a student of Buddhist music and liturgy. Trent Walker, a 29-year-old California native trained in classical and jazz music, first studied chanted Khmer poetry—known as “smot”—in 2005 alongside Prum Ut, one of the few practitioners of the art who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Mr. Walker presented his findings to students and historians at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) earlier this month.

Prum Ut, who died in 2009 at the age of 64, met Mr. Walker at a smot class he was teaching in Kompong Speu province under the auspices ­of Cambodian Living Arts, which sponsored both Prum Ut and Mr. Walker as part of its efforts to promote the work of master artists who survived the Khmer Rouge. Prum Ut invited Mr. Walker, then a resident fellow at CLA, to live at his house for five months and taught him to sing lines of smot—wavering, sometimes mournful-sounding melodies that accompany both prayers and poems.

It was in learning smot that Mr. Walker first encountered the “Lotus Flower Offering,” a chant used to offer lotus blossoms in a sanctuary, sung in its entirety the morn­ing after a nighttime ceremony that celebrates Buddha’s enlightenment.

Learning to chant smot was difficult; few Khmer poets have mastered it. And studying the texts proved far harder.

When Mr. Walker later began research at the University of California, Berkeley, he struggled in particular to date the poems he studied, most of which were collected only in fragile palm-leaf manuscripts stored in pagodas across Cambodia.

Before the rise of the Khmer Rouge, whose cadre would destroy an estimated 98 percent of such manuscripts, texts on palm leaves or folded-paper manuscripts were rewritten every 30 to 50 years by each new generation of monks as part of their initiation.

This process meant that the orthography and writing style of a given work was refreshed every generation, thereby erasing significant clues to the age of a text, according to Vong Sotheara, a historian at RUPP. Unable to date manuscripts, most scholars have relied on linguistic or contextual evidence within the poems themselves to guess at their origins.

Sometimes such clues are obvious. A manuscript may contain a date, or mention a significant event —though the date isn’t always reliable, said Joseph Thach, a Cambodian researcher of Khmer linguistics and a fellow at Inalco, a language institute in Paris.

“A date in a text can represent the date in which a text was first written down, but not necessarily the date it was composed,” he said this week.

More reliable, Mr. Thach said, are grammatical indicators within the text itself. Certain words and ways of expressing ideas, for example, are more common in earlier works than later ones.

Linguistic indicators can also date a text. Khmer borrowed much of its vocabulary from Sanskrit and Pali, a derivative of Sanskrit, and sometimes the two overlapped. These overlapping words, however, slowly diverged in meaning over the centuries. The words “varna” in Sanskrit and “vanna” in Pali, for example, both originally meant “color” or “social class.” The Sansrkit term evolved into today’s “poar,” or color, while the Pali word “vanna” became “vannak,” or class.

But Mr. Walker eschewed linguistics and took a different approach to his analysis. Instead of dating manuscripts by using clues within the text, he compared them to works that could be clearly dated: the inscriptions of Angkor, and classical Khmer novels.

It was through this effort that Mr. Walker stumbled across sections of the “Lotus Flower Offering” in Jayanand’s stony composition. He was attempting to date spoken poems by comparing them with “modern” Angkorian inscriptions.

While the 152-stanza poem Jaya­nand carved at Angkor is not identical to the text of the “Offering,” the two, Mr. Walker argues, are unmistakably connected.

For example, stanzas of the inscription read:

“These lovely lotus buds / I offer to the precious feet of the ­Omniscient One / Raising up my ten fingers / Carefully placing them on my head.”
“I prostrate myself beneath his feet / In devoted veneration / Of the blessed / Triple Jewel and blessed Kala.”

The same stanzas, in the “Lotus Flower Offering,” are:

“By grace of this offering / Of most excellent lotuses and their stalks / Raised up with my ten fingers / And carefully placed on my head.”

“I prostrate myself beneath his feet / In devoted veneration / An offering to the blessed / Triple Jewel and blessed Kala.”

The similarity wasn’t the only one that Mr. Walker found—though perhaps it is the most striking. Rather, in his work, he discovered a world of interconnectedness in old Khmer literature: poems with references to Thai chants and stories, and many phrases and ideas borrowed from Pali classics.

He asserts that the intellectual reach of the ancient Khmer world is far greater than most scholars believe, that intertextual analysis and studying Khmer, Thai and Pali texts side by side is essential to understanding old Khmer ­literature.

“This is not a critique of the originality or brilliance of Khmer authors of this period,” he said. “But we need to come to terms with the multilingual, intertextual intellectual world in which they lived.”
Mr. Walker’s findings might be a revelation to archaeologists, but contemporary Khmer poets do not find them surprising.

“Religion in Cambodia is a part of Cambodian life—a way of life and a daily practice,” said Heng Sreang, head of PEN Cambodia, a group that promotes literature and freedom of expression.

“In my own work, too, I quote—a lot of people quote—Buddhist ideas and precepts.”

Or, as Mr. Walker put it during his lecture at RUPP, “The poet remembered the words of this offering in carving his poem, and he put the words in there to make his lines more beautiful.”

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