Khmer legends

Along with the monuments of the late Buddhist scholar Chuon Nath and the poet Kram Ngoy, the municipality has recently erected a statue of the fabled Yeay Penh, the woman who is credited with giving Phnom Penh its landmark hill.

As the story goes, in the 1370s, Yeay Penh asked her neighbors to raise the mound in front of her home so as to build on top of it a sanctuary to house the four statues of Buddha she had found inside a floating tree trunk. That mound, or phnom, is credited with giving Phnom Penh its name.

Yeay Penh’s story appears in the Royal Chronicles, the most complete version of which was written about a century ago at the request of King Norodom. But the chronicles represent an intermingling of legends and historical events, so there is very little really known about Yeay, or Grandmother Penh.

“The problem is we have no proof,” said Ros Chantrabot, a Cam­bodian historian and vice president of the Royal Academy of Cam­bodia.

“In all likelihood she did exist or, at the very least, the tale is based on an actual person, since Penh’s hill, or Phnom Penh, is there for all to see,” he said.

French researcher George Coedes mentioned in a 1913 article on the foundation of Phnom Penh that the story of Yeay Penh was the most popular of several legends on the origins of the artificial hill now topped by Wat Phnom.

Australian historian Milton Os­borne wrote in his recent book on Phnom Penh that, “charming though the story is, the record is clear that the settlement did not ac­quire its modern name until after the Cambodian court, led by King Ponhea Yat, left Angkor to settle briefly at the site of modern Phnom Penh,” in the mid-15th century.

But regardless of what the historians say, Yeay Penh has captured imaginations.

“We would have no Phnom Penh if it was not for her,” said Heng Lyda, a 15-year-old student at the Chaktomuk Secondary School, adding that she was glad the city had built statues to honor her as well as Chuon Nath and Kram Ngoy.

Lah Lay, who is now in his mid-40s, remembers Chuon Nath from his years in the monkhood at Wat Ounalum, which he entered when he was 15 years old.

“He was the first monk in Cam­bodia’s history to be a Khmer language scholar,” he said of the venerable Chuon Nath.

“Chuon Nath was a [Buddhist] patriarch who could speak many languages,” said Hean Sengman, a 39-year-old teacher at Bak Touk Primary School. One of Chuon Nath’s key achievements was to compile the Khmer dictionary, which remains very popular today, he said.

“Prior to that dictionary, our [Khmer] spelling was fluctuating a great deal,” said Cambodian literature expert Khing Hoc Dy.

“His ‘Cambodian Dictionary’ in two volumes played a crucial role to set the spelling in Khmer language.”

Khing Hoc Dy recalls Chuon Nath from his student days in the 1960s.

“He was giving interviews on Khmer language every week on national radio until his death in 1969. I regularly listened to them.”

Born in 1883, Chuon Nath was researcher of international stature who knew Pali, Sanskrit, Thai, ancient Khmer and French—“He was a polyglot,” Khing Hoc Dy said.

“He is as well known today as he was in his lifetime,” he added.

Ngoy, who was given the title of Kram as he served as intermediary between villagers and government officials, sang his poems while playing on a satiev, a Cambodian one-chord zither, Khing Hoc Dy said.

Truly modern in style, his poems were morality tales and words of advice written in a simple and direct way that made them accessible to all, said Khing Hoc Dy who will soon publish a book on the poet.

The work of Kram Ngoy, who was born Ouk Ou in 1865 and lived until 1936, is briefly mentioned in primary school and studied in high school, said Ton Saim, director of pedagogical research at the Min­istry of Education.

Both he and Chuon Nath were in­cluded in the school program to make students aware of their achievements and foster national pride, she said.

Chuon Nath’s statue stands in front of Hun Sen Park and the Buddhist Institute, and Kram Ngoy’s statue is on Sisowath Quay in front of the Cambodiana Hotel.

“With globalization, there is no border to block other cultures from flowing into Cambodia,” Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said.

“So we must build such statues to fuel nationalism in the young generation,” he said. “We want to let them know that Cambodia has a

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