Tag: Cambodian Literature Series

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“At that moment, coming from the East, Lord Surya, mounted on his crystal chariot pulled by a thousand stallions, skirted Mount Meru, axis of the world, and went to the West following the circle of the constellations. When the chariot turned and was hidden by the enormous mountain, the Lord’s brilliant light dimmed and came […]

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Traditional Khmer Novels

 

The Khmer word for narrative fiction is lpaen. It is defined as works for pleasure. And before the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century, all traditional Khmer novels were written in verse. The French were the ones to introduce prose to Khmer fiction. That is not to say that Khmers did not write in prose before then. Prose was exclusively used for technical writings, medicinal treatises, astrology treatises, political and religious treaties, and for the translation of Buddhist literature. A new word was coined for prose novels when the first one was published in 1938 to differentiate between verse and prose fictions. Anyway, let’s ignore prose fiction for now because this post is all about traditional Khmer fiction, the verse-novels.

Lpaen or verse-novel has always been a popular genre in Khmer literature. French colonists in the 19th century would gather around the village halls in the evenings to listen to a recitation of a lpaen. Recitation is sometimes accompanied by a string instrument. Some of the verse-novels are quite long, as long as 9,000 stanzas. And they would take at least two nights to recite. A few could be mistaken for epics because of their length and subject matter.

Verse-novels emerged in the mid-17th century with Hang Yont (Mechanical Swan) thought to be the first novel. Most of these novels were sometime alleged to be Jātaka (tales of the Buddha’s previous lives) because some were written in the style of Jātaka with the usual preface benediction in Pali to the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teaching), the Sangha (ordained monks and nuns), and the epilogue that includes the future lives of the characters. But the majority of these novels had nothing to do with Buddhism; the link to Buddhism was very minor. If anything, they had everything to do with Brahmanism even when Theravada Buddhism had replaced Hinduism permanently by the 16th century. For example, in Preah Ko Preah Keo, the main character Preah Ko was the manifestation of Nandi the Bull, Lord Shiva’s mount. Several of these stories were folktales rewritten in verse forms. Vorvong and Sourivong was based on a popular folktale, which itself was based on the adventures of two condemned Khmer princely brothers.

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Riddles are popular in Khmer culture. According to legend, Khmer New Year was started over a riddle competition between Brahma the Creator and a mortal man. Riddles are considered to be part of Khmer literature, and like everything in Khmer literature, they were written in verses (those between 1st and mid-19th century). Along with songs […]

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The Legend of Thunder and Lightning

 

This is part 3 of my Cambodian Literature Series. The previous two parts are Cambodian Romeo and Juliet and Folktale for the Shrimp. Below is my translation of this particular tale.


Since time immemorial, deep in the jungle in a land known as Cambodia, lived a hermit of immense power. The hermit had three disciples, a human prince named Vorak Chhun, a celestial nymph called Moni Mekhela and a giant prince named Ream Eyso. All three disciples were very determined and hardworking students. They were also very competitive, always trying to one-up one another.

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The following is part 2 of my Cambodian Literature Series.  Tum Teav is a Khmer tragic love story about a doomed affair between Tum, a handsome novice monk and Teav, a beautiful adolescent girl who, to quote VP Biden, was “literally” on the cusp of womanhood. Tum Teav is believed to be a real story. […]

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Below is part 1 of my Cambodian Literature series. The following is my translation of this folktale.  There was once a wolf who roamed around the fields for food, and when a cool breeze started blowing he would go to dried up lakes and ponds to catch fish. One time, upon arriving at a small […]

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