Ancestral voices: the Leper King

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Sdach Kamlong the Leper King – the statue from the Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor, now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. From cathyandgarytravelpages.com, which has some very nice photos from the museum (click on the image for the link).

In the late 19th century French archaeologists at Angkor discovered a statue of a squatting, bare-chested man, his right hand apparently once holding a rod or similar object, on a terrace next to the Bayon temple. Presumably it had been there for centuries, as the terrace was used in ancient times for royal cremations and perhaps for judgements. The statue, according to its inscription, was Yama, the god of death and judgement, but the local villagers were worshipping it as Sdach Kamlong, the Leper King, who, as legend has it, was Preah Thong, the Indian prince who married the naga princess and was first to rule over the Khmer people.

Preah Thong was warned by his wife’s father, the naga king, not to build a four-faced tower in his city, but he ignored the warning. Using the magical power of the four faces he captured the naga king and imprisoned him inside the tower, but the serpent escaped and sought to kill him. Each dealt the other many grievous wounds, but Preah Thong eventually dealt the fatal blow, although he was stained by the naga’s venom. The dying naga warned him not to remove the poison, but Preah Thong washed his body, and so was stricken with leprosy as a visible sign of his deed.

Seeking to cover up the murder from the naga’s daughter, Preah Thong killed a monk, thinking he could be reincarnated in the monk’s healthy body. This was a crime even worse than killing his father-in-law, and his outraged courtiers banished him to the forest, while his city became the haunt of monkeys and tigers. Eventually, after many trials, he was cured by the power of the sacred waters of the Ganges (the Siem Reap River) and restored to his city and throne.

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Base of the Terrace of the Leper King – there’s a modern copy of the statue on top of the terrace. From brianholihan.com (click image for link).

The legend of the Leper King and the abandoned city is an allegory of the fall of Angkor and a hope for national salvation. However, the story is certainly older than the fall of Angkor, for the medieval Chinese traveller, Zhou Daguan mentions that a king of Angkor once fell victim to leprosy.

The statue is now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where worshippers ask for health and prosperity and for protection from danger. It’s especially popular with students from the University of Fine Arts next to the museum, and special ceremonies with offerings of flowers and fruits and music are held at New Year and Pchum Ben (the festival of the dead).

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

According to popular belief the Leper King was Yasovarman I. This cannot be true, for the following reasons: (1) There is nothing to indicate that the statue represents a king or a leper or even that the terrace was its original home; (2) there is no evidence that Yasovarman or any other Khmer king was a leper; and (3), Yasovarman’s capital was somewhere else and the terrace wasn’t built till long after his death. (The acerbic note comes from my source, a rather mysterious but apparently well-informed pdf file by someone who goes by the single name of Sokheoun. Sokheoun is a stickler for facts, one of which is fascinating: it seems that, deep inside the Bayon temple at Angkor, there’s a series of bas-reliefs illustrating the Leper King story).

The myth of the Leper King is very much alive and well. Here’s some Cambodians discussing it on khmerconnection in 2009. The version of the legend someone gives here is slightly different from ine, but that’s how it goes with legends. Note the way they join the dots between the legend and modern politics:

Cambodia is curse until the true ruler of the kingdom reclaim his thrown and crowned king..

actual crowned king not select nor picked out…

Current king is king but has not wore the crown. It is said who ever wore the crown and not the true ruler lightning will strike you to death..Many high ranking politic and royal has tried but fear it. Even Hun Sen tried but the door close on him trying to enter…

(Yet another version of the story here – again an attempt to find “real” history hiding in a legend. Legends are poetry, the truth they contain is poetic truth, as the folks on khmerconnection have grasped).

(Last thing I have to say on the subject, promise There were once three Leper King statues in Phnom Penh, but now there are only two. Number One is of course the statue in the central courtyard of the National Museum, a national icon filled with magical powers. This is the original from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor, Number Two is outside Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay, and receives worship on the four holy days each month as well as major festival days. This is a copy, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party. Number Three was nearby, on the Riverside on the other side of the road. It used to have quite a lot of worshippers, but it’s gone now, replaced by a sewerage plant. Like Number Two it was a copy, but it was donated by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a political opponent of the government).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

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