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, 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 (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).

Ancestral voices: The Naga King

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PM(The following is from Spirit Worlds, my forthcoming book about Cambodian religion and belief. Part of that system of beliefs is the national myths that give meaning to being Khmer).


In India there  lived a prince, Preah Thong by name, who was told in a dream to take a ship and sail to a golden land in the east where he would establish a great kingdom. So the prince prepared his ship and crew and set forth, and after many days he came upon a beautiful and uninhabited island. Preah Thong named it Nokor Kok Tlok, Kingdom of the Tlok Tree, after a large tlok tree by the shore. Possibly feeling he had done enough for one day Preah Thong fell asleep under the tree, and when he awoke it was night. The moon was full and he gazed on the sea, wondering about his new kingdom, and especially about the lack of people, and as he watched he saw human figures emerge from beneath the waves.

The beings spread a feast under the trees, and the men fell to sport, wrestling and sword-playing on the sand, while the women strummed musical instruments and sang sweet songs. All were comely, but in their midst was a lady more arresting than any. Overcome by her beauty, Preah Thong stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, asking who she was, and how it came to be that she and her people lived beneath the waves.


Preah Thong (right) and the naga princess, Cambodian classical dance-drama.

The lady graciously permitted him to know that she was Neang Neak (Lady Naga), the daughter of the naga king, that this was the land of the nagas, and that she and her court visited the beach every full moon night for their pleasure. She informed him also that it was a serious breach of protocol to speak to royalty before being spoken to, and that he had broken this rule, but as she could see he was a stranger and ignorant of naga etiquette she would permit him to inform her of his name and family before ordering his execution.

Quickly Preah Thong told the naga princess of his foreign origins and princely station and declared his undying love, and after further gentle words the proud princess melted and agreed to take him to the underwater kingdom of the nagas so that he could ask her father for her hand in marriage.


Phimeanakas temple in the royal compound at Ankor. Only the base remains – the tower stood on top of this.

And so Neang Neak took Preah Thong to the kingdom of the nagas, the prince holding her scarf. For three days they celebrated their wedding, and at the end of that time the naga king swallowed the water that had covered the land and Preah Thong and Neang Neak ruled together over the Khmers, who were descended from the arriage of the noble Indians who had accompanied Preah Thong and the beautiful naga-folk who waited upon the princess.

In another version of the legend the Indian prince is a Brahmin named Kaundinya and the naga princess is named Soma. The plot is very similar to the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak except that the island is apparently upstream in the Mekong, and Kaundinya defeats Soma in battle before she agrees to marry him. In yet another version the prince was called Kambu, from which comes the name Kambuja, Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 9.38.44 PMThe great enemy of the Khmers were the Cham, whose kingdom of Champa lay along the central coast of present-day Vietnam. In the year 657 a Cham king named Prakasadhamma left an inscription in his capital telling how the Brahmin Kaundinya ‘planted his spear’ (settled) in Kambuja and took Soma, daughter of the naga king, as his wife. Prakasadhamma mentioned this because, although a Cham king and a Cham by blood through his mother, he was a descendant of Kaundinya and Soma through his father, who was a Khmer prince. The inscription is important because it is the earliest mention in real history, as opposed to myth, of the name Kambuja.

The marriage of human prince and naga princess sounds fanciful, but the Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan says this in the record of his stay at Angkor shortly before the year 1300:


Zhou Daguan’s “A Record of Cambodia”, translated by Peter Harris with introduction by David Chandler.

Inside the palace there is a gold tower, at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine-headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die.

The tower is probably Phimeanakas, the only structure still remaining inside the palace compound at Angkor. I climbed to the top one cloudy and tourist-free day in the monsoon season, but found no naga-maiden awaiting me. Given what happened to the mythical Leper King, husband to the naga-princess and son-in-law to the naga-king, this may be just as well. That, however, is another myth.

Ancestral voices: Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem


Preah Koh and his brother Preah Keo, Ta Prohm temple at Tonle Bati south of Phnom Penh (not to be confused with the more famous Ta Prohm at Angkor). From the blogspot Cultural Guide for Cambodia, photo Sowanna Yun.

In the period between the sack of Angkor by the Thais in 1431 and the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century the Khmer kings were largely ineffectual, the capital shifted between Phnom Penh, Lovek and Oudong, and the kingdom was nibbled away by Siam and Vietnam, losing provinces and population to both. The architecture, in contrast to the stone temples of Angkor, was largely perishable, inscriptions were few and have been comparatively little studied, and although palace and monastic chronicles exist, they are unreliable and largely made up of legends. Those legends, while a poor introduction to history, are nevertheless an instructive guide to the Cambodian soul.

And so we come to Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem, Preah Koh and Preah Keo. They were twin brothers. While their mother was pregnant with them she developed a craving for green mango; in the manner of legends she was warned not to climb the mango tree to get to the forbidden fruit, and of course she did. She fell to her death. As she died the twins were born, but while one was human, the other was a calf. The villagers, horrified at this unnatural birth, chased them into the forest, where Preah Koh, the Sacred Cow, fed and clothed his brother by belching up feasts from his belly.


Princess Neang Pov bathing in the forest pool. Or something. Arin, singer and model, demonstrating Longvek-era costume.

Preah Keo grew up to be a handsome young man. One day, clothed in a royal costume belched up for him by Preah Koh, he was loitering by a forest pool when the king’s youngest daughter, Neang Pov (‘Youngest Princess’) came to bathe. Preah Keo drew near and spoke charming words to the princess, and she allowed him to kiss her. When her father the king heard of this he was furious and had Neang Pov beheaded, but Preah Koh magically restored her head to her shoulders and belched out a palace, where Indra, the king of the gods, presided over her wedding to Preah Keo.

At this time the king of Siam was trying to conquer Cambodia. Unsuccessful in battle, he challenged the king of Cambodia to a cockfight, knowing there was no fighting cock in Cambodia that could hope to defeat the Thai king’s cock. (I was strongly tempted to allow my inner 14 year old to exercise his sense of humour here, but resisted). The Khmer court was in despair, but Preah Koh took pity and changed himself into an invincible fighting cock, in which form he defeated the King of Siam.

The furious Thai king challenged the Cambodians to a fight between elephants. Once again the Khmer were despondent, and once again Preah Koh saved them, transforming himself into an invincible fighting elephant.


The Emerald Buddha, Bangkok – I haven’t followed this up in detail, but the story seems to be that the statue was created in India by the gods Vishnu and Indra, came to Cambodia via Sri Lanka, then went to Laos, then northern Thailand, and finally Bangkok; that’s one story; another is that it came from India to Sri Lanka to Cambodia and was captured by the Thais at Angkor. Either way, it’s now the central religious symbol of the Thai nation. It’s not emerald, by the way, it’s jade.

The king of Siam consulted his astrologers: why was he always defeated by the Khmers, even though he was far more powerful? The astrologers consulted their charts and discovered the secret of Sacred Cow. The power of Preah Koh, they advised the king, could not be defeated by normal means nor even by magic, but if the king should construct a mechanical bull, the Khmer champion could be vanquished.

Once more the Thai king challenged the Khmers to a duel. When Preah Koh saw the mechanical bull he knew at once that he would be defeated, but he accepted the challenge. As he had foreseen, his magic blows had no effect on the Thai bull, which managed to knock off one of his magic horns. Deciding to escape and fight another day, Preah Koh called Preah Keo and Neang Pov to cling to him and flew off.

And of course there’s an Emerald Buddha in the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh

As they flew through the skies Neang Pov lost her grip and fell to her death, where Indra turned her into a sacred mountain which you, dear reader, may visit to this very day, but the brothers flew on and landed at Lovek, the Khmer capital. There they hid in a bamboo forest, thinking they would be safe, but the devious Thais loaded their cannons with silver coins and fired them into the forest, and the greedy local villagers cut down the bamboo to find the coins. And so Preah Koh and Preah Keo were captured and the king of Siam took them to his capital, where they remain to this day, imprisoned in a beautiful palace, weeping as they look eastward towards Cambodia.

The legend of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem operates on many levels. For scholars interested in the history of religious traditions, Sacred Cow is the modern descendant of the bull Nandi, the vehicle of the god Shiva, and Preah Keo rides on his back with Neang Pov like Shiva riding on Nandi with his wife Parvati, goddess of the mountains, of love and of devotion.

At another level Preah Koh with his magic stomach and invincibility in battle represents the lost power of ancient Angkor, as well as, in his defeat and captivity, Cambodia’s post-Angkorean humiliation and powerlessness. And Sacred Gem is a real gem, the Emerald Buddha, once held by Cambodia, at least according to Cambodian legend, and now in the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

Longvek (or Lovek, or many other spellings - this one seems to be Eauwek) in its heyday.

Longvek, the capital of Cambodia from 1553, when it first became known to Western visitors, until its capture by the Thais in 1593.

And finally, there’s real history, or what might be real history. In the 15th century the Siamese king, finding the Khmer too powerful to defeat in battle, consulted his astrologers and learned that Lovek was protected by a powerful four-faced Buddha statue. The city would never fall so long as this statue remained in the city. The king sent a fraudulent holy man to Lovek, who convinced King Preah Prattha that the statue was unlucky and he should give it to the Thais. And so Lovek was captured and Cambodia’s greatness passed away, not because of the power of her enemies, but because of the gullible foolishness of the Cambodians themselves.


Modern four-faced Buddha at Wat Tralaeng, Lovek – the idea is not actually that a single Buddha has four faces, but four Buddha images are placed back to back around a central pillar, representing the four Buddhas who have existed so far in the world’s history; a fifth Buddha is still to come, and kings like to identify themselves with him.

At Lovek today, visitors to the monastery of Wat Tralaeng Kaeng  can see the feet of the four-faced Buddha statue still in place – the statue itself is at the bottom of the river, not far away, having sunk the boat onto which the Siamese loaded it. (And at this point, I must confess, I’m getting quite confused as to what is legend and what is history – the statue really was real, but did King Prattha really give it to the Thais, and is it really still at the bottom of the river?) Also to be seen nearby is a statue of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem under a Bodhi tree, and sprouting from the Bodhi is a single mango branch, which is all that remains of the tree from which the mother of the fabulous twins fell.

A little beyond the Bodhi tree is the entrance to one of the underground passageways of the nagas, revealed when the naga king drank up the ocean and exposed Srok Khmer, the land of Cambodia, which had previously been under the sea. There are many such tunnels and caves around Cambodia, and this one extends from Lovek to Oudong, just north of Phnom Penh, where the naga’s tail brushes against the sacred funeral urns of the Khmer kings.