The Poem of Angkor Wat, or “Lpoek Angkor Vat,” stands as a testament to the rich literary and cultural heritage of Cambodia. Dating back to the early 17th century, this Khmer poem is a celebration of the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat temple complex, offering a vivid portrayal of the intricate bas-reliefs that adorn its galleries. Recognized as the earliest original literary work in the Khmer language, this masterpiece holds a significant place in Cambodia’s cultural tapestry.
Historical Significance: The narrative unfolds with the story of Prince Ketumala, son of the god Indra, facing exile from the divine realm due to his human scent. Indra, in an act of compassion, dispatches his personal architect, Preah Pisnukar, to construct a palace on Earth for Ketumala. The poem provides a captivating account of the construction process, detailing the clearing of the forest around Phnom Bakheng and the assembly of high-quality stones to build the magnificent complex known as Intapras.
Versions and Restoration: Originally inscribed on the temples of Angkor Wat, the poem was later transcribed into modern script in 1878 by the French khmerologist Étienne Aymonier. In 2009, efforts by Sokha Thoum, Horm Chhayly, and Hay Vanneth led to a modern reinterpretation of the script, making it more accessible to contemporary readers. The inclusion of a glossary aids in understanding the ancient words, preserving the authenticity of the poem.
Date and Authorship: Khmerologist Grégory Mikaelian suggests that The Poem of Angkor Wat serves as a cosmogonic text, reflecting a new literary genre commissioned by the royal government of Oudong. Dated to 1620 AD by Pou Saveros, the poem is attributed to Pang Tat, also known as Neak Pang. The style of the poem is characterized by rich alliteration and rhyme, using three different meters: Bat Prohmkoet, Bat Kakketi, and Bat Pomnol.
Cultural Shift and Influence: The poem serves as a cultural artifact, documenting Cambodia’s shift after the fall of Longvek and the subsequent “harmonization of Brahmanic heritage and Theravada ideology.” Despite being rooted in the 17th century, the characters and stories continue to resonate with contemporary Cambodian culture. Preah Pisnukar, the main hero, is still revered by carpenters, artists, and builders in Cambodia and invoked as the legendary builder of Angkor Wat.
Legacy and Recognition: The Poem of Angkor Wat has left an indelible mark on Khmer literature, influencing various aspects of Cambodian culture. Etiologically, the names of its characters have been incorporated into the geography of Siem Reap, emphasizing its lasting impact on the region. Referred to in popular plays, pastiches, and even the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, the poem continues to captivate and inspire.
The Poem of Angkor Wat stands as a masterpiece of Khmer literature, showcasing the poetic potential inherent in the ruins of Angkor Wat. Its influence extends beyond borders, inspiring poets such as Allen Ginsberg and captivating the hearts of generations. This timeless work not only preserves the cultural heritage of Cambodia but also serves as a bridge between traditions, creating a literary legacy that transcends time and borders.