Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tevodas, Rakshasas, and Other Cambodian Lore

By Supriya Savkoor

A couple of months ago, my book club chose to read a novel that I hadn’t yet heard of—In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Cambodian-American author Vaddey Ratner. I must have been living under a rock not to have heard of this critically acclaimed first novel, but I’ll admit, I was ambivalent about this choice as I knew it would require some fortitude to read. It's set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s darkest hour—the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge systematically decimated about half of its own people, through torture, starvation, and, most of all, outright murder. And yet I soon discovered this semi-autographical book is extraordinary, as uplifting and hopeful as it is heartbreaking.

As I’ve told nearly everyone I know, this important book has so many complex facets and layers to it that schools and universities should be adding it to their required reading lists. Which subject? Take your pick—history, psychology, sociology, ethics, religion, spirituality, politics, cultural studies, philosophy, literature, even poetry.

And add one more to that list: mythology, which also happens to be the topic of the week here at Novel Adventurers. (Oh, but how I would really love to expound on all those other topics!)

Ratner’s story led me to a startling discovery—that many aspects of Cambodian civilization were influenced by Hindu myths, legends, and folklore. It’s startling because, while the faith of nearly all Cambodians is Buddhism—a faith that also hails from India, but has morphed into the local cultures and more or less lost its “Indianness”—I could not have conceived of a Southeast Asian culture that's seemingly so different from Indian culture, yet so closely aligned to it. Especially when it comes to ancient Hindu mythology, which is still very much alive in present-day in India and, it seems, in Cambodia as well.

Ratner seamlessly weaves in mythical characters that are often as real as her human ones. She also infuses her story with poetic metaphors such as my favorite, the one about the Reamker

A mural that shows a scene from the Reamker at the
Royal Palace in Phnom Pen, Cambodia. (Photo by hanay)

Hopefully, it’s no spoiler to tell you about the beginning of In the Shadow of the Banyan. We enter the privileged world of our protagonist, seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian blue blood. Surrounded by her loving family, Raami enjoys all the joy and magic of an innocent childhood. While sitting under a banyan tree (an image evoking the Buddha) in the courtyard of her family’s palatial home, Raami begins rereading her favorite book, the Reamker.

“In time immemorial there existed a kingdom called Ayuthiya. It was as perfect a place as one could find in the Middle Realm. But such a paradise was not without envy. In the Underworld, there existed a parallel kingdom called Langka, a flip-mirror image of Ayuthiya. There, darkness prevailed. Its inhabitants, known as the rakshasas, fed on violence and destruction, grew ever more powerful by the evil and suffering they inflicted.”

I include that passage because, on several levels, it fills me with awe.

The story of the Reamker is surprisingly familiar to me, one that I too had read many times as a child of about Raami's age. It’s the Cambodian version of one of India’s best-known epics, the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s most sacred texts and one of India's most popular mythological legends, comparable to Greek and Roman mythology. Hailing from ancient times, the Ramayana, is filled with a pantheon of gods and goddesses who have inexplicably human desires and weaknesses. It's part of the traditional Hinduism belief system, while for some (even in India), it's a colorful story steeped in philosophical themes combined with the magic of mythology.

A view of Angkor Wat, the world's largest
Vishnu temple, in Angkor, Cambodia.
The story of the Ramayana/Reamker is also a brilliant metaphor for Ratner’s novel. As the title(s) of the former imply, it's the story of Rama (aka Preah Ream), whom Hindus believe to be a human avatar of the Lord Vishnu. As the story goes, Rama led a happy, privileged life as a prince in the benevolent kingdom of Ayodhya (Ayuthiya). As a young man, he’s banished for reasons out of his control. He spends years in exile, far from home and separated from most everyone he loves. Soon, his wife is abducted by a jealous king from Lanka (modern-day Sri Lanka, called Langka in the Cambodian version). Ram eventually returns home but not before a long, bloody war pits all the forces of good and evil against each other and ends in devastating losses for both sides.

Sound familiar? Yes, it sums up Ratner's telling of the Cambodian genocide, with young Raami as a sort of avatar of the noble Ram. Raami is exiled into a world filled with rakshasas, in the form of Pol Pot’s vast army of soldiers, and tevodas, angels who are perhaps counterparts to the mythical devas that fend off the devil’s rakshasa minions. Raami’s father is frequently compared to Indra, the powerful god of thunder and lightning, who also happens to be the king of the devas (the good guys). And, of course, even after it was all over, there
                                                                                 were no winners.

For thousands of years, the story of the Ramayana has been performed in
plays and dance all over Southeast Asia. This photo, a postcard scan, 
shows the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performing the Reamker in the
courtyard of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh sometime between the
1900s and 1920s. This particular postcard depicts a scene from a battle
between Rama and Ravana. Starting in 1900, F. Fleury published
a series of postcards featuring such scenes from the Reamker in China.
The publication year of this postcard is unknown, but it is suspected to
be taken during either King Norodom's reign in Phnom Penh or during
the early years of King Sisowath's reign. Author Vaddey Ratner herself
is a direct descendent of Sisowath royalty.

The rest of Ratner's novel is likewise steeped in the Hindu mythology I grew up on, albeit with a Cambodian flavor.

One other surprise entailed references to the old animal fables known as Jataka Tales, filled with morality lessons. These short stories, which some historians say inspired Aesop’s Fables, had titles such as The Monkey King’s Sacrifice, The Mouse Merchant, and The Demon Outwitted. I'd always presumed the Jataka Tales to be purely Indian, so I was surprised to learn through In the Shadow of the Banyan that the Jataka Tales are equally well-known all over Southeast Asia. Considered to be a recounting of the Buddha’s previous births, in both human and animal form, the stories impart the virtue and wisdom of the Buddha as he appears to us in all his worldy forms (and, of course, teaches that god is within all of us).

 Po Romem, Hindu temple from the Cham era
near present-day Phan Rang, Vietnam.
(photo by Irdyb)
All of this cross-cultural exchange, it turns out, occurred because, for a few thousand years starting in the first century, Hinduism dominated as both a religion and a culture in Cambodia—and to varying degrees, in modern-day Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia (see my related post here), Java, Bali, Vietnam, and even the Philippines. Hindu kingdoms across this region were later described as “Indianized” kingdoms or states, part of a “Greater India” or “Farther India.” India’s influence, however, was entirely cultural, not connected in any way to politics or government. (Historians have called this India's "cultural expansion" and even "cultural imperialism.")

Much of Southeast Asia's oldest sacred texts, literature, and philosophy were written in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali. Though these languages are now archaic (used only in sacred Hindu and Buddhist texts), modern-day Southeast Asian languages still retain vestiges of them. Southeast Asian names in general also sound a lot like Indian ones. And it's said that the name of the country Singapore, known as the Lion City, is based on the Sanskrit words simhah for lion and puram for city. (Simhah puram sounds a bit like "Singapore," right?)

For thousands of years, Southeast Asian kings stylized themselves after Indian devarajas, or god-kings, a bit like Prince Rama from the Ramayana. These kings took on royal, Indian-sounding names, such as Jayavarman VII (Cambodia) and Wikramawardhana (Java), and consulted Brahmin priests from India before making big decisions, such as going to war or relocating a capital. They performed the Hindu ritual ceremony known as a puja. Some even adopted the infamous caste system.

These kings also erected numerous temples and statues—many of which survive today—in honor of Hindu gods and goddesses. Cambodia has preserved one of the world’s only two temples dedicated to Brahma as well as the world’s largest Vishnu temple, Angkor Wat, located in Angkor.

The Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia flourished for about a thousand years, before, bit by bit, they began infusing more Buddhist beliefs in with their Hindu ones until, eventually, Buddhism prevailed. As I learned from Ratner’s amazing novel, remnants of the region’s Hindu past still linger and inspire. And the title of In the Shadow of the Banyan suggests that despite all that young Raami, and Ratner herself, experienced, a higher force had protected them all along.

(A post-script: I'll be writing a follow-up to this post in 2 weeks, when we cover book reviews. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit Vaddey Ratner's web site,, or connect with her on FaceBook. Most importantly, read her book! I'd love to hear your impressions.)


  1. Fascinating stuff, Supriya, I look forward to reading more!


    1. Thanks, Kelly! I had to write this piece, because the topic has been very much on my mind for the past few months---ever since I made this "discovery"! I'm glad you found it interesting too.


  2. Thanks for this lovely post and for the book info Supriya. I'll be sure to add it to my TBR list.


    1. Mihir, you're so kind---thank you for the kind words! Yes, do read this book. Also, if you're interested in a more historical reference (albeit academic), check out this book: The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, by Georges Coedes. (Here's a link to it on Amazon: I learned from Ms. Ratner that this is the seminal text on the topic. I've since been reading it--it's quite comprehensive. Thanks again for your comment.