Surface area: 181,000 km2
Capital: Phnom Penh
Population: 15 million
Ethnic structure: Khmers, Vietnamese, Chinese, and smaller ethnic groups
Languages: 17 in total, the most important being Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese
Religions: Theravada Buddhism, Islam, and folk religions
The roots of Cambodian dance and theatre are believed to lie in ancient indigenous rituals, such as funerary ceremonies or rites connected to animistic or ancestor worship. Most of these predate the emergence of Funan (C.AD 100–550) and Chenla (550–800), the first Indian-influenced kingdoms, or power centres, in the regions of today’s Cambodia.
Early documentary sources clearly indicate strong Indian influences. One such source is a sixth-century inscription describing arrangements for the daily recitation of holy texts of Indian origin: the Ramayana, the Mababbarata, and the Purana texts. They were adopted from India together with the Sanskrit language and Hindu Brahmanism in its Shivaistic form, that is, with the god Shiva as its central manifestation.
The “golden age” of Cambodian history was the Angkorean period from AD 802 to 1431, when splendid temples and cities such as the magnificent Angkor Wat were built, and Khmer dance achieved the status of a kind of state art. After the conquest of Angkor by the Thais in 1431, Theravada Buddhism and the art styles of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya came to shape the culture of Cambodia. As in Thailand, a localised version of the originally Indian epic Ramayana was rewritten in the 16th or 17th century and it became country’s national epic, known as the Reamker.
In 1863 Cambodia became one of the French protectorates and thus the European, particularly the French, influence started to spread rapidly within the urban surroundings and also influenced the development of theatre and dance. After the declaration of independence in 1953, an intensive search for the nation’s roots started.
Freedom from centuries of foreign dominance, first Thai and then French, inspired a movement that is often called “Khmerisation”. The origin of the nation’s history was found in the glorious Khmer culture of the Angkorean period, which served and still serves as a source of inspiration for theatre and dance as well.
The end of the 1960s was the beginning of a period of three decades of war and political turmoil. First the Vietnam War, and then the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which lasted until 1991, killed millions of Cambodians and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. In these circumstances theatre and dance were, of course, of secondary importance. During the present period of peace the performing arts are quickly recovering, partly because of the support by the international community and the needs of the country’s thriving tourist industry.