One of the most beautiful theatrical spectacles that a person can witness in Asia is the Preah Thong Boung Soung, a rendition of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak that is performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. With elaborate costumes, gentle music and exquisite dance, the opera depicts the story that every single child in Cambodia is told at a very young age – the saga of an Indian prince and a serpent (Naga) woman who are the ancestors of all Khmer people.
Like the Indian epic Ramayana, there are several versions of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak. One of the most popular versions goes like this: Thousands of years ago, Cambodia was a small island called Kouk Thlouk, meaning the land of the Thlouk tree, a Cambodian species of Chrysobalanaceae. The island belonged to the Nagas (serpents) who lived in the ocean. One day, Naga princess Soma and her subjects transformed themselves into beautiful women and came to the island. The same night, an Indian prince named Kaundinya sailed with his followers to the island. The prince saw the Naga princess dancing in the moonlight and fell madly in love with her and asked her to marry him. She agreed under the condition that the Naga king, her father, approve of the marriage.
Since the Naga palace was in the depths of the ocean, Kaundinya had to ride there by carrying Soma’s tail. The king found the Indian prince to be a suitable match and agreed to let his daughter marry him. After their wedding, the Naga king expanded the island by reclaiming more land from the ocean. This territory was then ruled by the Kaundinya and Soma, who were given the Khmer names Preah Thong and Neang Neak respectively. The Cambodians, or Khmers, consider themselves the descendants of the pair.
“The description of the land as an ‘island’ is linked with the idea that all of the country was formerly underwater,” German scholar Rüdiger Gaudes wrote in a paper titled ‘Kaundinya, Preah Thong and the Nagi Soma: Some aspects of a Cambodian legend’. “Determining the geographical location of Koul Thlouk is impossible, particularly since it is said to be situated near the Dangrek Mountains, near the town of Siem Reap (where, indeed the classical metropolis of Angkor Thom was located), or far to the south of Angkor Borei – its supposed location evidently depending upon the place of origin of the respective narrator.”
Scholars widely agree that the notion that ancient Cambodia was an island was because of the widespread floods that the country has been witness to for thousands of years.
Another version of the story says Kaundinya waged a war with Soma, while another claims he killed the Naga king who refused to allow his daughter to marry a human. One thing that is common between these and almost all versions of the story is the part about the Indian prince carrying the tail of his future wife to the depths of the ocean. It is such a part of the Cambodian ethos that it has been incorporated into Cambodian wedding rituals: while entering the honeymoon room, a Cambodian groom is required to carry the end of the long train of the bride’s dress. This gesture and the story behind it indicate that the woman is the head of the family. Cambodians consider Neang Neak as their matriarch.
Elements Of Truth?
Like many epics and legends of Asia, the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak may have an element of truth. Chinese historical texts mention the Kingdom of Funan, a loose network of Indianised states in the 3rd century CE. Funan is probably a Chinese variant of the Khmer word Vnum, which means mountain. The state’s ancient capital Vyadhapura did not survive the ravages of time.
In his book Account of Foreign Countries at the Time of Wu, 3rd century Chinese traveller Kai Tang documented the existence of Funan and Vyadhapura. He mentioned that the script of the kingdom was similar to what he called the Indian script. Kai Tang wrote about Kaundinya in his book, while talking about the origin of Funan. The Chinese name for the Indian prince was Hun Tian.
German historian and Indologist Hermann Kulke was the first to suggest that the Indian king was a Brahmin and that Kaundinya was actually the name of his gotra. In his book The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal added that Kaundinya probably was from northern Andhra Pradesh or southern Odisha.
Tenth century Chinese encyclopaedia Tai Ping Lu Yuan says Kaundinya (Hun Tian) was a devotee of a Hindu god and dreamt of his god giving him a divine bow and asking him to take to sea in a vessel. The Chinese text that was translated by historian and academician Ramesh Chandra Majumdar said Kaundinya went to a temple of his god and found a bow the morning after the dream. “Then he embarked on a trading vessel, and the god changed the course of the wind in such a manner that he came to Funan,” the Chinese encyclopaedia said. “Liu Ye (Soma) came in a boat to plunder the vessel. Hun Tian raised his bow and shot an arrow, which pierced through the queen’s boat from one side to the other. The queen was overtaken by fear and submitted to him. Thereupon Hun Tian ruled over the country.”
The marriage of Kaundinya and Soma is mentioned in several ancient Chinese texts as well.
“These accounts undoubtedly reflect historical events from the 1st Century AD (that is two hundred or more years before Kang Tai’s visit) relating to the process of Indianisation: the influx of Indian religion, folklore, political and legal theories and other cultural elements brought by Indians into Southeast Asia in connection with social changes and the formation of states there,” Gaudes wrote.
After Cambodia broke free of colonial rule, Cambodian stateman Norodom Sihanouk, who was first king then prime minister of the country, made it a priority to popularise the story around the world. Under the patronage of Sihanouk’s wife Norodom Monineath, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performed the opera in several countries.
The ballet has since become an international symbol of the country and the dance depicting the story has been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. It even survived the murderous and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which wanted to ban the story and ballet.
Sihanouk also developed a strong personal friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, who he considered his mentor. During a 12-day visit to India in 1955, the Cambodian statesman spoke of both the influence of Sanskrit on the Khmer language as well as link the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak created between the countries. “We [India and Cambodia] are cousins,” he said during the visit. “Khmer civilisation is the child of India’s civilisation, and we are proud of it.”
This story and dance, which are a powerful and important cultural link, can be the basis of strengthening India’s relationship with the most Indic of South East Asian countries. In a post-pandemic world, audiences in Indian cities would welcome the performance by Cambodian dancers of the story that shows the love between an ancient Indian prince and his Naga princess.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.