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Did you know that Cambodia’s national language, Khmer, is heavily influenced by Sanskrit? In fact, Sanskrit was the court language of the Khmer Empire for more than 1,000 years. According to Associate Professor McComas Taylor, much of Cambodian history is recorded in Sanskrit inscriptions, but very few Cambodians can read the language, especially after all intellectuals were killed in the genocide of the 1970s. So effectively, the Cambodian people do not have access to their own history.
Cambodia’s First Sanskritist
Back in 2004, Dr Kunthea Chhom, a young Cambodian scholar, attended a conference organised by the Center for Khmer Study (CKS) in Siem Reap to raise awareness for the urgent need to train a Cambodian generation of Sanskritists. Kunthea had been no stranger to working against the tide, and she learned Sanskrit in India despite the odds; at times when formal classes were suspended due to political strife, Kunthea had the opportunity to learn from a scholar Chandrashekhar Mishra, popularly known as ‘Guru Ji’. He was happy to have a disciple from Cambodia, but he had one condition: “Don’t ever ask me to teach according to the syllabus of the university. You are here to learn what is to be learned”. And this was the start of Kunthea’s journey to learning Sanskrit beyond the classroom. She recalls, “Now, I was learning Sanskrit the traditional way, counting to and from one hundred in Sanskrit and Hindi, memorising proverbs and songs.” Kunthea also joined an intensive Sanskrit speaking course at a Hindu temple that made her speak and dream in the language, allowing only Sanskrit and body language.
After ultimately graduating top of her class, Kunthea started working in Siem Reap for the Apsara Authority, responsible for the protection of the Angkor World Heritage site. She chose to work in Siem Reap because of the presence in this region of the numerous stone inscriptions from the Khmer empire, more than half of which is in Sanskrit. Kunthea also earned her PhD in Sanskrit from France. On her return to Cambodia, she was awarded the Royal Audience in Phnom Penh. His Majesty the King congratulated her for her perseverance in her mission of ‘Sanskrit study and research’. Today, next to her work with the Apsara Authority, Kunthea teaches Sanskrit to high school teachers and monks, paying particular attention to Sanskrit loanwords in the Khmer language, both at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and Wat Reach Bo Buddhist High School in Siem Reap.
Canberra to Cambodia
In 2018, when McComas visited Cambodia, he was introduced to Kunthea. Kunthea was running Sanskrit language classes in the community, and McComas taught one of them for fun. An association that was born by chance then blossomed into a longstanding collaboration of Sanskrit learning and cultural exchange. Kunthea and McComas agreed that two of her senior students, Van Vy and Ven Sizet, would greatly benefit from a course of academic study in Sanskrit. Thanks to a CHL scholarship, both Van Vy and Ven Sizet could enrol for the Sanskrit course through Open Universities Australia. What’s more, students of the ANU Sanskrit Students Facebook group contributed funds to purchase and ship textbooks to the students. Today, the initiative is growing, with both Van Vy and Ven Sizet completing their second year with flying colours and entering their third year.
Sanskrit students Van Vy and Ven Sizet in Cambodia
Dr Stephanie Majcher, CHL Sanskrit faculty member and a former student of McComas, reflects on what this initiative represents holistically: “We are still perhaps in the early stages of building momentum, but this collaboration has a huge value proposition. It’s about taking a gateway language of Southeast Asia, real-world Sanskrit, out there in Cambodia, to a temple, to the streets….it’s an amazing cultural spread.” She adds that CHL is neatly positioned to have an investment in what ANU stands for being in Australia and connecting the Asia-Pacific nations. As such, the initiative adds another dimension to the classroom. This kind of spread of a language enables real dialogue and exchange between different cultures.
The Student Lens
From a student perspective, both Van Vy and Ven Sizet were inspired by the depth and sacred nature of Sanskrit. But even more importantly, they recognised that without Sanskrit, they would not be able to understand the ancient or modern Khmer language better. As Ven Sizet says, “If we look deeper into Khmer language, we can see there are so many loan words from Sanskrit that we need to know this language to uncover its meaning and other secrets.” The highlights of the course so far have been many.” According to Van Vy, “I personally think the most interesting learning program is the Spoken Sanskrit. I feel that when I start using the language in daily life, I feel so connected with the language. And the vocabulary I have learnt came into use practically. I also think that ‘reciting the verse’ should be included in the class because it’s helping the students stay motivated spiritually and also helping pronunciation and remembering more vocabularies. Another top highlight program is learning to translate the original Sanskrit text. In doing so, I have learnt how to parse the sentences and words, and figure out the meaning by context. This is maybe one of the most useful tools in learning Sanskrit, because it allows me to look at the language deeply and enjoy the stories along the way.”
The Road Ahead
The vision for the future is to continue helping one or two new students each year, dependent on funding. For Ven Sizet and Van Vy, they intend to support their understanding on Khmer language and linguistics, but also to keep the dream alive by instilling their learnings of Sanskrit to the next generation of Sanskritists through books, research in the classroom and outside of it too.
And as our two Cambodian students continue their journey, CHL looks forward to proudly witnessing their transition to the fourth year and ultimately their graduations, so they can take their learnings and join the global Sanskritist community in spreading the gateway language and culture of Sanskrit beyond boundaries.