Though after having been inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, often mistakenly believed to have originated in neighboring countries, the Sbek Thom has aged for almost two millennia – dated back to as early as the first century A.D., when it is believed to have originated in the southern part of India and reached Cambodia through the influx of Indian customs and cultures brought to the South East Asia mainland by the Indian merchants around that time – and survived the test of time in Cambodia.
In the past, according to studies into the Sbek Thom, apparently at the peak of the Khmer civilization during the Angkorian period that spanned almost half of a millennium, from the 9th to the 13th century A.D., this marvelous shadow theatre was considered sacred, in other words, a way to dedicate to divinities, and could only take place on specific occasions three or four times a year, such as the Khmer New Year, the King’s birthday, or the veneration of high-profile people.
In retrospect, at the beginning of the 15th century A.D., the Sbek Thom saw a sharp decline in its prestige, while the Khmer Empire suffered large-scale civil wars. The shadow theatre, however, evolved beyond a ritualistic activity and take on an artistic form, while retaining its ceremonial dimension.
All the puppets representing gods and deities used in the Sbek Thom are made from a single piece of leather in a very special ceremony. The hides are dyed with a solution made from the bark of the Kandaol trees. The artisan draws the desired figure on the tanned hide, cuts it out and paints it before attaching it to two bamboo sticks which enables the performer to control the puppet.
The performers often arrive early in the morning to set up a large white backdrop which is held between two tall bamboo screens in front of a large fire (in the past) nowadays, projectors. When the night comes, the shadows of the puppet’s silhouettes are projected onto the white screen. The animators bring the puppets to life with precise and specific dance steps, while being accompanied by an orchestra and two narrators.
Inspired from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the performances stage scenes of this epic, which may last several nights and attract the local from other villages, require up to 160 puppets for a single presentation.
Would you want to witness this awesomeness if you were to visit Cambodia?
By Sivutha Tan, ASEAN Correspondent from Cambodia