Til today, the understanding of the ancient civilization of the Khmer Empire is based on the accounts of a Chinese diplomat named Zhou Daguan who arrived at the empire in the late 12th century A.D. and ended up staying for a few months, as well derived from the temples’ reliefs, notably, of those of Angkor Wat and Bayon temples.
The fantastical reliefs of those temples depict from stories about divinities to the lifestyles of the Khmer and their battles with the invaders. Yet, visitors are often more inclined to rush their visit in the temples without observing all the fantastic scenes on the carvings.
Of all the magnificent reliefs in the temples, visitors may find the depictions of the ancient Khmers’ fighting styles that have birthed some of the modern-day fighting systems and combat sports like the kickboxing.
Bokator or, more formally, L’bokator – Khmer language “Bok” means “knock,” and “tor” stands for “lion” – so the Khmer meaning of the word “Bokator” would be “knock of the lion.” However, the etymology of the word goes back to Sanskrit, where “Bokk Kak Tao” stands for “Tantra” (energy) – is a Khmer martial art that is thought to have begun 1700 years ago on the battlefields of the ancient Khmer Empire.
L’bokator is unique in that every single part of the body can be used as a weapon. Reflecting the fighting styles of animals, moves have names such as horse, dragon, eagle, and crocodile.
The Bokator is believed to have developed from “Lokusskor,” while the fighting methods were invented by the weapon master Lok Kru (master) Sathekori in the 3rd century A.D. The Bokator (or Kun Bokator) school was founded in 537 A.D. by another master named Yaksakri, based on his methods of fighting with two shields (Khel) against swords or spears.
There is a clear distinction between Bokator and the modern-day kickboxing. Bokator was rather a combat system believed to have been used by the Khmer armies long before the 9th century A.D. Angkorian period and that is comprised of a diverse array of elbow and knee strikes, shin kicks, submissions and ground fighting.
In Bokator Kun Khel, arms are employed much more actively than legs. In the 3rd century A.D., when this style first emerged, the Khmer soldiers had to fight against swordsmen and spearmen, so they were wearing heavy armor and could not jump around too much. For that reason, Bokator fighters were in a low position – similar to the fighters of Kalari Indian payatt – and their main techniques were close fights and simultaneous attacks on vital points to dislocate joints from the human body.
Today, when fighting, Bokator fighters still wear the uniforms of the ancient Khmer armies – a “kroma” (scarf) is folded around their waist and blue and red silk cords called “sangvar day,” are tied around the combatants head and biceps. In the past it is said that the cords were enchanted to increase strength, although now they are just ceremonial.
The kroma (a cotton scarf worn around the waist) shows the Bokator fighter’s level of expertise. The white kroma represents the first grade which is followed by green, blue, red, brown and finally black color. After completing their initial training, Bokator fighters wear a black kroma for at least another ten years. To attain the gold kroma, the highest ranking of all, a Bakator fighter must be a true master and do great things for the arts.
Moreover, Bokator fighters of the Khmer Empire attached great importance to the psychological aspect of the fight they were to engage. To scare and to suppress the spirit of their enemies, the warriors used a set of magic mantras of Indian Brahmins. Nowadays, many keilakors – Cambodian martial artists – still recite these mantras before the fight to ensure their strength and dominate of the opponent in their kickboxing match.
At the time of the notorious Pol Pot regime (1975–1979) that saw countless purges of the innocents Cambodians in a span of 4 years, those who practiced traditional fighting arts were either systematically exterminated by the regime, fled as refugees or stopped teaching and hid.
Today, the Bokator is actively practiced in Cambodia under the name of Pradal Serey, Khmer modern boxing. Large traditional Khmer boxing schools are located in the province of Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city.
Nowadays, Khmer boxing is one of the most popular sports practiced in Cambodia, on a par with volleyball. Those who traveled around Cambodia and visited Cambodian villages had for sure seen groups of the men gathering in front of their houses to watch daily broadcasting boxing games.
After years of works with the government and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, a bid has also been submitted to UNESCO for bokator to be listed as another intangible cultural heritage of humanity. If successful, this ancient system of combat will join Cambodian ballet, shadow puppet theatre, teanh prot – a Cambodian-style tug of war game – and the musical tradition of chapei dang veng.
By Sivutha Tan, ASEAN Correspondent from Cambodia