Preah Thong Boung Soung is one of the best operas in Asia. This opera depicts the love story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak that is performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. It is a combination of gentle music, elaborate costumes and exquisite dance. This saga, of an Indian prince and a serpent (Naga) woman who are the ancestors of all Khmer people, is told to every Cambodian child at a very young age.
Out of the several versions of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak, following is one of the most popular versions as published by the Scroll.
Cambodia was a small island known as Kouk Thlouk, thousands of years ago. Kouk Thlouk means the land of the Thlouk tree. This island was owned by Nagas (serpents) who lived in the ocean.
One fine day, an Indian prince named Kaundinya sailed to this island with his followers. Coincidentally, Soma, the Naga princess along with her subjects transformed themselves into beautiful women on that day.
The prince fell madly in love with the Naga princess when he saw her dancing in the moonlight. He asked her to marry him. The Naga princess agreed to marry him, but only after her father’s (Naga king) approval.
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Kaundinya went to meet the king, who lived in the depths of the ocean, by carrying Soma’s tail. The king also agreed as he found the Indian prince to be a suitable match for his daughter.
Kaundinya and Soma, were named as Preah Thong and Neang Neak respectively by Khmers. The Khmers, or Cambodians, 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 also agree the notion that ancient Cambodia was an island as the country has been witnessing widespread floods for thousands of years.
Another version says that Kaundinya killed Soma’s father as he was not approving the marriage. However, one thing that is common in all the versions is that the Indian prince carried the tail of his future wife to the depths of the ocean.
And therefore this is included as a ritual in every Cambodian marriage. As per the ritual, the groom holds the end of the long dress of the bride while entering the honeymoon room.
The story behind this gesture indicate that the woman is the head of the family. Cambodians consider Neang Neak as their matriarch.
The Chinese Version
Similiar to Cambodian version, there is one Chinese version of this story as well. Chinese traveller Kai Tang mentioned in his book, “Account of Foreign Countries at the Time of Wu”, in 3rd century the existence of Funan and Vyadhapura. The Chinese name for the Indian prince was Hun Tian.
Hermann Kulke, German historian and Indologist, was the first to suggest that the Indian king was a Brahmin and that Kaundinya was actually the name of his gotra. Also Sanjeev Sanyal, added that Kaundinya probably was from northern Andhra Pradesh or southern Odisha in his book “The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History”.
The Chinese text that was translated by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, a historian and academician, 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.
The first king of Cambodia, after getting freedom from colonial rule, Norodom Sihanouk, made it a priority to popularise the story around the world. 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.
The Cambodian statesman visited India for 12 days in 1955 spoke of both the influence of Sanskrit on the Khmer language as well as link to 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.”