Cambodian Scholar Becomes Country’s First ‘Sanskritist’

Chhom Kunthea became Cambodia’s first “Sanskritist” on Friday after receiving a doctorate for her research on the impact the ancient Indian language—now used almost exclusively by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies—on the Khmer language.

It is widely accepted that the country’s primary language could not have developed effectively without interacting with Sanskrit, which is believed to have arrived on Cambodia’s shores with Indian merchants sometime around year zero on the Gregorian calendar. The language was used for written records during the Khmer Empire for more than 1,000 years, researchers believe.

With her doctorate in the language, Ms. Kunthea could become one of the country’s only native historians of ancient Cambodia, an area normally occupied by foreigners, said Chhem Rethy, the executive director of the Cambodia Development Research Institute.

“At last, Cambodia is ready to start re-appropriating her ancient history, always written by foreign scholars,” he said in an email on Sunday, adding that Ms. Kunthea’s achievement was a “first but giant step in the discipline of Sanskrit epigraphy of Cambodia.”

“It is my expectation that she may start both research and training more Cambodian Sanskritists,” he added.

After obtaining a master’s degree in Sanskrit from Magadha University in India in 2008, Ms. Kunthea did her doctoral studies at the French research institute Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, where she wrote her dissertation on “the role of Sanskrit in the development of the Khmer language: an epigraphic study from the 6th to the 14th century.”

Lois de Menil, the former chair of the Center for Khmer Studies, which provided financial support for Ms. Kunthea’s studies, said knowledge of Sanskrit was crucial to learning more about Cambodia’s distant past.

“A major portion of Cambodia’s ancient ‘history,’ as recorded on stone inscriptions and in documents, is in Sanskrit because of the enormous influence of Indian culture on Khmer civilization in past centuries,” she said in an email.

At the time Ms. Kunthea began her studies, Sanskrit was not taught at any Cambodian universities, she noted, meaning: “No Cambodian students could therefore access this central component of Cambodia’s historical heritage.”

Ms. Menil said that Ms. Kunthea, who is also the director of the Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum in Siem Reap province, had to master various languages on her way to obtaining her Ph.D.

“In addition to learning Sanskrit from scratch, she had to master English to a high level of academic precision; and then, in France, she had to perfect her French to the level of French academic standards, which makes no allowance for error,” she said.

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