The carvings on the walls of the Kingdom’s temple are windows into the way of life of Cambodia’s Khmer ancestors. Like the historic records of nearly all great civilisations, war – and the weapons with which it was fought – plays a significant role in the stories told by the ornate carvings that can be found at Angkor Archaeological Park.
Til Channlin, from Siem Reap province’s Chrey village, in Prasat Bakong district’s Kandek commune, has been fascinated with the weapons of the ancient Khmer since he was a young boy.
The ornate carvings that can be seen in the temples depict a range of martial tools, from swords and spears to bows and crossbows. Channlin now dedicates himself to creating authentic replicas of each of the weapons.
His replicas are attracting the interest of many visitors, and he has even earned praise from a grand master of Lbokator, the UNESCO-listed military fighting style of the ancient Khmer.
While he was growing up in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Ambel commune in Serei Saophoan town, Channlin often made bows and arrows from branches and lengths of bamboo he found in the forest, but never paid particular attention to the specifics of their design.
After completing high school in his home province, he set out for Phnom Penh in 2009, where he enrolled at the National University of Management. He graduated in 2013, but during his studies he had found himself fascinated by the inscriptions of the weapons he had seen on visits to the temples of Siem Reap.
He began asking older craftsmen bout the bows and arrows he had seen inscribed on the walls of the Bayon, Bakong, Baphuon and Angkor Wat temples, as well as what he discovered on visits to museums.
“Angkor Wat Temple showed many bows and arrows. Once I had a better understanding of the materials used to make them, I began searching for the authentic rattan bamboo and talipot palms I needed. The key was to make sure the timber was strong enough, but also light and flexible where required,” he said.
“I searched for raw materials in Oddar Meanchey, Kampong Cham, Banteay Meanchey, Stung Treng, Kratie and Preah Vihear provinces. The leaves of the talipot palm and strong and very flexible – and ancient beliefs suggest that they have the power to drive out evil,” he added.
Channlin explained that his bows were available in different sizes, with arrows changing length accordingly. Traditional arrows, as seen on the temples, were up to 1.2m long, but in the interests of practicality, his are usually shorter.
He added that although the bows vary in length, the most important determining factor in their range and accuracy is the user. To obtain maximum range requires a strong “pull” or the strength required to draw the bowstring as far back as possible.
Channlin also makes a range of swords, spears, shields, knives, machetes, and other weapons, with a total of 46 types of weapon available, each one of which was used during the ancient conquests of the Khmer Empire.
“I intend to uncover what has been lost, as I just want the next generation of Cambodians to learn about the martial powers of their ancestors. It is important that they understand their history so they can play a part in preserving it,” he said.
He sells his replicas to interested parties, including many foreign visitors to the Kingdom. As an example, a bow with three arrows may sell for anything from $75 to $500, depending on the size of the weapon and the materials used. Ornate crossbows generally sell for around $250, while a small double edged blade may go for as little as $75.
He explained that there was very little profit to be made from the sale of ancient weapons, but it was important that he cover the costs of the materials he used, and of the travel to remote provinces that was sometimes required to source them.
While Channlin said he believed he is the only person making these replicas, he added that he employed a team of six to support their manufacture, especially around big events like the recent Angkor Sangkran.
He exhibited his wares in front of Angkor Wat, where they drew the attention of many guests, including education ministry secretary of state Sar Sokha and more significantly, Lbokator master San Kim Sean.
Master Kim Sean noted that while the bows on display were of very good quality, and looked very close to the ancient weapons of the Khmer, it was clear that they were newly made.
“I believe that a strong man could fire an arrow up to 100m with one of these bows. A weak person could not even draw an arrow back. These weapons played a major part in the Kingdom’s warfare for many centuries,” he said.
“In ancient times, these were one of the most significant contributors to the Kingdom’s war-making abilities. It is great to see a resurgence of this style of weapon, and he has done very well to find the kind of timber that does not break with the strain of loosing arrows,” he concluded.
Siyonn Sophearith, director-general of the Directorate General of Technical Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, also admired Channlin’s work.
“He has done more than just make replicas that match the shape of the weapons that can be seen on the temples. He is commemorating a major part of our cultural heritage,” he said.
“What he has created perfectly mimics the bas-reliefs that we all admire so much. He is bringing a part of the ancient Khmer Empire to life,” he concluded.