Flowing from the Nine-Headed Serpent: Legends Found in Cambodian Literature
Knappert, Jan, The World and I
Long ago, according to Cambodian oral tradition, Prince Thong, leader of the Khmer, led his people in search of a new land. They finally arrived at the shore of lake Anlong Reach (Tonle Sap), in the heart of present-day Cambodia. (The lake stood higher then than today, and water covered much of the region.) There the Khmer met the Nagas, the area's only inhabitants. The Nagas were supernatural beings, half human and half serpentine. They could appear as human beings and move around in human company, but they could also change themselves into snakes and escape underwater from their enemies.
Soon after reaching the lakeshore, Prince Thong encountered a company of beautiful maidens. Among them stood the most shining beauty the prince had ever seen. She was the daughter of Shesha (sometimes known as Vasuki), the Naga king. Her name was Lieuie (or Liewye). Of course, Prince Thong fell in love with her.
Now this was perhaps the lady's intention. Nagas rarely emerged from their aquatic habitat except to meet humans. In any case, she agreed to marry the human prince. Her father, who was ruler of all the land and all the waters, also agreed to the match. To provide the human immigrants with land to cultivate and live on, Shesha drank much of the lake's water, so the lake shrank to its present size. Vast stretches of land fell dry and soon were populated by people.
Successive generations of the kings of Cambodia all claimed descent from this original union of the immigrant prince and the Naga princess. Indeed, every Cambodian king was believed to maintain the country's prosperity by uniting mystically with the queen of the waters. Without this regular intercourse, there would be no water on the earth and no rice for the people. A tower was reserved in the palace precinct for the nightly meetings between the king and his divine consort, and a nine-headed serpent, the image of Shesha, became the emblem of Cambodia, the land of lakes and rivers.
Further tales of Cambodia's origin
By the early Middle Ages, Cambodia was a well-established kingdom (physically larger than the modern country) with an advanced culture and literature. Its written works profoundly influenced both Siamese and Laotian literatures. The oldest known inscriptions date from the eighth century a.d., with some composed in Sanskrit (praising the kings as incarnations of the gods Vishnu or Shiva) and others in Old Cambodian. Two literary texts, written on palm leaves long after their composition, recount significant oral traditions. They are the mythical cosmology Trai Phet (or Triveda in Sanskrit) and the epic Ream Kirti, the exploits of Rama (the ancient Indian hero who is also an incarnation of Vishnu). Libraries in Cambodian monasteries are also filled with Pali manuscripts dealing with the three major disciplines of Buddhist lore: abhidhamma (metaphysics), vinaya (doctrine), and sutta (rules of life). Many of these texts have been translated into Khmer (Cambodian) with numerous commentaries added.
The authors of these Pali didactic texts frequently end with admonitions for the reader to curb his earthly desires and pray to seek refuge with the Lord Buddha as living protector of the world, with the Dhamma (eternal law) and Sangha (worldwide community of Buddhist devotees). The age of these unsigned and usually undated texts is difficult to ascertain, especially in a religion where time is irrelevant and ambition and possessiveness frowned upon.
Some legends concerning the founding of the Cambodian dynasty appear to have historical credibility. They include reference to the mystical water goddess. According to one legend, an Indian prince (or alternatively a Brahman) arrived by a ship from the south, from either Java or India. His name was Kaundinya. (The name means "native of Kuhndina," which was the capital of a state called Vidarbha in south India.) Kaundinya was armed with a bow that he had received from Asvatthaman, son of Drona. …