Sanskrit’s Influence on Khmer

Sanskrit is the life-line of India. There is a harmonious blend of the sacred and philosophy in Indian culture because it is based on the Sanskrit language (Saṁskṛiḥ Saṁkṛitāśritā). We had a pleasant and glorious combination of Sanskrit-Prakrit languages in ancient India. Pali is linguistically a variety of Prakrit, because Prakrit is a collective name of India's ancient spoken languages. Among these ancient Indian languages, Sanskrit is an invaluable source of Vedic civilization and beautiful classical literature. It contains the incalculable knowledge.  Sanskrit was also a spoken language in ancient India and it is still continuing as a spoken language in modern India. Not only Indians, but all human beings on the earth must be proud of this language. Sanskrit literature is a storehouse of jñāna and vijñāna, and the spiritual depths.

Khmer is the language of the  Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia. With approximately 16 million speakers, it is the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language (after Vietnamese). Khmer language was influenced by Sanskrit and Pali languages which entered Cambodia duringn ancient times along with Hinduism and Buddhism, and thereafter, these languages have enriched Cambodian culture.

Sanskrit, in particular, was a great inspiration for the Khmer scholars in the past. As a consequence, many words of Sanskrit and Pali languages have entered and mingled with the local language Khmer in Cambodia. The terms of these languages and the grammatical structure and literature also have augmented the Khmer language. It is mainly the royal families who used the Sanskrit language as they followed Hindu traditions, and the general people followed Buddhism and their local language, Khmer.

Original words from Sanskrit and Pali languages were used for communication in the past. As there was no standard agreement to write the Sanskrit and Pali words in Khmer, even today, there is a confusion about how to write the Sanskrit and Pali sounds in Khmer. Khmer is an Austroasiatic language, and this family also includes the Mon, the Vietnamese, and the  Munda languages. This family expanded in the area that extended from the Malay Peninsula through Southeast Asia to East India. In this way, Khmer also had a geographical connection with India, besides the religious associations.

Prof. C. Upender Rao with a group of students, who learnt  Sanskrit in Royal University, Cambodia

Many words of Sanskrit and Pali are mixed in Khmer so that it is not easy to recognize them. It is not easy to precisely tell where the Sanskrit and the Pali languages have entered Cambodia. Still, with the evidence of inscriptions, we can say that at least from 3rd century A. D, these languages were used and continued for several centuries in Cambodia. Still, it was after the Angkor dynasty, the use of Sanskrit and Pali languages has diminished gradually due to the war, which took place between Khmer and Siem (Thai).

Initially, the Royal families used Sanskrit, and later it has slowly spread into the local language, and then people of Khmer had started using some Sanskrit words as it is, but most words were mixed with the local names. Consequently, Indians and other foreigners cannot recognize them initially, due to the typical Khmer pronunciation. The most popular greeting, we hear in Cambodia is ‘arun susdai’, (aroun susdai), which means the 'good morning.' In Sanskrit Aruna means the sun, and Khmer people use the this arun (អរុណ ) for morning. Similarly, the word ‘susdai’ means the ‘svasti’. Thus the Sanskrit’s “Aruṇa svasti” frames this word, but the Khmer people pronounce it so fast, that we cannot recognize the similarity of this word with that of Sanskrit word.

Khmer is primarily an analytic, isolating language. There are no inflections, conjugations, or case endings. Instead,  particles and auxiliary words are used to indicate grammatical relationships. General word order is subect-verb-object Khmer differs from neighboring languages such as Thai, Burmese, Lao, and Vietnamese, as it is not a tonal language. Words are stressed on the final syllable; hence many words conform to the typical Mon–Khmer pattern of a stressed syllable preceded by minor syllables.

The Khmer language is written in the Khmer script an abugida, which was also descended from the Brahmi script via the South Indian Pallavi script since the seventh century A. D.. The Abugida is a writing system that is neither a syllabic nor an alphabetic orientation, but it stands in between. It has sequences of consonants and vowels written as a unit, each letter is based on the consonant letter. The Khmer script's form and use have evolved over the centuries. For Indic scholars, this similarity between the Khmer and Sanskrit is fascinating.

I tried to show the similarity between the Sanskrit and Khmer through the following table. In this table, an attempt has been made to show how Sanskrit words have transformed into Khmer words. In the first box, the Sanskrit word, and the second box, Khmer words both in written and spoken forms, and in the last box, the English meanings of these words have been given.



The number of stone inscriptions of Cambodia that  were in Sanskrit, shows the rich Sanskrit connection of Cambodia. The Vat Thipedi inscription of Īśānavarman II offers a good specimen of Gauḍī style (Gauḍī-rīti of Sanskrit poetics). The exquisite Kāvya style can be found in the following verses of the inscriptions –

Namo'naṅgāṅga-nirbhaṅga-saṅgine' pi virāgiṇe

aṅganāpaghanāliṅga-līnārdhāṅgāya śambhave


Pātu vaḥ puṇḍarīkakṣavakṣo-vikṣiptakaustubham




dhvānta-dhvad-dvedanādarddhi-medhase vedhase namaḥ

Thus the Sanskrit was an influential language in ancient India that had extensively influenced the world languages, including the Southeast Asian languages. Among these South East Asian languages, Khmer was the major language, which was influenced by the Sanskrit language adequately.

(Cover pic: Prof. Rao teaching Sanskrit to Buddhist monks at Preah Sihanouk-raja Buddhist University)