Neak ta: the White Mother and human sacrifice

Main shrine at Ba Phnom - photo by "doonstra", Trekearth (http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/Cambodia/East/Prey_Veng/photo360519.htm)

Main shrine at Ba Phnom – photo by “doonstra”, Trekearth (http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Asia/Cambodia/East/Prey_Veng/photo360519.htm)

The last human sacrifice in Cambodia took place at Ba Phnom, in Prey Veng province, 80 kilometres east of Phnom Penh and 45 kilometres south of the provincial capital, in 1877. An inscription from 629 AD describes the mountain as sacred to the god Shiva, but today the mountain is a centre for neak ta, the protective spirits of places, from villages to provinces and entire regions.

The neak ta of Ba Phnom is Me Sar, the White Mother. (Not only of Ba Phnom: she’s found throughout Cambodia). Me Sar’s origins are mysterious, but she’s probably the modern incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga, who as Parvati is the consort of Shiva.

The story of the 1877 sacrifice was told to scholars from the Buddhist Institute in 1944 by an old man who had witnessed it as a boy. The victim was a man already sentenced to death for a serious crime, possibly for being a soldier of a rebel army.  Locked in a neck-stock and followed by a large crowd, he was led around the various shrines at Ba Phnom and allowed to take part in rituals at each before being beheaded at the shrine of Me Sar. “The people looked to see what direction the victim’s blood fell,” wrote the Buddhist Institute scholars. “If it fell evenly, or spurted up, then rain would fall evenly over the entire district, but if the blood fell to one side, rain would fall only on that side of the district.”

Human sacrifice has, of course, a long association with fertility – a Chinese traveller in the middle ages reported about a king in what is now southern Laos who sacrificed a human victim once a year to ensure the rains and crops.

At Ba Phnom the victim’s head was impaled and offered up to Me Sar, while his body was cut into pieces and offered to Me Sar and to the neak ta called Sap Than (“spirit of everyplace”) and Tuol Chhnean (“spirit of fishing basket mound”).

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 - photo by Jonas Kroyer (http://www.jonaskroyer.com/photography/)

Festival at Ba Phnom, 2011 – photo by Jonas Kroyer (http://www.jonaskroyer.com/photography/)

The sacrifice took place during a festival called Loeng Neak Ta, “raising the ancestor-spirit”, which is still held. In 2006 the Phnom Penh Posty visited the festival, and an old man told the journalists that as a boy he had witnessed a sacrifice, but the victim was a buffalo rather than a condemned criminal or rebel. He also told the Post a legend about Ba Phnom involving a king who had been beheaded by the magical trick of an enemy. His quick-thinking wife was Me Sar, who ordered replaced the missing part with an elephant’s head – a story with faint overtones of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.

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