The gentleman to the left is a kru. The word kru is from the Sanskrit word “guru”, meaning teacher or master. A teacher in a school is a kru, and if someone teaches you Khmer he’s your kru Khmer. But this is a more specialised use of the term: kru as magician,and kru khmer as practitioner of traditional, and very abstruse, teachings. (the man to the left is, unfortunately, a black magician, which is unfair, as most are white, but he looks so good I just had to use him. He comes from an article on fortune tellers at Khmer Connection).
Kru follow written texts detailing ingredients to be used and rituals to be followed. Symbols play an important role. A centrally placed bell represents Meru, the cosmic mountain, and other ritual objects represent the four cosmic continents. The kru might invoke Thorani the Earth Goddess while sprinkling holy water over the patient, thus creating a symbolic link with Buddha’s defeat of Mara the demon king through the water wrung from Thorani’s hair.
There are the “white” kru, who heal sickness, and also “black” kru who cause it through black magic. A black kru can cause a knife to enter a man’s body, causing sharp pain and even death.If a Cambodian has an illness that won’t respond to modern medicine, he’ll probably go to a kru. White kru have a high standard of ethics, following the Buddhist precepts and basing their powers on Buddhist teachings, albeit the more esoteric ones, or practices derived from Brahmanical belief. Black kru are the enemies of the Buddha and of religion: to preserve their power, must never enter a monastery or pass before or make a deferential bow to a Buddha image, nor may they wash their entire lives.
Amulets can protect the wearer from physical harm. The thirteenth century Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan wrote of how the king of Angkor was protected from swords and arrows by powerful amulets implanted under his skin, and I know of a Western photographer living in Phnom Penh who wears an amulet made of a small sheet of hammered lead, rolled into a tube around a braided thread and tied to his wrist. More expensive ones are available of silver or gold.
Amulets can also take the form of small Buddha images carved from ivory or wild boar tusks or crystal, worn around the neck or waist or over the genitals. The katha must be guarded from contact with impurity, and for this reason should not be taken into the lavatory. The wearer should also avoid certain foods, and should obey the Five Precepts. For some people, such as soldiers and criminals, following the first two precepts might be difficult, as they prohibit killing and theft, and to compensate they will need to make especially generous and frequent donations to the monastery.
Amulets and charms drawn on cloth are popular. These are called kansaeng yantra, and are displayed on the walls of houses and businesses. The best ones are those prepared by monks, and monks who are skilled in them can become extremely sought after.
Protective charms can also take the form of tattoos. These are called bidhi sak, and as usual, the process is surrounded by ritual. In the past the tattoo was rendered more powerful by the inclusion of certain substances such as the bile of a brave enemy, or the skin of a monk. The completed tattoo must be consecrated by ritual sprinkling delivered by the senior monks of seven monasteries.
Kru also prepare special potions. Their specific powers depend on their ingredients, and, of course, the incantations and rituals. One was prized for its ability to confer invulnerability to bullets – the ingredients included dried python and the faeces of the red vulture, among others.
Possibly the most famous charm is the goan krak. This is made from a human foetus cut from the mother’s womb (the woman theoretically having agreed beforehand) and dried over a fire. Worn in a small wooden ball around the neck, it will whisper advice and warnings to its owner in times of danger. The Khmer Issarak rebels who fought the French during and after World War Two are known to have used goan krak, the current prime minister is rumoured to have a collection, and freelance journalist Nate Thayer was offered one when he set off to interview Pol Pot in the Cambodian jungle.
All this, apart from a few details, comes from Ian Harris’ book Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. I’m trying to meet some of the kru, but not having much success so far.