Every village has a neak ta, the spirit-owner of the village. This is my report on my search for the neak ta of Prek Luong village, across the Mekong from Phnom Penh.
My interpreter Socheat and I crossed by the ferry about 2 in the afternoon. We’d visited this village before, talking to people about spirits in general, but this time we were specifically looking for the neak ta. We were told there were two, the more important being Lok Ta Dam Bo – a name that means Grandfather Buddha Tree. It’s simply a description – the lok ta (alternative name for neak ta) lives under a Buddha tree (fig tree) in the eastern section of the village. Buddha trees are rather interesting – they tend to be infested with spirits, including evil ones, and so are never planted anywhere except monasteries, where spirits can be controlled by the Buddha. Or, in this, case, by a powerful neak ta.
Lok Ta Buddha Tree. One hand on his knee, curled to hold a rod, the symbol of authority, the other in the earth-touching position of a Buddha, but with the palm turned out inside of in – I have no idea what significance this may have. His lips have a little hole for cigars – this lok ta likes to smoke.
The shrine is quite simple, just a little concrete shed, open at one end, with the neak ta statue inside, facing West. Buddha statues always face East, but I’ve never paid attention to the neak ta shrines so can’t tell if this is significant or an accident. Beside the shrine is a dining hall (that’s the literal translation of the name), open on two sides with Buddha images at the West wall, facing East in the proper manner. The walls were covered with murals showing scenes from the Buddha’s life, very well done – the artist was good! There were children playing in the hall and we asked them to explain the scenes on the wall, but they had no knowledge at all.
We were directed to a house across the street, where we were welcomed by a very friendly old man. He told us he was 81 years old and the former commune chief, a commune being a collection of villages – so he was a local VIP. He also told us all he knew about Lok Ta Dam Bo. The lok ta is as old as Prek Luong village, which is probably very old – the name means Royal Canal, and apparently there was once a royal palace here, before Phnom Penh became the capital, which means before 1864. The canal connected the palace to the river, which suggests quite a substantial presence, not just a small royal holiday home.
Lok Ta Dam Bo was originally represented by a stone, and wasn’t at his present location. The Khmer Rouge removed the stone and nobody knows where it is now. They also destroyed the original Buddha tree. After the war the old man, then commune chief, noticed that cows weren’t eating a little clump of three banana trees in a field. On investigating this he discovered a Buddha tree sapling. Realising that this place was special he organised the correct ceremony to invite the neak ta to take up residence in this new home. Later, the village’s own artist, a local boy who’d studied in Phnom Penh, had a dream in which the neak ta came to him, and so the artist knew how the statue of the spirit should look.
Painting in the dining hall: At the top, Buddha achieves Enlightenment, while under him Thorani the earth goddess destroys the army of Mara (“Illusion”) by wringing water from her hair – and the hair turns into her crocodile, who supports the earth. To the left, Buddha shelters under the hoods of the naga-king, another earth god. So that makes three earth-gods – Thorani, the naga-king, and Krong Bali the crocodile king – to one Buddha and one defeated demon-king.
Lok Ta Dam Bo has to be informed of all weddings and other major events in the village, and every year a major festival is held in the dining hall beside his shrine, attended by the monks. (Note the way the spirit has been integrated into Buddhism – the monks are quite happy to preside at a neak ta festival, provided the Buddha gets pride of place). The old man has never been sick in his life, and he puts this down to the neak ta, who is a powerful patron for those who respect him. Those who fail to respect him he strikes down with illness. The major reason for having the image made was in fact to deter small children from using the empty shrine as a play-house, as he didn’t want them unwittingly bring the neak ta’s anger down on their innocent heads.
We went to visit the artist, and found him more than slightly drunk. He was a very talkative drunk – we couldn’t shut him up. He said that, as a local boy, he’d been seeing the neak ta, in dreams and waking, all his life, and so was very well aware what he looked like when asked to create the statue. As a young man he’d asked the neak ta to protect him in his life and bring him prosperity, and so it had – he was now a rich man. In return he did whatever he could to help the villagers by producing holy talismans, and his wife was the local kru baromey (spirit medium), so in this way they both served the community. There was also a kru arak in the village, this being a different kind of spirit medium; this lady is very old, 90 years old, but still very strong.
Finally we visited the second neak ta, whose shrine is located in the grounds of the village monastery beside the Mekong. The villagers were all there by the shrine when we arrived, seeking the blessings of the neak ta for the forthcoming Water Festival boat races. We were told that the Prek Luong boat always wins, year after year, and the knees of other crews turn to jelly when they see the black hull of Prek Luong on the water and hear the chant of the men of Royal Canal, because the neak ta of of this place is riding in their boat.
And then I watched some men washing their cows in the river, and then I went home.