A dinosaur at Angkor

Steggie – note how he’s a fair bit paler than the carving at the bottom

More precisely, a stegosaur at Ta Prohm. A stegosaur, as I’ve no doubt you already knew but perhaps it had slipped your mind, is a herbivorous dinosaur that lived some 155 million years ago in North America, says Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s slightly wrong – they lived in Europe and Asia too – but the basic point is, they died off a long time ago.

In which case, what’s this doing on a doorway at Ta Prohm? (Link to Wikipedia again). TP was built in the general Angkor complex in the late 11th/early 12th centuries, and is no place for a dinosaur.

This question was recently discussed on Alison Carter’s blog. She says it’s not a steggie, and as an archaeologist she should know. I’d say, at an guess, that 99.9% of experts agree on that. What they don’t agree on is what it actually is. Some say it’s a buffalo (water buffalo that is), on account of the horns, if that’s what they are. Others say it’s probably a wild boar, or maybe a chameleon, or a rhino, or possibly something else. Alison’s money’s on a pangolin, which is a kind of scaly ant-eater. The failure of experts to agree on what it is, as opposed to is not, is a bit embarrassing for us scientific rationalists, I must admit.

A large, or largish, number of non-experts think they know the right answer. Almost to a man (and woman), these are biblical fundamentalists out to prove the wrongness of evolution and the foolishness of geologists who claim that the Earth is more than ten thousand years old. It looks like a steggie because it is a steggie. This gives a good idea of the on-line chatter among the incognoscenti:

If Stegosaurus lived in Cambodia only 1000 years ago when the Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm temples were built, why are there no Stegosaurus bones found in Asia, whether in archeological sites or in the fossil record?

Good point. Nothing between 150 million BC and 1186 AD, nada. Where were they hiding out?

Since they quarried rock to build their temples the only sensible answer is that they did indeed unearth a good stegosaurus skeleton.
Perhaps it was carved on the temple for “interest”, just like things are placed in museums for us to wonder about.

Except then they’d have to reconstruct Steggie from the skeleton, and that’s not easy – and complete fossil skeletons are very rare in any case.

a poor rendition of a chameleon when many more of the other carvings are accurate…and superbly executed.

A poor rendition of a chameleon I’d agree with, but superbly executed? I mean, are we talking Michelangelo’s Pieta here, or maybe a Khmer Buddha with a mystic smile? Well, it’s ok.

of course its a frigging stegosaurus. use your eyes. what else is it, seriously?

And so on. Reading this stuff could seriously send you in search of a nice cup of tea.

Some of the more biblically-inclined are actually more thoughtful and quite honest. I liked this one, and regret I can’t identify the author. He gives instructions for finding the carving, and a little background information that’s otherwise hard to come by. He says it was cleaned by Claude Jacques, a respected historian and the author of Ancient Angkor, an illustrated guidebook to the temples. This explains why the steggie is lighter in colour than the other carvings in the group.

The fact that it’s lighter has led skeptics to suggest that Steggie is a forgery, not an outright one but that an original carving of something else – a buffalo, say, or a rhino, or even a pangolin – has been improved by the addition of those plates on top of it.

If a forgery, who and when and why? Unanswerable questions. I gather that Jacques’ book (1999) was the one that brought Steggie world-wide fame, along with an earlier edition in about 1997. Claude Jacques certainly wouldn’t alter a carving at Ta Prohm (I doubt he’d clean one up for a photo, either, but let that pass), so any alteration had to date from before then. The 1990s were a wild and wonderful period in Cambodia, and anything could have happened and not been noticed for years. (Try improving a carving today and you’ll get arrested instanter … probably).

Steggie at the Smithsonian website

And if not a forgery, then what? This brings us back to where we began. But while the evidence for Steggie not being a stegosaur seems pretty overwhelming, the evidence for him being anything else is just as undefinitive. Very frustrating.

A real stegosaur, looking not all that much like Steggie – note the size of the head, the spikes on the tail and how it’s held, and where are the horns on the head?

Interview with a gangster

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 1.07.17 PMI carried out this interview in the course of investigating magical tattoos – what they were, why people had them. I was told that the most likely people to have them were police, gangsters, and soldiers. So I went and found myself a gangster.

Not really a gangster any more, in fact a very nice guy with a touching story. He’s 37 years old, and came to PP from the provinces with his family aged 8. At that time (about 1985) PP was a wild and dangerous place. Aged 13 (about 1990) he left school over his father’s strong objections and joined a gang on Riverside, the tourist strip along the Tonle Sap river. Got tattoos when he was about 16, to attract girls. Also got some amulets to make himself invulnerable to knives and to make himself brave. You can just see a tattoo at the very top of his singlet.

The gang robbed and intimidated everyone on Riverside – vendors, shopkeepers, tourists. Fought other gangs with knives, knuckledusters, bike-chains. The police were afraid of them. Boss of the gang was named Kmao, a very violent young man afraid of nobody.

One day there was a major battle with another gang. The other side had guns, Kmao’s side didn’t. Two of Kmao’s side were shot. Our friend had to jump in the river and swim for the far bank, because the enemy were searching for Kmao’s gang up and down Riverside and would kill him if they caught him. Out in the river he promised that if he survived he’d leave the gang and start a new life. And he did.

That was many years ago. Now he drives a tuktuk. All his friends from that time are either dead, or in jail, or driving tuktuks. Several have become monks, and one is an abbot. He bitterly regrets his wasted youth – he has no education, just a tuktuk driver. He was almost crying by the time I finished the interview, being forced to remember the past. I felt a bit guilty.

Alessandro Vanucci – photos from Angkor

Some rather beautiful photos from Alessandro Vannucci. He runs photo-tours around Angkor and Siem Reap, which look well worth the taking – go to his website to see more of his work (look under the tabs “workshops and travel photography” and “portfolio”).

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The tattoos are a mix of magical and simply decorative – generally speaking, magical ones are more schematic, look more like diagrams. The purpose is always either to protect the bearer from harm, or to attract girls. Monks are not supposed to have tattoos, but they do, it’s a sure sign that they’ve led an interesting life. possibly including time as a soldier or maybe a gangster.

Boats possessed by spirits

CAMBODIA-WATER-FESTIVAL

A post on the racing boats used in the annual Water Festival. Or I should say the so-called Water Festival – in Khmer it’s called Bon Om Touk, which means Festival Row Boat – in other words, it’s a boatrace festival. Maybe 200 boats and a million people from all over the country gather in Phnom Penh for a program of races over three days in October or November, presided over by the king, and much honour accrues to the winning team.

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Boat Festival in Phnom Penh

But it’s more than just a boat race, it has religious overtones. The boats represent villages, and are stored in the village monastery. As the boat festival nears, the monastery neak ta (spirit) is asked to help the village team, but that’s not enough: the neak ta can’t travel, he’s bound to the monastery,and the boat is off to Phnom Penh. What to do?

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Monastic neak ta shrine at a village near Phnom Penh

So the village gets a powerful spirit called a bray to inhabit the boat for the duration of the festival. The bray is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth or while pregnant – she’s inconsolable, and grief makes her evil. Most spirits are essentially neutral, but the bray goes out of her way to cause harm, especially miscarriages, for which reason pregnant women should not go near the village racing boat. But she can be tamed, by the village kru arak and kru baomey (types of shaman), and the monks.

And so a bray is enticed into the boat. This is essential because all the other villages will have their bray, and without protection these bray will attack the rowers. So while the rowers battle it out on the river, the bray also do invisible battle, fighting off the attacks of the rival spirits to protect their team.

Below are some photos of the a bray-shrine and some offerings to the bray on the riverbank at Siem Reap at the recent boat festival there – the festival is held in several towns around the country, although Phnom Penh is the biggest because of the king.

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Phallic symbols at Yeay Mao’s shrine

_DSF5967Yeay Mao (“Black Lady”) has shrines from southern Vietnam to the edge of Thailand, but the most important is at Pich Nil, in the hills behind Sihanoukville.  In the days of Angkor she was the Hindu goddess Kali, associated with fertility cults – you can read about her on Wikipedia. She’s black because Kali was black. Her consort was the god Shiva, hence the Shiva-lingas and the phalluses.Shiva has become Preah Eisey, the name taken from one of his attributes.

_DSF5945(Apologies for the poor photo, but I don’t have a better one). Her offerings are bananas, roast piglet or roast chicken, and carved phalluses. As the phallic offerings suggest, her main business is control of fertility. Women come to pray for a baby, men come for problems with sex drive or erectile dysfunction.

_DSF5960She also has a very important role as a goddess of roads – motorbikes and cars and trucks and buses always stop here to offer bananas, pray for protection, and bless their vehicles with holy water. The holy water is taken from a spring by the roadside, and this was the original place of her shrine (it’s now been moved to the far side of the road).

_DSF5965The phalluses are getting to be a problem. There used to be hundreds of them, stuffed into the secondary shrines next to the main one, but now there are none. The attendant showed me a cardboard box full of them behind the shrine. The one in the photo above I took from the box just for the picture. They’re all about to be burnt, like the thousands before them. The explanation I was given was that they clutter up the shrines, that more room is needed for offerings of bananas and roast piglets. I don’t think so. I think the authorities are just embarrassed. (Interestingly, the authority in charge of the shrine isn’t a ministry in Phnom Penh, as I’d expected, but the local army unit).

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These haven’t been removed – there are just a few giant stone phalluses in the form of Shiva-lingas. Like all the rest, they’re donated by the devotees of the goddess, but these are extremely expensive and must come from very important people – cart these away and there’ll be questions.

Eyso lingaQuite a different question is raised by the face on this one. There’s an inscription underneath identifying the figure as  Eisoh in mediation. The guardian told me that some people have objected strongly. The correct god to accompany Yeay Mao is Preah  Eisey, who appears dressed as a hermit with a kettle and naga-staff.

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Eisoh is a problem – who is he? There’s a Ream Eisoh who appears in legend as a stupid and wicked giant who attacks the beautiful Lady Mekhala (“Cloud”) with his magic axe, their eternal battle causing thunder and lightning. His title there is not Preah (“Sacred”), and he has no evident connection with phallic imagery – except perhaps that the rain that follows the battle with Lady Cloud connects the pair of them with fertility. Or perhaps the donor had private reasons for promoting the giant to godly status. Or perhaps he/she just got it wrong.

moni_reamMoni Mekhala and Ream Eyso, by Sojourn Foto – from the ballet by Toni Shapiro

The origin-myth for Yeay Mao as told to me by the guardian is that her husband, named Ta Kry (not Eisey) was a general who fought the Thais. Yeay Mao missed her husband (it was explained to me that “missed” means missed sexual relations with him) and took a boat to go look fort him. (Note the maritime connection). A storm arose, and the captain wondered aloud what he’d done to offend the gods. Yeay Mao admitted that she “had four eyes” – meaning she was pregnant. It’s strictly taboo to have a pregnant woman on a ship. Yeay Mao apologised to everyone and cast herself into the sea, at which the storm ceased. End of story. Except there seems to be a couple of non-Kali threads lurking here. Kali isn’t associated with the sea, for example. More, there’s a hint of human sacrifice, although no more than a hint. But the connection with sexuality (Yeay Mao “misses” her husband sexually) and fertility is totally in keeping with tantric thinking (Wikipedia‘s article is as prissy as the attendant’s burning of the phalluses – tantra was totally about using sex as a means of union with the god).

tantra+sex+India+Kama+Sutra+temple+uglypeople+se

Tantric carving from India – Khmer art is never so explicit

Two minor points that are only notions of my own: first, it seems the “high” gods, meaning Buddha and the tevodas and such – any beings that are from the heavens – are worshiped with flowers and fruits, while “lower” divinites such as the neak ta (all the gods here are neak ta) have these plus meat offerings. Second, it seems that an awful lot of neak ta have self-sacrifice in their origin myths.