The King of Fire and the King of Water


Photo of the Fire King from

Sir James Frazer in his monumental, unreadable ethnological masterpiece The Golden Bough (about a dozen volumes – no, I haven’t read it, just this page), tells how the King of Cambodia used to send gifts and letters every year to the Kings of Water and Fire. (That’s the King of Fire up above, though he died in the 80s)

The King of Water had a sacred flower and fruit, with which he could cause a great flood to sweep over the world should he choose, while the King of Fire had a sacred sword which would cause the world to end if he drew it from its sheath.

According to Frazer they lived in the backwoods in seven towers on seven mountains, moving to a new tower each year. When the seven years were up they’d be put to death. The moment the cremation fire was lit all possible successors – the title was hereditary – would run off to the forest to hide, and the first to be found would become the new king.

Possibly (probably) more reliable than Frazer is Joachim Schliesinger, the author of a series of solid-looking books on Southeast Asian tribes. Unfortunately I can’t find out anything about him, but one of the books is called  White Elephants in Thailand and Neighboring Countries. That’s one I’d like to get. Anyway, in his Ethnic Groups of Cambodia Volume 3 he talks a little about the two kings. They do not live in seven towers on seven hills, and they are not executed every seven years, but the King of Fire did (or does) possess a sacred sword which fell from heaven long ago and is now kept hidden.

Also very useful is Oscar Salemink’s The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders (2003). He says that the Vietnamese government doesn’t like the “backward” culture of the Jarai and are trying to stamp it out. The old kings of Water, Air and Fire have all died in recent decades and the authorities aren’t allowing new ones to be installed. Jarai cadres in the Party are pleading with their superiors for the installation ceremonies to be permitted, but although the Vietnamese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Kings are classified as superstition, which is forbidden. But things aren’t all black and white, and Salemink’s chapter is fascinating.

Meanwhile, if you visit Siem Reap, you can see a totally vulgarised version put on for tourists at something called the Cambodian Culture Village – but the blurb says, quite accurately, that there seems to be some connection between this Jarai sacred sword and the sword that’s part of the Khmer royal regalia. (The website calls the tribe Phnorng, but they mean Jarai).

 (Also worth reading on the history is this blog, which mentions a book called Kingdom in the Morning Mist, by Gerald Cannon Hickey).


Harrison Forman: Wat Phnom, 1953

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Harrison Forman (1904-1978) is one of those people who make me think I ‘ve lived my life all wrong.

Brief bio at what seems be a University of Oregon site:

Harrison Forman (1904-1978) was an American explorer, aviator, photographer, journalist and author. …  He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1929 after majoring in Oriental Languages. During the early 1930’s he went to China where he sold American aircraft and trained pilots.

It was in China that he heard of a mysterious mountain in Tibet supposedly taller than Mt. Everest, officially the highest mountain in the world. Forman went to Tibet and although he never found the mountain he sought he did earn the distinction of being one of the first western visitors to visit Tibet. As a result of his experience in Tibet, Forman in 1937 was the technical director for Lost Horizon, an Academy Award-winning film.

During the late thirties Forman covered the Sino-Japanese conflict as a cameraman for the “March of Time” newsreel service and also reported for the New York Times on Japanese forces across Asia. Forman became best known during this time for his coverage of the Sino-Japanese conflict, the Chinese government under Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai in 1937, and the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. It was also during World War II in 1944 that Forman interviewed Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and other communist leaders.

… He wrote books on China, Africa, photography and later ran a travel agency. Among the many newspapers and magazines he worked for were the London Times, New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, Life, Reader’s Digest and National Geographic.

And he visited Cambodia. I haven’t been able to find any Cambodia photos apart from this one, but they must exist. How charming was Wat Phnom in 1953. He left a diary of the visit, supposedly downloadable, but it won’t download for me.