In the period between the sack of Angkor by the Thais in 1431 and the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century the Khmer kings were largely ineffectual, the capital shifted between Phnom Penh, Lovek and Oudong, and the kingdom was nibbled away by Siam and Vietnam, losing provinces and population to both. The architecture, in contrast to the stone temples of Angkor, was largely perishable, inscriptions were few and have been comparatively little studied, and although palace and monastic chronicles exist, they are unreliable and largely made up of legends. Those legends, while a poor introduction to history, are nevertheless an instructive guide to the Cambodian soul.
And so we come to Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem, Preah Koh and Preah Keo. They were twin brothers. While their mother was pregnant with them she developed a craving for green mango; in the manner of legends she was warned not to climb the mango tree to get to the forbidden fruit, and of course she did. She fell to her death. As she died the twins were born, but while one was human, the other was a calf. The villagers, horrified at this unnatural birth, chased them into the forest, where Preah Koh, the Sacred Cow, fed and clothed his brother by belching up feasts from his belly.
Preah Keo grew up to be a handsome young man. One day, clothed in a royal costume belched up for him by Preah Koh, he was loitering by a forest pool when the king’s youngest daughter, Neang Pov (‘Youngest Princess’) came to bathe. Preah Keo drew near and spoke charming words to the princess, and she allowed him to kiss her. When her father the king heard of this he was furious and had Neang Pov beheaded, but Preah Koh magically restored her head to her shoulders and belched out a palace, where Indra, the king of the gods, presided over her wedding to Preah Keo.
At this time the king of Siam was trying to conquer Cambodia. Unsuccessful in battle, he challenged the king of Cambodia to a cockfight, knowing there was no fighting cock in Cambodia that could hope to defeat the Thai king’s cock. (I was strongly tempted to allow my inner 14 year old to exercise his sense of humour here, but resisted). The Khmer court was in despair, but Preah Koh took pity and changed himself into an invincible fighting cock, in which form he defeated the King of Siam.
The furious Thai king challenged the Cambodians to a fight between elephants. Once again the Khmer were despondent, and once again Preah Koh saved them, transforming himself into an invincible fighting elephant.
The king of Siam consulted his astrologers: why was he always defeated by the Khmers, even though he was far more powerful? The astrologers consulted their charts and discovered the secret of Sacred Cow. The power of Preah Koh, they advised the king, could not be defeated by normal means nor even by magic, but if the king should construct a mechanical bull, the Khmer champion could be vanquished.
Once more the Thai king challenged the Khmers to a duel. When Preah Koh saw the mechanical bull he knew at once that he would be defeated, but he accepted the challenge. As he had foreseen, his magic blows had no effect on the Thai bull, which managed to knock off one of his magic horns. Deciding to escape and fight another day, Preah Koh called Preah Keo and Neang Pov to cling to him and flew off.
And of course there’s an Emerald Buddha in the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh
As they flew through the skies Neang Pov lost her grip and fell to her death, where Indra turned her into a sacred mountain which you, dear reader, may visit to this very day, but the brothers flew on and landed at Lovek, the Khmer capital. There they hid in a bamboo forest, thinking they would be safe, but the devious Thais loaded their cannons with silver coins and fired them into the forest, and the greedy local villagers cut down the bamboo to find the coins. And so Preah Koh and Preah Keo were captured and the king of Siam took them to his capital, where they remain to this day, imprisoned in a beautiful palace, weeping as they look eastward towards Cambodia.
The legend of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem operates on many levels. For scholars interested in the history of religious traditions, Sacred Cow is the modern descendant of the bull Nandi, the vehicle of the god Shiva, and Preah Keo rides on his back with Neang Pov like Shiva riding on Nandi with his wife Parvati, goddess of the mountains, of love and of devotion.
At another level Preah Koh with his magic stomach and invincibility in battle represents the lost power of ancient Angkor, as well as, in his defeat and captivity, Cambodia’s post-Angkorean humiliation and powerlessness. And Sacred Gem is a real gem, the Emerald Buddha, once held by Cambodia, at least according to Cambodian legend, and now in the Royal Palace in Bangkok.
And finally, there’s real history, or what might be real history. In the 15th century the Siamese king, finding the Khmer too powerful to defeat in battle, consulted his astrologers and learned that Lovek was protected by a powerful four-faced Buddha statue. The city would never fall so long as this statue remained in the city. The king sent a fraudulent holy man to Lovek, who convinced King Preah Prattha that the statue was unlucky and he should give it to the Thais. And so Lovek was captured and Cambodia’s greatness passed away, not because of the power of her enemies, but because of the gullible foolishness of the Cambodians themselves.
At Lovek today, visitors to the monastery of Wat Tralaeng Kaeng can see the feet of the four-faced Buddha statue still in place – the statue itself is at the bottom of the river, not far away, having sunk the boat onto which the Siamese loaded it. (And at this point, I must confess, I’m getting quite confused as to what is legend and what is history – the statue really was real, but did King Prattha really give it to the Thais, and is it really still at the bottom of the river?) Also to be seen nearby is a statue of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem under a Bodhi tree, and sprouting from the Bodhi is a single mango branch, which is all that remains of the tree from which the mother of the fabulous twins fell.
A little beyond the Bodhi tree is the entrance to one of the underground passageways of the nagas, revealed when the naga king drank up the ocean and exposed Srok Khmer, the land of Cambodia, which had previously been under the sea. There are many such tunnels and caves around Cambodia, and this one extends from Lovek to Oudong, just north of Phnom Penh, where the naga’s tail brushes against the sacred funeral urns of the Khmer kings.