The ashes shrine

Ancestor shrine, Kampong Phnom village, Neak Leoung 1_DSF7371.JPG“Rean dam-kal teat” (phonetic spelling), “shelf to raise up the ashes”, or the ashes shrine. I’ve seen this in villages before (never in cities), but in the village of Kampong Phnom in Kandal province, where I went to a wedding last week, every house had one.

The shrine holds the ashes of departed family members – usually mother/father grandfather/grandmother, but I’m told it can be any family members. Traditionally these ashes are taken to the monastery and kept in the sala chan (monks’ dining hall), where they’re protected by the merit of the monks (protected from evil spirits, that is) and gain merit themselves through “participation” in major village festivals involving ritual meals for the monks.

So putting them in special shrines outside houses is a major departure from tradition. I’m told this is a fairly new practice, only a decade or so old. The ashes shrines of Kampong Phnom have driven out the traditional tevoda shrines, so as they spread through the country there’s likely to be asignificant change in religious practice – what will it mean for the poor tevoda, those heavenly messengers who are present at weddings and funerals as the intermediaries between men and gods?

Traditionally, one of the things that happen at weddings is that the ancestors (the meba) are offered a portion of food to include them in the ritual meal that unites the two families (weddings are more between families than between individuals). This offering is simply thrown on the ground. At the wedding in Kampong Phnom the offering was made nicely plated up on the plinth of the ashes shrine. Much more satisfying, I’m sure.

The architecture of the shrine is a little unclear to me – there’s the tiled plinth, which is utilitarian (it’s for kneeling on while praying and for leaving offerings); more or less in the centre is a small pond, mostly circular but not always (the circular ocean that surrounds the world?); and the shrine itself in the form of a room that mimics the sala chan of the monastery, or at least I think that’s what it’s meant to look like. It has glass doors which are normally locked (the ashes are highly important, after all) but opened when the ancestors are present at family occasions.

rean domkol teat to raise ashes.JPG

Achar (the man in the white shirt, a specialist in ritual, and the equivalent of a priest – monks are not priests) makes the ritual offering of food to the ancestors at the ashes shrine.