Khmer New Year, April 13-15, 2015

Khmer New Year will be over the three days April 13-15. In Khmer the name is Chaul Chnam Thmey, “Entering the New Year”. The first day is called Maha Songkran, which is the same as the Songkran festival in Thailand. In Burma on the same three days they’re having Thingyan, which again is the same festival – Songkran and Thingyan come from the same word in Pali and Sanskrit, meaning “transit” – the sun is transiting from the last zodiac sign of the old year to the first of the new. In Bangkok and Yangon there’s a lot of water at New Year, but in Cambodia.

The start of the New Year is marked by the arrival of the tevoda, one of seven sisters who take it in turns to bring in and look over the years. The ornate concrete dollhouse on top of a pillar outside every Cambodian home is the shrine of the tevoda.

 Gold tevoda, street 51

It’s most definitely not a shrine for the household spirits (that’s inside the house), nor for ancestral spirits (the ancestors don’t have a shrine). It’s for the tevodas.

Here’s the Cambodian legend behind the New Year – no doubt there are similar stories in Thailand and Burma. This could be a little misleading in that it gives the impression that there are only seven tevodas. These are the seven special tevodas of the New Year. There are hundreds of thousands of tevodas, and they don’t all live on Meru.

The Story of Kbal Mohaprom and Clever Thamabal

devadaLong ago when the world was new the god Kbal Mohaprom ensured that the seasons rotated and hat the monsoon rain was neither too much nor too little. Men gave offerings to Kbal Mohaprom in thanks for the seasons and the rain, but it came about that one day these offerings stopped. On making inquiries the god learned of a young man named Thamabal had become renowned for his cleverness – indeed, so clever was he that he could understand the language of the birds. All offerings were now being made to Thamabal.

Devada (in modern Khmer, a tevoda) from Angkor. Sourced from

The god dared Thamabal to test his cleverness. He would set a riddle, and if Thamabal failed to find the answer within seven days he would lose his head. Conversely, if Thamabal solved the riddle, Kbal Mohaprom would strike off his own head. Thamabal accepted the challenge, and Kbal Mohaprom asked him the following question: Where is happiness in the morning, where is it at midday, and where in the evening?

For six days Thamabal pondered the question but could not find an answer. On the evening of the last day, wandering in despair in the forest, he overheard two vultures talking.

“Will we eat meat tomorrow?” asked one.

“We will eat the clever Thamabal,” said the other. “He can’t find the answer to the riddle, and he will lose his head.”

“Do you know the answer?” asked the first.

“Certainly! This is a riddle about where the Cambodian people find happiness. In the morning they wash the face so that happiness is cool water in the face, at midday they wash the body and happiness is in the body, and in the evening they wash their feet before they sleep. That is the answer.”

When Thamabal answered the riddle next morning Kbal Mohaprom was exceedingly angry, but being a god of his word he took his magic sword and cut off his head. But the head of Kbal Mohaprom was not like any ordinary head, because it was made of fire. If it fell on the land it would burn up the land, if it fell into the ocean it would dry the sea, and if it remained in the air it would drive the clouds away. Therefore, to save the world from destruction, the seven beautiful daughters of Kbal Mohaprom placed their father’s head on a gold platter in a temple on Mount Kailash, the home of Lord Shiva. Each year one of the seven brings it down to the world to see if men still retain sufficient merit to warrant saving.

 New Year 2014

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 12.05.39 PMThe Cambodian year 2558 of the Buddhist Era was marked by arrival of the tevoda Koraka Tevi on the first day of the month of Chet (14 April). At Wat Phnom a drummer began beating the ceremonial tom-tom outside the preah vihear at exactly 7.45 a.m., a time set by the court astrologers as marking the departure of Tungsa Tevi, the tevoda of the old year. At 8:07 Koraka Tevi arrived seated on a tiger led by a horse (marking the fact that this was a Year of the Horse) and grasping a sword in her right hand and a cane in her left. (The illustration is not Koraka Tevi, who I couldn’t find, but one of her sisters).

The arrival of Koraka Tevi was, unfortunately, invisible except to the royal astrologers, who announced over loudspeakers that the goddess had brought peace and prosperity for all Cambodians. The drum stopped beating and the astrologers and worshippers entered the shrine hall to make offerings of fruit, jasmine and lotus flowers, and to distribute alms to the poor. Similar scenes were played out all over the city and the country.

Farmers are the ones most concerned by the message of the tevoda, and for them Koraka Tevi brought mixed news. On the positive side the coming year would see neither drought nor floods, but there would be some danger of damage to crops from outbreaks of insect pests, and rice prices would be low. Since the vast majority of Cambodians live in villages and depend on their own crops, this was a matter of no small importance.

For city people Khmer New Year is a time to return to their villages for the three days, and visitors who wish to experience Chaul Chnam Thmey should do likewise.

The first day is called Maha Songkran and is devoted to the heavenly realm. People clean their houses and welcome the tevoda at her shrine, and in the afternoon they visit the temple to pay respects and begin building a stupa out of sand next to the preah vihear. Teams of boys and girls play traditional games and to flirt under the eyes of their elders.

The second day is called Virak Wanabot and is devoted to the human world. People make offerings to their parents and donations to the poor, and in the evening they go to the temple and seek blessings from the monks.

The third day is called Leung Sak. On this day the Buddha, the monks, the ancestors and the elders are all honoured, and apologies are made for any mistakes made during the previous year. The monks are invited to complete the building of the sand-stupa, the Buddha statues are washed with perfumed water, and children wash their parents’ feet.

The tevoda shrine plays little role in household life after the three days of New Year, but incense is burnt throughout the year so that she will give blessings and protect the house and its inhabitants from ghosts and demons.