Ancestral voices: The Naga King

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PM(The following is from Spirit Worlds, my forthcoming book about Cambodian religion and belief. Part of that system of beliefs is the national myths that give meaning to being Khmer).

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In India there  lived a prince, Preah Thong by name, who was told in a dream to take a ship and sail to a golden land in the east where he would establish a great kingdom. So the prince prepared his ship and crew and set forth, and after many days he came upon a beautiful and uninhabited island. Preah Thong named it Nokor Kok Tlok, Kingdom of the Tlok Tree, after a large tlok tree by the shore. Possibly feeling he had done enough for one day Preah Thong fell asleep under the tree, and when he awoke it was night. The moon was full and he gazed on the sea, wondering about his new kingdom, and especially about the lack of people, and as he watched he saw human figures emerge from beneath the waves.

The beings spread a feast under the trees, and the men fell to sport, wrestling and sword-playing on the sand, while the women strummed musical instruments and sang sweet songs. All were comely, but in their midst was a lady more arresting than any. Overcome by her beauty, Preah Thong stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, asking who she was, and how it came to be that she and her people lived beneath the waves.

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Preah Thong (right) and the naga princess, Cambodian classical dance-drama.

The lady graciously permitted him to know that she was Neang Neak (Lady Naga), the daughter of the naga king, that this was the land of the nagas, and that she and her court visited the beach every full moon night for their pleasure. She informed him also that it was a serious breach of protocol to speak to royalty before being spoken to, and that he had broken this rule, but as she could see he was a stranger and ignorant of naga etiquette she would permit him to inform her of his name and family before ordering his execution.

Quickly Preah Thong told the naga princess of his foreign origins and princely station and declared his undying love, and after further gentle words the proud princess melted and agreed to take him to the underwater kingdom of the nagas so that he could ask her father for her hand in marriage.

Cambodia_Angkor_04348_de1df001fabe4fd7ac6ad17a33c6a513

Phimeanakas temple in the royal compound at Ankor. Only the base remains – the tower stood on top of this.

And so Neang Neak took Preah Thong to the kingdom of the nagas, the prince holding her scarf. For three days they celebrated their wedding, and at the end of that time the naga king swallowed the water that had covered the land and Preah Thong and Neang Neak ruled together over the Khmers, who were descended from the arriage of the noble Indians who had accompanied Preah Thong and the beautiful naga-folk who waited upon the princess.

In another version of the legend the Indian prince is a Brahmin named Kaundinya and the naga princess is named Soma. The plot is very similar to the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak except that the island is apparently upstream in the Mekong, and Kaundinya defeats Soma in battle before she agrees to marry him. In yet another version the prince was called Kambu, from which comes the name Kambuja, Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 9.38.44 PMThe great enemy of the Khmers were the Cham, whose kingdom of Champa lay along the central coast of present-day Vietnam. In the year 657 a Cham king named Prakasadhamma left an inscription in his capital telling how the Brahmin Kaundinya ‘planted his spear’ (settled) in Kambuja and took Soma, daughter of the naga king, as his wife. Prakasadhamma mentioned this because, although a Cham king and a Cham by blood through his mother, he was a descendant of Kaundinya and Soma through his father, who was a Khmer prince. The inscription is important because it is the earliest mention in real history, as opposed to myth, of the name Kambuja.

The marriage of human prince and naga princess sounds fanciful, but the Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan says this in the record of his stay at Angkor shortly before the year 1300:

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Zhou Daguan’s “A Record of Cambodia”, translated by Peter Harris with introduction by David Chandler.

Inside the palace there is a gold tower, at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine-headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die.

The tower is probably Phimeanakas, the only structure still remaining inside the palace compound at Angkor. I climbed to the top one cloudy and tourist-free day in the monsoon season, but found no naga-maiden awaiting me. Given what happened to the mythical Leper King, husband to the naga-princess and son-in-law to the naga-king, this may be just as well. That, however, is another myth.

Samsara: love and marriage

In the late 19th century an anonymous French army surgeon spent a few months in Cambodia investigating the sex lives of the inhabitants. His freedom of movement was hampered by war in the countryside, but nevertheless he managed to fit in a great deal of highly relevant observation. He was much struck by the chastity of Cambodian girls, especially compared to their Vietnamese sisters. Pre-marital sex was unknown, as was prostitution, and marriage, if not perhaps love, was the sole arena for sex. (I’m not entirely convinced he was right, but that is what he said).

The leisurely process of marriage began with the betrothal. A female go-between would informally sound out the family of the girl on behalf of the boy’s family. If the response were positive, a formal delegation from the boy’s family would bring presents to the girl’s parents. If the presents were accepted – no doubt there was informal negotiation beforehand – the couple would be considered betrothed. The boy would then move into the girl’s house as a kind of domestic servant. This was necessary because the couple would not previously have met (in theory anyway), and this period was for the young man to pay court to the girl. He would sleep in the kitchen, because the girl was, of course, a virgin, although ‘leaving a boy with a girl is like putting an elephant in charge of the sugar-cane’, says the Khmer proverb.

The Frenchman doesn’t describe the wedding, but an Englishman named Christopher Pym, writing a century later, does. In the 1950s, while still in his twenties, he crossed on foot from the coast of Vietnam to Angkor in search of a road built by Jayavarman VII, the great king of Angkor who brought the Khmer Empire to its widest extent in the 12th century (I’m writing from memory, so don’t quote me on the history). He spent a year in Phnom Penh beforehand brushing up his Khmer.

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Symbolic items from a Cambodian wedding – betel box, comb and scissors, etc. Copyright Kate McElwee.

From a Khmer wedding that took place in California. Beautiful photos, and much useful information.

Marriage, Pym says, was not between two individuals but between two families. The marathon wedding took place over three days, and its main elements were a hair-cutting ceremony (symbolic rather than literal, and an occasion for bawdy jokes and songs), a meal offered to the ancestors, and the cotton ceremony, in which the girl’s wrists were bound with a white cotton thread. After the thread was tied the girl began to cry, and when Pym asked why he was told it was because she was afraid of her husband. Pym offers no further explanation. At dawn on the last day the achar (specialist in ritual) placed a coconut flower divided into three parts on an outside altar, the three sections being called the mother, father and child. The groom bowed to each flower section in turn and entered the house, where the bride was concealed behind a curtain. The achar brought the flower sections inside and the groom bowed again to them, and at the same time a musician began a bawdy song entreating the hidden girl to allow the groom to “open the curtain” (a double-entendre?) The curtain was drawn aside revealing the bride, and although Pym doesn’t mention it, she was dressed as Neang Neak, the naga-princess who met Preah Thong, the ancestor of the Khmer race, on their mythical beach at the beginning of time.

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Khmer wedding dress – the costume of Neang Naga the naga-princess, mother of the Khmer race.

The girl knelt beside the boy and bowed to the three flower sections, the guests seated themselves around them and circulated popil and candles. When the candles had gone round three times the achar blew them out and wafted the smoke towards the couple. The boy and girl were now wed. The boy took the bride’s scarf and allowed himself to be led to the marriage bed like Prince Thong being led to the underwater naga kingdom, while the guests dismantled the mother and daughter flowers and threw them over the couple like confetti. Later in the morning the newlyweds would take the father flower to the village monastery, where the head monk would scatter its grain over them.

We move now to the late 1950s, when the pioneering anthropologist May Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year. She found the girls in the village were afraid of sex and of being raped or abducted, which were apparently real dangers. Both Buddhism and the spirits disapproved of fornication, and chastity continued to be the overwhelming rule. Yet there were a few cases of a lack of chastity, including a girl four months pregnant at her wedding and another who was the mistress of a high official from Phnom Penh – the second girl faced considerable disapproval, as did her parents for having allowed this to happen.

Preah-Thong-Tong-Sbai-Neang-Neak

From the website of the Khmer-Canadian Youth Association of Alberta – http://khmeryouth.cambodianview.com/tag/asian-heritage-day/. Their caption describes the role and significance of this section of the wedding ceremony, a recapitulation of the origin of the Khmer people.

In modern villages marriage is still the result of betrothal organised at family level, and young people con only hope to influence the schemes of their parents. Birth control is not much practiced, although STDs are well understood and condoms are used for health reasons. As a result families tend to be large. Infertility is regarded as the woman’s fault, and the kru (traditional healers and shamans) are consulted for causes and cure. Male impotence is also regarded as a supernatural problem rather than a medical one, although in fact there are several quite serious conditions that can cause it. Abortion is very rare, since taking life is the most serious of all sins.

All this is for the village, and my sources have been second-hand and unreliable. Perhaps I need to do like May Ebihara and live for a year in a village – I have one in mind, and the headman has invited me to stay, but I can’t help wondering whether my bowels could take it. And what about the cities? Cambodia is still overwhelmingly a village-based society (maybe 80% of people live in villages), but cities are growing rapidly. The village has a thousand eyes, but the facts of modern urban life have produced a new social and moral world.

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Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

This post is adapted from my book Spirit Worlds, due out in October. This section of the book was one of the hardest to write, due to the subject matter – how do you ask young people about their sex lives? Margaret Mead had that problem in Samoa. I was struck by how little is available on the sex lives of young people in the cities. I did ask, though I doubt the answers are authoritative. But for what it’s worth, I was told that pre-marital sex is increasingly common among teens – maybe quite common. And I know for a fact that Valentine’s Day is a major event in the calendar of every hormonally-supercharged high-school boy. Someone really has to study this.

Samsara: childhood

Pinterest

Pinterest, Keith Pings.

For its first three or four years the child is surrounded by indulgence and immediate fulfilment, but the world becomes harsher with the birth of each younger sibling. The transition from infancy to childhood is not sudden, however, but a gradual increase in responsibility and socialisation. During this time also the father gradually turns into remote and authoritarian figure.

The basic lessons children learn are respect, obedience, and conformity, and by the time the child begins school it will have learned such basics as respect for elders and monks. Children’s games emphasise skill and cooperation rather than winning, and the child’s performance of its duties within the family – household chores for the girls, looking after animals and supervised farm work for the boys – attracts no praise or reward, although failure or incompetence will attract blame and scolding. The parents’ control over their children is absolute, and children do not conceive of themselves as autonomous beings.

“In ancient times, Khmer people usually shaved their children’s heads. … This tradition is called “Kaur Chouk,” which means “to shave the tufts of hair away when the child is old enough.” Copyright S. Phana

A village tradition – one rapidly dying out but not yet dead – is that a child’s head should be shaved except for a forelock. The ritual cutting of this forelock at some point between the ages of seven and eleven, in a ceremony involving the monks, an achar (expert in ritual), and the family, marked the passage to responsible late childhood.

For girls, this was traditionally followed by “entering the shade,” a period ranging from a few days to a few months during which she remained inside the house, avoiding all contact with men and boys, practicing household duties and studying feminine etiquette. There was no ritual for the entry into the shade, but the exit was marked by a ceremony in which, among other things, a man with a branch would announce himself to be an “arak (spirit) of the forest,” the achar would ask the arak not to harm the girl or to keep her pralung (soul) in the forest, and the arak would promise that the girl would be allowed to have children. The entry into the shade is rarely practiced today.

For boys, the end of childhood is marked by collective ceremony of entray in to Buddhist novitiate at about twelve years old. For a brief moment before the ordination the pralung of a naga enters the boy, and he’s referred to as a naga until the full ordination is complete. During his time as a serpent he wears a traditional female garment (the hul) decorated with scales and is made beautified with make-up, gold necklaces and earrings, bracelets and rings. Possibly this is meant to represent the costume of Prince Siddhartha as he renounced the palace, but there are also clear undertones of the naga princess who married Preah Thong, the founder of the Khmer race.

A boy gets his head shaved by his mother during an ordination ceremony. Kork Banteay village, Kandal province. Copyright Heng Sinith/AP

A boy gets his head shaved by his mother during an ordination ceremony. Kork Banteay village, Kandal province. Copyright Heng Sinith/AP

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Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Boys and girls rarely interact after the age of puberty. A major exception is the Khmer New Year, when mixed groups of adolescents join to play traditional games, but in general, contact between sexes in the village setting is very limited. Life for teenagers in the city is, of course, a different matter.

Preah Thong and the naga princess

(This is one version of the Khmer foundation-legend;  what they all have in common is the idea that the Khmer people spring from the union of a prince from India and a native naga princess).

254In India once there lived a prince, Preah Thong by name, who was told in a dream to take a ship and sail to a golden land in the east where he would establish a great kingdom. After many days sailing the prince came upon a beautiful and uninhabited island. Preah Thong named it Nokor Kok Tlok, Kingdom of the Tlok Tree, after a large tlok tree by the shore. Possibly feeling he had done enough for one day Preah Thong fell asleep under the tlok tree, and when he awoke it was night. The moon was full and he gazed on the sea, wondering about his new kingdom, and especially about the lack of people, and as he watched he saw human figures emerge from beneath the waves.

The prince watched from behind the tree as the beings spread a feast under the trees. The men fell to sporting with wrestling and sword-play on the sand, while the women strummed musical instruments and sang sweet songs. All were comely, but in their midst was a lady more beautiful than any. Overcome by her beauty, Preah Thong stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, asking the lady who she was, and how it came to be that she and her people lived beneath the waters.

The lady permitted him to know that she was Neang Neak (Lady Naga), the daughter of the naga king, that this was the land of the nagas, and that she and her court visited the beach every full moon night for their pleasure. She informed him also that it was a serious breach to speak to royalty before being spoken to, and that he had broken this rule, but as she could see he was a stranger and ignorant of naga etiquette she would permit him to inform her of his name and family before ordering his execution.

Quickly Preah Thong told Neang Neak of his foreign origins and princely station and declared his love, and after further gentle words the princess agreed to take him to the underwater kingdom of the nagas so that he could ask her father for her hand in marriage.

And so Neang Neak took Preah Thong to the kingdom of the nagas, the prince holding her scarf. For three days they celebrated their wedding, and at the end of that time the naga king swallowed the water that had covered the land and Preah Thong and Neang Neak ruled together over the Khmers.

tumblr_ljdcd1x1QB1qioum0o1_500Photo from a site called Shane and Ravy: Our Wedding.

This legend provides the basis for Khmer weddings – the groom, dressed as a prince, holds the scarf of the bride as she leads him to the wedding chamber. In another version of the legend the Indian prince is a Brahmin named Kaundinya and the naga princess is named Soma. The plot is very similar to the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak except that the island is apparently upstream in the Mekong, and Kaundinya defeats Soma in battle before she agrees to marry him. In yet another version the prince was called Kambu, from which comes the name Kambuja, Cambodia.