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.



Ancestral voices: the Leper King

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Sdach Kamlong the Leper King – the statue from the Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor, now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. From, which has some very nice photos from the museum (click on the image for the link).

In the late 19th century French archaeologists at Angkor discovered a statue of a squatting, bare-chested man, his right hand apparently once holding a rod or similar object, on a terrace next to the Bayon temple. Presumably it had been there for centuries, as the terrace was used in ancient times for royal cremations and perhaps for judgements. The statue, according to its inscription, was Yama, the god of death and judgement, but the local villagers were worshipping it as Sdach Kamlong, the Leper King, who, as legend has it, was Preah Thong, the Indian prince who married the naga princess and was first to rule over the Khmer people.

Preah Thong was warned by his wife’s father, the naga king, not to build a four-faced tower in his city, but he ignored the warning. Using the magical power of the four faces he captured the naga king and imprisoned him inside the tower, but the serpent escaped and sought to kill him. Each dealt the other many grievous wounds, but Preah Thong eventually dealt the fatal blow, although he was stained by the naga’s venom. The dying naga warned him not to remove the poison, but Preah Thong washed his body, and so was stricken with leprosy as a visible sign of his deed.

Seeking to cover up the murder from the naga’s daughter, Preah Thong killed a monk, thinking he could be reincarnated in the monk’s healthy body. This was a crime even worse than killing his father-in-law, and his outraged courtiers banished him to the forest, while his city became the haunt of monkeys and tigers. Eventually, after many trials, he was cured by the power of the sacred waters of the Ganges (the Siem Reap River) and restored to his city and throne.

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Base of the Terrace of the Leper King – there’s a modern copy of the statue on top of the terrace. From (click image for link).

The legend of the Leper King and the abandoned city is an allegory of the fall of Angkor and a hope for national salvation. However, the story is certainly older than the fall of Angkor, for the medieval Chinese traveller, Zhou Daguan mentions that a king of Angkor once fell victim to leprosy.

The statue is now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where worshippers ask for health and prosperity and for protection from danger. It’s especially popular with students from the University of Fine Arts next to the museum, and special ceremonies with offerings of flowers and fruits and music are held at New Year and Pchum Ben (the festival of the dead).

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

According to popular belief the Leper King was Yasovarman I. This cannot be true, for the following reasons: (1) There is nothing to indicate that the statue represents a king or a leper or even that the terrace was its original home; (2) there is no evidence that Yasovarman or any other Khmer king was a leper; and (3), Yasovarman’s capital was somewhere else and the terrace wasn’t built till long after his death. (The acerbic note comes from my source, a rather mysterious but apparently well-informed pdf file by someone who goes by the single name of Sokheoun. Sokheoun is a stickler for facts, one of which is fascinating: it seems that, deep inside the Bayon temple at Angkor, there’s a series of bas-reliefs illustrating the Leper King story).

The myth of the Leper King is very much alive and well. Here’s some Cambodians discussing it on khmerconnection in 2009. The version of the legend someone gives here is slightly different from ine, but that’s how it goes with legends. Note the way they join the dots between the legend and modern politics:

Cambodia is curse until the true ruler of the kingdom reclaim his thrown and crowned king..

actual crowned king not select nor picked out…

Current king is king but has not wore the crown. It is said who ever wore the crown and not the true ruler lightning will strike you to death..Many high ranking politic and royal has tried but fear it. Even Hun Sen tried but the door close on him trying to enter…

(Yet another version of the story here – again an attempt to find “real” history hiding in a legend. Legends are poetry, the truth they contain is poetic truth, as the folks on khmerconnection have grasped).

(Last thing I have to say on the subject, promise There were once three Leper King statues in Phnom Penh, but now there are only two. Number One is of course the statue in the central courtyard of the National Museum, a national icon filled with magical powers. This is the original from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor, Number Two is outside Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay, and receives worship on the four holy days each month as well as major festival days. This is a copy, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party. Number Three was nearby, on the Riverside on the other side of the road. It used to have quite a lot of worshippers, but it’s gone now, replaced by a sewerage plant. Like Number Two it was a copy, but it was donated by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a political opponent of the government).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Gods, ghosts and demons


Offerings to the spirits on a major feast-day

A little dictionary of some of the more important Cambodian supernatural beings (my preferred spelling first, followed by alternatives I’ve come across):

Araks (areaks): Ancestral spirits that live in fields and trees around the village. Traditionally a village shaman, the kru araks, would enter a trance during which villagers could ask them for advice, but this seems to be dying out – I only came across one in six months of searching and she was 90 years old. Nevertheless, farmers will still leave some of their midday meal in the field for the araks. They are easily angered, and punish those who cross them with illness.

Arp (ap, arb): A witch, although often called a vampire. By day an ordinary woman, though identifiable by her haggard face and bloodshot eyes, at night her body waits at home while her head flies around spreading sickness and bad dreams. She has parallels in many other Southeast Asian cultures – how did this cultural meme spread so widely?

hqdefaultBoramey: High spirit-beings who help humans with their problems. Many villages and towns have kru boramey, shamans (usually women) who enter into a trance and are possessed by a boramey. They seem to be replacing the village araks and kru-araks throughout Cambodia.

Bray (priay): A female demon (almost all the demons seem to be female), the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth. She is the most malevolent of all demons, but can be tamed by those who understand the correct ritual, in which case she becomes a powerful protective spirit. Buddha images and the boats used in the annual Water Festival boat races are protected by bray.

Chumneang pteah (in Phnom Penh dialect, ch’neang teah): The protective spirit of the house. One of very few spirits who are wholly benevolent. Her shrine is always placed on the floor, and offerings of flowers and fruit (and cans of coke) should be left there on the four holy days of each month (these days are marked on religious calendars, and every house will hang this calendar near the shrine). In village houses she inhabits a particular pillar, usually the main house pillar, and there’s a special ceremony to ask her to protect new houses.

Chumneang pteah shrine - despite the Chinese appearance, it's Khmer.

Chumneang pteah shrine – despite the Chinese appearance, it’s Khmer.

Kmouch (kmout): The ghost of someone who died a violent or unexpected death. The kmouch is not aware of its status and wishes to return to the world of the living. Monks and kru know the ritual for sending a kmouch away, but it should never be destroyed, which would be the equivalent of murder – it’s capable of going to hell and eventually returning to another life.

Meba: The family ancestor-spirits. They take a particular interest in marriages and births: they have to be offered some of the wedding feast, and should be informed when the new bride becomes pregnant, and again when she is delivered. They are highly moral and highly conservative, and will punish any girl (but not boy) who has sex before her wedding (my informants were of parent-age – somebody really should study this in detail from the viewpoint of teenagers). An interesting point that I came across in interviews, and have never found in written sources, is that I was repeatedly told that the meba are ancestors by birth, not blood – they’re reincarnation-ancestors. This video plays meba-music from a Khmer wedding (after the ad).” target=”_blank”>

Mrieng kongveal: Little child-spirits, the protectors of most domestic and some wild animals (domestic animals destined to be killed and eaten get no protection, nor do wild animals that are hunted). They normally live in the trees around the fields, but they like to play with human children, and they have the useful ability to give gifts to adults. For this reason they often have house-shrines, in the form of a flat-bottomed basket with a little bamboo house. The shrine should hang from a bush or nail in the wall, and should never touch the ground. Their offerings are toys and sweets.

_DSF2041Mrieng kongveal shrine

Neak ta: The village ancestor. Almost every village will have a neak ta shrine, often with a statue of the ancestor, or possibly a rock or shiva linga (the neak ta is the only spirit who is represented in physical form – the shrines of the tevoda and chumneang pteah are empty, and although the mrieng kongveal shrine often has little toy children in it, these don’t actually represent the mrieng).  He represents fertility and social order, and once a year he has a village festival at which the village boundaries are rehearsed and his blessings invoked.

Neak ta shrine on an Ankorian brick platform Siem Reap - from Alison in Cambodia

Village neak ta shrine, Takeo province – from Alison in Cambodia

In addition to the village-level neak ta there are also “wild” neak ta who own the hills and forests and other unsettled places, and anyone entering their lands must ask permission. And finally there are the “great” neak ta who have charge of entire regions and provinces. Unlike the “wild” and village neak ta these have names and histories – the one pictured below is called Red Neck. The red colours (his turban and scarf) and his beard and moustache mark his Indian/brahmanical origins – the colour or Buddhism is yellow, and Buddha and Buddhist deities are clean-shaven.

Neak ta Neak ta Red Neck at the Angkorean temple of Chisor, near Phnom Penh.

Praet: A ghost that died a good death and is now in hell. Hell is far from pleasant, but it’s the right place for ghosts and the only place where they can prepare for their next life. Praet, like kmouch, are eternally hungry – they have tiny mouths and huge stomachs, and can eat only filth. Once a year they return to the world of the living and their relatives feed them at the temples – this is the festival of Pchum Ben, the most important in Cambodia.


Hungry ghosts from Thailand – they look the same in Cambodia.

Preah phum: The name means something like “holy earth,” and it represents the entire village, including its fields and ponds and groves. Its shrine is a little house on a pillar, very like the tevoda shrine but with one significant architectural difference: the tevoda shrine has a roof with a spire, indicating that this is the home of a goddess (compare to the spire on the roof of the monastery prayer-hall and on the royal palace), but the preah phum roof does not, as preah phum is not a god. Phreah phum is extremely important to the psychic health of the village, and there are special ceremonies to “centre” him in times of trouble, such as epidemics or droughts. This village preah phum involves quite a different-looking shrine made of four posts in a square with a fifth in the centre.

004_bigThe shrine of a village preah phum ceremony, constructed when calling the spirit of the village land. From Khmer Renaissance


Tevoda: Like the chumneang pteah,  a protective house-sprit, but unlike the chumneang she’s a goddess. Associated particularly with the annual New Year festival, her shrine is the little toy temple on a pillar outside the house. This should be placed in a corner of the house-yard, facing the door of the house but not in front of it. The offerings vary from year to year, as there’s a new tevoda each year. I’ve also heard of what seems to be another sense of tevoda, a sort of messenger of the spirit-world, but have no information about this. The shrine itself is called rean tevoda, a “tevoda shelf.”

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.

Shrines of Cambodia: the mrieng kong veal

_DSF2018I’ve always been fascinated by these. They’re called mrieng kong veal shrines. You see them all over the city, usually hanging from a tree or bush, sometimes from a nail in the wall, but never directly in contact with the earth.

The mrieng (name of the spirits that live in the mrieng kong veal shrine) are  are child spirits – the word mrieng means small children, and kong veal means cowboys. (I suspect it might mean something related but slightly different, but this is as much I have so far).

There’s some disagreement about just how these mrieng originate – some say they were always spirits, but others say that they’re the spirits of dead children. The red cloth or paper objects hanging from the tray are clothes for them to wear, since the  mrieng are naked. The bamboo tubes hanging from it are called glasses, and are for water. Apart from the clothes and water, the mrieng should be offered sweets and toys – boy’s toys, like toy cars, because the mrieng are always male. (Possibly because looking after livestock was always the job of the boys in the village, but that’s my own guess).

If a house has no mrieng kong veal shrine the mrieng will appear in a dream asking if they can come and stay. The shrine can then be purchased from the market and hung in an appropriate place, and the mrieng can be attracted to their new home with incense and sweets and toys. Their new host can then ask them for things such a new car, or a new laptop, or promotion at work, or prosperity for his business.

The shrine in the photo is standard-average, and probably cost about five to ten dollars. More elaborate ones have up to three floors and festooned with balconies and little latticed windows, and a custom-made shrine can be as much as a thousand dollars.