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). https://www.youtube.com/embed/_heYQhcZL8Y” 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 https://alisonincambodia.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/surveying-in-takeo-province-part-2/

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 www.devata.org.

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.