Human sacrifice

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 4.37.01 PMSacrificial backpacker-maiden, Vat Phu, from

The earliest evidence of human sacrifice among the Khmers might be this stone crocodile at Vat Phu Champasak. Today it’s in Laos, but it’s a Khmer temple dating from the 5th century, the very dawn of the Khmer kingdom.  (The current temple is from the 11th/13th centuries – more on Wikipedia).

image-4Crocodiles keep turning up. Every time a funeral is held a white flag is flown nearby. According to legend the custom commemorates a magical crocodile who ate a princess. The king killed the croc and hung his hide up at the place where his daughter’s ashes were enshrined, which was the start of the custom. After a while crocs became too difficult to find, and so the flag is now used instead. This relates to human sacrifice because the princess’s hundred handmaidens were supposedly buried under the hundred columns of the temple  (this post has slightly different details, and mentions sacrifices for bridges).

There’s a pretty well documented report of a royally-sponsored human sacrifice at Ba Phnom, a sacred mountain near Phnom Penh, in 1877 (a prisoner taken at the end of a brief insurrection, but not simply executed, as there were strong religious overtones). A neak ta (local spirit) called Neak Ta Krol was receiving sacrifices as recently as 1904 – I got the little I have on that from an encyclopedia called Asian Mythologies, entry on Cambodian earth deities by Solange Thierry, who’s a highly reliable source, but no idea where it ultimately comes from – shocked French administrators putting a stop to it, perhaps? Someone should ask them about the symbolism of the Eucharist – at least the Cambodians weren’t eating the victims.

bchruoychangvabridgeJapanese Bridge destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, 1973. From Getty images, entirely without permission.

Much more recently, there were rumours in the early 1970s that the government authorities were kidnapping children and burying them under the Japanese Friendship Bridge, which connects Phnom Penh to the north. The idea was that the spirits of the sacrificed children would protect the bridge from the Khmer Rouge.  The story is in the Phnom Penh Post. The person telling the story says he didn’t believe it at the time – but interesting that such a rumour should even be circulating.

6214-773181Seima stone showing the earth-goddess Torani (pronounced torr-nee). This stone is flat-faced, but the stone buried in the pits around the shrine hall is spherical. From Andy’s Cambodia.

And then of course there’s human sacrifice and monastic boundaries. When a monastery is being established or re-established, the shrine hall has to be marked off from the secular world. Eight sacred stones, called seima, are buried in pits at the eight compass points and half-points (north, south, etc). A ninth stone is buried at the centre of this space, directly in front of the main Buddha image – this one represents the god Indra, king of Meru and the gods (because good Buddhists do believe in Hindu gods). Nowadays these stones are just stones, albeit holy ones, but they are the size and shape of a human head.


If you’d like to learn more about human sacrifice around the world, with a focus on Europe and the British Isles, I recommend the blog which calls itself Bizarre History. In fact I recommend that blog for everything.

Preah Thorani the Earth Goddess

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 9.54.38 AMKeith Kelly is a Cambodia-based photographer and graphic designer. He has a website here, and a very good collection of photos here on Flickr. I found the photo of Preah Thorani, the Earth Goddess, on his Flickr stream. (He spells her name Torani, which is a bit closer to the pronunciation – she’s also called Neang Kong Heng, “Lady Princess”).

When the Buddha was on the point of attaining Enlightenment the demon Mara attacked him, claiming that he was not the true Buddha and had no right to sit on the Diamond Throne. The gods were defeated by Mara and fled, but Buddha reached a hand down to touch the ground and called on the earth to bear witness. Goddess Earth (Thorani means Earth) appeared, a beautiful bare-breasted girl with her hair full of water. She told Mara that the water was from the countless libations the Buddha had poured out in all his past incarnations, and that he was indeed the Buddha. When she wrung out her hair Mara and his entire army were swept away in the flood.

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 11.14.47 AMThorani, under various names all meaning Earth Goddess, is found from Burma to Laos to Thailand, not just Cambodia. (The Thorani water-fountain above is from Bangkok – she’s the symbol of Thailand’s Democrat Party, and also of the Bangkok Water Authority). But she’s not present in Indonesia or Malaysia, and not in India or Sri Lanka. Just those four countries. So she’s a very special earth goddess for mainland Southeast Asia.

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Once you start looking you’ll see her everywhere, wringing out her long hair while standing on or near a crocodile and/or an ornamental pool or fountain. She’s often found near a Buddha in the earth-touching pose, the gesture of calling the earth to witness – in the photo above you see Thorani on a pillar with a golden earth-touching Buddha at right-front. (The photo is from a blog called Wanderlust and Lipstick). Keith’s is at Wat Krong at Sihanoukville, and there’s a nice one inside Wat Penh (standing statue to the right-front as you look at the main altar), and a famous one outside Olympic Stadium, and even at many vihears (the central shrine-hall of a monastery), despite being not quite canonical. (She’s not quite canonical because her story doesn’t appear in the canonical Pali scriptures, only in one non-canonical text that’s found only in mainland Southeast Asia).

One final Thorani, from Prasat Banteay Thom at Angkor, as described on Andy Brouwer’s blog Andy’s Cambodia, just to show how old the goddess is. Bare-breaset Thorani stands on a lotus, destroying Mara’s army.

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