Cambodian spirit-flags have long fascinated me. Their functions are pretty clear – they’re to signal that something is going on, a festival or funeral or whatever. Aesthetically they’re genuine art, elegant and original. Their origins and symbolism, however, are totally obscure. This post is a summary of the best article I could find on the ‘net, a guest post by Dr Rebecca Hall on the blog Alison in Cambodia. The photos are also hers – I’ve not had much luck photographing banners, they tend to blow in the wind and they’re a long thin shape that doesn’t fit easily in a normal 2:3 photo.

image-3The Khmer word for a flag or banner is tung, and the commonest type is the tung rolok. These are the ones you see in the grounds of monasteries, usually outside the main prayer hall (the preah vihear). I’ve been told that they should always go behind the hall, never in front of it – but in Phnom Penh they’re always in front of it, never behind. The friend who told me this was quite shocked.

The tung rolok announces a festival or celebration. As the photo shows, they’re huge. The number of bamboo rods through the body indicates who’s being honoured – father, mother, monks, Buddha, the teaching, etc.

Note the overall structure of the flag: a triangular “head,” a body, and two “feet” at the bottom. Note also the dark patch of cloth at the crotch, where the genitalia would be if this were what it looks like, a humanoid figure. Note also the little triangular pennons off the main body.

image-6Next is the tung sasana, the “religion flag”. The idea of a flag for Buddhism came from an international conference in Sri Lanka in the early 1950s, and all Theravadin countries have adopted it. The colours stand for the multi-coloured rays of light that broke forth from the Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment, illuminating the entire world. They symbolise the various attributes of the Buddha; there were five rays each of a pure colour, and one of the other five mingled.

So this banner is comparatively new, but it’s become completely acculturated and is frequently seen around monasteries – and unfortunately I have no idea exactly what it’s function is.

Finally we come to the most interesting banner. Dr Hall’s informants, who were mostly abbots and achars (achars are the monastery’s experts in ritual) all told her they were called tung aphithoam. I gather that aphithoam is the Khmer pronunciation of abhidamma, which is Buddhist metaphysics. Dr Hall had been expecting to hear them called tung krapeu, meaning crocodile banner, but the abbots and achars never did. Her translators called them crocodiles, but not the experts.

image-4Here’s the tung aphithoam/tung krapeu. It looks very like the tung rolok, but it’s always white. It’s a death-banner. It’s hung outside a house where someone has recently died, and stays up for 3 to seven days, both being significant periods in the life of the new ghost.

And their function…  Dr Hall’s informants told her it’s to tell people there’s a death and funeral. The cremation takes place at the end of the seven days, with a big funeral feast.

I wonder though. In these seven days between death and cremation the ghost stays around the house, not yet aware that it’s dead. It’s invited into a new “house” (the coffin), and the word “coffin” must never be mentioned lest it be frightened. In other words, the seven days immediately after death is an extremely risky period for the ghost, and so I wonder if the flags have something to do with it – but I don’t know for sure.

And what about the crocodile? The reason Dr Hall was expecting to be told that this is a crocodile flag is that that’s the way it’s described in the scholarly Western literature. One very famous study links the crocodile to the naga, and suggests that the original earth-spirit of the Khmers, before nagas arrived from India, was the crocodile. Crocodile and naga and Preah Torani the earth-goddess all tie together, somehow, though it’s not for me to say just how. But for sure, earth-gods combine the functions of death and fertility (those patches on the groin of the tung rolok), and when I was walking around the monasteries of Phnom Penh with my friend, the one who was shocked to find banners at the front of the prayer halls, everyone we spoke to called them crocodile flags. And those little triangular pennons make the “body” look very crocodilian to my mind, though I’ve never seen them discussed.

image-7There’s a story. Once upon a legendary time there was a monk who transformed himself into a crocodile and swallowed a princess. Bad croc. The king sent his army to rescue the princess, but alas, when they cut open the belly of the beast they were too late, and beauty was dead. So they skinned the crocodile and hung its hide up at her funeral.

That particular story ties in with ritual human sacrifice traditions (it has to do with the pagoda where the princess’s funeral was held, and a requirement for sacrificial virgins), but this post is long enough already.

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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