following is an excerpt from the beginning of a wonderful short article on spirit possession among the Cham in Cambodia by Emiko Stock, an anthropologist working with and on the Cham for over a decade now. The article deals with a host of important issues, though as a newspaper piece rather than an academic one, these are largely alluded to. Can’t wait to read more from Ms. Stock!
March 2006, Phum Phal (Kandal, Cambodia). Yiey Yah, possessed by Neang Champa So © Emiko Stock
With the greatest care, Yiey Yah places a narrow candle on her bay si with her long thin hands. The offering is made of a young banana tree trunk section and decorated with bright colours. It is now in its final shape following a long morning of preparations for the upcoming ceremony. The small-frame woman straightens her krama on her silver hair and hurries between the houses while cautiously carrying the precious gift to be placed as soon as possible in the specially built shelter. In the fading coolness of dawn, she grumbles, “We are getting late this morning. At this rate, we are going to have to leave the offerings in the paddy field in the middle of the night!” The graceful 80-year-old grandmother regularly performs in possession ceremonies, which are intended to express gratitude for the recovery of a sick person.
“People often invite me because I enjoy taking care of them [possession ceremonies] and I know how to prepare the offerings. Also, they are so much fun,” she exclaims. The widespread belief that Islam does not sit well with ritual practices guided by pragmatism more than dogma could make it quite a surprise to discover that the Cham have possession ceremonies, which have probably never been as popular as today. Even more astonishing is the incongruous bay si featured in these occasions repeatedly held throughout the year. The offering is usually not an element in ceremonies calling for Cham spirits, while it is typical in Khmer possession and other rituals. So how could the bay si prepared by small Cham hands end up in the middle of a rite meant to give thanks for the recovery of… a Cham?
Yiey Yah does not really have any answer. But with her beautiful white hand, she points to the rest of the people who have gathered. Most of the families of this tiny Cham village in the province of Kandal have come to greet over twenty Cham psychics who are progressively arriving from various, and sometimes remote, villages. The orchestra is already in place and comprises the traditional instruments of the Khmer arak (possession), as the musicians themselves are not Cham at all. Finally, the man of the day, 46-year-old San Van, comes out of his home. Gravely ill for three years, he is the one who organised the ceremony and he invites the psychics to join the dance, the orchestra to transport them with their music, and his extended family to reap the benefits of such occasion.