cambodia, fragment

Cambodian Curses – Black Magic and Protest

I currently intend my next book-length work to be an investigation of ritual creativity and imagination in Cambodia, especially those involved with political action or social issues (this is in many ways the flipside of my current manuscript in revision, with the working title “Deathpower”).  As a result, I’m fascinated by the sudden and persistent “Black Magic” actions taken by urban land protesters (most of these cases seem associated with the Boeung Kak protesters).

Here’s a video from the Phnom Penh Post which includes a bit of video, though it doesn’t describe the ritual much more.

John Vink (his excellent photography tumblr is here) has a new set of pictures on his page relating to this. Here’s one of them.

John Vink photo of the Boeung Kak protesters’ ‘Cursing Ceremony.’

Vink has a full description on his page, and I encourage you to go check out the rest of his page: there are tons of pictures of his excellent coverage of land protests (and other issues), and he has an extremely good ipad app for sale on the itunes store called “Quest for Land” at a reasonable price.

Sahrika has a copy of an article from the Cambodia Daily newspaper which tells a similar story of another curse on June 12. Karen Coates briefly mentions a similar protest by the same group in mid-May of this year here (in one paragraph: search on the page for ‘chicken’ and you’ll find it buried in a piece on a much broader topic).

In all three cases, the material requirements resemble each other: salt, red chillies, effigies of the people to be cursed, hell money, and in two of the three cases (not Vink’s), chickens, described either as ‘rotting,’ or ‘splayed.’

A few intriguing elements, none of which I fully understand.

  • “Crucified Chickens” are the preferred gift/sacrifice to Yeay Deb (Grandmother Goddess), usually associated with Umā/Pārvatī (Shiva’s lover), occasionally (less often) with Durgā. Yeay Deb is considered by most to be a anak tā (a.w. neak ta, អ្នក​តា), or regional spirit. However, in the video above, the interviewed man (0’20 forward) says that the ritual is to ‘pray to the ārukkha-ārakkha-devatā (non-Buddhist spirits thought to be those that care for the forest) for justice. 
  • Anak Tā spirits can be involved in curses, like other ‘brahmanist’ (or simply, non-Buddhist) spirits.
  • Burning effigies is used in many rituals, including non-‘cursing’ ones, but especially in Chinese rituals, such as in many Chinese funerals, when a paper house is built and then burned in effigy after a waiting period, or in the burning of Hell Money on numerous religious holidays, etc.
  • The use of Hell Money in these cases seems to be for symbolic or visual consumption, rather than spiritual consumption: it’s stuffed into the pockets of the politician/businessmen effigies, indicating their corruption. Not the usual use of Hell Money (though there’s a really good argument about how Hell Money indicates fundamental ambivalence toward the dead).

Perhaps most interestingly is the fact that these curses are being done in public and on the side of moral right. This is extremely rare in my experience. Note that in John Vink’s pictures, some of the participants are holding up images of the Buddha, which is a very normal way of protecting oneself from the proximity of nasty, non-Buddhist spirits. You could think of it in this case like people wearing rubber gloves to handle something stinky, I suppose. The Buddha’s presence protects the protesters from the work they are doing (probably dangerous work!) with powerful but dubiously moral spirits. One spirit medium I know who is regularly possessed by Yeay Deb does in fact were full-arm rubber gloves to handle the ritual implements of her work.

I would really like to know what Khmer words these protesters are using to describe these rituals, and to interview them about how they came up with this configuration of elements. Were I able to get deeper interviews, I would want to know how many of these people regularly attend Buddhist temples, see fortunetellers or spirit mediums, whether they themselves consider these rituals as ‘street theater,’ ‘real, effective’ rituals, some combination, etc. Would they laugh nervously if I brought up Yeay Deb? If political theater, it would be interesting to compare to this ritual I wrote about a few years back – The Krung Palī ritual performed by Hun Sen’s wife and head of the Red Cross in Cambodia, Bun Rany, at Preah Vihear (Braḥ Vihāra) temple. This ritual was pretty explicitly not a curse, but was immediately seized upon by the Thai nationalist press as if it were one.

Have ideas? Please leave them in comments below!


SOUNDING on Cambodia, September 3, 2010

Holy Crap – I have almost never, in my entire museum-going life (and folks, I’m *married* to a curator, so I’ve been to a lot of museums) heard about an exhibit I want to see more than this one: “Life, Death, and Magic: 200 Years of Southeast Asian Art,” at the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra.  the description of the exhibit is as follows:

For thousands of years, across mainland and island Southeast Asia, the deification of significant ancestors and the veneration of spirits of nature have formed the basis of traditional beliefs. It has also been the impetus for the creation of splendid and extraordinary works of art in fibre, stone, metal, wood and clay—made to protect and give pleasure to the living, to honour the ancestors and to secure safe passage for the human soul between this world and the afterlife.

Life death and magic: 2000 years of Southeast Asian ancestral art provides an evocative overview of the region’s ancestral arts and culture, from prehistoric times to the twenty-first century. Beautifully designed, it is prolifically illustrated with works of art from countries and regions including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, East Timor, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia and southern China which are drawn from museums around the world and the National Gallery of Australia’s exceptional collection of Southeast Asian art.

Now, there’s no way I can raise the scratch to go see this exhibit, so I’m counting on my Australian friends to go, take photos if possible, and comment or post them somewhere.  This is astonishing looking work.  Thank Flying Spaghetti Monster they’re publishing a catalog.  Which I’ve already ordered. Massive Hat Tip to Alison of AlisoninCambodia for the notice.

NoelbyNature, the animating force behind the Southeast Asian Archaeology Blog, has some lovely notes and photos from excavations at Angkor Wat.

Hat tip to Igor Prawn for posting the nice graphic of the World’s Tallest Towers, including a space for the entirely hallucinatory and never-to-be built tower bragged about recently by PM Hun Sen.  Phnom Penh Post.

Also, Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison and torture center also called (more appropriately, S-21), rated a mention at Atlas Obscura.


Village Life is Feminine, But the Socius is Masculine – Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Seen from the village, life is feminine; one could even say that society is feminine–but it is precisely because it is only part of an encompassing whole from which meaning emanates, and this whole is masculine. If human were immortal, perhaps society could be confounded with the cosmos. Since death exists, it is necessary for society to be linked to something that is outside itself–and that it be linked socially to this exterior. Here is where men enter, charged with two functions that are their exclusive province: shamanism and warfare. In the interior of the socius, male authority can only be based on an association with women: the leader of an extended family controls daughters and gardens, feminine things he obtained through his married status. On the other hand, the power of magic and the force of the warrior exist ‘independently’ of women; they express a movement outwards from the socius, required because it is necessary to administer (in both senses of the term) death. Finally, negated or disguised in its own domain–the internal elaboration of the social fabric–affinity will be used to domesticate this founding bond, the bond with death and exteriority.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, From the enemy’s point of view. Humanity and divinity in an Amazonian Society., 190-191


What is the Krung Palii Ceremony, and Why is Bun Rany performing it at Preah Vihear? 1.2

There are a couple of posts over at KI-Media, with pictures, of Bun Rany (Hun Sen) performing the ceremony Krung Palii ក្រុង​ពលី at the site of the Preah Vihear temple.

One of those posts, refers to an originally difficult to source article supposedly from a Thai newspaper, which is supposed to accuse Cambodians of performing a ‘black-magic rite’ to curse the Thai.

The source of the article appears to be the infamously dumb and chauvinistic Nation newspaper, which claims that

Many residents in Si Sa Ket province wore yellow yesterday, ostensibly to help protect Thailand from black-magic spells cast by Khmer “wizards” who met at Preah Vihear during the solar eclipse yesterday.

Bun Rany, the wife of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, led Buddhist monks and soldiers to the ancient Hindu temple yesterday morning to call upon their ancestors to protect the temple.”The first lady called upon ancestral spirits to chase away the enemy,” Min Khin, chairman of Cambodia’s festival committee, told reporters after the ceremony.

Thai media reports said that the mysterious black-magic spells by Khmer wizards would not only protect the temple but also weaken Thailand. Some astrologers urged locals to wear yellow yesterday to deflect the spells.

Well, there’s no end to stupidity among humanity, and there are indeed a number of events happening today which could strike fear and anger in the hearts of Thai’s stupid nationalists.

First off, today is a Rahu (រាហុ) day – that is, there is an eclipse of the sun scheduled for today. It isn’t supposed to be visible in Southeast Asia, but there you go – we live in a connected world, don’t we. Rahu is a mythical being who swallows the sun, and his days are universally days of misfortune and disaster. Don’t schedule your dissertation defense on such a day! (By the way, the reason we get the sun back is because at one point, Rahu got chopped in half, so he has no stomach – the sun just pops out from his chest, where he got split in two).

Second off, the Thai are generally terrified of Khmer black magic. In many ways, this is just another example of orientalism – the attribution of voodoo magic, black magic, ontological power, to those who have been conquered. Which is not to say that the Khmer (or the Vodun practitioners, or anyone else) do not indeed practice or maybe even have such powers. The point is rather that the stereotyped exceeds the practices and importance of those rites, and attributes them to a defeated, resentful, and ontologically dangerous population.

Finally, yep – there is a ceremony, which the folks over at KI-Media are claiming is a ritual to pray for peace. Well, that’s where I fall off the boat. Sure, it’s not a ceremony promoting war, but peace? That’s a bit of a stretch.

In a book titled លំ​អាន​ទំនៀម​ខ្មែរ​បូរាណ (“Customary Khmer Practices”), a book primarily for Acaarya (អាចារ្យ), the Krung Palii ceremony is described (my translation – if there are requests, I can type the entire article in at some point):

This ceremony comes to us in two types:

A: The ceremony as it comes to us from the ancient Khmer, which is worship of the gods who have placed themselves under (the authority of) the Buddha

B: The ceremony of Buddhism, which has five types:

  1. “All the Petas” Palii (បុព្វ​បេត​ពលី) – A ceremony organized, with sweet rice and desserts, candles and incense, offered to all of those who have died;
  2. “Establishing” Palii (អតិថិ​ពលី) – A ceremony which establishes (a ritual space) and obtains (welcomes, incorporates) those who have been invited into the ceremony [In other words, a ceremony before the main ceremony]
  3. “Relatives” Palii (ញាតិ​ពលី) – A ceremony which establishes (a ritual space) and creates a connection between relatives, to make them know and recognize each other [in other words, a ceremony before the main ceremony, in cases where the ceremony is familial in nature]
  4. “King” Palii (រាជ​ពលី) – A ceremony of respect, according to the laws, habits of the nation (ប្រទេស​ជាតិ) directed to all the power of the state (រដ្ធ), giving orders (or permission)
  5. The “God” Palii (ទេវតា​ពលី) – A ceremony to the gods, for praying to the original gods (ទេចតា​ជា​ដើម).

Whatever else these ceremonies might be, they are not necessarily for peace (though they could certainly establish a ceremony in which praying for peace is the main topic). They also are not ‘black magic.’

Everyone should just get over it.

The Washington Times has a slightly better article on this, also quoting an unnamed ‘Thai group’ regarding the accusation of Khmer Black Magic.

Al Jazeera quotes from the ceremony itself:

Monks and government officials prayed at the ancient temple on Friday in the shadow of armed troops from both sides as the soldiers continued their standoff from just a few metres apart.

Thong Khon, the Cambodian tourism minister, said the 1,000 or so people had gathered “to pray to the souls of our ancestors asking for peace”, referring to Khmer kings who built the temple from the 9th to 11th centuries.

Well, that all sounds positive, and much like the “praying for peace” reported in the above articles. But,

“We also pray for success in our defence of our territory,” he added.

Ahhhh. That’s the Krung Palii I know and love!


Buddhist Magic

It has always been common among non-Asian students of Buddhism to critique the ‘superstitious’ and ‘magical’ practices of Buddhists as somehow indicative of the confused minds of primitive peoples. While there is something to the notion that Buddhism has always contained multiple strands and attitudes toward the ‘magical,’ it is far too often merely presented as a joke.

Details Are Sketchy points to the Phnom Penh Post‘s recent article in this tradition, which quotes the excellent Stephen Asma.