from the Cambodia Daily, August 21-22, 2004
In Search of the Spirits
Vachon and Kim Chan
A pagoda layman blows smoke during a Buddhist
ceremony to call in a person's spirit.
exhibition, opening with this week at the Reyum Institute,
illustrates rituals based on "what is the most profound in
the Khmer soul," said anthropology expert Ang Choulean.
believe that a person's body is animated by 19 vital spirits
that may flee in difficult moments such as illness or
are called back during "hau pralung" ceremonies so that the
person can be whole again.
people in Southeast Asia share this belief in pralung, which
differs from the Christian notion of the soul, said Ang
Choulean, an ethnologist who teaches historical anthropology
at the Royal University of Fine Arts' Department of
Archeology. But Cambodians have developed their own
particular interpretation and rituals, he said.
A man puts the finishing touches to a likeness of a
human skeleton made from offerings or a coconut
shell, sugar palm stalks and bananas, in a ceremony
to prolong a person's life. Photos, taken in Siem
Reap province, courtesy of Ang Choulean
of pralung is so deeply rooted in the country's culture that
it has become part of daily language, said Ashley Thompson,
a specialist in Cambodian cultural history who lived in
Cambodia from 1994 to 2001.
To describe a
person who has lost conscience, people will say that "he has
lost his pralung," she said ."People tell me all the time
that my 6-month-old baby 'has pralung,' meaning that she is
added: "A very common expression for dreaming is 1 saw my
pralung go out and do [such and such a thing],' which refers
to the unconscious. But if you ask people what is a pralung,
they will say they don't know.
"It is an
abstract entity, like the unconscious. By definition, the
pralungs are undefinable, like the soul in Western culture."
exhibition consists of photos taken during hau pralung
ceremonies on various occasions such as birth, a child's
illness, puberty, a boy's Buddhist ordination, wedding, and
taken as part of a research on Cambodian traditions
conducted by Ang Choulean and his team of the former
department of culture and research at Apasara Authority,
which manages the Angkor temples. Their initial goal was to
document those rituals in Angkor Archeological Park's
exhibition catalogue written by Ang Choulean in French,
English and Khmer explains the rituals with photo
illustrations showing the passing of the popil, or
ceremonial leaf-shaped object, as well as banana and sugar
cane offerings, the making of rice balls, and other
traditional elements of hau pralung.
A person who
has lost some of his pralung oscillates between health and
sickness, Ang Choulean writes in the catalogue.
belief, this condition may occur "when spirits of the forest
lure some of the pralung out of the body and into the forest
by conjuring up false and seductive images of their domain
which is, in reality, wild and harsh."
A woman ties cotton threads around a baby's wrists
to keep his spirits, or pralung, in his body. (Right)
Friends and relatives walk through the forest, in a
ritual designed to bring back a sick person's
of a family
and how busy family members are, he said. In the case of
sickness, it will vary according to the gravity of the
illness, said Sak Kosal. Hau pralung are performed by achar
or lay pagoda officiates, and they tend to specialize, with
some doing mostly weddings and others funerals, he said.
ceremonies continue to be performed for different occasions
throughout Cambodia, although some of them such as the
"Entering the Shade" ceremony at a girl's puberty are rarely
practiced, he said.
percent of the population has kept the tradition, especially
in remote areas and villages, said Sak Kosal.
spread of scientific knowledge, more people turn to medicine
rather than hau pralung when they are sick.
the Souls" or "Hau Pralung" exhibition will open with
lectures by Ang Choulean and Thompson in Khmer on Wednesday
at 4 pm and in English on Thursday at 5:30 pm.
exhibition and book publication are supported by The Albert
Kunstadter Family Foundation and by The Friends of Khmer