Cambodia’s seamless blend of Buddhism and animism is highlighted by the phallic stones that grace the sanctuaries of many local temples.
“Some are even wrapped in monastic robes,” Ang Choulean, director for the department of culture and monuments at Apsara Authority, explained Monday. “These representations blend two elements: the soil, as in the cultivated land of the village and the forest areas surrounding it; and the first human—that real or mythical ancestor—who cultivated the wild land.”
In a talk held Thursday at the Reyum Gallery near the National Museum, Ang Choulean shed light on the representations of Cambodian animism’s dominant entity, the village spirit known as Neak Ta.
Closely associated with fecundity, Neak Ta is often represented by a carved phallus or elongated stone.
But in his talk titled “People and Earth,” Ang Choulean pointed out that the spirit can be symbolized by a statue or “even a ruined pagoda.”
Illustrating this rich variety of material representations is an exhibition featuring 43 photographs taken by Ang Choulean during field work throughout the country. Photographs displayed include several of Wat Thma Doh, a temple located about 40 km south of Phnom Penh.
According to Ly Daravuth, co-director of the Reyum Gallery, the event marked the first time the gallery has hosted a lecturer. “Up until now, we’ve held painting exhibitions,” he said Monday.
Referring to the co-existence of animistic and Buddhist practices, Ang Choulean said: “They are really two complimentary belief systems. In a country where rainfall often affects the fate of an entire village, the first priority is getting enough to eat. Only then does one focus on ethical concerns—and that’s Buddhism.”
But Ang Choulean added that within the Cambodian animistic pantheon, Neak Ta holds a unique place.
“It was the only entity with a collective dimension, serving as a spirit for the entire village,” he said.