At 7:45 a.m. Monday morning, a ceremonial drummer began beating time at the temple atop Wat Phnom to mark the departure of the angel Tungsa Devi in a mist of incense. At 8:07 a.m, the second of seven angel sisters, Koreakeak Devi, arrived on the back of a tiger, grasping a cane in her left hand and a sword in her right to usher in Khmer New Year.
The angels are daughters of Kel Moha Prom, the mythological God-king who challenged one of his students to a battle of wits, lost, and was decapitated by the rules of his own game. Each daughter, representing a different day of the week, helps ensure that her father’s severed head does not fall to the Earth.
And according to the custom, each of the angels has particular tastes to be satiated: Last year, the angel loved bananas and so devotions were paid in bananas. Another daughter prefers milk. This year, the offering was oil.
“She sits on the back of a tiger, she drinks oil, she will bring cool shade and prosperity to Cambodia,” chanted a priest over a loudspeaker at Wat Phnom. “She wishes people prosperity, nonviolence, mutual love and happiness and rain according to the seasons so that farmers can live happily and prosper.”
A gathering of brightly dressed locals, City Hall officials, security guards and a smattering of tourists mingled together on the apex of Phnom Penh’s highest religious structure for the annual celebration.
They brought bags of fruit, jasmine and lotus flowers, wads of riels and smoking streamers of incense in the customary offering to the new devada, or angel, as people briefly knelt in prayer inside the temple before stepping outside again to make way for others.
Deputy Phnom Penh governor Mak Vann Sitha emerged from the temple with a wad of money and distributed 5,000 riel notes to about 40 attendees, mostly security guards, photographers and journalists.
According to Im Borin, deputy director-general of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals, the year ahead will be a prosperous one characterized by political stability. This is his analysis of the traditional annual prediction made in a government-approved almanac.
“People still believe in the predictions…[and] this year will be a year of good results—nothing bad will happen, except that agricultural produce could be destroyed by insects,” he said.
Yet pestilence is one of only several ominous threats predicted by the almanac this year. The book forecasts low rice prices and unspecified sickness jeopardizing the population. And with the angel’s predilection for oil comes a risk of rising oil prices.
“All kinds of oil will double in price. If the state is not careful and ignores the issue of oil, people who rely on it will become furious because this year, its already high price will continue to rise,” the almanac foretells.
Across town at Wat Onaloum pagoda, families in need of a handout hunched amid the well-dressed crowds and begged, as is also the tradition. Those more well-off spent the first morning of the three-day Khmer New Year celebration making offerings to monks and receiving blessings.
Wandering among the adorned buildings, Buddhist monk Viva Avulokita, who has resided in Cambodia for the past 16 years but is originally from the U.S., said that Khmer New Year represented a cultural, not a religious event.
“It is a cultural tradition and what you see going on now in the pagoda is a blend of animism, Indian Brahmanism and Buddhism and represents the cultural adhesiveness of Cambodians, many of whom moved to the city after the Khmer Rouge era from the countryside and brought folklore with them,” he said.
But for some of the attendees at the pagoda, the promise of Khmer New Year lies firmly in reality, not mythology.
“We have come here to pray for our family to be prosperous but also for peace as we are not happy about the ongoing political deadlock and we pray that the CNRP and the CPP will put the nation before their own interests,” said 34-year-old Chan Sokeng.
Ou Socheat, 25, agreed. “People are sick and tired of political problems and we are praying the New Year will bring a solution.”
Around the eerily quiet streets of Phnom Penh, personal shrines to the New Year’s angel could be glimpsed through doorways and behind half-shuttered shop fronts. As morning ceded to afternoon, the skies darkened and soon the streets were flooded by torrential rain.
When the sun returned, 40-year-old Ouk Chandry reassembled her small shrine outside her ground-floor apartment in an alley off street 19. Alongside the usual gifts of fruit, beverages and candles were perfume, eyeshadow and other cosmetics that might suit the daughters of a God-king.
“People with more money will put lots of things on their shrines, but we are just ordinary people. We put oil, too, only because we heard the angel drinks oil,” she said.
Asked if the heavy downpour on this particular day had any significance, she smiled.
“No. It’s normal, it is early seasonal rain. That is all that it means.”
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)