Centuries ago in the chambers of Angkor Wat and Bayon temple, Brahman priests serving Angkorian kings presided over sacred ceremonies.
Descendants of the Indian priest caste who brought their religion to Cambodia centuries before Buddhism took root, the Brahmans served as mystics, clairvoyants, advisers and clergy.
They passed down their faith from one generation of men to the next, in a chain of tradition that withstood centuries of warring regimes and even the cultural destruction wreaked by the Khmer Rouge.
“Cambodia has Brahmanism in its history,” Ly Daravuth, director of Reyum Institute, explained.
“When the Indian entrance became effective, it brought in the Brahmans. Although there was Buddhism, [there] has been Brahmanism all along—the state religion and the king’s religion. Brahmanism has always been part of the Cambodian royalty,” he said.
Now, the burden of upholding that royal tradition falls on the gaunt, hunched shoulders of Kang Ken, Cambodia’s head Brahman priest and a civil servant in the Ministry of the Royal Palace.
With his tall frame wrapped in the traditional white shirt and black trousers, and his long, graying hair tied in a tight knot, Kang Ken, 55, leads seven other priests known as the Bakou Borahet, the Brahmans of the King’s court.
“They consider the Brahman the teacher for the King—the royal teacher,” Kang Ken said, sitting in an open-air performance hall inside the palace.
“The previous kings always got advice from Brahmans—they had Brahmans who could predict the future and Brahmans who played other roles. The current-day kings: Sometimes they get advice, sometimes they only get the blessing.”
The priests are conspicuous for their unusual dress: They wear only white, black and red, and are forbidden to cut their hair. Their duties include performing elaborate ceremonies: one for each month, plus the annual plowing ceremony, another ritual near Khmer New Year, one on Pchum Ben and others.
As late as the 1960s, the Brahmans were a highly visible element of palace life, said Alain Daniel, who holds a doctorate in oriental literature and civilization.
“When I was here in the ’60s, there were quite a number of the Brahman priests who performed the rites for every ceremony. At public events, they were there, using special instruments and dressed in black and white and gold…. They were completely integrated into current life in Cambodia.”
Khmer kings looked to the Brahmans to bring good fortune to the nation.
“If one year there was no rain, all of the kings of Cambodia—including King Norodom Sihanouk, and his father, King Norodom Suramrit—asked the Brahman priests to be an intermediary with the Hindu gods, so that the rain would come,” Daniel said.
Kang Ken learned his craft from his father Kang Nhien, the former head priest who was “retired” under Lon Nol after then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown.
Kang Nhien was the last Brahman to serve before the Khmer Rouge took power.
Kang Ken said his entire family was spared under the Khmer Rouge regime—even though his father refused to lie about his religious and political affiliations—a fate he attributes to divine intervention. But the records and books that held the Brahman secrets did not fare so well.
“For the Brahmans, they had responsibility for predicting about the future,” Kang Ken noted.
“But now they cannot, because all the documents and books were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime.”
In the early 1990s, Kang Ken said, retired King Norodom Sihanouk dispatched representatives to search for the remaining Brahmans and restore them to the palace. And, Kang Ken said simply, “they found my father first.”
Now Kang Ken, who was appointed in 1993, keeps the faith as best he can with his fellow priests, fostering a religion that has evolved into a uniquely Cambodian concoction that draws on Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
The Brahmans are now as much government workers as they are religious leaders, and their roles as the King’s advisers and clairvoyants are largely diminished.
In fact, Kang Ken said, he’s been drafted into office work in addition to his duties as priest.
“I have to work every day—no weekends off,” he said. “The Ministry of the Royal Palace is very strict compared to other ministries.”
The Brahmans have homes outside the palace, and unlike Buddhist monks, they are allowed to marry and have children, thereby keeping alive the practice through their family lines.
And for the Brahmans, that may be the greatest challenge of all.
Kang Ken admits that as a young man he had no desire to be a priest. Now, his three sons sound much like their father.
“Traditionally, if I retire, maybe my son will continue this position, but it is very hard currently, because the younger generation doesn’t want to wear this uniform,” Kang Ken said.
“I used to ask my sons many times to work here after I retire, but my sons have not said yes or no,” he said. “But I told them, ‘If you love your family and the King, you must work as a Brahman.’”