Subdued Affair Marks Holy Buddhist Holiday

ODONG MOUNTAIN, Kandal Province – More than one thousand people gathered here Tuesday to mark the holiest day on the Buddhist calendar, Visak Bochea.

But for a ceremony that often draws upwards of 5,000 worshippers, Tuesday’s celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death remained a subdued affair, with many pointing to the lack of holy relics—stolen in December from a stupa atop the mountain—as reason some stayed away.

Cambodians celebrating Visak Bochea gather at the top of Odong Mountain in Kandal province on Tuesday. (Siv Channa)
Cambodians celebrating Visak Bochea gather at the top of Odong Mountain in Kandal province on Tuesday. (Siv Channa)

Great supreme patriarchs from both of Cambodia’s Buddhist sects conducted the ceremony after leading a few hundred monks to the foot of the mountain, where they gathered for prayers with several hundred Buddhist laypeople and common citizens.

Visak Bochea marks the first major Buddhist holiday since the 2,500-year-old relics of the Buddha were stolen from a $4.5-million mountaintop stupa commissioned by the late King Norodom Sihanouk. Since being recovered in February, they remain housed at the Royal Palace.

“Participation in this year’s ceremony is much smaller than last year,” said Nhoek Phorn, 59, a villager who lives near the mountain and attends Visak Bochea celebrations each year. “I think it’s… because the Buddha’s relics haven’t been brought back to the stupa.”

In December, five men, including four members of the Odong security team, were charged with the theft and put in pretrial detention. But just two months after the arrest, police apprehended a man with the relics in his possession and charged him with the theft.

Still, there has been little forward motion on returning the relics to their purpose-built stupa.

On Tuesday, the doors to the room where the relics were previously housed remained sealed only with two small padlocks.

Chamroeun Vantha, director of administration in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he was waiting on approval from the government for a proposed security budget that would include safer locks and doors.

“According to what I know, maybe they will not march up there with Buddha’s relics to return them to Buddha’s stupa,” he said.

“They can bring the Buddha’s relics there quietly.”

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