The King Has Long Been Deified, His Birthday a Day of Anticipation

In the days of Indochina, the French administrators, in search of a label to describe ceremonies held on the King’s day of birth, called them birthday.

They cannot be blamed for as­sum­ing that; like for birthdays in Western countries, they were cel­eb­rating the King having aged one more year, said Ang Chou-lean, an ethnologist and historical anthropology teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

But in fact, unlike Western-style birthdays that commemorate the past, or the years a person has so far lived, the King’s day-of-birth ceremonies point toward the fu­ture, he said.

They are an occasion for people to wish their King a long and hap­py life in the years to come, Ang Chou­lean said.

Those ceremonies have always been reserved for the King, and Cam­bodians themselves have nev­er celebrated their own day of birth, he said.

However the custom of Wes-tern birthdays is now growing in the country, imported by Cam-bodians who have lived in France and the US, Ang Choulean said.

Celebrations are expected through­out Cambodia this weekend to honor King Norodom Si­ha­mo­ni, who was born May 14, 1953.

At the Royal Palace, more than 50 monks will chant for the King’s prosperity in ceremonies that will blend Buddhist and Brahman rituals, said Kang Ken, chief of the Brah­man priests whose presence at the palace can be traced back a mi­llennium to Angkorian times.

Government officials in the 24 provinces and municipalities have been asked to organize local festivities and to send their best wish­es to King Sihamoni, who ac­ced­ed to the throne less than sev­en months ago, said Chea Kean, dep­­uty secretary general for pa­lace administration.

The 24 governors have been in­vit­ed to take part in the celebrations at the palace, said

Buddhist monk Oknha Nou Vann. Sched-uled events include fireworks on Sat­urday night, Chea Kean said.

Pray­ing for the King’s well-being also means praying for the country’s welfare since both are closely linked in Cambodians’ concept of royalty.

As Cambodian writers from the 15th century through the 1930s il­lus­trated, most people never ima­gined the country’s social structure without a king, said Khing Hoc Dy, researcher at the Na­tion­al Center for Scientific Research in Paris and the author of numerous anthologies on Cambodian litera­ture.

Cambodia without a king would have been “a herd without a shepherd, unattended, and doomed,” he said.

Even today, most Cambodians see the King as one of the country’s immutable symbols.

Always deified and associated with a supernatural figure in literature, he nonetheless remained a hu­man being bound by Buddhist principles, Khing Hoc Dy said.

Generous, he had to use his wealth and sacrifice all for the good of his people; a moral man, he had to refrain from destroying life, stealing or lying; and in his ad­min­istration, he could not oppose the will of the people, he said.

More than morality was at stake in the King’s conduct, ex­plained historian Alain Forest in his 1980 book “Le Cambodge et la colonisation francaise” on the first dec­ades of French colonization in Cam­bodia.

“On his probity and moral great­ness depended people’s happiness since the harmonious rhy­thm of dry and rainy (seasons), the thriving of crops, abundance or famine, peace or war depended on them,” he wrote.

Unlike Western monarchies in which kings’ right to the throne is not related to the well-being of their people, “ensuring the permanent good of his subjects, such is the King’s reason for living which shows, in the eyes of people, his sacred nature and his legi­ti­macy.”

People believed that the King could communicate with spirits and invisible powers, and could mas­ter the elements, Forest said.

On Cambodia’s Royal Insignia, two aruna, or mythical lions, each hold a Preah Svatchat, multi-layered parasols representing the nine directions on earth and in the sky—in fact the universe—over which the King reigns, said Sum Sinoeum, plastic arts teacher at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

This symbolism has extended to holding a distinctive parasol—gold today—over the head of the King, he said.

In times of peace and prosperity, the King’s absolute authority would go unquestioned, and total obeisance seen as his due, Forest said.

But drought, floods or political crisis could weaken his position since this showed the King failing in his duties, he said. “As soon as the King no longer handed out benefits, as soon as he no longer controlled the elements, for in­stance, people who, until then, had had to trust him, could re­think their confidence in him, which was proven ill placed.”

Based on this logic, the turmoil that followed the end of the Ang­kor­ian era, as princes fought each other for the throne amidst civil un­rest, can be seen as a nearly of­fi­cial system to replace monarchs who have lost their legitimacy, For­est said.

With this system, the King as an institution remains sacred while a ruler’s claim to the throne can be questioned.

In stories featuring deplorable kings, writers of the 18th and 19th cen­turies often put the blame on pal­ace advisors for rulers’ regret­tab­le acts, Khing Hoc Dy said.

They often mention kings toppled from the throne for having lis­tened to their advisors, he said.

Even today, some Cambodians attribute to his advisors the controversial actions of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s.

Feuds over the throne faded away with the 19th century, and it is a Council of the Throne that des­ignated King Sihamoni as the country’s constitutional monarch when King Sihanouk, his father, re­tired last year.

Today, the King may reign but does not rule, as retired King Si­ha­nouk often points out, but he re­mains the special person Cam­bo­dians turn to in the last resort, bring­ing their plea for help to the pal­ace’s doors when all else has failed. The belief that the King can con­jure unseen forces still lingers among some people.

 

 

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