Traditional Beliefs Flourish Around Kampot Temples

kampot province – Tey Moeun re­calls that in 1945, when Japanese forces on the brink of losing World War II turned against the French in Cam­bodia, a French helicopter hovered above the temple of Phnom Tatung near his village of Sre Prey.

After landing on top of the mountain, the crewmen rushed out, put the statue of the deity in a hole that they blocked with a stone, and left.

Whatever their reason for hiding the statue, Sre Prey villagers were con­­­vinced the French crewmen meant to weaken the power of Phnom Tatung’s spirit and prevent it from obstructing their helicopter’s flight over the temple, said Tey Moeun, 67.

The statue was never recovered, but the villagers’ faith in the temple’s powers has endured, he said.

The Phnom Tatung temple is one of a few temples in Kampot prov­ince built in caverns on top of solitary mountains surrounded by flat, agri­cultural land.

“Although we can’t date them more precisely, they were built no later than the 6th century,” said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist with Ap­sara Authority, the government agen­cy that manages Angkor Ar­che­ological Park.

This was an era when small kingdoms dominated their own regions, hundreds of years before the Kh­mer empire became a centralized and powerful nation based at Ang­kor, said Ang Choulean.

“We can see this was an important region with highly specialized craftsmen who could build these monuments,” he said.

When the small temples were built in the caverns atop Phnom Kh­yang, Phnom Ngok and Phnom Tat­ung, these limestone mountains may have constituted the only sites firmly above ground in an area of marshland prone to flooding. As Georges Olivier and Jean Mouillec men­tion in their 1968 book “Cam­bodians’ An­thro­pologies,” the level of the Gulf of Thailand rose 1 m between the first and seventh centuries.

The temples are small, square structures, each side measuring ap­proximately 3 m.

At Phnom Khyang and Phnom Ngok, they are made of brick, while at Phnom Tatung a brick roof sits on laterite walls, according to a 1996 report on Southeast Asian archeology by Bruno Bruguier.

Either Phnom Tatung’s temple was restored over time more extensively than previously believed, “or else it exemplifies a use of laterite tot­al­ly out of character with early Khmer architecture,” Bruguier wrote.

Already small, the caverns’ en­tran­ces seem to have been reduced by brickwork, as though the build­ers wanted to create places of worship separated from the outside world, Bruguier wrote.

The stalactites and stalagmites inside the caverns likely inspired the ancient Khmer to convert them into sanctuaries, Ang Choulean said.

Those cone-shaped limestone columns, created by dripping water over millennia, would have looked like natural linga to them, he said.

A linga is a phallic symbol representing the Hindu deity Shiva. But this symbol of masculinity was part of people’s ritual beliefs before Indian immigrants spread Hindu­ism in the region, Ang Choulean said. In the agri­cultural society of the time, caverns would have represented the womb and, together with the linga, sym­bolized fertility, he said.

Even though today these temples are Buddhist, oral traditions and local beliefs predating Buddhism have added to their mystique through­­out the centuries.

“An old man named Chet, who was 98 when he died last year, told me that he had heard from his parents and old people that two people named Ta Kvek and Ta Kong had spent their lives as hermits inside the cave,” said Chan Sarang of Prey Koek village, which is near Phnom Khyang. When they died, they be­came spirits and, for generations, people have gone to the temple to pay their respects, he said.

At Khmer New Year, villagers org­­anize Buddhist ceremonies at the temples, Chan Sarang said.

A custom has also developed for couples in love, whose families op­pose their marriage, to secretly go to the temple and pray to have a good life together, he said.

At Phnom Tatung, local people be­lieve that the spirit of Pich Chan, a long-gone hermit, has become the spirit of the mountain, said Sem Kim, 84, a nun who lives in the small monastery at the foot of the mountain. They also say that the spirit of a “woman with the scented hair” re­sides within the cave, she said.

Sre Prey villagers go to the temple at Khmer New Year to seek bless­­ings from the spirit of the mountain, said Sar Kem, who lives next to the mountain.

At Phnom Ngok, a hermit healer who calls himself Mahethirith Ph­kai­meas, moved inside the cavern about eight months ago. The climb proved too difficult for sick people who were seeking his help. So today, Mahethirith Phkai­m­eas, 30, continues to live in the cavern but sees the sick down be­low. About 100 people, mostly elderly women, have set up a makeshift camp next to his consulting area, with series of wooden platforms for the sick to rest.

Sem Bou, 64, a woman from Tra­paing Pring village near the mountain, has been there for about five weeks to seek treatment for arthritis and heart disease, she said.

“We just make offerings—bana­nas, incense or a little money—as thank-you gifts,” she said.

In the waiting area, people sit reverently on mats, remaining silent or softly whispering. Mahethirith Phkai­­smeas sees each one of them at a slow pace, channeling healing ener­gy towards them, gently passing his hand along their bodies or touching them lightly.

Mahethirith Phkaimeas said he has been a hermit healer since 1989. The healing energy he transmits is like an injection of medicine, he said.

While steps were built at Phnom Ngok and Phnom Tatung to give easy access to the temples, the way to Phnom Khyang temple remains a narrow trail on the hillside through the bushes followed by a steep descent into the cavern.

Since there are no religious people living at that temple who can maintain it, the Ministry of Culture hired Chan Sarang in 1999 to manage the site and look after visitors, he said.

This has involved building a sturdy ladder into the cavern and removing fruit offerings from the temple when they begin to rot, he said.

Although he was to receive about $13 per month for his job, he said he has not been paid since August 2002. Chan Sarang has kept on with his tasks whilst farming on the side. Since he lost half of his rice crop due to lack of rain this season, however, he may have to leave the area in search of work, he said.

One should remember that these cavern tem­ples are living sanctuaries, said Loran Vallier, owner of Kep guesthouse Au bout du monde, who takes small groups of tourists to the temples. Visitors should wear long pants, short sleeves or kramas over sleeveless t-shirts, he said.


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