Urns Found at Wat Langka Receive Blessings

Decades after her mother died, Orn Bottumrasmey was finally reunited with her ashes three days ago.

Ms. Bottumrasmey, 43, is the latest person to have discovered the lost ashes of an ancestor among 464 urns unearthed from a vault below Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka pagoda in February.

Monks chant at Phnom Penh's Wat Langka pagoda Monday during a ceremony to bless urns discovered there in February. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)
Monks chant at Phnom Penh’s Wat Langka pagoda Monday during a ceremony to bless urns discovered there in February. (Jens Welding Ollgaard/The Cambodia Daily)

“I was very happy when I saw the ashes of my mother,” she said.

The reunion took place during the Pchum Ben festival, when spirits of the deceased are believed to visit their descendants. In the case of the unclaimed urns, however, the spirits remain separated from their families.

On Monday, those ashes received blessings during a ceremony at Wat Langka, led by chief monk Sao Chanthol and co-organized by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).

“I wish to appeal to the spirits of all the bodies to come to receive food during the Pchum Ben days, and if some spirits have not yet received food, please come at this time,” Sao Chanthol said during the ritual.

The half-hour ceremony was attended by the pagoda’s clergy, about 25 members of the public and at least two tourists.

“It’s important to give the blessing so the spirit can be free so they can be reborn and return to the family,” said DC-Cam director Youk Chhang, who rediscovered and excavated the urns.

Ms. Bottumrasmey’s mother passed away in 1985. One hundred days after the death, she placed her mother’s urn at the foot of the Buddha statue inside the pagoda’s main hall.

“People keep the ashes in the pagoda because this is a place where monks chant and make the spirits stay in peace. In the pagoda, the spirits are able to be reborn,” she said.

But then the urn disappeared. It had apparently joined hundreds of others in a vault below the Buddha statue, mostly neglected until its rediscovery by Mr. Chhang in February. “I was walking around and saw a hole behind the big Buddha. So then I suspected that there was a cave below this floor, so then I removed the blocks,” he said.

What he found was a dark, musty chamber a few steps underground. “It was just horrible: spiders, insects, things like that,” Mr. Chhang said.

Inside, piles of urns were strewn about, layered with dust. Some had been forged from ornate silver and bronze, others made from precious china and painted clay. Some ashes were more humbly stored, in pickling jars or wrapped in cloth.

Though some urns were labeled with a name and date of death, others were not. Mr. Chhang suspects that many were deposited in the vault before and during the Khmer Rouge era, while others were added to the collection as monks cleaned the pagoda and used the room to store valuables.

Since their excavation, DC-Cam has produced a print and online catalog of the 464 urns, photographed by Ouch Makara. Now, the urns are displayed in wooden cabinets adjacent to Wat Langka’s main hall so that families can look for their loved ones.

“And so far, we have a couple of families who found [their relatives’ urns],” Mr. Chhang said.

Ms. Bottumrasmey said she heard about the collection from a relative who recently visited Wat Langka.

“When I went inside the pagoda, I saw the ashes there along with other ashes,” she said of her mother’s urn.

“Now, I keep it next to the ashes of my father.”

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