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Light is shed on 'shady' ritual

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The traditional rite of passage for young Khmer women, Chol Mlop, is losing its place in the modern world, but one Cambodian researcher hopes to change that

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Sun Chandeb has spend the past five years researching Chol Mlop, the traditional right of passage for young girls in Cambodia.

IN KHMER culture, each

important stage of the life cycle such as birth, ordination, marriage

and death are celebrated with a ceremony, or a "rite of passage".

The

little known and often misunderstood ceremony of Chol Mlop, which is

the traditional rite of passage for young girls when they reach

puberty, is on the verge of disappearance in Cambodia, says one

researcher who wants to see it remain alive in the interest of

preserving Khmer traditions.

Chol Mlop, literally meaning "entering

the shade", is a Khmer ceremony for a girl marking her first menstrual

period. After the girl is secluded in the "shade" for a specified

period of time, she is socially accepted as a nubile young woman and

therefore considered ready for marriage.

Sun Chandeb, director of

the Department of Basic Study at the Royal University of Fine Arts, has

been researching the practice of  Chol Mlop since 2004, when he

received a conservation grant worth US$1,000 from Ford Motor Co.

i really want khmer people to carry on the tradition of chol mlop.”

He says that while many would like to see the traditional version of Chol

Mlop continue in Cambodia, the restrictive nature of the ceremony and

the practicalities of modern life make this impossible.

Traditionally,

throughout Chol Mlop, a Cambodian girl was  secluded in a darkened,

curtained-off part of the house. She was forbidden to look at men and

only allowed to go outside after dark.

A typical seclusion lasted

anywhere from several months to a year, during which the girl learned

various skills that she was supposed to utilise as a wife later in life.

Sun

Chandeb says that the sacrifices of time and mobility during Chol Mlop

may explain why the tradition has become unpopular in modern Cambodia.

"[Chol

Mlop] is gradually disappearing from our society because Cambodian

people are now more occupied with working and earning money to support

themselves," he said.

"They just don't have time to follow traditional rituals anymore."

While

the origins of the tradition are unclear, Sun Chandeb says that kinship

is one of the backbones of Cambodian society and that marriage-related

activities, including seeking suitable partners, have long been one of

the central concerns in Cambodia.

While men could choose between marriage and monkhood, women had only the option of building family.

According to Sun Chandeb, this explains the strong position Chol Mlop once had in Cambodia.

Though

Chol Mlop ceased under the Khmer Rouge, its core principle has survived

through the practice of chaperoning until a girl gets married.

Furthermore,

Sun Chandeb says that Chol Mlop remains persistent in some regions of

the countryside, where urban and foreign influences remain minimal.

"Some

people think Chol Mlop no longer exists. I would disagree, because if

this traditional ceremony was completely lost, I could not do research

and write a book about it. People still practice [Chol Mlop], but only

in remote areas. That's why it is not popularly known," he said.

Persistence of tradition

Sun Chandeb says that today Chol Mlop is usually only practiced for one day to fit in with modern lifestyle.

"This adjustment is an indication that traditions evolve along with society," he said.

But

Sun Chandeb strongly believes that some people still choose to conduct

Chol Mlop because of their commitment to preserving traditions.

"Some families still [follow Chol Mlop rites] because they respect and follow their ancestors' steps," he said.

"Nothing

will happen if people stop this ceremony. No one forces it upon them.

It is their right, and I think they don't want to stop, but they can

hardly support such activity nowadays," he added.

Nonetheless, support for the preservation of this tradition remains evident.

Sun Chandeb's lecture last week on the topic of Chol Mlop was well-attended, particularly by the young crowd.

Furthermore,

Sun Chandeb hopes that through his work, interest in Chol Mlop will

become more widespread and eventually result in the preservation of

this often-misunderstood tradition.

"I usually tell my students and

people to pay attention and take care of our traditions. If we don't

take preservation measures, traditions will be lost forever and that is

very regretful for a nation," he said. "I really want Khmer people to

carry on the tradition of Chol Mlop.

Sun Chandeb has recently

written a book on the topic of Chol Mlop, titled Damneur Chivit, or The

Path of Life, focusing on the provinces of Koh Kong, Kampong Cham and

Siem Reap.

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