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How plough brown cow? Less rain, no war

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STATELY PARADE

Prince Norodom Yuveneath is carried past the Royal Palace

THE Royal oxen weren't that thirsty. During the annual ploughing ceremony on May 14, when presented with their traditional array of food and drink, the beasts chose mainly to eat. According to astrologers, the bovines predicted a mixed fortune for the next year: no rain, but no war.

One of Cambodia's most important traditional events, the ploughing ceremony is held at the beginning of the rainy season during the lunar month of Pisak, falling in early- to mid-May. The event is meant to dedicate and forecast - through the oxen's choice of refreshments - the oncoming year's agricultural production.

Queen Monineath presided in place of King Norodom Sihanouk this year, who chose to remain in Siem Reap.

"Whenever the King is busy, a top official represents the King to plough," said ceremony organizer Chum Ngoeun, Director of the Royal Palace Conservation Department. Taking the King's place was his son Prince Norodom Yuveneath.

As Sdech Meak (King's representative), Yuveneath enjoyed a stately palanquin ride from the Palace to the square in front of the National Museum. There he paid obeisance to the Queen and to five shrines set up for the occasion.

Three teams of oxen - guided by Tao Seng Huor, Agriculture Minister; Yuveneath; and a palace official - pulled the ceremonial ploughs through three circuits of the symbolic 'rice field', flanked by colorfully-dressed courtiers. Me Huo (the Sdech Meak's wife) followed the ploughs and scattered seeds.

Then came the moment of truth: which items would tempt the bovine palate? One animal ignored the seven trays of rice, corn, soybean, sesame, wine, water and wheat offered him and ate the regular old grass growing around his feet instead. His partner ate all the corn and soybean, 30% of the rice (though armchair witnesses found that a bit high: "That cow just pushed its snout in the rice bowl once," one said), and 10% of the sesame.

"This year the production of maize and soybean is enough for domestic use and there will also be enough to export," announced the court astrologer. He added that there would be less rain, since the oxen ignored the water. Rice and sesame crops, correspondingly, will be poor.

Since the wine represents war, teetotaling oxen are a good sign. The grass represents cattle disease.

The ceremony - derived from Brahmanism, which reveres cattle - dates from the 12th-century Nokor Thom era and resembles that practiced in Thailand. Until it was abolished in the Lon Nol period, the ritual was celebrated simultaneously in the provinces across the country, Chum Ngoeun said.

He added that then-Prince Sihanouk guided the plough himself in the last pre-war ceremony, in 1968 in Svay Rieng province.

Sihanouk revived the tradition in 1994, though he has yet to plough again. The four modern Sdech Meak choices have been Loy Sim Chheang, first deputy chairman of the National Assembly, in 1994; Prince Ranariddh in 1995; Heng Samrin in 1996, and Chea Sim, chairman of the National Assembly, last year.

Chum Ngoeun said: "The predictions are like praying. It is not a scientific matter, but a belief. So sometimes it is true, sometimes is not true," he admitted. "It is a tradition... not a reality."

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