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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Jubilant crowds celebrate at hill of human sacrifice

Jubilant crowds celebrate at hill of human sacrifice

"When the prayers were finished, the crowd shouted yak oieu

three times, and then the executioner ... holding a sword, danced hesitantly around

the victim and then cut off his head with one stroke."

- Brajum Rioen Bren

Collected Old Stories, 1971The last human sacrifices at Ba Phnom, as described

above, are thought to have taken place around 1877 and were bloody offerings to the

powerful spirit of Me Sar.

For centuries the hill in Prey Veng province called Ba Phnom has served as home for the Loeng Neak Ta festival, a celebration marked by crowds that gather to appease the mighty spirit of Me Sar with offerings of food and liquor and, until the late 18th century, the severed heads of convicted criminals paraded around on spikes.

The ritual killings are part of the festival of loeng neak ta, or "raising up

the ancestor spirits". The annual festival continues to attract thousands of

people and out-does Khmer New Year as Prey Veng's biggest celebration of the year.

At this year's loeng neak ta festival, held June 17 to 19, believers offered cooked

chickens, whole roasted pigs, fruits and alcohol to the neak ta, or ancestor spirits,

but in the late 19th century the ritual was not for the squeamish.

In 1944, a 70-year-old man named Dok Than gave scholars from the Buddhist Institute

in Phnom Penh a tour of Ba Phnom, recalling for them his boyhood experience of witnessing

a human sacrifice.

He described a rowdy parade of a thousand people walking to several sacred sites

that honored various neak ta. A crowd of soldiers and locals followed a man locked

into a neck-stock, ready to be sacrificed. The victim was always a man condemned

to death for a serious crime, but he was allowed to take part in the Buddhist rituals

before his decapitation.

When they reached the site of the most powerful spirit, known as Me Sar, or White

Mother in English, the man was beheaded and the crowd fired rifles and firecrackers

into the air, triggering more shooting from the other neak ta sites around Ba Phnom.

"The people looked to see what direction the victim's blood fell," wrote

the Buddhist Institute scholars in a compilation of stories published in 1971. "If

it fell evenly, or spurted up, then rain would fall evenly over the entire district.

But if the blood fell to one side, rain would fall only on that side of the district."

"In the meantime, the victim's head was impaled and offered up to neak ta Me

Sar, and so were a hundred pieces of his flesh. Fifty pieces were impaled on a stick

and offered to neak ta sap than [spirit of everyplace] and fifty others were offered

to neak ta tuol chhnean [spirit of fishing basket mound]."

American scholar David Chandler, in a 1973 essay titled "Royally Sponsored Human

Sacrifices in Nineteenth Century Cambodia," speculated that the sacrifice Dok

Than saw might have been the 1877 killing of A Prak and A Som, two soldiers captured

during a battle against rebel prince Siwotha.

Nowadays, the site of these sacrifices is an empty field about 100 meters from a

small Chinese-style temple at the foot of Ba Phnom.

For centuries the hill in Prey Veng province called Ba Phnom has served as home for the Loeng Neak Ta festival, a celebration marked by crowds that gather to appease the mighty spirit of Me Sar with offerings of food and liquor and, until the late 18th century, the severed heads of convicted criminals paraded around on spikes.

Van Dee, a 73-year-old layman at the temple, heard about the human sacrifices from

his parents, but by then rutting buffaloes (and only those worth less than 50 riel)

were being used for the ceremony. As a boy he once followed a throng of people to

see what the fuss was about and watched a man he described as being possessed by

a spirit strutting around a buffalo and talking loudly.

Rather than cut the beast's head off, the man made a small cut to its neck with a

machete and then drank the blood from his cupped hands, Dee said. The buffalo was

killed and cooked, providing meat for an all-night party attended by people from

21 villages in the district.

Taking a break from welcoming worshippers during the loeng neak ta festival, Dee

showed the Post where the sacrifice had taken place, saying there was once a big

tree there and no roads. He also explained the myth of Me Sar in a story which links

Cambodian folklore to Hinduism and talked about another very different beheading.

Dee said a king once lived at Ba Phnom (and at least one modern historian has argued

that the hill was the ritual center of the ancient kingdom of what the Chinese called


"He sent his son [Kiriphol] to Crete to learn about fighting," Dee said.

In Crete, so the story goes, Kiriphol married a princess, the woman who would later

come to be known as Me Sar. When unrest broke out in Cambodia (which Dee likened

to the Khmer Rouge years), Kiriphol returned and won a great battle, earning for

himself the control of the kingdom.

"When the [Cambodian] king's son didn't go back to Crete, the King of Crete

was very angry and sent a wooden box" that flew magically to land at the feet

of Kiriphol, with an inscription daring him to open it, Dee said.

When he did, Kiriphol's head was magically severed and fell into the box, which then

flew back to Crete. Kiriphol's wife returned to Cambodia and ordered the head of

an elephant be cut off and placed on her husband's body, an act that revived him.

According to the legend, Me Sar and her elephant-headed husband lived out their natural

lives, becoming leaders of the local people and earning Me Sar the status of a revered

neak ta after her death.

Miech Ponn, an advisor on Khmer customs at the Buddhist Institute, pointed out the

similarity between Kiriphol and the Hindu deity Ganesh, who also has the body of

a man and the head of an elephant. Ponn explained that the worship of neak ta is

an animist tradition common across Cambodia but strongest in the area surrounding

Ba Phnom.

"Me Sar was a real person who had a lot of influence when she was still alive

and helped people a lot, and when she died she became a neak ta because her spirit

continues on," Ponn said.

He said the practice of human sacrifices was a Hindu tradition.

"But since Buddhism came and people learned about human rights, they changed

from a person to an animal," he said.

"It is the Khmer culture to believe that the neak ta spirit can eat, so people

who believe have to bring food, sweets and local wine in exchange for happiness from

the neak ta," Pann said.

One of those modern believers is Pich Chanthy. She brought a whole roasted pig to

honor the spirits of look ta (honorable grandfather) and yeay sar (white grandmother),

thought to live in two statues located in the Chinese-style temple. (Sometime after

1941, the 60 centimeter statue of Me Sar disappeared.)

Three years after getting married, Chanthy and her husband Yun Dara came to Ba Phnom

to ask for help conceiving. Now they return every year - with their 3-year-old daughter.

"Before we came here we didn't believe in the neak ta, but after we came here

the first time and asked for help in having a child and happiness, a year later we

had a child; that's why we believe."

(Translations by Vong Sokheng and Jun Soktia)



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