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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pomp and pageantry at Kathen ceremony

Pomp and pageantry at Kathen ceremony

FESTIVAL CHEER

Kathen worshippers beat drums on a boat taking them to their pagoda.

THE 74-year-old man very methodically adjusts his long sbbang the traditional sarong

of the Buddhist monk, then, as he holds his tchepo, or shirt, begins folding a piece

of saffron cloth into a small pleat. He opens it again, before wrapping it around

his torso and his neck.

Sok Boun, the head monk of Tropeang Kong pagoda, has just received Kathen, the traditional

offering of the saffron robe. He had just reinacted what Buddha did more than 2000

years ago.

Every year, for the 29 days of the last moon of the Buddhist calendar, most pagoda

families, supporters and religious associations are busy organizing the main Buddhist

ceremony of the year the Kathen.

The Kathen is the offering of ceremonial robes to the monks who have maintained the

special holiness and discipline required during the three months of the Buddhist

lent, according to Men Prang, the deputy director of the Buddhist Institute.

In the book Ceremony of the 12 Months, it is noted that Lord Buddha created the festival

after he noticed that some of his disciples were wearing dirty robes which had been

soiled by mud when they went out to beg for food.

He therefore allowed them to receive new cloths.

Today, the offering of the saffron robe is still the basis of the ceremony, but many

other forms of donation are also made, such as money.

Prang suggested that one reason for the Kathen's popularity today is that organizers

can gain merit by putting on the ceremony, so there is great enthusiasm to do it

well. "The organizer of the ceremony gains for his future life," he said.

"With the Kathen, the organizer will be handsome and rich in his next life,

and he can meet the Buddha and go to Nirvana."

The monks also gain from receiving the Kathen but their gains are more immediate.

According to the rules, those who have received the Kathen are allowed certain concessions:

- They can leave the pagoda without saying where they are going;

- They can go without the heavy blanket that they are obliged to usually wear;

- When invited to lunch, they can be told what food they will be offered;

- They're will be entitled to use the outfit of a dead monk;

- And they can ask for donations from laypeople.

For the people in charge of the logistics of the Kathen, it is often a time of sleepless

nights and worry.

The main organizer for this year's festival at Tropeang Kong Pagoda, 61-year-old

Chhour Sray, said she was happy and could finally relax, as she sat down to lunch.

Her ceremony had been a great success but not only for the pageantry. She raised

enough money to rebuild the sala the building in the centre of the Pagoda where the

monks study.

She said she could now contemplate her first good night's sleep in four months. "I

was worried I would not to be able to organize a good ceremony."

When asked what she expected to get out of her efforts she laughed and said with

a hint of embarrassment: "I hope in my next life I will have peace and progress.

I don't want war. I do not want to live among trouble again".

During the Khmer Rouge time she said she lost her husband an engineering teacher

and two of her children.

But when asked if she wanted to be reborn in Cambodia, she did not hesitate to say

yes but "at a time when it will be more peaceful".

She is not complacent that she will automatically go to Nirvana now that she had

run a successful Kathen, but she said she thought it would help.

"It depends on my karma. If I sinned before the Kathen, I hope that the merit

of it will decrease the sin," she said.

The day before the ceremony she said every organizer invited friends and family to

their house where they listened to the Tes Na the words of the Buddha conveyed by

a monk.

But on the day of the ceremony everyone met at the Pagoda. The entrance was decorated

with colorful flags that contrasted with the green of the rice paddy.

It was a joyful atmosphere, like a country fair. Local families attended as did city

folk, dressed up and looking sophisticated against the rural backrop.

But despite the differences in attire there was a real unity in the enjoyment and

festivities,the music and the plays.

Also there to enjoy the day were the food sellers who were delighted to find so many

customers.

After lunch it was time for the procession around the temple.

The organizers held the main offerings saffron robes on their heads, and walked under

the protection of big ornate umbrellas. Other offerings were carried behind them

a bed, pots, glasses and cutlery.

The procession went round the temple three times then entered the pagoda.

Seven monks sat in a line with the faithful seated in front of them. Between the

two groups were the gifts.

MAKING MERIT

An organizer of a Kathen ceremony carries her gifts of monk's robes into the pagoda.

Everyone turned to the statue of the Buddha and followed a layman in prayer. Then

they turned back and prayed in front of the monks. The gifts were pushed towards

the monks, who then blessed the people.

Meanwhile, in the back of the pagoda a group of seven men were busy with books and

pens, calculating how much was collected for their pagoda.

After many laborious calculations, the total was found to be 16,282,000 riel, 1000

baht and $552 amounts that were deemed to be very satisfactory.

According to statistics of the Ministry of Cult and Religion, $6 million is spent

every year for the Kathen festival an average of $2000 for each of Cambodia's 3,612

pagodas.

By 2:30pm the ceremony was over. Outside the rain had started.

Inside, meanwhile, the monks looked over their gifts.They checked the clothes, measured

them to be sure they were the right length, and marked them with a pen and began

discussing who would receive the robes.

Only one full set of clothes was given by the organizers, so the monks needed to

agree who would receive it. The rest of the gifts were only bits and pieces of a

monk's full regalia.

Everyone else who missed out on the new clothes would share among themselves these

pieces.

The head monk was chosen as the winning recipient, and he started to dress.

The grounds round the temple were empty, the cars had returned to Phnom Penh, the

locals to their farms, only the blue plastic chairs remain waiting for next years

ceremony.

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