Former diplomat Philip J Coggan is the author of last year’s Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha and The Naga, which explores Cambodia’s hybrid Buddhist and animist belief system. This week, Coggan gave Brent Crane a rundown of the most interesting spirits he encountered during his research.
Mrieng kong veal
The shrines of the mrieng kong veal, whose name means “child-lords of the fields”, are flat-bottomed baskets hanging from bushes and tree-trunks. Wild ones are naked and live in trees and look after animals; they punish any farmer who mistreats his cows. They’re about 8 to 12 years old, the age before moral responsibility – chickens for the pot are strangled by little boys, whose karma won’t suffer, but not by adults. They’re invisible to adults, but small children often talk to them and play with them. In the city, they’re greatly in demand, because they reveal lucky lottery numbers in dreams. Buy their shrines at Old Market (they come equipped with a little bamboo dollhouse), and offer them sweets and toys and little suits of red clothes to indicate that they’re no longer wild but have a home.
Neak ta protect the village against disease, drought and flood. “Our neak ta is a strong neak ta!” an old village headman once said to me, and told how he had prayed to the neak ta to prevent the rain from falling at his daughter’s wedding, and indeed it had been so. A higher class of neak ta have care over entire provinces and regions, sometimes all of Cambodia. Seven of the most powerful have a shrine at the riverside in front of the Royal Palace, where they receive requests for help with exams, careers and business ventures, or with love. At the full moon every month, those whose prayers have been answered pay for music to be played in gratitude, because the spirits love sweet tunes.
The kings of Angkor carved tevoda on the walls of temples. They’re the self-possessed bare-breasted ladies with elaborate hairstyles and multiple bangles, and should not be confused with their cousins, the apsaras, who are celestial dancing girls. Their shrines are the little palaces on pillars outside houses, which they protect against ghosts and evil spirits. They will also listen to prayers and give blessings to those who respect them and follow religion. At Khmer New Year, the tevoda of the old year departs and her sister of the new year replaces her. The moment of the handover, calculated by the royal astrologers, is marked by a ceremony at Wat Phnom, and outside every house in Cambodia, the housewife will ensure that the shrine is clean and that proper offerings have been provided.
Every Cambodian has 19 pralung. Like Torani, they have no shrine, but watch for the red string on people’s wrists – it’s all about them. The Christian soul is immortal, but the pralung is all too feeble. Simple-minded, gullible creatures, they listen to the lies of evil spirits who tempt them off into the forest with promises of a life of ease, but where they become lost. As they slip away, one by one, their human owner becomes psychically weakened and prone to attacks of bad luck. So if, say, you’ve had a string of accidents on your motorbike or things aren’t going well at work, you should hurry to the monastery, where the monks will tie a red thread around your wrist to bind the remaining pralung in place while pleading with those who have left to return home.
Torani is the earth goddess. When the Buddha was alone and threatened by the demon-king Mara, it was Torani who came to his aid, sweeping away his demon army with the water wrung from her hair. The stricter sort of monks say she’s not real because she isn’t mentioned in the official scriptures, but ordinary people love her. She has no shrine of her own, but you can see her in monasteries, on the pedestals of the tevoda shrines, and standing on a traffic roundabout next to Olympic Stadium.