As the daily onslaught of traffic piled by on Street 178, I sat chatting with Professor Chan Sim about the mystery of chovea. This is the Khmer name for those familiar curving pointed forms seen on the roofs of traditional Khmer buildings. Also found in Thailand and Laos, in Thai the name is chofah, which roughly translates to “sky tassel”.
Mr Chan Sim is 74 years old; he has a wiry frame, quick eyes and a long silver beard. His knowledge on the subject of kbach, the traditional Cambodian ornament, as well as the architecture of Buddhist pagodas, is so broad and well respected that he still lectures at four different universities in Phnom Penh, and his books have been recognised by the Ministry of Finance.
We put the dragon on the rooftop as a symbol of protection – the dragon can both destroy and protect.
As a practitioner and consummate student of architecture, I had asked many people for the name of the sinuous spikes seen stabbing upward from the roofs of such prominent Cambodian buildings as the Royal Palace and the National Museum. I always received a perplexed look or a smile followed by, “I don’t know”, or “It has no name”, and often a description that it was something like a dragon’s tail. As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and a living arc of knowledge on Khmer history and design, Chan Sim could answer this question definitively.
The chovea is the dragon’s tail, and “when it comes to this dragon, it is a symbol of water”.
“I want to explain to you why they put this dragon on the rooftop,” he continued. “Khmer value water because it is soft and has a shape like a weapon; when there is a lot of rain, water can destroy the roof of a building. Because people drink water the dragon is also part of humans, so we put this dragon on the rooftop as a symbol of protection – the dragon can both destroy and protect.
“Its form is soft but it can kill, like a double-edged sword. This means the builder and architect must do their work carefully to protect from water. If they do not, something will be damaged. It is a very deep thought going back to people in the ancient times.”
As time clicked by Chan Sim’s knowledge flowed like the water he spoke of. When I asked about a particularly small and pointy piece of the chovea commonly seen at the bottom, I learned that it was symbolic of the dragon’s breast. This small piece of the chovea is used to hang bells from in some wats. “So when the wind blows, people know there is a pagoda in this area. At night when people lose their way, they can hear the bells and find the pagoda.”
I was further riveted to learn that the larger architectural order found in Khmer Buddhist pagodas is derived from the human body. The roof, for example, comes from the torso, the walls from the sides of the abdomen and the foundation from the hips. After the Angkor era, pagodas were usually built with three doors, metaphorically derived from the eyes, nose and mouth.
My quest to learn a little more about the chovea was a success; my curiosity had been well and truly catalysed. The manifold meanings and powerful symbolism found in traditional Khmer architecture is alive and well, and though in many cases it poses more questions than it answers, it is very much rooted in the reality of our current space and time.