An ancient ceremony that, according to legend, once included 100 human sacrifices – with their executioner swiftly following in their footsteps – continues to draw crowds to a remote district of Prey Veng province for three days of prayers and offerings.
These are made to a guardian spirit believed to be capable of ensuring enough rain for rice fields, an absence of natural disasters and a general feeling of wellbeing.
Buth Bunchea, head of the religion committee in Baphnom commune, Baphon district, where the ceremony takes place, cites ancient texts to describe the effect of the legendary executions: “The last person who was about to be killed told the executioner that he would die next. After being told this, the executioner died after the ceremony for no particular reason.
“As a result, people decided to spare human lives and used buffaloes as offerings, but the same thing happened. After the 100th buffalo was killed, the butcher died.”
The modern version has switched to swine, with two pigs slaughtered and offered to the guardian spirit. The ritual’s origins are in Hinduism and animism, scholars say, noting that both belief systems continue to influence religious ceremonies here despite the fact that about 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist.
The ceremony takes place at an animist shrine, drawing everyone from farmers to government officials and business people, in the middle of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (the first three days of June this year).
Several hundred participants start with a march along a reddish-brown dirt path from Cheung Phnom village to the shrine, where the prayers and offerings are made in the second-largest such ceremony of its kind in Cambodia. The largest is in Pursat province for Klaing Moeurng, a legendary military general who sacrificed his life to journey into hell to call ghosts back to Earth to battle an invading Thai army.
The guardian spirit in Prey Veng is named Nakta Mesor. Citing documents that note its practice during the Nokor Phnom Reign (first to sixth centuries AD), Buth Bunchea says the ceremony began in the fourth century.
According to the myth, a brave and powerful general named Makariphal sacrificed his life for the nation by allowing himself to be beheaded by a foreign king intent on invasion. His wife, Nakta Mesor, subsequently searched for a human head that she could attach to his body to revive him.
She decided to behead an elephant and connect it to her husband’s body, which brought him back to life, according to the myth.
To honour Nakta Mesor’s devotion and loyalty to her husband, the emperor ordered generals and governors to bring ceremonial offerings and choose an individual to be sacrificed in her honour during a three-day festival in which she was named a guardian spirit.
Buth Bunchea said he consulted Chinese fortune-tellers to ensure that the ceremony could continue without the death of the butcher. Three fortune tellers came up with identical solutions, he said.
“They told me that the pigs that are chosen to be slaughtered have to weigh 72 or 90 kilograms because the two digits add up to nine in both cases. Money for buying the pigs has to be raised from 180 people as well, as these digits also add up to nine,” Buth Bunchea explained.
The fortune tellers told him it could take up to 100 offerings to ensure that no people died as a result of the ceremony, he said. “I hope that the new way of offering will be able to save the butcher from death so that nobody will mourn after the ceremony,” he said.
Adding a dance
The ceremony is now accompanied by a traditional folk dance that last year became officially recognised for the entire province.
Sam Nath, a teacher at Baphnom high school and a dance instructor, said that the dance was officially approved by Ministry of Culture and Fine Art on May 3, 2011.
“I created the Nakta Mesor Dance and then gathered students from the high school who were talented in art and dance. They only had one day a week for practice,” he said.
Villagers were excited to have a folk dance that expressed their local history and myths.
He said he was working hard to ensure that the dance remained part of the annual offering, and that this would require constant training of new generations so that the dance would continue to be part of the offering ceremony that began, according to legend, with 100 beheadings followed by the death of the executioner.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at [email protected]