At 11 minutes after seven on the evening of Friday April 13, a dragon will lead an angel riding a buffalo from heaven, bringing the Khmer New Year to Cambodia. The angel – Kemera Devi, or the Friday angel – is one of seven daughters born on seven different days to a mythical king of the gods. Each year, a different daughter ushers in each day of the New Year.
A dragon will lead Kemera Devi to Earth this year, because Khmer New Year follows the 12-animal zodiac of the lunar calendar. She will carry her father’s head around a mountain, ensuring it does not touch the earth or the sea.
The decapitation is at the centre of the myth that enlivens Khmer New Year – a myth that has been passed down from generations. It concerns a contest of wits between the king of the gods, Kabel Moha Prom, and an ingenious son of a tycoon, Thamabal, whose intelligence was so broad he could interpret the singing of birds. As the young man’s fame spread and admiration for him rose, Kabel Moha Prom grew so jealous that he decided to descend to the Earth and challenge him to a duel of wits.
He challenged Thamabal with a riddle, saying whoever came up with the best answer in seven days would win, and that the other would lose his head. Thamabal agreed.
The riddle Kabel Moha Prom asked Thamabal to answer was: “What is the happiness in the morning, at noon and in the evening?”
Thamabal spent six days wandering around the forest, but he still could not find the answer. In fear and despair, he sat under a palm tree to contemplate the king’s riddle. Luckily, Thamabal heard a pair of eagles talking to each other.
The female eagle asked, “What will we have to eat tomorrow?” The male eagle answered, “We will have the fresh flesh of Thamabal as our food. Tomorrow he will be dead, because he cannot respond to Kabel Moha Prom’s riddle.”
The female eagle nodded and asked, “Do you know the answers?”
“Of course, I do know the answers,” the male replied. “The happiness in the morning is face. So every morning, Cambodian people always wash their face. The happiness at noon is chest. So at midday, people always take water to wash their chest. Happiness in the evening is feet. In the evening or before going to bed, they always clean their legs.”
As soon as Thamabal heard the answer, he returned to Kabel Moha Prom and solved the riddle.
Kabel Moha Prom was mighty. If his head fell on Earth, the fire would burn the earth. If they threw it into the air, the water in the clouds would evaporate. If they threw it into the sea, it would dry up the oceans. To protect the world from the damage, his seven daughters were required to take care of their father’s head in turns for a year each.
In the first year, his head was given to the eldest daughter, Toungsa Devi or the Sunday angel. She respectfully kept her father’s head on the tray and proceeded among other angels around the Mount Sumeru (the legendary home of the gods) for one hour before they took it to place at the Mount Kailash, its sanctuary. Every year, each daughter went through the ritual. Because Khmer New Year falls on Friday this year, Kemera Devi takes her turn. She will ride on the buffalo and come to earth at 11 minutes past seven with sword in her right hand and the traditional Pen musical instrument in her left.
She and other angels will accompany the head of Kabel Moha Prom for its procession around Mount Sumeru for 60 minutes before they bring it back to rest at Mount Kailash. Kereney Devi, the Thursday angel, will then turn custodianship of the head to Kemera Devi before she leaves the earth.
At every house in Cambodia, people will make a shrine by placing biscuits, fruit, face powder, juice and flowers to welcome the new angel. They will light candles and incense sticks and pray for the new angel to protect them and bring them prosperity.
TVK will broadcast a live performance of Khmer New Year rituals nationally, while at every Buddhist pagoda, drums and gongs will be sounded to welcome the new angel.