At the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Chom Chao commune, 21-year-old Sreang Veasna carefully brushes a coat of gold paint onto one of Cambodia’s most iconic spiritual structures: a spirit house – one of those temple-shaped shrines that adorn the fronts of houses and roadsides throughout the country.
Making these spirit houses can be good business. People from everywhere in Cambodia come to the 10 workshops in Chom Chao commune every day to look for one.
Sreang Veasna says the price of a structure varies depending on its beauty, detail and size.
The smaller shrines at his shop go for about US$100, while the biggest and most elaborate can go for around $1,500.
“The colour also brings the price up,” Sreang Veasna said. “Most people prefer the golden colour.”
The spirit houses, which people use to make daily offerings and pray to spirits, are part of a practice that has been carried out for a long time in Cambodia, according to Miech Ponn, an expert with the Mores and Customs Commission at the Phnom Penh-based Buddhist Institute.
While the worship of spirits may seem incongruent with Buddhist teachings of reincarnation, it is in fact part of a fusion of various ancient spiritual beliefs.
“People believed in spirits since before there was Hinduism or Buddhism. Now they practise them together – Buddhism, Hinduism and animism,” he said.
The spirit houses also play a role in Khmer New Year traditions, when Cambodians make offerings to welcome the angels believed to carry in the New Year.
“In Khmer New Year, people make a temporary shrine to welcome the new angel. After New Year day finishes, the shrine is removed. But people still want the angel to stay with them … That’s why they have a spirit house as a shelter for them. People burn incense sticks and candles and pray with some fruits or biscuits every holy day. They ask the angel to protect their family,” Miech Ponn explained.
In the past, spirit houses were made from bamboo or wood. While some people in the countryside still use these materials, most are now made from cement.
The traditional Cambodian style of the spirit houses is characterized by the whole bodies of two “naga” serpents wrapping around the structure like a fence, with their heads serving as the entranceway.
Next to the naga heads, two lions stand guard. A large space is left open at the front of the structure for the placement of fruits, incense sticks or candles for praying.
The shrines generally have four or 12 pillars, and the pillars and roof are adorned with the scales and head of the “garuda”, a mythical bird with origins in Hindu legends.
Despite the detail of each structure, the craft is not as difficult as it may have once been, because craftsmen use moulds to create them and then assemble the house from the moulded pieces, according to Song Heng, who owns a shop in Chom Chao.
However, Song Heng says the craftsmen who make the spirit houses cannot create any style they want.
About six years ago, Song Heng was invited to a class at the Royal University of Fine Arts organised by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, where spirit house makers were instructed to only make their structures in the traditional Cambodian style.
“We used to make them in various styles, but later on we were told to keep the Cambodian way,” Song Heng said. “The shrine styles were copied from our ancient temples. We base the design on our traditional Buddhist pagoda.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]