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Blood and monkeys: the spirits of health and fortune

Blood and monkeys: the spirits of health and fortune

"THE spirit of the Neak Ta gets into his body," says a woman as she watches

the procession pass by. A man in yellow is standing on a small cart being pushed

by four others. He seems vacant. In his hand is a long sword which, from time to

time, he lifts to his mouth and cuts his own tongue. He then licks pieces of yellow

paper, staining them with his blood. People gather, clamoring for the macabre talismans.

On the side of the road, far from the crowd, the woman clasps one of the sacred yellow

papers covered with the blood of the spirit. "I will stick it on the top of

my house and keep it. It should bring me good luck and happiness for the year,"

she says, smiling.

This is the culmination of an annual ritual held 15 days after the Chinese New Year,

organized by the Chinese community of Takhmao. In every temple, spirits leave their

statue homes to inhabit the body of a local.

Vady, 50, is one of the mediums, a small, lean, muscular man. Each day he is possessed

by one of eight different spirits in turns: today, it will be the Monkey Spirit.

He smiles as he puts on his yellow trousers. Relatives and organizers gather to watch

the spirit take over Vady.

When he is composed he prays at the shrine and lights five sticks of incense. He

then sprays the incense with water from his mouth - at this moment the possession

occurs. Vady leaps about as the Hanuman spirit apparently takes him.

He acts like a monkey, jumping around, scratching his head and squeaking animal noises.

The crowd tries to satisfy all his desires - all Hanuman's desires. They look for

the right hat for him, but Vady shakes his head in disagreement. He mutters a few

words which those nearby declare is a call for coconut milk. A glassful is brought

which Vady downs in one gulp.

In front of a kneeling crowd, Vady crawls up on a bed and spits coconut milk at them.

A man limps to the side to have his bad leg massaged with coconut milk and the oil

of jasmine petals. After some brief incantations, Vady throws up two fingers and

a thumb - three - which is generally acclaimed as indicating the number of days it

will take before the man's leg is healed.

Vady is then led from his bedroom to a cart outside which will be his throne for

this procession. His wife, Chaan Ny, stays behind, and says: "All this started

in 1983. There are eight different spirits that get into his body. Each has a different

mood. Some are very strong."

"It is not easy to live with a man with the spirits. They come very often. Sometimes

twice each month and my husband is jumping like a monkey. He might get hurt. He feels

very tired and stressed out once the spirits are gone. Sometimes he has passed out

for 20 minutes or so. He gets sick too."

Chaan Ny says her husband is well-known for his cures. "Lots of sick people

come here and want his treatments. So he has to ask for the spirit to come back,"

she said, complaining that her husband does not ask for money.

"It is very difficult to live."

She explains that Vady is a simple civil servant working at the provincial department

in Tak-hmao. He does not speak or write Chinese, but as soon as the spirit returns

he can suddenly write Chinese calligraphy.

Ang Choulean, an anthropologist who has written a thesis on Neak Ta and supernatural

spirits in Cambodia, says the Takhmao procession is a Chinese tradition.

"The origin of Neak Ta is from Chinese migrants. They came by boat which sank

near Phnom Penh. That is why they take the plant roots from the banks of the main

rivers like the Mekong or the Bassac."

He says that the Chinese spirits are very different from the Khmer belief of the

Neak Ta.

"There is a military dimension in the Chinese medium which does not exist at

all in the Khmer Neak Ta, though the Khmer tradition has had an influence on the

Chinese. The Chinese tradition has adapted to the local realities."

Most of the crowd thronging around the Takhmao procession is Khmer however. "I

keep the yellow paper with the blood of the spirit in my shirt. It will protect me,"

says one believer.

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