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Government to move artefacts to National Museum in Phnom Penh

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A man holds a stone tablet bearing inscriptions dated to the year of 633 kept at the Kiri Sdachkong pagoda in Kampong Speu province. The artefact is one of the archaelogical finds excavated two decades ago. Pha Lina

Government to move artefacts to National Museum in Phnom Penh

Committee members of the Kiri Sdachkong pagoda have agreed to the government’s request to move the stone tablets bearing inscriptions dated to the year 633 – kept on the pagoda’s grounds – to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, on a condition that “cleansing rituals” are organised prior to the transfer to “avoid any curse”.

Over two decades ago, a group of villagers were excavating a pond when they heard a sound they did not expect – the clink of their shovels on stone.

As they dug further, several slabs covered in carvings emerged. Soon they found themselves excavating the ruins of an ancient temple. The tablets were put under a hut, and for 20 years villagers worshipped them.

Little did they know they were sitting on an archaeological find that may reshape a centuries-old historical, religious and political debate – that of the actual location of the fabled “Land of Gold”, the ancient realm of
Suvarnabhumi.

In January, Dr Vong Sotheara, a professor of Cambodian and Southeast Asian history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, went to inspect the tablets.

Upon his arrival, he found that only two of the tablets remained legible; one was too faded and the other was stolen.

A day after Sotheara’s inspection of the site, officials came with the intent to move the inscriptions to the National Museum, but they were prevented from doing so.

Only after the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts and Buddhist Supreme Patriarch Non Nget made a request, visited the site a few times and agreed that the pagoda would arrange an array of sacred rituals, a decision to move the artefacts was agreed upon, said the head of the pagoda’s construction committee, Nem Samnang.

“There had been a rebuke from the people against the [transfer]. They were afraid of [ill omens]. Therefore we requested the provincial chief monk to arrange some rituals."

“We did one already to wash away all sins. The next one will be arranged to cancel the curse [which is believed to be written on the tablets],” Samnang said, adding that the date of the final procession has not been confirmed yet.

Previously, Men Sovann, the abbot of Kiri Sdachkong pagoda, said the tablets are sacred and would bring a curse to anyone who attempted to take them away from the original site.

“The man who found the tablets about 20 years ago died soon after they were pulled out of the ground,” Sovann said. A few years ago, when locals tried to move them just a few hundred metres closer to the pagoda, he continued, a long drought afflicted the commune."

The director-general of the Heritage Department at the Ministry, Prak Sovannara, reiterated that by law, the tablets are government property and must be safeguarded by the ministry.

“It is our third request. Previously, the monks and people did not agree to hand over the tablets, so we kept coming back,” he said.

Sovannara told The Post that on Sunday, a joint meeting was held with the provincial monk chief and his counterpart from the pagoda where the decision to move the tablets was finalised.

The transfer itself will not be done until the rituals have been arranged, he said.

On Friday, a clash almost broke out between the people and officials when the former had mistaken the latter as attempting to forcefully take the inscriptions away from its original site, said Pang Yorng, Svay Chachib commune police chief.

“People were worried about those attempting to steal the tablets and sell them to Thailand,” he said.

At least 10 people had taken turns to safeguard the tablets every day, he said.

“Unfortunately, people can’t keep an eye on the artefacts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Eventually, they agreed to hand them over to the National Museum.”

Explorers, researchers, theologians and politicians have long puzzled over the whereabouts of Suvarnabhumi, with references dating back to the Jataka tales of the life of the Buddha, and ancient Buddhist accounts from the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BC.

Descriptions in such sources suggest that Suvarnabhumi is in South or Southeast Asia, and variants on the term describe anything from a city to an island, and even a peninsula of gold.

However, the exact location has always remained a mystery, and the toponym is mired in controversy.