A N ancient tradition of paying obeisance to spirits is being kept alive at the Crafts Corporation next to the capital's National Museum. A familiar sight in Phnom Penh and the countryside, spirit houses - pteah tevoda in Khmer - are still made painstakingly in the traditional fashion.
For Srieng Yi, helping people placate spirits is a profession. This graduate of the Phnom Penh School of Fine Arts now teaches at his alma mater, and is also the master craftsman at the Crafts Corporation. At the Corporation, pteah tevodas are made to order for customers who wish to pray to the angels who are believed to live in them and, like the gods, control the elements.
"People wish to show gratitude to the angels who give life to people through the earth, wind, fire and water," Srieng Yi says. "They also pray to the angels to bless the spirits of their ancestors."
The Corporation gets up to two customers a week, with a large variety of needs. Clients select the size and decoration they want for their spirit house, and prices can vary tremendously. "My biggest order was for a pteah tevoda which measured 1 meter by 1.5 meters and cost $2,500," Srieng Yi reminisces. "But our smallest models, which are about 20 cm square, cost approximately $20 when painted. A $50 pteah tevoda will be rather ornate."
It takes two or three skilled craftsmen an average of one week to make a spirit house. They mix cement with sand and pour it into separate cement moulds for each part of the spirit house.
"When the moulds are removed after about one day, the parts that make up the house are left to dry in the sun for over 24 hours. Srieng Yi reckons the same mould can be used about five times.
The parts are then assembled by craftsmen using cement for the joints, a process which takes about a week, according to Yi. The spirit house is reinforced with iron rods, and the craftsmen then wait for two days before starting to paint the house, using enamel paint or car paint.
Certain families stick to their own particular style, Yi says - for example, some prefer to do away with the paint altogether. "Those that keep theirs unpainted want it to resemble Angkor Wat's purity," he says. "Sometimes we get orders from abroad. When that happens, we build the pteah tevoda from wood to make it easier to transport. The woods we use are neang nourn, beng, dourng chem, cheur teal. "
Not all craftsmen are adept at all the work that goes into the spirit houses. "Some craftsmen specialize in mixing the cement, others devote themselves exclusively to painting the pteah tevoda," Srieng Yi says, adding: "A pteah tevoda should last a family from sixty to a hundred years, just like a house."
Srieng Yi says he trains craftsmen personally. "It takes anything from six months to three years to train one person. A craftsman makes between 15,000 and 20,000 riel a month.
"I help them to know more about Khmer culture and at the same time help them to make their living." Srieng Yi himself makes 50,000 riel a month at the Corporation and also carves wooden scenes from mythology to sell at a shop nearby.
According to Srieng Yi, anybody can buy a spirit house at any time in their lives. But for people with limited financial means, he has this reassuring advice: "If you can't buy a pteah tevoda, you can still light incense sticks on the Sabbath days (the 8th and 15th of every month). And you can offer the angels flowers or what are called 'chicken egg bananas' in Khmer - a special small variety of banana offered to the gods."