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Sisowath: the cremation of a King

Sisowath: the cremation of a King

9pm, Friday, March 11th 1928, the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh. Monsieur Le Fol, the

French Résident Supérieur of Cambodia, stood, glass in hand, to begin

his speech. It was a sombre and formal occasion, the final event of ten days of ceremonies

to commemorate the death of King Sisowath. Opposite Le Fol, along an extended dining

table, sat the newly-crowned King Monivong, flanked by the wives of high ranking

French officials. Among the other 43 guests were Phnom Penh's Mayor, Monsieur Silvestre,

Monsieur Outrey, delegate of Cambodia in the Conseil Supérieur des Colonies,

Princes Phanuvong, Sutharot, Souphanuvong, Suramarith, and longtime Minster of the

Palace, Thiounn.

"Today the soul of your august father is finally free of its terrestrial constraints",

pronounced Le Fol, with due pomposity. "His life had been dominated by three

great attachments: to his country and its people, to his son, and to France. He recognized

in France a prosperous, liberal and generous nation, and that only France's sincere

friendship and loyalty could protect Cambodia from the dangers of an uncertain future."

Raising his glass to heaven, Le Fol, the supreme colonialist, concluded triumphantly:

"to the prosperity and good fortune of Cambodia and the inseparable destiny

of our two glorious nations. "

Préah Bat Samdach Préah Sisowath, son of King Ang-Duong and Queen Peou,

entered the world in August 1840 in Bangkok, the younger brother of King Norodom.

Having spent his youth in exile in Bangkok and Saigon, he returned to Phnom Penh

and obtained the title of Obbareach (second King/designated king) in 1870. The honor

was conferred on him by Norodom in recognition of his role in crushing the so-called

Poukombo rebellion and the subsequent revolt led by Norodom's and Sisowath's third

brother Si Votha in the late 1860s. Si Votha continued to challenge his brother's

reign in the following decades. Sisowath seemed temporarily reconciled with his subordinate

position as "Vice King"; yet a longlasting peace between these quarrelsome

Royal siblings proved impossible.

Norodom and Sisowath were simply too different in character, and their political

beliefs exemplified this. Norodom had come to rely on the French protectorate to

offset his own personal unpopularity at the beginning of his reign (the result of

a punitive taxation policy on Cambodia's ricefarmers). On the other hand he resisted

French attempts to develop Cambodia as a fully-fledged colony. In contrast, Sisowath's

devotion to the French and their cause was never in doubt - so much so that the colonial

authorities could hardly wait for him to replace Norodom.

Sisowath's reign began impressively. Both Battambang and Siem Reap provinces were

retrieved from Siam, making him popular with both the peasant mass of Cambodia's

population and its emerging urban elite. He went on to found the The School of Pali,

the Cambodian School of Administration, as well as of the Royal Library, where sacred

texts and Royal chronicles were safeguarded. A devout Buddhist, he introduced a number

of administrative and judicial reforms under French guidance. However his reign was

marked by the final and total integration of Cambodia into the French Indochinese

Union, an act which inspired a deluge of Europeans seeking trade and profit. There

were clear benefits to Cambodia's economy - the French saw Sisowath's reign as one

of "complete and happy peace"; however the period was not without civil

unrest. A peasant uprising in 1916, provoked by high taxation, and repeated rebellions

of the Phnong tribes in the province of Kratie somewhat clouded his reign.

Sisowath's death was not unexpected. He had been in fragile health for some time,

and, struck down by a particularly nasty bout of dysentery in July 1927, took his

last breath on the afternoon of the 9th of August. Present were the Resident Superior

of Cambodia, members of the Council of Ministers, and the Royal family. According

to a contemporary source, "it was a bright day, no clouds, but the sky was still

dark. The sun was surrounded by three shining circles, as a symbol of veneration

in honor of His Majesty on the day when He left this world in order to enter another


The ailing king had been cared for by his favorite daughter, Princess Pindara. As

his condition worsened, he was taken to the palace and placed to rest in the chambre

d'agonie, behind the throne room. Jeanne Leuba, in her booklet "La Fin d'un

Roi Cambodgien", recounts the events that followed: In the chambre d'agonie,

the dying King was placed carefully on a bed. On his chest between folded hands,

a small gold case containing areca nut and betel leaf was perched between two candles

and incense sticks. The case was an offering to Chedei, the superior one, which the

King's soul would join in the paradise of Indra. Two atiars (ascetics) attired in

white entered the chambre d'agonie. Placing themselves on either side of the dying

King, they shouted "Buddho Arahan, Buddho Arahan" (Venerable Buddha) into

his ears, while the monks recited prayers.

At 4.00pm, August 9, 1927, King Sisowath died. His body was immediately clothed and

exhibited on a bed where Royals, ministers, and the European elite paid their last

respects. Princes and Princesses as well as the Palace staff - also in white - shaved

their heads, while other Cambodians followed the European custom of wearing black

armbands. The body was then washed with ceremonial water and perfumed by Princess

Pindara, and placed on silver leaf to be prepared for its temporary resting place

in a large copper urn.

A large effigy in gold was placed into Sisowath's mouth - a display to the living

that physical matter cannot travel with the soul of the dead, and will therefore

survive cremation. Popular belief had it that one could buy one's way into paradise:

the fact that such effigies remain thus becomes an act of generosity on the part

of Gods, who would rather leave them behind for the living.

The body was then clothed in a magnificent costume covered with gold jewelry and

precious stones. A beautiful emerald adorned the King's right index finger, while

on his left shone an enormous yellow diamond. Perfume was sprayed and incense burnt.

Flowers were laid at the foot of the bed. What followed was more unpleasant. The

corpse, by now stiff and swollen, had to be fitted into the ritual position for placement

into the large copper urn. This task was left to the krom snom. Having wrapped the

King's body, they then forced his knees to his chest. There was an enormous crack

of the bones and rumbling noises from the stomach. The body was placed in calico

tissue, his hands surrounding the golden case. It was then wrapped yet again in white

silk sheets gathered and tied in a knot above his head. But when the krom snom attempted

to place a tiara on Sisowath's head, King Monivong intervened to adorn the head himself,

just as his father had done 24 years before at King Norodom's funeral. Outside the

room, bakous (Brahmans) sounded conches, while inside Monsieur Gichard, the Protectorate's

pharmacist, saturated the body with formaldehyde and sodium chloride, applying modern

ingredients to an ancient ritual.

The period of mourning lasted seven months. The King was placed on a seven-storey

catafalque, in a white and gold room, awaiting cremation. There were no guards, no

candles, no incense. An all-encompassing tranquility within the deserted palace was

only interrupted by wailing women bringing meals for the deceased, and chanting monks.

On Friday, March 2, 1928, at 3:00 in the afternoon, Sisowath's funeral opened to

a 21-gun salute. The remains of King Sisowath were carried through the streets of

Phnom Penh, accompanied by a procession of musicians, soldiers, officers, monks and

Royals. After two hours the body arrived at the Men, a ceremonial tent situated by

the National Museum. As the deceased King lay at rest, a spectacular sight unfolded.

In deference to the King's age, 88 monks recited the Sadapakan, the seven volumes

of Buddhist scripture, Resident Le Fol came to salute the urn, while ceremonial staff

offered food for the dead King. Bakous blew conches, only to be drowned out by the

ritual chanting of the mourners. Outside of the Men, balloons were released and fireworks

displayed, followed by Royal dance performances. There were also fireworks and chanting

in the nights that followed, while a continuous stream of people paraded through

the Men to pay their respects.

The festivities ran from the 2nd until the 11th of March 1928. It was an elaborate

affair costing over half a million piastres. Nobody dared to criticize such costs

openly, yet a number of the region's French-language newspapers questioned, sotto

voce, the wisdom of such expense for what was, after all, only a funeral. Reports

provided a colorful account of these extraordinary ten days, alluding to the details

of the procession and its exotic beauty, and only betrayed by the occasional suggestion

of cultural arrogance.

Sisowath's eternal rest was disturbed for the last time on March 9 by yet another

21-gun salute, announcing the imminent lighting of the Royal funeral pyre by King

Monivong. A huge crowd of mourners watched the flames slowly consume the Royal body.

Two days later, Phnom Penh's European community joined Cambodian dignitaries and

Royals for a final dinner and ball. They had good reasons to celebrate. Sisowath's

reign had been one of relative prosperity and peace - a golden era of regal authority,

unchallenged, as yet, by internal political divisions. In mourning King Sisowath

all Cambodians were uniting in a common purpose, a common grief, in a time long past.


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