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Spirit houses enshrine pre-Buddhist beliefs

Spirit houses enshrine pre-Buddhist beliefs

Nov Lot, of Prek Takov, tends her personal Tevada in Tuol Kork

Spirit houses can be found throughout Cambodia. They range from a simple bamboo pole

colorfully decorated, to elaborate edifices costing more than $5,000. There is not

even any real consensus on who lives in them: people in each area have a different

belief. Chea Sotheacheath looks at the tradition of keeping the spirits housed and

happy.

A community's spirit house, Neak Ta, and the spirit house for an individual family,

Tevada, are nothing new. Ang Choulean, Director of the Department of Culture and

Monuments, says the practice dates back beyond Angkorean times.

Choulean said they are not Buddhist, but rather a hangover from animism. And while

the gold-painted concrete structures often seen in Phnom Penh may now be the readymade

standard, he said there are actually a huge variety of spirit houses differing in

each geographical location.

In some places, including Cambodia's ancient temples, people had made representations

of men's and women's genitals, often out of stone, for the spirits to reside in.

Sometimes the spirit houses were a lot simpler and less sensual.

Choulean said some people would just place a piece of stone under a hill or big tree

to create their Neak Ta. In the countryside a simple bamboo pole split at the top

to receive offerings and decorated with ribbons was often used.

There are corresponding differences in beliefs as to which spirits actually dwell

in Neak Ta or Tevada. In some areas it is believed they contain the spirits of the

trees or the rivers; in others they are thought to contain the spirit of Cambodia's

first farmer.

Choulean said in some country areas Neak Ta are believed to originated with a man

called Neak who was the first person to clear the jungle for farm land. The reasoning

is that anyone brave enough to risk cutting down trees and incurring the forest spirits'

wrath would have been exceptionally brave and worthy of honor. Neak lived to a venerable

age and was known as Neak Ta (grandfather).

"So that is why we have the word Ta at the end of the name of the spirit house

and a lot of the names of villages begin with the word Ta," he said.

Choulean said farmers often gather at their local Neak Ta in hard times such as drought

and hold a ceremony offering food to the spirits to bring rain and keep away disease.

He said people genuinely rely on the Neak Ta, but for himself he is less sure, but

not taking any chances. "For me, I am not superstitious. I am a researcher but

I have both Neak Ta and Tevrada houses at my house," he said.

Srieng Y, Professor of Sculpture at Faculty of Fine Arts, said Neak Ta had played

a very important role for people in the past. He said Neak Ta were often seen as

a source of advice and assistance in times of trouble.

He said they were seen as a panacea in the community, able to affect the weather,

cure illness, find lost objects and even as a form of judicial system where suspects

were required to swear an oath in front of the Neak Ta. He said people believed it

was impossible to "tell a lie in front of Neak Ta because they believed their

necks would be broken - kach koa - by its power".

A Community Neak Ta in Tuol Kork

While the Neak Ta no longer have such a wide-ranging role in the community they are

still respected and required, and have led to a thriving industry.

Tep Sophal quit his gold-smithing business to build spirit houses and is now doing

well.

"I saw that many Cambodian people retained animist beliefs and wanted to buy

the spirit houses, especially the 'His Excellencies and rich people' in Phnom Penh.

So I started the new business and it is good business," Sophal said.

But Choulean said some rich people just buy the spirit houses to place at their homes

more as an ornament than as a religious belief.

"They just buy the spirit house to beautify their homes," he said.

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