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The temple of the thousand foreskins

The temple of the thousand foreskins

When a king became Muslim, his courtiers were compelled to follow

It is a little-known fact that a king of Cambodia converted to Islam in the seventeenth century, and forced his courtiers to follow suit. But was it for love - or political power?

According to the Cambodian court chronicles, King Ramadhipati (reigned 1642-1659), whose seat was probably Longvek, was taking a pleasure-trip on the Tonlé Sap when he saw a young Cham girl on the riverbank and fell instantly in love with her. He ordered his barge to halt at the next landing-stage, Khleang Sbek, a village inhabited by Cham and Malay peoples, and made enquiries as to her name and status.

The girl was neang Hvas, the daughter of a widow. King Ramadhipati then summoned her mother and requested that neang Hvas remain on his barge for the remainder of the day and serve him. At the end of the day, the king was so enamored of neang Hvas that he then asked her mother for her hand in marriage.

The widow called together the people of the village and consulted with them. All agreed that neang Hvas should accompany the king to the palace - and that an entourage from the village would go with her. They did not, however, insist upon the king converting to Islam before the marriage as this had led to disaster in the past. An earlier king of Cambodia had taken steps to ensure that he would not have to convert to Islam before marrying the Cham princess bau Biy Siy, asking a neak ta to spirit the princess out of her father's palace at midnight. A battle ensued in which the Cham king was killed and his lands and clients were remitted to Cambodia.

Determining that more subtle means were required, the village elders performed a series of enchantments that would make the king fall progressively more in love with neang Hvas. So effective were these that, upon reaching the capital, King Ramadhipati chose neang Hvas to be his 'queen of the left' and members of her entourage were appointed officials in charge of all Cham and Malay peoples in the kingdom.

One of the Cham entourage, a kru, then used his magical powers to convince King Ramadhipati to convert to Islam, after which he was known as 'Sultan Ibrahim.' He then summoned his courtiers from all corners of the land and announced that from that day forward, Islam would be the state religion of Cambodia, and all those who were loyal to him would convert - and undergo ritual circumcision.

Faced with a choice between conversion or suspicion of treason, the nobles capitulated, converting en masse in a ceremony facilitated by Cham and Malay religious officials. Other members of the Islamic community gathered up the hundreds of fallen foreskins, placing them in a temple, the location of which has now been forgotten. In this way, the chronicles explicitly states, power in Cambodia was temporarily given over to the Cham.

This leads us to the question: What really lay behind Ramadhipati's decision to convert to Islam? True love? Cham magic? Or perhaps more concrete, political concerns?

Ramadhipati came to power as a result of the assassination of his uncle, the ubharaja, and the suppression and execution of the latter's followers. It would be a politic move, therefore, to seek political and military support from groups marginalized by previous rulers. Interestingly, it is around this time that the principal queen (known as 'queen of the right'), whose position had been compromised by the advent of neang Hvas, converted to Catholicism. Ramadhipati was therefore able to draw upon the resources of both the Islamic (Cham and Malay) and Christian (Portuguese and Spanish mercenaries) for support, much as Angkorean kings had turned to particular Saivite or Vaishnavite sects (following the gods Shiva or Vishnu) in order to distance themselves from their rivals.

Although Ramadhipati was overthrown in 1659, the Islamic community continued to support members of the royal family. Ang Li Ksatri, daughter of Ramadhipati and Hvas, became the principal queen of her half-brother Ang Suor. When he died in 1672, the next king, Padumaraja II (her nephew), insisted she become his 'right-hand' queen. Displeased with this arrangement, Ang Li Ksatri set about organizing his assassination.

Pretending to be afflicted with an illness, she asked the king for permission for a group of her mother's retainers to be admitted to the palace so that they might prepare medicines and attend to her during the night. Once the king had retired to his chambers, Ang Li Ksatri ordered the contingent of Cham and Malay people to kill him as he slept.

Despite their potential for mischief where the Cambodian kings were concerned, Cham and Malay officials remained immured in Cambodian court affairs throughout the premodern period and into the twentieth century. Can their sustained presence be explained by recognition on the part of all subsequent Cambodian kings of Cham efficiency in settling domestic politics? Or was the thought of the secret temple that imprisoned a generation of Cambodian manhood a perpetual reminder of Cham power?


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