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Ye Arak: Highland Priestess of Rattanakiri

Ye Arak: Highland Priestess of Rattanakiri

It was the end of the rainy season. The terrain rose and fell in the natural beauty

of hillsides covered with rich multicolored foliage and great tall trees.

We travelled some six kilometers before reaching the first village. It was a very

broad square with bamboo dwellings sparsely arranged around the circumference. Toward

the center of the open area a few tiny huts sat on stilts maybe thirty feet high.

Such tall dwellings were for the single men. In front of a few regular sized bamboo

dwellings stood the little huts for the single girls raised some three feet off the

ground. Every night at exactly nine, ten or eleven o'clock a young man can approach

a girl and try to charm his way into her heart. He will tell her how he has been

thinking of her for some time. How he would like to talk and know her better. Such

conversations can take place outside the hut or he may be invited in. Should he fail

at nine he can choose another at ten and so on! The highlanders have their own special

system of sexual conduct.

After a long slow decline into a river bed and then a short steep rise we had arrived.

The small circular village was filled with over a hundred people. I was introduced

to my host, Cheong Pan, grandfather to Cheong Pheav, chief magistrate of Ratanakiri,

who had brought me to the village. Pan is the village elder and at 95 years of age

he smokes continuously and drinks plenty of the Kreung wine. He makes himself busy

all the time and has been a wise advisor to his community during this century of

wars, loss and pain. In particular he spoke of how seventy five per cent of the highlander

population of Ratanakiri died between the years 1963 to 1969. First the highlanders

demonstrated against the government of Sihanouk and the Lon Nol military burnt their

villages and forced them into the forest from where they fought a war of resistance

with traditional weapons. Then following the coup d'etat of 1970 they were joined

in the resistance by the Khmer and Lao population. Together with the Khmer Rouge,

Vietnamese and Chinese they fought Lon Nol and the Americans who bombed the province

and destroyed their crops. They rejoiced in the 1975 victory only to find that they

were once again repressed, starved and murdered by the Pol Pot terror. Like many

in Cambodia the highlanders were organized as collectivized labor focused on the

production of standardized crops. To guarantee this economic reorganization every

effort was made to destroy the highlander identity. Their temples were torn down,

their gongs taken away. Their community ceremonies, their religious sacrifices and

their traditional music were seen and heard no more. Since 1979, Pan said, the population

has begun to increase once again.

The children ran around the many Arakaa trees in the village. Each had been planted

by a family when it made a great sacrifice to God or the ancestors. The trees are

protected from animals or children by a chimrung, a special Kreung design of four

stakes tied together and rising about four feet from the ground. At the top there

is a little tray pierced with tiny pointed stakes on which to put sacred rice, beter

leaf and choice sacrificial meats that are allowed to rot away.

The young men carried their new born on their backs supported by a roped papoose.

The young girls sat on the front porches of their family huts laughing and chatting

while others ground the grain or cleaned the rice rolling it round and round in big

bamboo trays. The wives emerged from the huts where they had been cooking to see

the new arrivals. Many, old men and women, young girls especially and boys too, smoked

their homemade pipes and tobacco. Blackened teeth showed when they smiled or spat

into the ground.

In the center of the village stood the temple. It is a rectangular bamboo structure

maybe fifteen feet by twenty five. There are no religious artefacts inside though

it is used for prayer. It is also a staging area for the single men on their nightly

rounds. They gather at six.

Beside the temple on the left side is a large banana tree. For the Kreung this must

be the Namva of the Banana palm. The tree is surrounded by a fence. It is a most

sacred space. It is like god, the villagers said. They do not know where god lives;

he is everywhere, but this tree is special. The children must show it respect. When

it bears fruit they can only take a banana with the permission of their parents because

it is like a medicine to treat all the people.

If someone is sick the family will pray to the tree for help. They beat their gongs

and play traditional music to call on God to listen to their prayer. When an animal

is sacrificed, there is a high stand in front of the temple on which they put the

meat so that the dogs cannot eat it. They pour the blood of the animal they have

sacrificed on the hollowed ground and on the stout trunk of the Namva tree.

About 25 feet in front of the temple there stood a newly planted Arakaa tree. A water

buffalo stood lazily nearby tied by a halter to the strong stakes of the chimrung.

On top of the chimrung there was a large tray pierced from below with five pointed

stakes. It contained no offering for the spirits. Immediately in front of the temple

there was a table with ceremonial equipment. Gongs, wooden flutes, a stick twisted

round and round with string, a white robe, little bowls containing herbs.

The priestess emerged from the temple wearing many necklaces, her head erect, her

back straight, her breasts bared unlike the younger women at the ceremony who followed

the modern custom. She wore a long sarong. Her arms were covered with bracelets made

of brass and tin. Only the old wear these now since there is no one living who knows

how to make them. The traditional civilization is no more. The highlander memory

has suffered many such looses in this century of upheaval.

Ye Arak is her priestly name. According to their custom it is only women that can

be a priest. There are ten priests for the Kreung and Tampuan of Ochum. Ye Arak attends

many villages though she is the only priest in this particular community. At one

time her name was Rang Lao. She was married and had two children. Her man died. She

could fall in love and get married again and remain a priest but she is happy to

remain single.

This is how she became a priest. When she was 32 years old she had a problem with

her heart. She was very restless and disturbed for a period of three years. Then

she had a dream. God came inside her body. God made her happy as she dreamt and she

heard traditional music. Someone was playing the wooden flute. Then she saw a flower

(a kachuk) dilating in a pond. It was wet and fresh. When she woke up she was cured

of her disease and has never had a problem with her heart since then.

She told her community of this marvellous experience. It was decided that she should

be their priestess. The whole village came together for one day and one night. They

played traditional music and the wind instruments and offered music and sacrificed

a cow.

As a priestess her main role is to have dreams and get in touch with God or the ancestors,

ghostly figures called pratt. When a child is sick the family puts a string bracelet

around that persons wrist. They then come to her and put that bracelet around her

wrist. That night she dreams. When she wakes up she will tell the family the mistake

they have made and what they must do to solve the problem.

In her dreams she often meets ancestors who are very angry. These ghostly figures

are seen just as they were when they were human and alive. If Ye Arak saw a pratt

or ghostly figure killing a buffalo and eating it, the sick person will die when

they finish eating the buffalo. At times she must face their most powerful enemy,

Aaptamuk, the source of black magic. He makes persons suffer and often transforms

into a tiger. The priestess must kill this tiger waving her special stick covered

with string back and forth against this ghost. Should Aaptamuk be cowed the sick

person will live. Then the family can make an offering of a chicken or food and the

sick person will get better. If the child gets worse then she dreams again and the

family must make an even greater sacrifice, for example of a cow and a pig, because

the ancestors are still angry. She herself never kills the sacrificial animal. Any

villager can do this.

Ye Arak strode out boldly and confronted the water buffalo. Her face was strong and

noble and her body was held high in a proud pose. She carried her string covered

stick as round and round the Arakaa tree she walked with the slightest suggestion

of dance leading her buffalo. Her eyes did not leave the sacred circle composed of

herself, the buffalo and a few men who followed her. Traditional music filled the

air. It was soft and played on the wooden flutes. Gongs of various shapes were beaten

gently making a continuous rhythm that softly called God and the ancestors to attend

their ceremony. At first the buffalo did not wish to be aroused from his lazy contemplation.

Ye Arak would turn to face the buffalo, call out something to him and wave her stick

as if to beat away any evil from this happy occasion. After a while the buffalo's

eyes flashed and his horned head moved from side to side as if to accompany the sacrificial


Today is a happy occasion. The whole community of Pan's relatives assemble once a

year to celebrate their traditions and the end of the rainy season. On such occasions

she meets the ancestors when they are happy and associate with everyone in the village.

In that dreamy nether-world the Kreung are a happy people, hunting, talking in their

huts, singing and laughing at their ceremonies. When the ancestors are happy she

knows that good things will happen. Once in a dream she saw a flower. She reached

out and picked it up. Then she saw "big water that stretched far from the eyes

and was blue". Her soul had been taken to the seaside where God was playing

the wooden flute and dancing while he stayed at a nice villa. There was lightening

in the sky. The ancestors (Aranetha in Kreung) were all happy in heaven.

Ye Arak continued her rhythmic walk and dance of enchantment around and around the

Arakaa tree for about twenty minutes. Then the small group all lined up in front

of the temple. Taking a lead from Ye Arak they prayed holding their hands together

and raising them to the heavens. They begged for all the blessings of God on their

community-a good harvest, an easy life and happiness for all the people "who

are on the earth and under the sky." They thanked the ancestors for the year

that had passed. They asked forgiveness of the buffalo to be sacrificed since it

too is part of the oneness of god, nature and the community. The traditional prayer

over, the priestess retired to the table and donned a white robe.

Two men approached the water buffalo from behind. Prepared for there sweaty task

they wore a police uniform with the shirt open in front. One held a traditional hatchet

by his side. The other carried a big round log. The great animal seemed to sense

his fate and walked away from them pulling at his halter. The buffalo moved faster

and faster round the Arakaa tree. Then the hatchet was raised and brought down heavily

cutting a great gash at the back of the of the knee on one leg. The onlookers gave

a loud cheer. The big animal fell but kept dragging itself away on the other three

legs. Again the hatchet came down cutting the other hind leg. Now the buffalo dragged

itself forward pulling with the two forelegs, pushing with the bleeding stubs behind.

His head weaved back and forth and stretching his neck backwards he struck at his

enemies. The man carrying the log moved to the left. As the buffalo struck out with

his horns on the left the other man came in close and cut the right foreleg. The

buffalo was now breathing hard though his nose and his eyes were wild with pain.

His head twisted toward his attacker but too late. Again he was taunted on the right

only to have his left leg cut at the knee cap. The buffalo fell on his belly. His

once strong legs were twisted under him or sticking out awkwardly to the side. His

head weaved back and forth. His eyes were rolled in their sockets, his nostrils were

spread wide taking in great amounts of air in anger and pain.

Suddenly he was struck on the brain with the great log. His horns caught the log

but it was released and the force merely pitched it to one side. Again the man approached

and struck the animal with the log time and again until the buffalo was dazed. The

other man who had abandoned his hatchet reached in with a long pointed knife and

stuck it in the left side when the raging head was turned away. He twisted the knife

into the heart area once before jumping away from the horns. The knife still protruded

while the man was handed another long knife. He circled to the other side. The second

man began his approach from the left side. Again the animal was clubbed on the head

with the log and then the second knife was plunged into the right side and twisted

several times.

The water buffalo seemed to loose all energy and collapse inside. His belly was spread

on the ground. His eyes closed and opened more and more slowly and were glazed over.

His nostrils were less and less extended. His head weaved but without force. He died.

I was taken to the grandfather's hut while the buffalo was being cut up and divided

out among all the community and the priestess took her share of blood to pour on

the sacred banana tree. The old man took out a special jar of rice wine prepared

for this happy occasion. We all sat around the jar and each one sipped from the bamboo

cane that reached to the bottom of the jar. Soon we were all taking and laughing.

Then the old man took some string and tied a bracelet around my right wrist and that

of his grandson. Holding our hands together he prayed for our good health and fortune

and happiness. I had become a blood brother of the Kreung. Then the meat came and

when lunch was over I went outside. The meat of the buffalo was on the raised dais

in front of the temple and the dogs searched for scraps around the sacrificial center

of the village. The head of the water buffalo was stuck on the tray that capped the

family Arakaa tree. The priestess was nowhere to be seen.


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