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In Kampong Chhnang, a village guards its spiritual guardian from government hands

Under normal circumstances, found artefacts in Cambodia are handed over to the government and taken to the National Museum. But sometimes – like in an ongoing case in Kampong Chhnang province – the desires and beliefs of villagers clash with the government’s idea of cultural preservation

The 11th-century statue behind bars.
The 11th-century statue behind bars. Sahiba Chawdhary

On the afternoon of July 4, Sok Som Oul, a 51-year-old farmer in Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Leng district, joined two children from her extended family to help herd cows – something that she rarely did. The two young girls left Som Oul to pick fruit in a field nearby, before running back screaming “Grandma! Grandma!” Som Oul followed them back to the field. There, she could make out the exposed head of what appeared to be a statue.

Som Oul ran back home to tell her family, getting on her motorbike to bring an older grandchild along with her to try to retrieve the statue. “I could not lift the artefact to load on the motorbike so I prayed to it: ‘Please be light so I can take you to the pagoda. I am just a good person’,” she recalled in a recent interview, standing outside the family home. Miraculously, she explained, after her prayer she was able to lift the statue. It was intact, except for the missing arms, and Som Oul attached it to the motorbike.

On the way back, however, the bike began sputtering and her granddaughter let slip a curse against the object weighing them down. “Suddenly the tyres were flattened,” she said, leading her to return to her prayers. “‘She is just a kid. Don’t find her guilty’,” she prayed to the statue. Her prayers were answered, she recalled, the tyres went back to normal and helped to steer the bike home.

“Why me who could find it and lift it?” she said. “I think because I and the kids have the destiny to see the artefact. But I don’t want to keep it as my belonging. It belongs to the community.”

Ren Rin (left) and Sok Som Oul (right).
Ren Rin (left) and Sok Som Oul (right). Sahiba Chawdhary

Som Oul’s incredible tale could not be independently verified, but it does fit with a pervasive belief among villagers interviewed by Post Weekend that the statue wields spiritual powers and – in its unexpected arrival – has given the village blessings and good luck.

Under the law, when an object of “cultural property” like an ancient statue is discovered, police must be notified, and they must pass it onto provincial authorities. Under normal circumstances, it would then be handed to the National Museum in Phnom Penh before being inventoried and put on display, or in storage.

Despite decades of artefact trafficking and the pillaging of much of the country’s cultural heritage during the civil war, it remains common for ancient objects to be unearthed by farmers working their fields. Only in June, two artefacts, including one statue depicting the Hindu god Shiva, were found in Takeo province in two separate cases. Both were confiscated by the Ministry of Culture and placed on display in the provincial museum.

Some compensation is usually given to the finder, but there is no set fee. Yet in many cases, villagers do not want to hand over the objects for reasons of faith and spirituality, or even out of distrust about what will happen to the precious items in government hands.

In Kampong Leng, the local pagoda where the statue was being kept was visited the day after the discovery by District Governor Som Chanthorn, and then the next day by provincial-level representatives from the Ministry of Culture. By that time, the statue, which was thought to be a Teap’rob – or sculpture depicting a female Hindu divinity – had consumed the attention of the village.

The Wat Prasat temple inside the pagoda.
The Wat Prasat temple inside the pagoda. Sahiba Chawdhary

When Ministry of Culture officials came on July 6 to seize the statue, so too did several hundred villagers, according to pagoda chief Ngoun Ngan, 77. “On that day, the conversation was very tense,” Ngan said.

“The authorities did not threaten us at all, but they asked us for thumbprints,” he explained. “No matter what, the villagers were determined not to give the authorities the artefact.”

Ngan said the reasons they wanted to keep it were twofold.

On the one hand, he said, the area is peppered with pre-Angkorian temples, including one inside the pagoda grounds, and so the statue represented the richness of the district’s history. During the Khmer Rouge period, ancient artefacts had been destroyed and disappeared. “We had only the temple left for the next generations to see. So the artefact is a representation,” Ngan said. The other reason is for its spiritual significance. “We pray for the prosperity and the well-being of this community. We believe by praying our wishes come true,” he said.

According to Erik Davis, author of Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, local residents would have a much different relationship to a found artefact than would archaeologists, historians and officials. “The object is an artifact to museums and curators and those who see through that lens,” Davis said in an email. “It is a sacred object preserved by the earth and revealed to the villagers, to them and to many other Cambodians.”

“It’s important to note the vitality of the earth in Cambodian thought, and eruptions from the earth (of statues, for instance, but also termite mounds, etc.) as a sort of interaction between people and the earth,” he said.

A courtyard view of the National Museum of Phnom Penh
A courtyard view of the National Museum of Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Another way

There is one alternative to putting an artefact in a museum in cases when a village refuses to relinquish it: proving that it has a historical or spiritual connection to the community in which it was found, and then assigning a representative as the custodian who ensures it will be properly protected if kept there.

In one case in Kandal’s Ang Snoul district in February, two centuries-old statues of the Buddha were found to have been kept at a local pagoda for years. The ministry was notified but was rebuffed when it came to take them, and the statues remain at the pagoda. In Kampong Leng, authorities were up against a pervasive distrust of government, in part stemming from prior experiences.

Ngoun Ngan, the pagoda committee chief.
Ngoun Ngan, the pagoda committee chief. Sahiba Chawdhary

According to Sok Thouk, a provincial-level Ministry of Culture official in Kampong Chhnang who inspected the statue, the villagers refused to give up the artefact in part because of a 1983 case in which five artefacts allegedly disappeared from the district office after being taken from the villagers by the authorities.

According to National Museum Director Kong Virak, exceptions to confiscation are made only when a community has a demonstrable religious, and not merely historical, connection to an object. The object is then inventoried after a written agreement is signed between the ministry and representatives to protect it.

“If they keep the artefacts themselves, that is illegal. But if the artefact has any importance to the community, it is not a must to bring it the National Museum,” Virak said, explaining he could sympathise with the villagers. “If we take away an artefact that is important to them, it is like we are destroying a piece of culture.”

However, he said there was always a risk in not keeping such heritage in a central location. Most artefacts belong to the “whole nation”, he explained, so they are usually best kept with experts who can protect them. “Not only is it valuable for tourists to visit and see, it is also to stop illegal artefact trading,” he said.

Under guard

According to provincial officials, during its visit to Kampong Leng, the Culture Ministry had attempted to collect thumbprints from those at the pagoda as part of the process of registering the artefact and assigning a custodian. Yet in the atmosphere of distrust, they said, their motivations were misread.

Vuthy Ry, who works in Thailand but is from the village.
Vuthy Ry, who works in Thailand but is from the village. Sahiba Chawdhary

“People want to keep it and said they will protect it. When we asked who would be responsible to protect the artefact, all of them raised their hands,” said Thouk, the Culture Ministry official. “Later on, when they calm down, we may take further steps.”

While the situation at the pagoda seemed calm last Friday, with no more action than a group of elderly men chatting in the courtyard, it remained clear the residents are not prepared to give in. After pooling their money together and accepting donations from outside, the statue is now already enclosed in a stupa, with two layers of steel bars in place to prevent anyone accessing it.

Construction cost $2,000, the residents said, and there is neither a door nor a key to access the object – it can only be seen by peering through the bars. In front of the stupa, the locals have even built wooden beds to sleep on, taking turns on night duty to watch out for intruders seeking to seize the priceless object.

Ngan, the pagoda chief, said since the statue’s July 4 discovery, the pagoda has seen an uptick in visitors, who come to pray to the artefact. Many even ask for water for blessings, he explained. “Those people are from this district, outside this district, from Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom, even Battambang. They know because they have relatives here who spread the word,” Ngan said. “They took the water to shower and some even pray and get cured.”

One resident, Vuthy Ry, who said he works in a garment factory in Thailand but came home to renew his passport, publishes a well-updated stream of news on Facebook about the statue and the community’s efforts to retain it. Ry said he was convinced the government will one day take it by force, and that by documenting it, people will know if it is ever swapped out with a fake.