Once upon a time, when legends were still young and magic walked the earth, there was a very powerful God named Kapila who lived in the paradise of Brahma. One day, he decided that he would like to set a test for his disciple the Bodhisattva Thomobal (formerly an incarnation of the Buddha), and asked him to solve three parbols. If he couldn’t find the answer before seven days and seven nights, Thomobal would be decapitated. If he could solve them, then it would be Kapila’s head that would be on the block. On the sixth day Thomobal, in a state of great agitation, not yet having discovered the answers to the three parabols, happened to see two eagles talking about the enigmas. Hidden from their view, he was able to eavesdrop on the eagles’ conversation and so discovered the answers to his quest.
He immediately returned to Kapila and told him his news. On hearing this, Kanila, being a worthy and honourable God, wasted no time in arranging his own decapitation, as agreed. But if the decapitated head were to touch the ground, then the whole of the earth would start to burn uncontrolably, thrown into the air it would stop forever the rain, sunk in the ocean it would make the waters evaporate.
So Kapila called his seven daughters and advised them to take great care when receiving his head on a platter. After having told them this, he cut off his own head and gave it to his eldest daughter Tungsa.
Since then, each daughter on the last day of each lunar year has, one by one, carried the head before them on a golden platter, while walking around Mount Meru, imitating the course of the sun. Mount Meru is the mythical five peaked summit that contains the city of Brahma, home of the Gods. One sister trades places with the another on the New Year.
The daughter is escorted by a prosession of all the “Devodas”, who are the Gods and Goddesses of the sky (100,000 time million in number) all of them splendidly dressed and perfumed.
Then all together, the Gods bathe in the Anotta (one of the seven great lakes of the Himalaya) to purifiy themselves. After this, Vissakarma, the architect of Paradise, edifies the room of the Fine Law and offers it to the multitude of Devodas. All of them go inside and observe the precepts in order to be happy, prosperous, without sin and to live long. In this act, they show humans the path to purity, blessing them at the same time.
The “Horas” , the kingdom’s royal astrologists, long ago decreed that the Khmer New Year was to coincide with the Holy Pilgrimage of the Devodas at Mount Meru.
On earth, human beings also practise the rites of purification. During the three days of the New Year ceremonies, modern Cambodia still follows this ancient traditions.
Says the almanac of the Horas (written in 1910) “May everybody sweep, clean inside the boundaries of your home and all the living places. And may you. during the night hours, make preparations, light lamps. torches and incense, collect flowers and make garlands for the greeting and reception of the new Devodas.
“During the three first days of the New Year, may the husband not have knowledge of his wife. Do not kill animals that are on earth, neither the ones that are flying in the sky, nor the ones who are swimming in the waters. Do not conclude any business affairs. Do not dispute. beat, insult, curse any other person. May no one lie or say bad things about people, nor behave gruffly with his subordinates. May everybody go about their religious tasks, because it is their duty that the first seven days. of the year, especially the first three, be entirely pure. Because a year that starts well is progressing and finishing well.”
Indeed, the celebration of Chol Chnam (entering the year) is above all else, religious. In all the pagodas of the kingdom, monks and other practioners clean the temples and the statues of Buddha. With great care, they bathe them in perfumed water. The main entrance of the wats (pagodas) are decorated with garlands of flowers and coconut leaves.
In Phnom Penh., the King leads a procession, amidst the sound of blowing conchs (horns made from sea shells found in the warm waters off the Cambodian coastline) in front of the altar specially built for the occasion, outside the Throne Room
The procession comes to greet the protecting Gods of the world and the kingdom. The leader of the astrologists invokes them in Pali, an ancient Buddhist language, praying to them to accord the King, the court, the functionaries, and all the Khmer people health, happiness, peace, abundance and plenty of rain in the coming year.
Then follows the King’s bath, A big bronze vase is filled with water blessed by Buddhist monks. Then the head Baku, the brahmans (magicians) of the court, takes water out of the vase and pours it on the Sovereign and presents Him with a sea shell filled with water to wash His face and His hair. Meanwhile, the Baku recites a magical formula to ward off bad luck. Then the King splashes perfumed water on the statues of Hindu and Buddhist Gods.
The last day of the Khmer New Year celebrations, Long Sak, is considered to be the time where one steps inside the new year.
Traditionally, Princesses, Princes and functionaries of Phnom Penh used to call on His Majesty the King to wish him happiness and long life. All of them would swear allegiance to their King for many, a living God. The salutations would then be followed by horse and elephant races, fights between men and elephant races, fights between men and elephants, Khmer boxing matches and other merriments.
Outside, in pagodas, monks would also bathe in perfumed water contained in big clay jars. And the royal ceremony would be mirrored throughout society with all families enjoying their own adaptation of Long Sak and it’s rites of purification.
Everywhere in Cambodia, especially in pagodas, people would perform the ceremony of Poon Phnoms (to erect sand hills ) generally in groups of five or nine phnoms (hills). The Poon Phnoms are arranged in this formation: one in the centre, four at each point of the compass and four more between them, totaling nine.
In the same way as the Gods walk around Mount Meru, the local folk walk around their own holy mountains. En route, they deliver a handful of sand as they reach each Phnom, and thus give blessings to the Gods, and help lighten the karmic burden carried by their own souls.
During the night, the pagodas rejoice with the sound of laughing children and people all playing traditional games. By foregoing sleep, they pretend to guard the sacred hills and ward off the bad spirits and the animals which could be tempted to destroy the Phnoms.
Today, in the villages and even in the streets of Phnom Penh, the kids play Cha-ol Chhoung and Angkunh late into the evening to receive the guardian angels for the new year. The games also play a strong social role as the boys and girls meet perhaps to start a lifelong romance over a krama or an exotic fruit. In the provinces there are some local customs rarely seen in the city such as revellers throwing buckets of water over each other and dances that reflect the rural lifestyle.
One of them is the Trott dance, origination from the north-western provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang and Pursat.
Some of the dancers carry a wooden kancha covered in jingling bells, representing a tree with fruits. They hit the ground with the kancha to give the rhythm that accompanies the slow and hesitant movements of the dancers and lilting lyrics of the poem.
Two dancers tip toe through the crowd astride wooden stags, a symbol of life, chased by luckless hunters armed with bows and arrows.
The trott dance opened last December’s National Folk Dancing Festival at Angkor Wat. Minister for Culture and Fine Arts His Excellency Mr. Nouth Narang, described it as “the cosmic renovation dance par excellence that is performed during the Khmer New Year, to celebrate the end of the dry season and the beginning of the agrarian cycle.”
The message is very clear: with the New Year, the world’s rebirth and the help of the Gods, human beings, animals, and plants have another chance to reconcile and come back together to live in peace.