Monday, March 22, 2010

Neak Ta - it's official

A Neak Ta on the cliff-edge above Anlong Veng
I find Neak Ta fascinating. You only have to see some of my previous posts on the subject to understand why. Their diversity is intriguing. And now I've found what could pass for an official explanation for this important cultural heritage in Cambodia. Whilst leafing through the books on offer at Bohr's bookshop yesterday I came across a booklet entitled Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia, produced by UNESCO and the Fine Arts Ministry in 2004. Amongst its pages, which listed classical dance, folk and popular dance, music, circus, languages, oral literature and artisan skills, was a section on oral folklore. This is what it had to say about Neak Ta.

Neak Ta and Animist Beliefs (Local Guardian Spirits)
Along with a rich oral tradition are beliefs in the natural world. Supernatural tradition has deep historical roots in Cambodia, as primitive religious elements preceded both Brahminism and Buddhism in Cambodia. In this way, animistic spirits and Buddhist deities play a part in virtually every aspect of Khmer social life.
Neak Ta are primarily local guardian spirits. The cult of Neak Ta rests in nature. Local spirits inhabit mountains, rivers, trees, rice paddies, swamps and forests; even an odd shaped tree or rock can be inhabited by a local spirit. For Khmer, they are living, watching spirits of the land. Several types of supernatural entities are believed to exist, that make themselves known by means of inexplicable sounds or happenings. They are frequently asked for protection, as some are compliant, others are merciless against those who fail to show proper respect.
There is belief in spirits, those of the dead, who are to be found in any locality and who may be hostile. Among these phenomena are khmoch (ghosts), preay and besach (malevolent spirits who have died violently, untimely and unnatural deaths), arak (evil spirits, usually female), Neak Ta (local guardian spirits, usually male), mneang pteah (guardians of the house), Meba (maternal and paternal ancestral spirits) and mrinh kongveal (elf-like guardian of animals, mainly found in tigers and naga snakes).
Khmer people often have stories of personal encounters with these spirits. The wilderness or forest has always figured prominently in numerous legends and folktales warning them of these spirit powers and the potential dangers possible. It is for that reason, that all spirits must be shown proper respect. An important way to avoid misfortune is to show respect by numerous rituals and providing fruit, food and alcohol to appease them.
Respect for Neak Ta also includes famous people that were known for protecting their village. After their death, they became worshipped as a 'commander', in which offerings are made to respect and commemorate their special powers. Well-known Neak Ta that are worshipped today include Neak Ta Krahorm Kor, Neak Ta Mesa, Yeay Mao (Sihanoukville), Dambung Dek (Battambang), Khleang Moeurng (Pursat).



Blogger Igor Prawn said...

Ang Choenlueng (or however he spells his name) put out a useful booklet through Reyum for a 2002 exhibition on neak-ta - it's on sale there. If I understand rightly, he says the neak-ta is a necessary "ancestor" binding a village to its land. There's actually a ceremony for creating them. The neak-ta at the shrines at the Riverfront are ancestors for all the Phnom Penh region, as of course is Yeay Penh herself.

I can't sort out kmout and praet (my own spellings). Praet are respectable Buddhist ghosts, from a Sanskrit root. Kmout doesn't seem to have a Sanskrit/Pali root. If I understand correctly, and purely from talking to Cambodian friends. praet are spirits in hell, and have therefore begun the next stage on the cycle of reincarnation; kmout, however, aren't yet in hell, but live on Earth, where they cause trouble. But this is the exact reverse of what the UNESCO paper is saying. All very confusing.

March 22, 2010 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

I previously posted on here a few words from Ang Choulean about Neak Ta, as I have the booklet which you mention. But I wanted to put the wording from the booklet too, as its a sort of official version. There is a stack of information about lots of other cultural heritage topics in the booklet, including some proverbs that I like. Here's 2 examples:

Small one, don't stand up so tall:
And you with the short arms, don't try to embrace the mountain.

If you do not listen to the advice of a woman, you'll not have any rice seed next year.


March 22, 2010 at 4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neak Ta is the first Khmer believe before Hinduism and Buddhism arriving in Cambodia.
Khmer people still believe in Neak Ta today as you can go to Pech Nil and see a lot of Spirit houses that Khmer people offering back to Neak Ta after they asked Neak Ta what they wanted and they got what they wanted.

March 26, 2010 at 7:24 PM  

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