Volume 1 No.5

Place of Interest

Phrase Of The Month

Overheard

Leisure Special





The Riverfront Shrine
By: Moul Jetr. Picture by : Nathan Dexter. ( October, 2001 Volume 1 No.5 )

Twin shrines stand at the riverfront in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Facing the river from the palace gates, the shrine on the left is devoted to Neak Ta, or animist spirits. The one on the right, close to the elaborate flagpole of the Royal Palace, is a Buddhist shrine, visited by hundreds of worshippers every week. This is Preah Ang Dang-Keur, and it is a focal point of worship in the city that many travelers never stop to see. Inside the shrine, a six-armed deity looks out to the east. To most Khmers, he is known as Preah Ang Dang-Keur, although his real name is Lokeshvara. In his three left hands he carries a rosary, a message and a lotus. In his right hands, a book, a sacred sword and a flask. Whatever name he is worshipped by, prayers and offerings made to this powerful deity are believed to bring luck, speed recovery from illness, and help attract requested rewards in life such as children for newlyweds, exam success for students or a promotion for a businessman or woman.
The story behind the shrine's name and the title the god is known by is quite modern by Cambodian standards. "The park from Wat Ounalom to where the Chroy Chang Var Bridge is used to be a series of storehouses for Phnom Penh Wharf until the 1990's," Mr Som, 65, an employee for the Royal Palace said. "I was told by my father that the docks were a busy unloading place for touk pok-chai (cargo boats with palm-thatched roofs) and there were permanent crews of Vietnamese doing business there. "I do not know for sure why the place ended up with this name, but the Vietnamese called the place where they saw the King's flag flying Keur, the Vietnamese word for flagstaff." The Khmer for the King's flag is Toung Preah Moha-ksatr. "Cambodians adopted the Vietnamese name for easy reference," Mr Som said.
Preah in Khmer means highly honored, divine or ultimate and is used as a prefix of profound respect for many names, for example Preah Samma-Samput (Buddha), Preah Chann (the moon), Preah Peay (the wind) and Preah Moha-ksatr (the king). Ang is a word meaning body. The word Dang means a flagstaff or pole for hanging a lantern, so the people's name for the riverfront Lokeshvara translates as something like "the god who stays near the royal flagpole". The original shrine contained a statue of Lokeshvara thought to be old as Wat Phnom (circa 1373) but was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge after 1975. The modern shrine was only rebuilt in 1991, according to Mr Peov Srong, the current shrine's keeper and ritual organizer. "Many Khmers combine their lifestyle with worship (akum psam a'yu) as a way to communicate with the gods," Mr Srong explained. "Here, people of many different nationalities, including Europeans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and of course Khmers, come with preliminary offerings to pray for various purposes ranging from good luck for a trip or judicial case to a prosperous business.

"Basic offerings for this shrine are four _ a pair of sla thoar (ripe or green coconuts decorated with rolled betel leaves and areca nuts), a pair of candles, five incense sticks and flowers _ either a garland of jasmine or three lotus flowers. "About 100 people a day visit here, and as many as a thousand or more may come on festive or special days such as New Year or Pchum Ben _ the Festival of the Dead," he said. "When their requests are granted, worshippers return with dangvay (offerings)." Recent dangvay have included a pair of meter-high wax candles, donated by a military field officer the day before the beginning of Buddhist Lent, and a performance of traditional pinpeat music from a grateful Phnom Penh businessman. Chinese dragon and lion dancing groups have also been known to come to Lord Lokeshvara to ask for luck before a performance. Most of the Water Festival boat crews, even those who come to Phnom Penh from the provinces, also pay their respects at the shrine before they race. Local Khmer-language daily Koh Santipheap featured an article recently showing students flocking there before exams to pray for good results. Many returned soon after the exam results were posted with dangvay for the god. Mr Chuch Phoeurn, a culture expert of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, explained the implications of the offerings worshippers make. "The sla thoar is of Indian influence and represents the cycle of life, vegetation or the pot of growth; the coconut stands for the earth and its water for nutrition," he said.
"The interaction between the gods in the sky and the human beings on the earth can be symbolically linked by the light of burning candles and the smoke of joss sticks flying into the sky by means of the wind, which is an element inside the god," he said. "The lights of candles and joss sticks are also important. They represent the eight elements inside the god _ the water, the earth, fire, the wind, the moonlight, the sunlight, the sound and the soul." This is why worshippers light candles and joss sticks before kneeling in prayer to the Lord Lokeshvara, who is the Lord of the World looking down from above. His name is often used in Asia for the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. A Bodhisattva (Enlightened Being) is one who has accumulated enough merit to attain Nirvana and leave the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, but renounces it to return to earth and help ease the suffering of all humanity. This is a popular theme in Khmer art, especially in the carvings of the 12th and 13th centuries. So a humble shrine on the riverfront houses a great god of rich heritage in an ancient culture. Take a moment to visit.