Cambodia recently has made great strides to abandon its past economic turmoil and to achieve political stability. But it is not the economy or the government that mark the changing state of the nation. Haircuts, or lack thereof, are bearing witness to the revolutionary nature of this culture. Full-headed children may be the defining point between the past and future.
In ancient times, Khmer people usually shaved their children's heads, leaving just one tuft of hair covering a girl's crown and three tufts covering a boy's. The boys sported one top patch on top of the head, and one patch above each ear.
When the child reached its twelfth birthday, even the smallest tufts of hair were shaved away.
Parents brought out their clippers due to a strong belief that shaving a child's hair would bring good luck to the youth. This tradition is called "Kaur Chouk," which means "to shave the tufts of hair away when the child is old enough."
Reverant Dol, the respected Achar of Rusesros pagoda in Phnom Penh, is looking forward to the shaving of his granddaughter's head on 1st March 2003.
This is an auspicious date according to the religious Achar, and he hopes that "bad luck can be driven out from my grandchild after a monk performs the ritual of Kaur Chouk." He says that in the earlier days, many different people performed the Kaur Chouk. Both rich and poor families, including the royalties, shared belief in the powerful effects of a shave and a haircut. Money did prevent some poor families from shaving all of their children's heads, however. If a family could not afford to perform the ceremony for all the children, the ritual would be applied to the oldest one.
Reverant Dol explained that customarily, the ceremony would last two days and one night. Before the ceremony, parents would consult an Achar, or a priest, and ask which would be the best day to perform the ritual. The parents then would build a Bossbok, a decorated throne-like structure supported by a multi-level pedestal. The young child would sit upon the Bossbok during the ceremony. A ceremonial wooden bridge also was built from the house to the Bossbok so that the child could easily cross from one location to another. When the construction was completed, a monk blessed the child with water, followed by the relatives who also offered blessings to the child. Reverant Dol added that wealthy families or high-ranking officials often would build elaborately decorated Bossboks with 4 columns and steps like the top of a temple.
As the sun rose upon the ceremonial day, relatives would gather at the house to place the final touches on structures. As the sun reached the its midday point, a monk was invited to the house to bless the ceremony. Before receiving the monk's blessing, however, the child would don the clothes traditionally used in wedding ceremonies. Little boys then lost all of their hair, save for small spots on the top and sides of the head. The tuft of hair upon the head's crown often was tied with hairpin and decorated with flowers.
With the most momentous part of the ceremony complete, an Achar would perform a Dek Ankor Reab ritual in which the child was made to sleep on rice. To ensure the successful execution of this ritual, the elders measured the rice by handfuls according to the child's age. The grains were spread on a white cloth for the child to lie upon. The Achar then selected the trunk of a tree believed to be lucky. The bamboo tree was often employed, since it is considered to be lucky and carry longevity. A small piece of the tree was cut and chopped into eight tiny chips. It is believed that these eight chips were medicinal and would protect the child from illness. The Anchar would mix the chips with the rice, ensuring that each piece lay in different positions on the cloth. Before hiding the chips among the rice, however, the chips were placed in a set of popil, heart-shaped candleholders, and passed around 19 times. This procession involved 12 young girls who symbolized the 12 forms of maternal gratitude that Khmers believed was carried by the mother. Carrying the candles, the girls would form a ring around the child.
The popil is often used in Brahman ceremonies for good luck. According to Reverant Dol, the Deak Ankor Reab ritual was performed to express gratitude to the mother for carrying the child during her pregnancy.
The popil was passed 19 times to appease the 19 spirits and ensure that the child was safe and protected.
After the procession concluded, Achar recited sutras and prayers to give thanks and to apologize to all divinities. A golden ring was then placed on the tuft of hair, and the child is wished happiness and wealth. A razor was prayed for, with the Achar requesting that the instrument become divine.
A traditional poem was recited: "I'm shaving the child's hair for happiness and good luck for this young child. May all the bad luck leave this child and the child be happy, wealthy and healthy." After the shaving, the hair was carried to the top of a large banyan tree. Soon after, monks would bless the child and pour water over the child in a symbolic ritual of bathing. With the cleansing finished, the child was stripped of his wet, dirty clothes and dressed in a set of white garments. These signified freshness and blessedness. The old outfit was disposed of, since it was believed that bad luck could fester in the water on the clothes.
There is a growing trend to abandon the rituals of the past, but this traditional practice can still be seen in provinces like Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey. Very few people partake in the haircutting ceremony today, but some firm believers still solicit the help of Achars or monks to pray for their sick children. Superstition aside, it is such a pity just to think that interesting rituals and traditional practices such as this, are also giving way gradually to modernization.