Traditionally, the Khmer usually celebrate their new-year days on the 13th of April and the festival lasts for three days:
- The first day is known as Vara Maha Sankranta (វារៈមហាសង្ក្រាន្ត) in Sanskrit-the day of the Almanac. The phrase means passage of the sun or planets from one sign in the heavens to another.
- The second day is known as Vara Vanapata (វារៈវនប័ត) in Pali. The phrase means the “normal day or time”. It is an unimportant day of the festival.
- The third day is known as Vara Laung SaKa (វារៈឡើងសក្តិ) in khmer and Sanskrit.
The words describe the counting of the sequence of year or eras.
On the first day, usually the 13th of April, people of each family prepare festival paraphernalia. Those include a pair of Bay Sey1, a pair of Sla Thoa2, five incense sticks, five candles, a pair of bottles of perfume, five pieces of areca nuts, five betel leaves, drinks, traditional cultural cakes, and various kinds of fruit for greeting the New Year divinity. Each house is cleaned and at night decorated with oil lamps and colorful lantern or, in modern time with electric lights.
The preparatory festival paraphernalia and food offerings are used to satisfy the divinity that will come to power. The offerings are organized according to an ancient Khmer myth and legend known as “Samkranti Sot.” For example, if the divinity coming to power is known to consume blood offerings, each family will prepare something which symbolizes blood, like some red flowers or fruit for him/her. If another divinity is known to consume various kinds of offerings, like bean or sesame grains, they will offer him/her the real ones. The arrival of each divinity is forecast by a group of astrologers and publicized on the radio and television. Each family greets the divinity by lighting incense sticks and candles, spraying themselves or their possessions with perfume, chanting prayers, paying homage to God or to the Buddhist trinity, and listening to Pin Peat music on the radio. And at each Buddhist temple, Buddhist monks or chaplains bang the Gong.
During the first day of the New Year Festival, Buddhists (especially the older generation), traditionally attend and congregate in a particular Buddhist temple to offer food to the Buddhist monks to ensure lives of happiness and prosperity, as well as for religious merit. They also chant prayers to the Buddhist monks and build sand stupa know as “Valuka Cetiya.” As for the young, they enjoy playing traditional games, such as Angkunh, Teanh Proat, and Caol Choung.
During the second day and third day, the people enjoy different types of entertainment at the festival. They go out to resorts, attend Buddhist temple, or play traditional games.
The Story of Khmer New Year's Deva (Goddess)
The story goes that once there was a very smart boy called Dhamapala Khumar,(ធម្មបាលកុមារ-Thammabal Kumar) born to a very wealthy family. Dhampala was exceptional in that he spoke four languages, read at 7 years of age the ancient texts and canonical scriptures that monks study and spoke to the birds.
The village people loved him as he was not only clever but also kind. His father built him a beautiful temple close to the river where the birds lived and there Dhamapala would speak to the birds. But then, the king of the gods, Kapila Maha Brahma (កបិលមហាព្រហ្ម - Kabel Mahaprom), became jealous of Dhammapala and issued a challenge. He told Dhammapala that if he could not answer the questions he posed to him, he would cut his head off. But, if he could answer it, Kapila Maha Brahma will cut off his own head. The questions:Where do you find happiness in the morning? The Noontime? And, in the evening?
As Dhammapala did not know the answer, he run away to the forest. Fearing for his life, he slumped into a tree where two eagles were perched in a conversation. Dhammapala heard them talking about the question on happiness to which they gave the answer. So Dhammapala learned the answers: in the morning, you find happiness in your face; midday, you find it in your body, and at night, your feet. Dhammapala gave the god the answer and he went to the king of the gods and gave him the answer. Because it was correct, the king of the gods had his own head cut off. He then told his eldest daughter to put his head in a jeung pian and carrying this golden tray circle around the Sumeru mountain for 60minutes and then bring his head to the Kailas temple in heaven. His head cannot be thrown to the ground as this will cause fire, to the the sky as this will cause drought or to the ocean as this will dry up so the seven daughters have to take turns carrying the head. From then on, as the king of the gods cannot anymore bless his people, he sent his seven daughters as his angels to give his Khmer people blessing at the start of the new year.
Seven Daughters of Kapila Maha Brahma
Two religious rituals are performed during the second and third days of the New Year: building sand stupa and cleaning statues of the Buddha. These take place in a specific temple, for the benefit of the nation. But they are also performed at the local level on the third day of the New Year according to local schedules. The construction of sand stupa is commonly known as the building of sand mountains. Sand is collected, and then piled up to form a mountain facing toward the east in the middle of the temple. They symbolize the stupa where in the Buddhist’s head, diadem, and tooth are buried. The people in some regions in Cambodia build mountains of rice instead of sand in their main temple building. Height and size vary in both cases. Among the many mountains of sand and rice constructed during the ritual, there are four which are situated to the North, East, South and West of the big one in the middle. And around those mountains, the square bamboo fence known as Raja Wat lies with four directions. This is built and decorated with palm fronds. Outside of the square bamboo fence, eight spirit houses are situated pointing in eight different directions. Inside each spirit house can be found one pair of Sla Thoa, one pair of Bay Sey, five candles, five sticks of incense, some popcorn, and some stupa, and some flowers. In front of the sand stupa, three big altars can be found outside the square bamboo fence. The one in the middle is for evil or Satan known as Yama Raja (God of justice and the Underworld) in Sanskrit and khmer. Another one on the left of Yama Raja is for the Buddha; and another on the right is for the God of Angelic Architects. Alongside the spirit houses around the square bamboo fence, there are altars on which offerings are also made to the gods. In addition to these, on each altar there are nineteen- class Bay Sey, Costumes, and food offerings.
On the first day of the ritual, in the afternoon, both male and female votaries of religion congregate at the ceremony. A chaplain invokes and offers a prayer to the Buddhist trinity and divinities, and asks for a blessing for happiness and prosperity. After that, the chaplain ritualizes chants incantations and walks around the boundary maker, sometimes with a string of thread to protect the spot from destruction. This action, combined with the chanting of incantations is known as Piti Poat Sima. During the ritual at which flowers are offered and incense sticks lighted, colorful paper standards are consecrated to the sand stupa.
Next, the chaplain offers a prayer and announcing determination to the sand mountains for the symbols of the stupa of the Buddha’s hair, sacred canine tooth. During this act, he puts pieces of a half-meter-length white cloth across each sand mountain. This is commonly known as “Bambous Phnum” in Khmer, or “ordaining the mountain.” At the same time, Buddhist monks commence offering a protective prayer in the chapel of Dharma. Here, the long thread is connected to the sand mountains. It is also noteworthy that nobody is permitted to walk over, deform, or demolish the finished sand mountains before they have been officially deconsecrated. If somebody does that, it is considered a sin. At the foot of the sand mountains representing the Buddha’s hair and sacred canine tooth, the chaplain offers further prayers and apologies to God, the divinity, and Yama (God of Justice and the Underworld). He asks to be permitted to cancel the sins committed by his congregation during the previous year, and for the future happiness and prosperity of all people. He then proceeds to make offerings and prayers to the dead.
The following day, in the morning, Buddhists and a chaplain congregate again at the ceremony in the Buddhist temple and commence paying homage to the Buddhist trinity. They also vow to adhere to the Buddhist practices. The ritual which comes after this involves a ceremony whereby rice is put into Buddhist monks alms bowls, arranged in a long queue known as “Piti Rabbatra” (ritual of offering alms to the Buddhist monks). At the end of the ritual, each participant holds a candle, incense sticks, and flowers in his hands toward the sand mountains. The chaplain then continues performing the ritual as he did at the previous ceremonies. Meanwhile, in the chapel of Dharma, the Buddhist monks repeat sacred Buddhist prayer. And then in front of the sand mountains, outside the square bamboo fence, the chaplain proceeds with inaugurating as well as with making an official statement of excommunication of the mountains. The statement says “Imang Valuka Cetiyang Paccakami.” in Pali “I’m making an announcement of excommunicating these sandy mountains from now forward.” It is noteworthy that after this statement has been made, the sand mountains can be deformed without incurring any serious faults or sin.
This is followed by a special lunch in the chapel of Dharma.In the afternoon the monks re-congregate to pay homage to the Buddhist trinity and toinvite a Buddhist monk to preach for about two hours. This is followed by ritual in which a Buddha’s statue is perfumed and scattered with flowers. This is commonly known asSrang Preah in Khmer. And at the end of the ritual, Buddhist followers sit and wait for the Buddhist monks to give them sacred spring water. This ritual originates from the Brahmans, and is known as Savang, meaning “good or righteous.”
Non-religious or popular customs
In terms of popular custom, there are various kinds of non-religious festival procedures. Here are three of the most popular kinds:
- Playing traditional games.
- Enjoying the dances.
- Custom of performing dancing.
The Khmer have various kinds of traditional games, but the ones favored at the New Year ceremony are the games of Angkunh, Teanh Proat, and Caol Choung.
Caol choung is popular among the young. When they play this game, they are always dressed in a colorful and ostentatious manner, in clothes specially selected for the festival. The game is always accompanied by songs and dance. The songs make use of affectionate terms, such as my darling, my baby, etc., which are used in a teasing and provocative manner. It is enjoyable both for people playing the game and their audiences. The object used in the game is not hard to make; it can be made on the spot by wrapping a cotton scarf around itself or around a clean rag to make a short tail to hold and toss up. This object is known as Choung.
Method of playing
Ten people are needed for the game. The cluster is divided into two groups – one is a female group and the other is all male. Both sides stand face to face with each other, at a distance of about ten meters. After diving the group, the male group commences to toss up the Choung to the female one who prepare to receive it from the male group. Each group member attempts to catch the Choung. If the Choung slips out of one’s hand, then the group’s turn is over. In quick succession, the female group tosses the Choung back to the male one, and the game proceeds as before. The tossing of the Choung lasts until the object is grasped in a group member’s hands. The one who captures the Choung has to secretly determine by him or herself whom to throw it to. If the Choung he/she throws hots the chosen person, that person will, by singing and dancing, deliver the so-called Choung to someone who threw. And then the man pr group that receives the Choung back will commence playing again. It is noteworthy that it is not only the person hit by the Choung that sings; others with beautiful voices can be asked to do that for him/her. Four important songs are sung for the game. Each melody has special characteristics and differs from other ones sung by Khmers. Each song is sung in a particular context happening during the game. It is enjoyable to listen to the singer using provocative, teasing lyrics. They finish playing the game when each of the participants feels tired and run out of lyrics.
Here are the song lyrics
ung up to you, it will hang on the bamboo trees, Darling no words to speak to, GrasFirst melody or lyric song (Soon before throwing the Choung up to their partners, they commence singing)
Women: While I toss the Choung up to you, Darling, It divides into five, Waiting and receiving my Choung, In time in April is quite right.
Chorus: While I Toss the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) Darling, It divides into five, In time in April is quite right.
Men: When I toss the Choung up to you, Darling, It divides into four, Waiting and receiving my Choung.
Chorus: When I toss the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) Darling, It divides into four, If one of you feels its good to do, Waiting and receiving my Choung.
Second melody or lyric song
This is a kind of provocative and teasing song known as “Brobkai.” The term Brob means “try to gain favor” and the term Kai describes as “Key, haw to do something.” In general “Brobkai” means “find out how to please someone very much.”
Women: When I toss the Choung up to you, It will hang on the Coco-tree, Darling, standing Hey! Hey! Oh, And receiving the Choung from me.
Chorus: When I toss the Choung up to you,
(Men &Women) It will hang on the Coco-tree, Darling, standing Hey! Hey! Oh, And receiving the Choung from me.
Men: `While I throw the Choping my Choung, hey, my baby.
Chorus: When I throw the Choung up to you,
(Men & women) It will hang on the bamboo tree, Darling no words to speak to, Grasping my Choung, hey, my baby.
Women: I toss the choung up to you, It will hang a mango tree, Hey, any widower of you, And receiving the Choung from me.
Chorus: I toss the Choung up to you
(Men & Women)It will hang on the mango tree, Hey, any receiving the Choung from me.
Men: I throw the Choung up to you. It will hang on the Sankae tree since my birth. I have never known. A dog as well dressed I’ve never seen.
Chorus: I throw the Choung up to you,
(Men & Women) It will hang on the Sankae tree sine my birth, I have never known, A dog as well dressed, I’ve never seen.
Melody or lyric song Third
This song is sung when delivering the Choung. While they sing this song, the performers also dance and bring the Choung to the opposite group. Other musical melodies can also be set to these lyrics.
Man: Former year’s gone, the new one’s come.
Chorus: Oh my darling, the new one’s come; we are male, female, old and young,
Chorus: My darling dressed in traditional.
Women: We all gather, we’re happy,
Chorus: My darling, we are delighted. At the congregation of friends, merry,
Chorus: Diversion makes us contented.
Fourth melody or lyric
This song is sung during a pause in the proceedings. And this is known as “Phisa vong song”.
Man: Darling, Merry New year to you, we are pleased about New Year, Darling, congratulations to you!
Chorus: Congratulations! Oh, my dear.
Women: We offer a prayer to the God, for our lives of happiness.
Chorus: Merry New Year to you from the lord. Hurrah for the New Year! The greatest, The year of victory and peace.
Enjoying the dances
Cambodian people in town and country alike enjoy dancing folk-dances known as Ramvong. Ramkbach, on the occasion of the New Year festival. People of all ranks participate in the dancing. When one wants to dance, especially on the New Year festival days, they often invite their friends by saying, “Let’s go to dance the Ram Vong.” The dancing of Ramvong involves dancing the Ram khabach, the Saravan, the Lamliev, and the Bruen, the Chuok Kampus, and the Taloung.
The dance stage is organized and decorated by putting a table in a specific place inside the Buddhist temple. On the table, a tablecloth and a big pot with colorful flowers are placed.
The dance consists of dancers moving in pairs around the table. They move forward and round the table until the dancing rhythm stops. Nobody is permitted to dance hand in hand or arm in arm. The dancing can be accompanied by all kinds of musical instruments. The drum is an important instrument for giving beautiful cadences to the dance. In those regions which lack musical instruments, especially the drum, the people often accompany their dancing by banging metal buckets, spoons, forks etc. In others, they dance, nowadays, to the loud speakers of the Hi-fi stereo player.
When the stereo player or musical band commences playing the Ramvong, male dancers walk over to the females and salute them. They do this by placing both hands together, palm to palm, in front of their chests with fingers pointing upward. Female dancers reply by copying the men and walking with them to dance around the table.
Source: -Ministry of Tourism of the Kingdom of Cambodia
- Khmer New Year angels written by aesta1