An interview with a spirit

Posted on by Philip Coggan


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There are many kinds of spirit in Cambodia. One of the most important is the boramey, a powerful and benevolent supernatural being who works to help humans in this world through a human representative. The representative is possessed by the boramey and becomes the boramey for the duration of the possession. An academic who has studied spirit-possession says there are over ten thousand boramey in Cambodia, all of them named and identifiable. Some are old Hindu gods, some are figures from legend or fable or history. This one, whose name is Daun Panh, is from the Cambodian literary classic called Tum Teav.

Fictional figures as boramey are somewhat unusual, but since many Cambodians regard the story of Tum and Teav as history rather than fiction it may not be so unusual after all. In order to understand this particular boramey it is necessary to begin with the story of Tum Teav.

The story of Tum Teav

The story is set in Tbong Khmom, where Tum, a handsome young monk, has fallen in love with the beautiful Teav, daughter of the widow Daun Panh. Tum leaves the monkhood to be with her, ignoring the warning of his abbot that this is the way of dukkha (pain and sorrow), and the two spend their nights together, hiding their affair from Daun Phan.

Tum is a fine singer, and when his fame reaches the ears of King Rama he is called away to serve at the court. Daun Phan, unaware of her daughter’s love for Tum, arranges for her to marry the son of Orh-Chuon, the provincial governor. Teav protests, but Daun Phan tells her “the cake should never be bigger than the basket,” meaning a daughter should not defy her mother, and Teav dutifully submits but the wedding plans are interrupted when a royal messenger arrives: the king has heard of Teav’s beauty and wishes her to come to the palace, where he will make her his chief concubine.

When Teav arrives at the palace Tum daringly sings to the King of their love for each other. Rama turns to his new chief concubine and asks if this is true, and Teav confesses her love for Tum. King Rama, deeply touched, sets his own wishes aside and agrees to their marriage.

Daun Phan, who has been looking forward to becoming the mother of the chief royal concubine, does not welcome this development. She lures Teav back to the village with the intention of marrying her to the governor’s son. Preparations are under way when Tum arrives with a royal edict forbidding the wedding, but he is murdered by Orh-Chuon. Teav kills herself on his body.

When King Rama hears the news he orders the execution of Daun Phan, Orh-Chuon, and Orh-Chuon’s son, and the entire village are made hereditary royal slaves.

One Cambodian chronicle places these events in the year 1654. The king at that time was Ramathipadi I. Tum Teav has been called the Cambodian Romeo and Juliet, but Ramathipadi’s story reads more like Macbeth. He murdered his way to the throne, oppressed his people, converted to Islam with the name Sultan Ibrahim, and died in Vietnamese captivity. There are closer parallels with an earlier king called Paramaraja, who came to the throne in 1568 and fought many battles with Cambodia’s enemies between then and his death in 1579. The royal chronicles mention a disobedient provincial governor of the time named Orh-Chuon.

In 1883 a French archaeologist and scholar of folklore named Etienne Aymonier visited Tbong Kmom. The villagers told him the history of Tum and Teav and Daun Panh was true, that they resented being known as the descendants of slaves, and that for this reason it was strictly forbidden to recite the poem in their province. Aymonier was able to visit the sites of the story, including the tree where the lovers died, but had to do so discreetly and under guard.

While the story of Tum Teav is an assault on traditional Khmer values – Tum leaves the monkhood and salvation to pursue his love for Teav, they sleep together without being married, and Teav deceives her mother – it is a Cambodian classic, and has been a part of the national school curriculum since the 1950s.

Duan Phan

Daun Phan is now a boramey. My friend Socheat told me about her because his mother-in-law has tried many boramey and swears by the power of Daun Panh and her kru, or earthly representative, whose name is Chanda.

When Chanda was thirteen years old she fell into a coma for a week. Her parents thought she was dead, but during that week she was with Daun Phan. Daun Panh told her she had a mission to perform on Earth, and for this she needed a human vehicle, and she had chosen Chanda.

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But Daun Phan loves to chew betel. Chanda said that betel-chewing was disgusting because it stains the teeth red and the betel chewer is forever spitting juice and saliva. It was only for old ladies. She could never, she said, share the same body with a betel-chewing granny. Daun Phan told Chanda that she, Chanda, should agree because Chanda was her daughter, and the cake is never larger than the basket.

Chanda asked Daun Phan how she could be her daughter when she had a mother still living, and Daun Panh said she meant that Chanda was the reincarnation of Teav. Daun Phan said she would prove it. She took Chanda, still in her unconscious state, to a place where they both had their blood tested, and sure enough it turned out that they were related, and so Chanda agreed to become the earthly body of Daun Phan.

Much later in her life, when Chanda married, Daun Panh told her that her husband was the reincarnation of Tum, but that was far in the future. Nowadays Chanda’s husband sits beside his wife and mother in law preparing betel and slipping the cassette into the tape recorder when music is required, because the spirits love sweet music music.

When the boramey is in her Chanda feels nothing and knows nothing. She isn’t present. She still hates betel, but Daun Phan chews it without stop. Sometimes she vomits because of the betel Daun Phan has been chewing, but Daun Phan calls it her “delicious snack” and is highly appreciative when clients bring it to her as a gift.

People come to Chanda constantly with their problems. Most are from her own province of Kompong Cham, which borders Tbong Khmom, but also from further off, even from Phnom Penh. She turns no one away, because Daun Phan tells her she must help people. If she tries to avoid her duty she gets sick, and sometimes she can’t sleep because Daun Phan is always telling her to wake up and rescue people.

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Chanda has a shrine-room behind her house where Daun Phan gives blessings and medicines to the sick, helps the undecided make up their minds about such things as a change of job or a marriage proposal, assists those who are having difficulty having a child or who want a baby of a certain sex, and generally helps things go smoothly at home or at school or at work.

She never does bad things. She would never make a love elixir that would force one person to love another against their will. This is extremely important to Daun Phan, because of her own history with her daughter Teav, but is also in keeping with the teachings of Buddha, which stress clarity of mind and the sovereignty of the will.

I asked Chanda if I could interview Daun Panh. Chanda said she couldn’t speak for the boramey, but she’d call her and we could ask her ourselves.

Chanda put on a traditional blouse and scarf and tied her hair up in the old style in a chignon with a clip, while her husband, who had so far been sitting quietly preparing betel wads, put on a tape of pin peat music. When all was ready she faced her shrine with her back to Socheat and me.

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There was no visible change while she was praying, but when she turned round to face us, everything was different. She had been a typical middle-aged Cambodian housewife, rather deferential, sweet-faced, speaking in the high-pitched gentle tone adopted by Cambodian women as a part of their femininity; as Daun Panh her eyes were piercing, her gaze level and inquisitive, her body language commanding. Sitting now in the cross-legged position of authority figures, she looked good-tempered but slightly distrustful, and not one to suffer fools. She reminded me a little of Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I. She addressed everyone as grandchild, except for Chanda’s husband, whom she called her son.

Daun Phan looked first at Socheat and welcomed him, and then glared at me like the Virgin Queen sighting a Spaniard.

“Who’s this?”

“A foreigner,” said Socheat. “He’s very interested in Khmer culture and would like to interview you.”

“What for? I’ve been interviewed before, you know. Newspapers, magazines, television, all of them. What’s he want? Does he speak Khmer?”

“He’s going to write a book to explain Khmer culture to other foreigners. He doesn’t speak Khmer, but I’ll translate for him.”

“Just as well. I don’t speak English. Why doesn’t he learn Khmer?”

“He will, but it’s not easy to learn Khmer.”

She looked me in the eyes for the first time. “Good morning,” she said in English. Then to Socheat in Khmer: “Well, let’s get on with it. What do you want to know?”

Through Socheat I asked Daun Panh why she had returned to the world of humans.

“I wanted to rescue people from panyaha (bad circumstances), and to prove to them that I was not a bad woman as described in Tum Teav, which does not represent the truth. That shows me as a bad person, but in fact I only wanted the best for my daughter, I never wanted her to commit suicide.”

At this point our driver said he would like to ask Daun Phan for a blessing. Daun Phan asked where he was from, and he said he was from Phnom Penh.

“Aha, you mean you’re from Daun Penh!” Daun Phan never refers to towns and places by their human names but only by the mane of their guardian neak ta.

Next Socheat asked for a blessing, as he was deciding whether to accept a new job offer. Daun Panh told him he was being looked after by two boramey, Yeay Mao of Sihanoukville and Daun Yat of Pailin. These two are her colleagues in the spirit-world, and the three of them meet every month to discuss who they can rescue and help in the human world, because between them they know everything that people everywhere are doing. Whenever Socheat was in need he should burn incense and call the three boramey and explain his problem to them. “Then you will know, before the next day.”

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Socheat’s mother in law told me later that she believes Daun Phan is one of the best boramey ever. Countless times she’s seen people get what they wished for after consulting her. Usually the wishes relate to wanting a girl baby to balance a boy, or vice versa, but sometimes her predictions are more spectacular. There was a young man from Kompong Cham who said he was thinking of going into business and asked for her advice. “When you’re twenty-nine you’ll be a millionaire,” Daun Phan told him. The boy cried out that this was impossible, as he was only a poor man’s son, but by the time he was twenty-nine he was the owner of the biggest soft-drink and beer distribution business in Kompong Cham province and a dollar millionaire.

Daun Phan doesn’t say everyone can be a millionaire. Socheat is thinking of setting up his own business, and he asked Daun Phan about this. She didn’t say he’d be successful or unsuccessful, or even whether it was a good idea, simply that the best time for him to do this would be when he was thirty-nine to forty-five years old.

When it was my turn she took my palm and traced the lines and shook her head. She warned me that I was too generous and gave us some charms and amulets, for which we offered a donation.

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2 Responses to An interview with a spirit

  1. Albers says:

    Great article.

  2. Clancie N. Gogo says:

    This is intriguing. The photo of her speaking as Daun Phan is very good.

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