A religious ceremony of rare intensity took place August 17 in Preah Vihear temple, where sixty-two young girls danced a sacred ritual to pray for peace. Originating the event was Ravynn Karet Coxen, founder of the Nginn-Karet Foundation for Cambodia.
By Frédéric Amat
© 2010Cambodge Soir – This translation of the original article appears with the permission of the copyright holder. No further reproduction is permitted.
PREAH VIHEAR, CAMBODIA — Sixty-two girls, entirely dressed in white reminiscent of Rome’s Vestal Virgins, performed a Buong Suong (sacred ritual) before the astonished eyes of soldiers stationed in the heart of Preah Vihear temple, which is located four hours by road from Siem Reap.
All the dancers come from impoverished families living in the villages of Banteay Srey district, which is considered to be the cradle of the Khmer culture. All attend classes at the Conservatoire Buppha Devi, which was founded by the Nginn Karet Foundation and named for its Royal Patron. With specialized dance and music teachers, the Conservatoire offers these disadvantaged children from farming families the opportunity to learn the refined disciplines of classical dance, folk dance, music and shadow theater thereby discovering their country’s ancient culture and learning traditional Cambodian values.
According to Ravynn, “our institution doesn’t aim to train these young artists to later work in the tourist venues of nearby Siem Reap town. The arts we teach develop the spirit, mind and body by creating close communion with nature. These young dancers train to perform sacred rituals that honor and invoke our gods with the pure respect of our ancestral traditions.
“These rituals, and their associated gestures, have been developed over a thousand years to petition the heavens to bless our country and to attract prosperity and abundance to our land. Today, Angkor’s temples are perceived more for tourism or for their archaeological aspects, but rarely for their spiritual quality, which is a pity. Our goal is to re-sanctify our ancestor’s temples with these purifying rites”.
For these young artists, discipline is strict. They are required to regularly attend the training six half-days every week; the other half-days being devoted to academic studies.
In the Hindu (not Buddhist) ritual that took place at Preah Vihear — as for other ceremonies previously organized by Ravynn and members of her foundation — the dancers must be “pure”, which is to say virgins. They are not adorned with makeup or jewelry, so as to enhance the beauty of the gestures and to preserve the piety of the rites.
The adornments and offerings are therefore natural, carved by the dancers and teachers from banana trunks or designed with plants, flowers and fruits, each having a specific symbolic meaning.
“The same is true of our Institution of Royalty, which is paramount for the Khmer because it represents the divine presence on earth and the protection of the Kingdom. In accord with the ideals of the Devaraja religion of Jayavarman II, prayers, incantations and pilgrimages are all necessary to strengthen the soul of our country. I fundamentally believe that when the sacred sites have been respected as such, and re-sanctified, Cambodia will regain peace.
“It is with this goal that we organized this sacred ritual at Preah Vihear with 62 dancers. This number is not without significance, by the way. It commemorates the irrevocable judgment of the International Court of Justice of The Hague, delivered in 1962, that granted Cambodia the right to regain the sovereignty of Preah Vihear,” explains Ravynn, whose father, Nginn Karet, participated in the World Court proceedings as an expert engineer geographer.
62 Sacred Dancers at Preah Vihear Temple
So, at Preah Vihear temple, sixty-two dancers, candles and sticks of incense in hand, ascended hundreds of temple steps, from the mountain’s base to its final courtyard. The young ladies gently and beautifully invoked the names of all the Khmer gods, royal spirits, kings, spiritual masters, ancestors and the leaders of modern Cambodia, as they stopped at each Gopura (an entry structure on each level) to perform special ceremonies using lustral water gathered from the temple’s sacred pond of Srea Meas.
Focused on their ritual dance they reached the highest point at the edge of a cliff, offering their final prayers for tensions to subside so that this sacred site is again peaceful.
When all nine dance rituals were complete the witnesses were awed to see the sky darken. Within minutes lighting flashed, thunder rumbled and heavy rain descended near the mountain. On the top, only a mist of spray touched the gathered troupe of dancers, who saw it as a sign that the gods had heard their plea and accepted the Buong Suong.
This was the first time in many centuries that a sacred Hindu rite was celebrated in Preah Vihear temple; a rite for peace, at the summit of Cambodia, in this sanctuary mid-way between Heaven and Earth.
Cambodge Soir is the most important French language newspaper published in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It is distributed throughout the country and is available online for purchase by the single issue or by subscription (online edition).