Preah Vihear temple – Back in April, shortly after the brief battle between Thai and Cambodian forces, one of the more unusual operations associated with the military build-up at Preah Vihear temple took place: the untethering of a stone naga sculpture to allow the mythical serpent free rein over the 11th century Hindu sanctuary.
With military commanders solemnly officiating at the Buddhist ceremony, a steel stabilizing cable was reverentially removed from the neck of the 2-meter-tall sculpture of the seven-headed snake.
Leaning at a precarious angle on the staircase to the temple’s first entrance pavilion, the sandstone sculpture had been tied in place by the protective cable several years ago when preservation efforts first got underway. But it was that chord that had choked Preah Vihear’s guardian spirit, preventing it from roaming freely over the temple and therefore allowing it to be injured by shrapnel from a Thai rifle-launched grenade in April, officials said this week.
The physical damage to the naga sculpture was minimal, but the chipped stonework had caused immense spiritual harm, the soldiers said. “The naga was tied too tight and could not move, that it why it was shot,” explained RCAF soldier Ren Rin, 29, who has had orders to stand guard at the stone sculpture since the April 9 ceremony to remove the cable.
Standing by the serpent with an AK-47 strapped across his chest, Private Rin said his orders were unspecified beyond knowing that he must protect the deity from harm.
RCAF private Chan Thang Ky, who stood guard at the second naga on the opposite side of the staircase on Wednesday, said events during the ceremony proved that the decision to remove the wire was right.
“After the fighting, the naga came in dreams to tell [senior officials] it was tied up. They had a traditional Buddhist ceremony, and during it the clear sky turned dark like night and clouds surrounded the ceremony,” the private said.
“I believe this is the spirit of the area,” he continued, adding that once the ceremony was over the clouds cleared mysteriously and the sun shone on the hundreds of participants, which included soldiers, monks and officials from Phnom Penh.
“People said the naga could not travel around, it was tied up,” said heritage police officer Chhorn Chan, who like many others spoken to at the temple attributed the removal of the cable to smoother security in the past few months. The cable was put in place to prevent the sculpture from toppling over, but after discussions with local experts and Unesco officials, it was decided that removal of the restraint would not endanger the naga, said Hang Soth, secretary-general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, the government body responsible for the temple’s preservation.
Nightmares of Preah Vihear’s shackled serpent were experienced by both ordinary people, soldiers and officials, said Mr Soth, who explained that such superstitions are a Cambodian belief, and that since the ceremony, whether by luck or other-worldly design, the temple has been free of violence.
“Since the removal of the cable from the naga head we have had peace and harmony,” he said. “We have tension, but no clashes.”
General Hing Bunheang, commander of the Prime Minister’s bodyguard unit and the officiant who led the cable-removing ceremony, declined to comment Thursday.
Superstition is strong among the rank and file soldiers at Preah Vihear temple, and also for senior government officials back in Phnom Penh who believe the mountaintop temple to possess potent supernatural power.
Belief in those same powers also makes Preah Vihear a sacred and frightening place for Thais, who have their own superstitions about the site and prophecies related to its possession, said a Cambodian official with connections to the temple, but who request anonymity.
Possibly due to the temple’s location on the rocky edge of a 625-meter-high escarpment and its almost divine-like command over both the plains of Thailand to the north and Cambodia to the south, it is easy to be awed by Preah Vihear.
The rolling banks of white clouds that envelope the entire site on frequent chilly mornings and even colder nights, and the sheer size and detail of the 11th century Khmer masons’ stonework adds to the sense of the ethereal at the temple.
And for many of the Cambodian troops at Preah Vihear, their own personal superstitions and sacred charms are legion as they face off against a historical foe, but one whose military is now vastly technologically superior.
Though there is no doubting their courage, protective amulets and charms, sacred cloths inscribed with magic script and diagrams, are worn around many Cambodian soldiers’ necks and carried in many combat jacket chest pockets. Visiting Buddhist monks have distributed T-shirts printed with magical symbols, sheets of red cloth with sacred texts printed in yellow ink, and most recently, protective brass charms featuring a deity with four Bayon-like faces.
“It protects against any enemy that wants to harm me,” said 23-year-old paratrooper Ros Mab, who wore his Bayon-faced charm on a chord around his neck but tucked inside a small waterproof vinyl pouch containing a “yoant,” a sacred cloth with magic scripts and symbols. “I believe it can help me. I have a strong belief in that,” said the Brigade 911 commando. Private Thang Ky, who guards the naga, said in his 25 years as a soldier, mostly as a Khmer Rouge guerilla, he had never been injured once in countless battles. His luck, he said, came from the protection of his sacred charms.
Wearing a Bayon-charm around his neck, Mr Ky also carried yoant cloths in both his chest pockets. Taking off his RCAF hat, he removed another sacred cloth hidden inside the seam of his cap. That yoant, made of white cotton with blue ink symbols that included the outlines of both his parents’ footprints, had been with him for almost 25 years.
With a hole in the center of the cloth, he pulled it over his head and wore it on his shoulders, chest and back like a strange miniature monk’s habit that, he said, could deflect bullets.
“I don’t want to be too arrogant, but I can say 50 percent that they protect me,” he said of his charms. “You can put a grenade in your hand and it won’t explode. You can step on a mine and it won’t detonate,” he said, while producing more bags containing tiny wooden Buddhas, bags of curly human hair considered lucky, and what appeared to be shards of wood that he said was a powerful magical substance.
“With these artifacts, if you believe, it is very sacred. But if you don’t believe…” he said, without finishing his sentence.
Surrounded by her stock of charms, amulets and a nauseous array of rare animal body parts, Nguon Tha, 37, said her stacks of Buddhas, tiny metal spirit figurines, and carved phalli in several sizes, are doing a modest trade with the troops at the temple.
Though she has been selling her wares, which included a taxidermist’s cupboard of tortoise shells, porcupine needles, mountain goat carcass, deer’s penis, and wild boar tusks, for almost a decade at the temple, Nguon Tha was non-committal on their intrinsic powers to protect the massed Cambodian troops. Protection doesn’t come from the objects she admitted, but from the “aphisek preah,” or sacredness they are later imbued with, and which the wearer has to believe. Otherwise, they are what they are.
“Without aphisek it is only a piece of metal,” she said of her charms, as a soldier tried on a ring made of white elephant bone.
“If you already believe [it can protect], it helps,” Ms Tha said, adding, “And some really believe in it.”
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