Tug-of-War Game Pulls Its Way Onto UN Cultural Heritage List

Heaving along with over a dozen men, Hem Piseth would yell “Struggle!” as he and his team pulled on a thick rope in a raucous bout of tug-of-war.

Known in Khmer as teanh prot, the game has now been recognized as part of the country’s intangible heritage by the U.N.’s cultural agency Unesco.

A frieze in Angkor Wat depicts Hindu deities tugging a serpent to churn the ocean of milk. (Jason Eppink/Creative Commons)
A frieze in Angkor Wat depicts Hindu deities tugging a serpent to churn the ocean of milk. (Jason Eppink/Creative Commons)

The decision to include it on the list was made during the committee’s 10th session in Windhoek, Namibia, which concluded Friday.

Jointly nominated by Cambodia, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, the Unesco listing notes the cultural significance of “tugging ritual and games” played in all four countries.

“Many tugging games bear the traces of agricultural rituals, symbolizing the strength of natural forces, such as the sun and rain, while also incorporating mythological elements,” the listing said.

In Cambodia, teanh prot is commonly played during Khmer New Year festivities.

Mr. Piseth, a 24-year-old teacher, has played tug-of-war at his local pagoda in Preah Sihanouk province since he was 15.

“People like to play it because it’s a traditional sport and helps us unite with each other,” he said. “Now it’s hard to find people to join to play because they spend a lot of time with their smartphones to check Facebook or the Internet and play mobile games instead.”

Although its popularity might be on the wane, the tradition goes back a long way, according to Siyonn Sophearith, a lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts who helped prepare the nomination.

“Many people link it to the churning of the milky ocean,” Mr. Sophearith said, referring to the Hindu myth in which deities tug on a mythical serpent to obtain amrita, the nectar of immortality.

“We are proud because that sport shows the longevity of our civilization and culture,” said Thai Norak Sathya, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

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