Blessed are you, the spirits of Cambodia!

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Wat Svay Pope, Phnom Penh

Cambodia has more in store to surprise me. This time  structures that I fell in love with are the eye-catching stupas inside the Buddhist pagodas. I was quite impressed to know what they are. A graveyard inside a place of worship?! During one of the trips to the provinces, an English speaking Khmer gentleman explained to me that when the Buddhists die their ashes are housed in these stupas or ‘cheidei ‘.  Khmer people believe in reincarnation, they cremate their dead. They keep the ashes in these stupas.DSC_1177

Entrance to Wat Lanka

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‘Cheidei’ or stupas where the ashes are kept

Top portion of the stupa containing the ashes of  HM Ang Duong( founder of the present dynasty) in the Royal Palace compound.

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Usually affluent Khmer people have stupas or the monumental tombs in the wat (temple) premises (The reason for my surprise element is that Hindu temples would never allow the entry of the ashes of the deceased in its premises). These tomb stones are captivating with their fine intricate carvings on them. The ashes of the members of a family are put inside the stupas through the entrance  door to the stupa. On auspicious days offerings are kept inside the ‘cheidei’. Almost all the pagodas I have seen in and around Phnom Penh have these beautifully designed stupas. Stupas of various sizes and colours  and shapes are seen. As in the  case of the spirit houses the wealthy have the more ornate stupas, I presume. The ones in the photos are in the premises of Wat Lanka in Phnom Penh.

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Entrance door to the stupa

Interesting to know that the departed ancestors are treated so well in Cambodia! (Hope those alive  are treated equally well) Cheidei as an abode for the family members after their life on earth and spirit houses for the wandering spirits. Offerings in the form of food,drinks, money, incense sticks etc are given to them. A two-week celebration called Ancestors’ Day or Pchum Ben in the month of October  is specially dedicated for them.During this period every Cambodian visits as many pagodas as possible carrying home cooked food for the departed souls! Blessed are you  the spirits of the Kingdom Of Cambodia!

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During Pchum Ben festival Khmer people paying respect to the diceased by offering food and money at Wat Ounalom

Stupas at Wat Langka

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‘The robin is the one…’

They started singing from February  and have never stopped ever since!
Am talking about the oriental magpie robins. They make my days, days of joy..singing incessantly. I have never come across such a musical treat from birds. They keep changing their tunes.They sit on the roof tops, my neighbour’s TV antenna, among the mango tree foliage, rose apple tree, on the compound wall, the frangipani boughs.  After coming to Cambodia often I wonder if  Emily Dickinson would have ever visited this place!! Many of her lines on Nature and the flora and fauna melt so well with the sights and sounds around me!

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                                                                                                                                                                        The Robin is the One                                                                                                                                    That interrupt the Morn                                                                                                                                                  With hurried—few—express Reports                                                                                                   When March is scarcely on—

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity—
An April but begun—

Emily Dickinson

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Oriental Magpie Robin singing

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                      ”write me how many notes there be in the new robin’s ecstasy                                      Among the astonished boughs”

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It’s interesting see their gimmicks during courting time. The male stoops and hops and moves fast towards his lady love to woo her. There’s always a rival in the background. This drama usually takes place on the roof tops of the houses across our lane.

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He stoops to conquer 🙂

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DSC_0986 Roof top singing!

Shelley’s and Keats’ Skylark and Nightingale come alive when I hear these small birds singing sweetly.
It’s a full throated singing at times and at times  a mix of cooing-cajoling-coaxing..sometimes they whisper without knowing that their too musical voice is carried by the  jealous winds to the nearby eaves droppers. These happy souls fill my dull and dreary afternoons  with sound of music.

Bless you my feathered friends! May your tribe increase!

Saga Of A Curry-leaf Plant

Ye birds of the sky!! Thou do not soweth, but thou sure do reapeth!

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‘O troupe of little vagrants of the trees! Sweet little villains, full of innocence!’

They fill my days with excitement and surprises! These little house sparrows! Getting accustomed to the new surroundings in Phnom Penh, seemingly dull and mundane in the beginning, turned out to be joy filled ones with the numerous birds living and visiting the premises. It has been a year and these happy souls around me make my days joy filled ones. The house sparrows ( passer domesticus) were the first ones that conquered my heart. From sunrise, till late in the evening their chirps and tweets break the silence of my days.

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The plant that enjoyed lush growth indoors!

These little birds are known as ‘angadikkuruvi‘ in my mother tongue Malayalam and they are nearly extinct in Kerala. Environmental pollution being the main reason for this mishap. Bassac Garden in Phnom Penh, where we live is blessed with an abundance of these happy souls. One gets to see them everywhere in Cambodia. May their tribe increase!!

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A happy plant basking in the sun

I have deviated from my topic curry leaf plant! (these innocent looking vagrants drift me away). We have a seven-year old curry-leaf plant with us. Curry leaves are indispensable in south Indian cooking and it is not widely available in Vietnam nor in Cambodia. The leaves that you rarely find in the markets lack the fragrant flavour. This plant was brought from India and was tended lovingly and with great care by my husband. To our immense joy the plant flourished indoors in Saigon. Moving apartments or changing pots never affected the growth of the plant.

With great care we transported the plant from Saigon to Phnom Penh and were so happy that it could breathe fresh air, bask in the sun and dance in the rain. From the pot the lucky plant found a place in the backyard. The twist in the tale happens from then!!

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Alone they came, also in battalion!

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One soweth, another reapeth

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Breakfast time!

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Leaves to finish before we leave And leaves to finish before we sleep!

Very soon, the plant with its many branches and lush green leaves became the hub of their activities, the favourite haunt for the little sparrows. After their routine morning hops on the lawn, they perch themselves on the curry leaf plant. It became a painful sight to see them picking on to the leaves, munching them! There was no stopping… The moment a tender shoot sprouted it disappeared. Who would have had the heart to shoo them away!

What a disheartening sight in the mornings!

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Time to sing an elegy!

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In three months it was time to sing an elegy to the plant. The plant was like a leafless tree in Autumn!

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From pot thou art and unto pot thou returneth ! back to the pot, thou naked plant!

From soil once again it was planted back to the pot and was kept hidden among the bamboo foliage. Ever since our little friends show no interest in the medicinal properties of the plant!

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And the pot found a place close to my eyes, next to my favourite corner of the house where light plays hide and seek, bamboo leaves rustle and sing with breeze.

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Hidden among the bamboo foliage.

Once again back to life the plant is flourishing well now. The number of sparrows have increased but foraging is limited to the lawn and surroundings. Have they failed in spotting the plant or they’re just tired of the taste?! I shall patiently wait and see !

Mount Chisor or Suryparvata

Mount Chisor was a package of surprises! It took us less than an hour to reach there from Phnom Penh. Standing at the foot of the hill, I was a little apprehensive when I heard  that 400 steps are waiting  ahead of us to reach the top! It was a tiring uphill climb, yet there was a ray of hope when a bunch of happy tourists on their way  back declared that it indeed was worth the climb.

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 I really climbed so far!

We were welcomed by a smiling Khmer lady who sells goodies at the top of the hill.Her endearing smile made us buy some soft drinks from her. Even though many of them find it so hard to make both ends meet,  most of the Khmer never fail to wear a pleasant, amiable disposition. I admire them for that. I was reminded of the great Bard’s lines when I saw her…

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“My crown’s call’d content,
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy”

The temple on Chisor Mountains or Suryaparvata was built in 11th century by  King Suryavarman I.
The temple ruins and the surrounding canopy of trees gave a tranquil charm to the place. We were the only visitors around that time and a  young lady offered her service as  a guide.She showed us how the temple got destroyed in the US bombing and we could see stone carvings of Lord Vishnu in  the reclining pose (Ananthashayana), Bhoomidevi (Godess Earth) at his feet and another sandstone lintel carving of  Lord Siva and Parvathi, atop Nandi. Almost all the fallen stone blocks lying on the ground have carvings on them.

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DSC_0333The gopuras of the temple, designed in the typical Khmer architectural pattern

The temple ruins

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Shiva-Parvathi atop Nandi

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Vishnu-Ananthashayanam ( reclining on 1000 headed naga, Anantha)

The view from the hill was breathtakingly serene. The plains surrounding the hills are dotted with green trees and bushes. One can see how skillful the Khmer artisans were and how well planned their nagaras(townships) would have been. A long path way leading to the temple with two enormous gopuras- of course in dilapidated condition – is an unforgettable sight! I could visualise the king and his regal paraphernalia parading to the temple in a chariot or on an elephant back! The pictures became more vivid once I started reading the beautiful historical novel  ‘A Woman Of Angkor’ by John Burgess.  Flipping through the pages of the novel, I was virtually transported to the Cambodia of the 12th century and felt one with the characters! Even after finishing the novel the characters are strutting in the inner corridors of my  being

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 Trash bins made of recycled tyres

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The tall stupa, the moss covered temple pond, the roof tops built in the typical Khmer architectural patterns with the naga head and tail are  all weather worn and war worn. But still everything reminded us of the past glory of a great empire, a great culture.

 Dilapidated first gopura or the entrance gate

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DSC_0303Panoramic view from the Suryaparvata

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Cattle grazing! Feels like am back in Kerala…

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With changing times, Hindu religious rituals have given way to the Buddhist ways of rituals.  All the prayers are done at the  idol of the reclining Buddha in the pagoda and there’s one Buddhist monastery on top of  the hill. A little monk posed for me for a photo. Cut off from the outside world what experiences and exposure these little children of God must be having, I thought. Is it that their parents feel that the monasteries may be a safer place where food and shelter are no more a matter of worry or is there an element of deep religious obligation involved? Yet to find out.

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The reclining Buddha

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The little monk happily posed for me

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Spreading Peace

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The moss covered pond on the hill

Later that day I bowed my head with gratitude to God almighty, my husband and everyone else who is reason for giving me this rare opportunity to know this country, its traditions, its culture- the glory of a bygone era.

The name Cambodia, otherwise, would have never evoked  these images in me lest I got a chance to live here. Each day this place unfurled  new exhilerating experiences !

Canang Sari – What a beautiful way to start a day!

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A small but beautiful gesture of gratitude towards the gods or the spirits of Nature who make your life comfortable, bountiful; for all the blessings you receive in life. It was quite fascinating to know about the daily offerings called ‘Canang Sari, so well woven into the lives of the people of Bali. Balinese people never fail to make these offerings at the start of the day, I got to know during our recent trip to this enchanted land.
Canang saris are meticulously crafted beautiful trays, made of young leaves of coconut trees or palm trees, full of vibrant flowers, rice crackers, biscuits, incense sticks and so on. It’s hard to miss these colourful, unique leaf trays in front of houses, in shrines, temple premises, on pavements and even on the beaches of Bali! They’re seen everywhere.

While walking on the streets of Bali, you have to take extra care not to step on these beautiful leaf trays with offerings on them. I was quite impressed that  Balinese people find time to thank the spirits by making these simple offerings in their busy mornings. I’m not sure if these trays are readily available in the market with the offerings, still the effort taken in the morning is praiseworthy. I did read somewhere that each colour symbolises a god; red symbolises Brahma, yellow  Mahadeva, blue or green  Vishnu and white Eswara. The word gratitude is fading away into nonexistence and it is indeed great to nurture this trait in our children by practising small daily gestures like these.

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Story Tellers

ഓർമ്മച്ചെപ്പ് തുറന്നപ്പോൾ (When the memory chest is wide open….)

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“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”~An old Native American proverb

As children, we grew up listening to stories. It is indeed a matter of pride that everyone in the family,the old generation and our generation, excelled in the art of telling stories. Elders and youngsters had their unique ways of spinning and weaving stories. Characters from the epics, classics, folklores, movies, novels came alive and paraded and danced in front of our eyes and inner eyes vividly! Ancestors, members of the family, neighbours, friends, acquaintances were all parts of the stories and they all fascinated us. We were well acquainted with our neighbours and others in the neighbourhood unlike the children today. Sprinkled with speckles of humour they all came into our conversation! Those people whom we have never met got forms and shapes. Such is the power of story telling, of narrative skills! That experience of listening to well narrated stories is beyond description!

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picture courtesy: Google

Some of my early memories include the image of my father’s elder sister telling a tale spiced up with a verse. She repeated this same story of a wicked step-mother, every time we were on our Summer vacation and the story never bored us. Another flash of memory that comes to me is my great-grandmother sitting with her long stretched legs ( Oh my! how could she sit like that without bending her back or leaning against a wall!) singing and telling stories…

Then there was this fragment of a memory : the gathering of all the cousins in the spacious ‘poomukham’( living room) and the eldest of the cousins Usha chechi telling us the story of a Malayalam movie, ‘Veendum Prabatham’ (she even sang the songs from the movie while recounting the story). The tragic sequence of events that the good people in the story met with, left me devastated. To hide my tears I struggled to prove that a small fly went into my eye!

None of the cousins was less competent. All were ace story tellers! Each one was good at telling film stories scene by scene event by event. Jaysree chechi and Lathu would come from Madras with Tamil movie stories and Hindi ones. Mohanettan, Rajettan and Induettan would test our patience with all the dramatic details from the movies and other stories and kept us wait with bated breath till the end. Murali had a special talent of inventing stories impromptu. We used to be amazed at his talent! Unniettan who never had the patience to tell a complete story used to focus on the bits and parts, expertly mimicking people leaving us in splits of laughter! In an age when television, mobile phone, computer and all the paraphernalia were unheard of, we children never had a dull moment in our lives. We revelled in the simple joys of childhood.

College days were enriched with Girija chechi’s and Nimmi chechi’s story telling skills. Both were masters of telling movie stories in a very interesting, detailed way. My much awaited monthly weekends during college hostel life turned out to be enjoyable ones watching movies with them and listening to their stories. All that’s simple and ordinary got transformed into extraordinary and special those days. We the siblings also used to weave hundreds of stories and the beautiful realm of imagination knew no boundaries.

Stories! doors to an enchanting land….

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And then there was the master story-teller -our Father..The epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha are etched in our hearts with his unique style of story telling. The characters strutted the corridors of our hearts with glory and grace and with Epic magnitude. Karna became my favourite character. Neither Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana nor Chopra’s Mahabharatha could change the images of those towering forms.

Most of the evenings were a celebration. Stories unfurled like magic carpets and lifted us and took us to magical realms of imagination. Achan opened the doors to a marvelous world; he inculcated and nurtured the habit of observing the surroundings, men and manners; helped us develop a sense of sympathy and empathy, polished our aesthetic sense. He taught us how to appreciate and enjoy a poem or a piece of prose .

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My all time favourite story – ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. (picture borrowed from Google).The impact it had on me as a child was tremendous!

Listening to the tale of ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’ was an unforgettable experience, so was ‘The Three Musketeers’. We just admired Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. Joseph Wilmot of ‘Joseph Wilmot : the memoirs of a man servant’ by Reynolds (a novel spread in seven volumes) became a man of flesh and blood and we considered his misfortunes and disappointments as our own! Dinner hour was an impatiently waited time of the day to listen to Joseph’s adventures. Now while looking back, I really appreciate our mother’s immense patience to bear with the marathon story telling evenings…

Achan sometimes used to enact the events in the stories well. When Jonathan got a jolt of fear and cut himself with his razor blade, the moment he realised that Count Dracula was standing behind him with no reflection in the mirror, I too jumped from the bed! Count Dracula, the bat, the lone ship wrapped up in mysterious mist all filled me with an eerie excitement for many days! The blood curdling experience used to be a hot topic of discussion amongst cousins!

Achan introduced us to the wonderful world of literature; both Malayalam and English. He created a magic land for us, which he knew would last for a life time. Probably he thought if his children had to meet with any hardships in their future life, those halcyon childhood days would strengthen them and equip them well to face them all and move forward in life with ease and confidence.

I was made to read ‘Marthandavarma‘, one of the first novels in Malayalam at the age of ten and the language left me baffled. My father told me to go slow and then it would help me to grasp the soul of the novel. And it did…

There were long interesting discussions on literature and current affairs at my mother’s house where my grandmother, grand-uncle all used to take part. All forms of literary works and all humorous stories of people known and unknown were brought to our attention .
The main source of knowledge those days was libraries, curious minds, a keen eye and attentive ears.

”In the end we’ll all become stories.” When I came across this quote of Margaret Atwood, I recalled Achan’s words. He too used to say that everyone becomes a story one day… Let us keep telling stories and let us make good stories…

It was my friend Usha who has enlightened me about this profession called story telling. I read more about professional story tellers and how well this art is gaining popularity nowadays when children live in a virtual world and have no time to read nor parents have time to tell stories… I feel so happy at the revival of this art! And I was thinking of a company of story tellers the family could have launched!!

“Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds.” ~ Janet Litterland

Spirit houses in Cambodia

The bright and gilded miniature houses on pillars caught my attention, once we came to live in Cambodia. I was quite bemused to see these little temple like structures, in front of houses, shops, office buildings, hotels and so on. These beautiful, ornate structures fascinated me for days and made me curious. Initially I thought these must  be the places of worship of the Cambodians, miniature pagodas. Similar shrines of worship I have seen in Ho Chi Minh City too. The deity would be Bo Dai ( Laughing Buddha ) or Quan Am, a female deity. As you enter a house or a restaurant or a shop in Saigon, you get to see small shrines placed on the floor, decorated with flowers and fruits and incense sticks and what not! When we made Phnom Penh our new home a year ago, (with a heavy heart leaving the beautiful Saigon behind ) I wanted to keep one such little house on pedestal in our house too, as it looked so charming … I was in dire need of a place to keep our many number of Hindu gods and this looked so regal. But soon I came to know that these are the Khmer Spirit Houses and immediately my desire to buy one died!

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Cambodian spirit houses of different sizes, colours

The spirit houses are  houses for the spirits, living spaces for the dead ancestors. Khmer people are Buddhists and they believe in life after death and this is one way of appeasing the departed souls.The spirits are given an abode to live outside, so that they would not invade the homes of those who’re alive. Rich or poor is not a matter of concern, they keep one in the courtyards of houses, in front of shops or other buildings . Offerings are kept in the spirit houses in the form of incense sticks, fruits, flowers, water and so on ( again it has puzzled me that I haven’t seen a bird pecking on to the fruits kept for the spirits! )  Even the economically backward Khmer families, having a shabby house in a dilapidated condition, are not stingy when it comes to a well adorned spirit house in their courtyard. My regard for them soared! Each spirit house is unique. Whenever I see a spirit house I feel, I haven’t seen a similar one before. Am sure, following the genocide that has taken place here  restless and wandering souls might be aplenty! They indeed need living spaces!

 

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Ah! What a beautiful abode for the spirits!

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A gilded spirit house against rustic simplicity

 

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Spirit houses for sale

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For the spirits of the mountains-On the misty mountains of Mondolkiri

And that was just the beginning. I was drawn more and more towards  the customs and traditions of this people, their  culture; a land which was culturally and economically rich at one point of time in history and which has close ties to the culture and traditions of my own land, India. I was feeling a bit ashamed  that before coming here I hardly knew anything about  the rise and fall of a great empire, the ancient Khmer empire.