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“Cambodia’s ‘Magic’ Oxen Predict Bumper Harvest.” This caption hit many a world media on 30 April 2002. It refers to the first ploughing (Raek Nakwan) ceremony and forecasting of harvest and rains, held at the Veal Preahmein Square royal grounds, north of the Royal Palace outside Phnom Penh’s National Museum.
Tracing a symbolic furrow at the end of the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Preah Nongkoal), Prince Norodom Yuvaneath (King Norodom Sihanouk’s son), dressed in the traditional robes of the royal court, commemorated an auspicious beginning of the new rice planting season based on an ancient Brahman custom around a procession of three royal oxen, who walk around the ‘Royal Rice Fields’ three times. The second plough in the procession is traditionally controlled by the King, and the third plough sows the seeds. Both King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen have overseen the rite.
Hitched to a wooden plough, the two sacred oxen plough the ceremonial ‘sacred furrow’ (Bonn Chroat Preah Nongkoal) before His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk. After that, the holy royal oxen, escorted to the centre of the field, were relieved of their harnesses and led to seven golden trays containing seven types of food, which include rice, corn, sesame seeds, soybeans, fresh-cut grass, water and rice wine. They are presented before the bulls in order to draw prognostics. This ceremony is rooted in Brahman belief.
Left free to choose what they will eat from this menu, the question of what will the pair of sacred bulls eat holds the answer to the threefold question pertaining to the land’s fertility, availability of water in abundance, and prospect of a rich harvest. On the basis of the royal bull’s choice of food and how much they have eaten, the Brahmin astrologers/ court soothsayers predicted every year, based on traditional astrology, the agricultural produce and abundance of particular crops in the ensuing season. This is also taken as an omen for the coming year. The rituals are therefore meticulously observed to ensure a rich harvest in the new planting season.
According to Khmer belief, the possible prediction of a range of events includes epidemics, floods, good harvests and excessive rainfall. Cambodians have attributed meaning for the forecasting of harvest, rains and floods which influence farm production and livelihoods influenced by floods and rains.
A similar ritual ploughing ceremony is held annually in Thailand (Old Siam) just before the general commencement of the ploughing season on a Crown paddy field, reserved for that purpose. In this popular rite the Minister of Agriculture, dressed as a god or temporary king, customarily guides the ceremonial plough, drawn by a pair of highly decorated oxen. Clad in ancient Siamese costume, a number of old ladies follow him, scattering from their baskets the consecrated seed rice. After three circuits of the field, the sacred bulls halted and were led unyoked, back to their shed. The feast of the royal oxen commences with presenting them with seven different kinds of food and drinks in bowls, silver trays and small baskets made of banana leaves, holding rice seeds, mung bean (vigna radiata), maize (corn), hay, sesame seeds, water and rice liquor (sago, bananas, sugarcane, melons, and so on) prepared by the chief Brahmin.
Bull’s Choice Determines Feast or Famine
On the day of the ploughing ceremony, the farmer finds out about the kind of weather he is going to have, and about the richest crop yielding the grain. The bulls’ choice of cereals signified a good harvest, its drinking water signified abundant rain, and its eating herbs or drinking alcohol signified trouble in store. The crowd waiting nervously will assure bountiful yield of cereals and fruits if any one of the grains (rice seeds or maize), preferably rice, is eaten. A choice of water or hays predicts heavy rains and floods.
A choice of rice or corn would mean abundance of grains and plentiful fish; beans or sesame meant plentiful fish and meat, water or grass indicated plentiful rain, food, meat and agricultural crops; and alcohol foretold a more efficient transportation system, good trade relations with other countries, and prosperous economy. If they eat herbs, cattle diseases are to be feared. If they drink water, rain will be abundant and peace will reign; but if they drink alcohol, trouble will break out in the kingdom. Some considered wine altogether inauspicious. The oxen not drinking alcohol would signify war or turmoil in the royal kingdom.
When the oxen ate almost all the rice, beans and maize, prognostications that the Cambodian soothsayers declared for the year ahead was an auspicious choice assuring bountiful yield of rice, maize and bean. They took it for granted that the country would reap an abundant harvest and suffer no flooding that year.
Prognostications made on such occasions when the royal oxen chose to eat out of only three trays with their feast consisting of varying percentages of rice and maize, simply ignoring the trays of sesame seeds, grass, water and wine are: “Farmers would enjoy a moderate output for their rice harvest but good yields in secondary crop production, especially corn and beans.” When the royal oxen only sniffed at the tray of water and turned away from the wine, it was predicted that: “Farmers would not suffer any serious floods.”
Eating rice or maize predicted plenty of rice and fruits, eating beans or sesame seed predicted plentiful fruits and foods; drinking water and eating hay predicted plentiful rain and a good harvest; drinking alcoholic liquor would increase communication, transportation and inter trade, resulting in economic growth. Choice of mung beans or sesame seeds would signal abundant fruit and food that would enable the country to have a sumptuous food bowl. If they would prefer to drink water or eat grass, water would be available abundantly with rich supply of cereals, fruits, food and meat. If they chose to drink the rice liquor, convenient transportation, prosperous commerce with foreign countries, and prosperous economy are predicted.
Pha nun(g): Prophecy for the Cultivation
In the Ploughing Ceremony, the newly appointed Ploughing Lord along with chosen ladies arrives at Sanam Luang in a royal car from the Grand Palace. The procession of high-ranking officials proceeds to a Brahman pavilion where the Ploughing Lord lights candles and joss-sticks to pay homage to images of the Deities, and makes supplication. All the rites that follow are of great importance, as they foretell the conditions of the elements to be expected in the coming year.
On his arrival at the Pramane Ground, the Ploughing Lord performs a colorful ceremony when he is offered three pieces of the Siamese lower garment, Pha nun(g) (panungs) placed on the table and covered by other cloth. Folded up neatly and looking exactly alike, of three varied lengths namely long, medium and short (four, five and six kheub), they are worn in three different ways. The Lord of the Harvest Ceremony blindly casts lots and by picks up one. The great importance attached to this random choice of three pieces of cloth of varying lengths served as a determinant factor in the prediction of the amount of rain during the coming year. The longest cloth indicates little rain fall and poor harvest, while the shortest indicates good rainfall and a bountiful harvest.
“It was the dry season. The paddy fields were parched, and intersected with canals, well filled with water. The peasants, their brassy torsos naked to the waist, and their lower parts wrapped in the ankle-length skirts named panung, were ploughing the paddy fields with wooden ploughs drawn by buffaloes.” Panung is the loin cloth the Thais wore traditionally around the hips. This national costume is a piece of cloth about I yd. wide and 3 yd. long. The middle of it, passed round the body, covers from the waist to the knees, and is hitched in front so that the two ends hang down in equal length before; these being twisted together are passed back between the legs, drawn up and tucked into the waist at the middle of the back. Though it is common to both sexes, the women supplement panung with a scarf worn round the body under the arms.
The crowds in the past, perceived in the length of the Lord of the ploughing ceremony’s loin cloth an omen of the coming rains. Hence the choice of Pha Nung would be indicative of the amount of rain to be expected during the year. Based on the choice, the foresay of the soothsayers are as follows. A long loin cloth with the low hem (hem of pha-nung) nearly touching the ground, without any concern of it getting wet, is a sign of a drought. A short pha nung, worn above the knee, assures a good supply of rain, perhaps even too much for the crops. A medium-length cloth that shows an average rainfall is the most favorable omen of the three.
The selection of the shortest one, a piece of cloth measuring four palm (keub) spans, ensured a wet season with abundant water. Farming on high land would bear good yields, while farming on low land might face some damage. There would be a good harvest in high-lying land (upland areas), but a somewhat bad harvest in low-lying (lowland) areas might suffer some damage. The men who worked in the wet rice-fields would have to pull the panoong high above the knee.
If the choice falls on a medium-sized piece of cloth measuring five palms, the prophecy was that rain would be average with a balanced supply of water, water supply would be just about right, rice plantations would yield good output and food produce would also be abundant. Rice and all other grains would sprout and grow well, fruits and animal meat would be bountiful.
If the piece of cloth selected was the longest one measuring six palms, poor rain fall and water scarcity was predicted. Farming on low land would bear good yields, but farming on high land would not bring good results. Men could let the panoong drop to the ankle. It meant that the rainfall would be very little. There would be a good harvest in low-lying land but paddy in the upland areas might suffer some damage. In yet another account, the following prognostication is given: Should he choose the longest, the rainfall would be abundant; should he choose the shortest, there would be too little; while his choice was the one of medium length, it denoted that the rainfall would be average.
How Far are these Predictions Valid?
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony has been held for more than 700 years. This elaborate Brahman ritual and ceremonial provides predictions concerning the forthcoming rice harvest and allay the fears of the farmers on several questions. Will the forthcoming rice harvest be a bountiful one with enough rain? Will the coming season save the crop from drought, floods, or pests?
Usually held during the sixth lunar month (May) at the Phramane Ground, the ploughing ceremony is one of the most colorful annual events in Thailand, at which the King or a royal representative will be the first to plant. It heralds the beginning of the official commencement of the annual rice planting cycle, outside the Royal Palace. As the regular rice-growing season approaches, His Majesty the King presides over the ceremony with much pomp and splendor to produce bountiful crops and boost farmers’ morale.
People in the past really believed both in the ceremony, as well as in what it was supposed to tell them. They were faithful in the acts that have been performed. Even today, we find many thousands of them. But, with the advent of education, it is feared that the belief in these quaint and picturesque ceremonies will die out.
Whatever the pair of bulls choose to eat or drink, it is thought that the bulls’ choices should be plentiful during the following year. While some appreciate these forecasts, some people interpret the omen in the opposite sense.
Scientific methods to forecast the weather and to determine harvests are several in modern times. But they are uncertain. The Royal Ploughing ceremony (Pithi Chrat Preah Neangkol), ceremoniously celebrated nationwide in Cambodia since ancient times, relies on traditional rituals that often, warned them of calamities, assured good harvest and so forth. Rooted in Brahman belief, this annual event is held to ensure a good harvest, and marks the beginning of the rainy season. This ritual, a part of Cambodia’s cultural history, is but one of several methods to forecast and perhaps reduce the uncertainty of the future.
The Royal Ploughing ceremony served as an occasion to address the impacts and vulnerability to climate change, both to sensitize decision makers and to increase the awareness of the population. Can these ploughing ceremonies be a replica of a very similar ploughing festival that took place in ancient times in India?
As the ceremony predicts how much rain will fall and how well the crops will grow, every farmer will learn much on this day about the prospects of the coming season. The Thai farmers, gave great importance to these predictions and wait anxiously, for that day to dawn. Thronged in thousands from the provinces to Bangkok for the event in the old days, they converged to the Grand Palace on these days. The festival gave farmers the signal that it was an auspicious date to start ploughing for the new rice crop.
Celebration of the Royal Ploughing ceremony as a sort of advance warning, alerted the farmers about the ushering in of the rice cultivation season. Apart from the Royal Ploughing ceremony, predictions for the coming year are gleaned from the traditional ceremonies like the Festival of Water and full Moon Salutation (Pithi Bonn Om Touk and Ak Ambok Sampeah preah Kher) in Khmer, and the bon phik t-tk saea ceremony of the drinking of the water of the oath; Drippings from burning candles which predicted\ rainfall distribution to provinces across the country are taken very seriously.
Royalty and Farming
“The seed goes to the soil, the soil never comes to the seed” is an ancient Amhara (Ethiopia) proverb. In both farming and marriage, a man’s plowing of a parcel of land, especially virgin land, gives him certain usufructuary rights over that territory.
The deep connection that the farmers had from earth to farming surfaces in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, wherein they believed through astrology that the Ox had an influence on the fate of their agricultural harvest. Closely bound with earth and agriculture, farmers anxiously await every year the predictions at the end of this ritualistic ceremony, which they observe with strong faith and belief.
King Vajiravudh (King Rama VI – reigning title Phra Mongkut Klao Chaoyuhua) had let lapse many of the traditional sources of royal prestige, like the royal tonsure and ploughing ceremonies,” which his successor, King Rama VII, yearning to recover the power and prestige of the Fifth Reign, reinstated. On another occasion the king, who had restored the fertility rituals of the royal ploughing ceremony, complained that people unfairly held him personally responsible for bad weather.”
By virtue of his royal coronation, the king is endowed with divine prerogatives and as such he is considered as a medium of communication between heaven and earth, who can secure the fertility of the soil. Since the 1930s, civil officials sporadically performed the actual ploughing of the land with holy oxen and celestial virgins, the chot phranangkhan. But the less visible palace chapel rites of fertility, the phuetmongkol (grain blessing), the blessing of the grains, had not been practiced. Rangsit, in 1949, renewed the phuetmongkol, leading the offering of alms and prayers to the goals. It emphasized the magic link between the crown and the fruitfulness of the kingdom’s farms.
A stone pillar in the southeast corner of Sanam Luang is the foundation stone that King Rama I had placed for his new capital of Bangkok. Many people believed that this Lak Muang (City Pillar Shrine) had the power of granting wishes.
The central tower of the Angkor temples represents the king. At the beginning of each rainy season, the King of Cambodia would plough the first furrow. This ‘sacred furrow’, considered a gesture of defloration of the virgin soil, is a necessary gesture to gain a fertile harvest.
True to the ancient belief that His Majesty the King is the fount of everything, and as such, the Bhumibol oversees the ancient Ploughing Ceremony. His representative still presides over the stately Ploughing Ceremony in May each year that the important work of Thai society marked the beginning of the rice-planting season. The court astrologers determined the precise date and time of the ploughing festival and predicted the state of the annual harvest.