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Sisowath: the cremation of a King ថ្ងៃអង្គារ 10 ខែ​មីនា 2020

Posted by សុភ័ក្ត្រ in បុគ្គល​សំខាន់, ប្រវត្តិសាស្ត្រ, English.

9pm, Friday, March 11th 1928, the Royal Palace, Phnom Penh. Monsieur Le Fol, the French Résident Supérieur of Cambodia, stood, glass in hand, to begin his speech. It was a sombre and formal occasion, the final event of ten days of ceremonies to commemorate the death of King Sisowath. Opposite Le Fol, along an extended dining table, sat the newly-crowned King Monivong, flanked by the wives of high ranking French officials. Among the other 43 guests were Phnom Penh’s Mayor, Monsieur Silvestre, Monsieur Outrey, delegate of Cambodia in the Conseil Supérieur des Colonies, Princes Phanuvong, Sutharot, Souphanuvong, Suramarith, and longtime Minster of the Palace, Thiounn.

“Today the soul of your august father is finally free of its terrestrial constraints”, pronounced Le Fol, with due pomposity. “His life had been dominated by three great attachments: to his country and its people, to his son, and to France. He recognized in France a prosperous, liberal and generous nation, and that only France’s sincere friendship and loyalty could protect Cambodia from the dangers of an uncertain future.”

Raising his glass to heaven, Le Fol, the supreme colonialist, concluded triumphantly: “to the prosperity and good fortune of Cambodia and the inseparable destiny of our two glorious nations. ”

Préah Bat Samdach Préah Sisowath, son of King Ang-Duong and Queen Peou, entered the world in August 1840 in Bangkok, the younger brother of King Norodom. Having spent his youth in exile in Bangkok and Saigon, he returned to Phnom Penh and obtained the title of Obbareach (second King/designated king) in 1870. The honor was conferred on him by Norodom in recognition of his role in crushing the so-called Poukombo rebellion and the subsequent revolt led by Norodom’s and Sisowath’s third brother Si Votha in the late 1860s. Si Votha continued to challenge his brother’s reign in the following decades. Sisowath seemed temporarily reconciled with his subordinate position as “Vice King”; yet a longlasting peace between these quarrelsome Royal siblings proved impossible.

Norodom and Sisowath were simply too different in character, and their political beliefs exemplified this. Norodom had come to rely on the French protectorate to offset his own personal unpopularity at the beginning of his reign (the result of a punitive taxation policy on Cambodia’s ricefarmers). On the other hand he resisted French attempts to develop Cambodia as a fully-fledged colony. In contrast, Sisowath’s devotion to the French and their cause was never in doubt – so much so that the colonial authorities could hardly wait for him to replace Norodom.

Sisowath’s reign began impressively. Both Battambang and Siem Reap provinces were retrieved from Siam, making him popular with both the peasant mass of Cambodia’s population and its emerging urban elite. He went on to found the The School of Pali, the Cambodian School of Administration, as well as of the Royal Library, where sacred texts and Royal chronicles were safeguarded. A devout Buddhist, he introduced a number of administrative and judicial reforms under French guidance. However his reign was marked by the final and total integration of Cambodia into the French Indochinese Union, an act which inspired a deluge of Europeans seeking trade and profit. There were clear benefits to Cambodia’s economy – the French saw Sisowath’s reign as one of “complete and happy peace”; however the period was not without civil unrest. A peasant uprising in 1916, provoked by high taxation, and repeated rebellions of the Phnong tribes in the province of Kratie somewhat clouded his reign.

Sisowath’s death was not unexpected. He had been in fragile health for some time, and, struck down by a particularly nasty bout of dysentery in July 1927, took his last breath on the afternoon of the 9th of August. Present were the Resident Superior of Cambodia, members of the Council of Ministers, and the Royal family. According to a contemporary source, “it was a bright day, no clouds, but the sky was still dark. The sun was surrounded by three shining circles, as a symbol of veneration in honor of His Majesty on the day when He left this world in order to enter another one”.

The ailing king had been cared for by his favorite daughter, Princess Pindara. As his condition worsened, he was taken to the palace and placed to rest in the chambre d’agonie, behind the throne room. Jeanne Leuba, in her booklet “La Fin d’un Roi Cambodgien”, recounts the events that followed: In the chambre d’agonie, the dying King was placed carefully on a bed. On his chest between folded hands, a small gold case containing areca nut and betel leaf was perched between two candles and incense sticks. The case was an offering to Chedei, the superior one, which the King’s soul would join in the paradise of Indra. Two atiars (ascetics) attired in white entered the chambre d’agonie. Placing themselves on either side of the dying King, they shouted “Buddho Arahan, Buddho Arahan” (Venerable Buddha) into his ears, while the monks recited prayers.

At 4.00pm, August 9, 1927, King Sisowath died. His body was immediately clothed and exhibited on a bed where Royals, ministers, and the European elite paid their last respects. Princes and Princesses as well as the Palace staff – also in white – shaved their heads, while other Cambodians followed the European custom of wearing black armbands. The body was then washed with ceremonial water and perfumed by Princess Pindara, and placed on silver leaf to be prepared for its temporary resting place in a large copper urn.

A large effigy in gold was placed into Sisowath’s mouth – a display to the living that physical matter cannot travel with the soul of the dead, and will therefore survive cremation. Popular belief had it that one could buy one’s way into paradise: the fact that such effigies remain thus becomes an act of generosity on the part of Gods, who would rather leave them behind for the living.

The body was then clothed in a magnificent costume covered with gold jewelry and precious stones. A beautiful emerald adorned the King’s right index finger, while on his left shone an enormous yellow diamond. Perfume was sprayed and incense burnt.

Flowers were laid at the foot of the bed. What followed was more unpleasant. The corpse, by now stiff and swollen, had to be fitted into the ritual position for placement into the large copper urn. This task was left to the krom snom. Having wrapped the King’s body, they then forced his knees to his chest. There was an enormous crack of the bones and rumbling noises from the stomach. The body was placed in calico tissue, his hands surrounding the golden case. It was then wrapped yet again in white silk sheets gathered and tied in a knot above his head. But when the krom snom attempted to place a tiara on Sisowath’s head, King Monivong intervened to adorn the head himself, just as his father had done 24 years before at King Norodom’s funeral. Outside the room, bakous (Brahmans) sounded conches, while inside Monsieur Gichard, the Protectorate’s pharmacist, saturated the body with formaldehyde and sodium chloride, applying modern ingredients to an ancient ritual.

The period of mourning lasted seven months. The King was placed on a seven-storey catafalque, in a white and gold room, awaiting cremation. There were no guards, no candles, no incense. An all-encompassing tranquility within the deserted palace was only interrupted by wailing women bringing meals for the deceased, and chanting monks.

On Friday, March 2, 1928, at 3:00 in the afternoon, Sisowath’s funeral opened to a 21-gun salute. The remains of King Sisowath were carried through the streets of Phnom Penh, accompanied by a procession of musicians, soldiers, officers, monks and Royals. After two hours the body arrived at the Men, a ceremonial tent situated by the National Museum. As the deceased King lay at rest, a spectacular sight unfolded.

In deference to the King’s age, 88 monks recited the Sadapakan, the seven volumes of Buddhist scripture, Resident Le Fol came to salute the urn, while ceremonial staff offered food for the dead King. Bakous blew conches, only to be drowned out by the ritual chanting of the mourners. Outside of the Men, balloons were released and fireworks displayed, followed by Royal dance performances. There were also fireworks and chanting in the nights that followed, while a continuous stream of people paraded through the Men to pay their respects.

The festivities ran from the 2nd until the 11th of March 1928. It was an elaborate affair costing over half a million piastres. Nobody dared to criticize such costs openly, yet a number of the region’s French-language newspapers questioned, sotto voce, the wisdom of such expense for what was, after all, only a funeral. Reports provided a colorful account of these extraordinary ten days, alluding to the details of the procession and its exotic beauty, and only betrayed by the occasional suggestion of cultural arrogance.

Sisowath’s eternal rest was disturbed for the last time on March 9 by yet another 21-gun salute, announcing the imminent lighting of the Royal funeral pyre by King Monivong. A huge crowd of mourners watched the flames slowly consume the Royal body.

Two days later, Phnom Penh’s European community joined Cambodian dignitaries and Royals for a final dinner and ball. They had good reasons to celebrate. Sisowath’s reign had been one of relative prosperity and peace – a golden era of regal authority, unchallenged, as yet, by internal political divisions. In mourning King Sisowath all Cambodians were uniting in a common purpose, a common grief, in a time long past.


១. ព្រះ​រាជ​ពិធី​បុណ្យ​ព្រះ​បរម​សព​ព្រះ​ករុណា​ព្រះ​បាទ សម្ដេច​ព្រះ​សិរីសុវត្ថិ ព្រះ​ចៅ​ក្រុង​កម្ពុជា
២. កាសអនុស្សាវរីយ៍បុណ្យព្រះមេរុ ព្រះរាជានុកោដ្ឋ
៣. អំពី​ព្រះ​មេរុ នៃ​ព្រះ​ករុណា ព្រះ​បរម​រាជា​នុ​កោដ្ឋ
៤. អំពី​ការ​ថ្វាយ​ព្រះ​ភ្លើង​ព្រះ​បរម​សព​ព្រះ​ករុណា​រាជា​នុកោដ្ឋ
៥. អំពី​ការ​រើស​ព្រះ​បរម​អដ្ឋិ​ព្រះ​ករុណា ព្រះ​បរម​រាជា​នុ​កោដ្ឋ

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