This year, on Saturday, April 14, at 9:12 AM, the angel Mahodara Devi descended to middle earth on a peacock holding a trident in one hand and an auspicious serrated wheel in the other. The angel delivered the blessings from Lord Brahma to the Khmer people. It’s the start of the Khmer New Year.
The New Year lasts three days. Families from all over the country are gathering to welcome Mahodara Devi with a white tablecloth, two bottles of perfume, five candles, five incense sticks, 11 types of fruit, and two glasses of clean water. But they’re also gathering to enjoy food and drinks, singing and dancing, and paying a visit to the monasteries. They play traditional games and strangers are welcomed to join in.
Khmer traditional games are to be played in the days leading up to and on New Year Days. A few are ritual games to be played only on those days, while several others can be played at any gathering. Today, I will introduce you to three popular New Year games.
First is teanh prot (pulling the rope) which is a game you might understand as tug-of-war. This is a ritual game to be played on the evening of the last day of New Year in the village square or on temple ground. According to a few old Khmer tales, the origin of teanh prot can be traced back to samudra manthana, the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. The myth tells of a time long long ago when gods and demons came together to churn the Cosmic Ocean in order to obtain amrita, the elixir of immortality. The Churning was an elaborate process. Mount Mandara was used as a churning rod and the serpent Vasuki (Lord Shiva’s naga) offered himself as the churning rope. Out of the Ocean, many treasures arose, including the apsaras (celestial dancers), one of whom would later become the progenitor of the Khmer race.
Khmers view the Churning as chaos. We view ourselves as creation born of chaos. We also view New Year days as one chaotic period, betwixt the old and the new year. The Churning myth was and still is very popular in Cambodia and it had been sculpted on bas-reliefs in many Khmer temples, the most famous one at Angkor Wat. The 49-meter-wide bas-relief panel shows the serpent being yanked back and forth in a giant tug-of-war between gods and demons.
The game of teanh prot requires a 30-foot rope as thick as a small wrist. The rope is usually made of water buffalo hide or braided vines and palm leaves. A drum is needed to signal the start and to accompany the game.
You divide the players into two teams, males vs. females, of at least 10 people per team, although the female team usually has at least two more people than the male team. The rope is marked at the center by a color knot. When one team is pulled over where the color knot passes the marked line, the other team wins the game. The winners bump their buttocks against the losers’ bodies. In the past, a brahmin would cut off the rope at the end of the game, which symbolized the end of the old year and the start of the new. Also, the last day of New Year is known as pdach prot, meaning “cutting off the rope.”
The second game is my favorite, bos angkunh (throw angkunh). Angkunh is a vine tree grown in the northeastern part of the country. It consists of a large stem and contains large fruits. Each fruit has a few seeds that are circular and flat, the size of a kneecap. (Incidentally, angkunh is also the Khmer word for the kneecap.) As the fruit ripens, the seed becomes hard and smooth and turns a beautiful burgundy color. This seed is used to play bos angkunh.
There are two ways to play the game, the simple and the extended versions. The simple one consists of just throwing the angkunh seeds to hit the target angkunh seeds. The extended one adds five more stages to the throwing stage. Both versions end with the same penalty calls jous.
Players in this game are divided into two teams with the same number of people. Each team plants five seeds in a pyramid shape, representing Mount Meru, in the ground facing each other, between six to eight meters away. Both teams decide beforehand how many seeds they want to use as throwing seeds. They also decide which team throws first. Every member of each team is given a chance to throw the seeds. In the simple version, the “throwing team” throws the seeds in order to knock down the “planted seeds” of the other team one by one, leaving the middle seed (top of the pyramid) last. When the “throwing team” successfully knocks down all of the “planted seeds” and the other team cannot knock down all the seeds, the winner will get to jous (hit) the kneecaps of the losers. However, if the “throwing team” knocks down the middle seed before the other seeds, they will lose and vice versa. The jous is accomplished by holding one seed against the kneecap, and hitting it with the other seed using one hand; only kids are allowed both hands. If any member of the winning team fails to produce a clicking sound when hitting the loser’s kneecap, the losing team gets to hit back.
I have such atrocious aim, I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve hit the seeds. And getting your kneecap hit by angkunh seeds can be quite painful.
The third game is called chaol chhoung or bos chhoung which means to throw chhoung. Chhoung is a piece of scarf rolled into a ball the size of a bare coconut and tied at the end to form a tail used for holding and throwing. This game is the most popular because it includes spontaneous dancing and singing duets. And since the duets are spontaneous, they can be flirty and playful.
This game is played the first night of New Year by two teams made up of males and females. Ten or 20 people make up each team, standing in two rows opposite each other. One team throws the chhoung to the other team. When the chhoung is caught, it will be rapidly thrown back to the first team. If someone is hit by the chhoung, that person moves to the other team and the whole team must dance to get the chhoung and their teammate back while the other team sings. If a gal has her eye on some guy, she can aim for him and sing a flirty song to get his attention and vice versa.
Khmers don’t really follow certain rituals involved in these games anymore. Teanh prot is played anywhere, anytime, and cutting off the rope at the end of the game is no longer performed. However, people do not play bos angkunh and chaol chhoung after New Year Days. If you ever find yourself in Cambodia around New Year days, join in a game or two.