May: a Merry Month of Celebrations in Cambodia

As things, hopefully, start to cool down a little bit, preparations are underway for the new season to come, and for Buddha’s Birthday

On 5th May this month we celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha with Visak Bochea Day, making it the most important and sacred commemoration in contemporary Buddhist calendars. The date in Cambodia is set to accord with the 15th day of the waxing (growing) moon of the month of Magha, which is the 11th month of the Hindu calendar, corresponding to January/February in the Gregorian calendar. However, different countries use different formulas to calculate the day on which this celebration falls, so you may notice different days elsewhere where the birth of the Buddha is celebrated.

One of the most important things remembered on this day is the Buddha’s final sermon which he gave at Kushingar in Uttar Pradesh in 483BC. During this sermon, the Buddha announced his Nirvana and reminded his followers to be content with their state of being, to renounce their desires, meditate, to practice non-attachment because all existence is fleeting and attachment to anything is wasteful, and to forget him, the Buddha, but to remember his teachings. Those that were present there that day were ordained by the Buddha and are sometimes referred to as the Fourth Assembly.

But notwithstanding the solemnity of the moment, Visak Bochea Day is a day for joy and celebration, while also tending to good deeds and practical things, such as temple cleaning, painting and creating scenes from the life of the Buddha. In recognition of Buddha’s enlightenment, there may also be illuminated processions in which candles, incense sticks and lotus flowers are carried around a temple or pagoda three times in order to honour the Buddha, his teachings and the monastic life (Sangha).

This month, we also celebrate the arrival of the rice planting season with a ploughing ceremony which also serves as a predictor for the productivity of the season ahead. The Royal Ploughing Ceremony can be traced back to long before the time of the Angkor Empire and to the Funan period, from the 1st to the 6th century, making it one of the oldest traditions followed in Cambodia. The ceremony’s roots can in fact be traced back to the Reamker, Cambodia’s epic poem based on the famed Sanskrit Ramayana.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony usually coincides with the start of the rainy season and people use it to come together to celebrate and wish for an abundant harvest. The focus point of the celebration usually takes on the Veal Preahmein field next to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh where the King oversees prayers to the spirits for their permission and goodwill to work the earth. Offerings are made of rice, grains, water, grass and wine, and a pair of oxen are brought in specially to make their choice among the offerings. If they choose rice or grains, it will be a good year. If they choose water, there will be lots of rain, and if they choose grass then agricultural devastation may be on the cards.

This is one of Cambodia’s oldest and most significant festivals. And of course, an opportunity to witness the Ploughing Ceremony should not be missed.

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