Guest Post: Cambodian Banners

I am so excited to introduce my first guest post on the blog by my friend Dr. Rebecca Hall.  Rebecca recently received her PhD in Art History from UCLA where she studied Buddhist banners in Thailand and Laos.  I met her towards the end of my stay in Cambodia while she was there studying Cambodian banners, and I was lucky enough to hang out with her and hear a bit about her research.  I always thought what she studied was so cool, so I asked her to write a little bit about the banners she was studying in Cambodia for the blog.  She has really deliverd with a fascinating article that you can read in full after the jump

A word to the wise as I begin my guest stint here on the lovely Alison in Cambodia’s blog: I am not even remotely trained as an expert or scholar of anything Cambodian. I am, however, a lover of all things Southeast Asian, a banner aficionado, and an art historian whose interest in Buddhist art extends far beyond the elite-sponsored Buddha images, architecture, etc. usually taught in the classroom. I recently completed my PhD in art history from UCLA and my focus of my dissertation was Buddhist banners in northern Thailand and Laos. For my dissertation I surveyed as much as I could in northern Thailand and northern Laos, traveling as well to Sipsongpanna (in southernmost Yunnan Province, China) and Kengtung, Burma.

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Cloth banners are very much a fact of life in these areas, so you can only imagine my excitement to learn that in Cambodia there exist a wonderful variety of cloth banners awaiting research.  I had seen photos of a handful of banners in books by Gillian Green and had my eyes peeled for them on my first visit to Cambodia in 2006. I needn’t have worried; banners were everywhere! Colorful ones, white ones, big ones, and small ones, banners were hanging at wats, near important images at Angkor, and for funerals.  Two years later, thanks to a fellowship from the Center for Khmer Studies, I went back to Cambodia with the specific intention of conducting research about the banners.

Easier said than done for someone who didn’t speak a lick of Khmer, had no contacts outside of CKS, and who had a very limited amount of time and money. I chose Siem Reap as my base and arrived in mid-September, just in time for Pchum Ben and then Bun Kathin. While these holidays were excellent to observe, I had not even adjusted to Cambodia yet and was very frustrated when I saw banners because I could not walk up to anyone and ask questions. In fact my inability to learn and speak Khmer was probably the most difficult thing for me during my time in Cambodia. I did take lessons and began to understand some basic things, but when I opened my mouth to speak it nearly always came out in Thai or Lao. In some ways I suppose it could seem silly to try to conduct research that requires interviews in a country where the researcher doesn’t speak the language, but I found it very refreshing and informative to work outside of Thailand and Laos to see aspects of Cambodian culture and Buddhism that were similar to what I know and also those things that are totally different.

So what about the banners? Because of my limited time and resources I focused my research on Siem Reap around surrounding area and am very interested to learn if perceptions of banners, uses, and names are the same in different places in Cambodia. I had a patient, helpful, and fun research assistant, Chanthoeun Son who was great about taking me to wats outside of Siem Reap town and finding achar [អាចារ្យ  or layman who is a liaison between the monks and  lay people], monks, and women who make banners.

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What I learned is this: overwhelmingly banners are hung to announce something. OK that may seem obvious but it also makes a lot of sense. As was explained to me by an achar, before there were mobile phones, a banner could announce a death and funeral to neighbors or passersby. And because the funeral banners are always white, they could never be confused with the banners announcing some type of festivity or ceremony at the wat, because those banners are always colorful, or at least contain one color, such as golden yellow.

But doesn’t that just bring about even more questions? Of course, and this is where the difficulties of researching banners begins. I was very pleased with the overall consistency of Cambodian banners in terms of appearance and type and even use. In my mind I think of there being 3 different types of banners in Cambodia – the funeral banner, the big banner hung outside at wats, and the small banners hung around Buddha images. But in fact that is an incorrect grouping based on my information from interviews. And actually I am not sure if I’ve got it totally right even after all of the work I’ve done, but here goes: there are in fact three different types of banners, but they are the tung rolok (waving banner), the tung aphithoam (abhidhamma banner), and the tung sasana (religious banner).

In a nutshell:

Tung rolok (ទង់រលក) are those banners with horizontal bamboo rods systematically placed throughout the length or “body” of the banner.

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These are most commonly seen hanging on long poles on wat grounds to announce a festival/celebration/gathering. The tung rolok have a specified number of horizontal rods that correspond to whom the banner is honoring: mother, father, sangha, dhamma, Buddha, etc. These numbers were consistently counted and stated to me by each and every person I interviewed. Such banners are usually hung only for the duration of the festivities; raised with chanting by an achar and others. At one wat where large tung rolok were hanging year round, the abbot explained to me that the purpose was that people feel better when they see the banners. Tung rolok are also the small banners hung around Buddha images that take the same form as those large banners, with the horizontal rods used throughout the length.

Tung aphithoam (ទង់រអភិធម្ម) are associated with funerals.

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Yet again small banners with a similar shape are given the same name by interviewees.

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These banners do not have horizontal rods throughout their length; instead they have four bamboo rods at the top and four near the bottom with a length of cloth in between. I have learned that the tung aphithoam at funerals are always white with no exceptions, as agreed emphatically by everyone.

Tung sasana (ទង់សាសន) may not be my favorite banner type but these appear to be increasingly common.

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Tung sasana are the banner that is rectangular in shape and is supposed to contain 6 different colors (although the majority only have 5 for whatever reason), relating back to a meeting of Buddhist leaders in Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Which brings me to the reason this banner doesn’t exactly appeal to my spidey-senses: because it is not inherently Khmer and similar flags can be seen in Laos and Burma (to some extent).

Wait a second, is this lady crazy? She didn’t even mention the famous crocodile banners (tung krapeu or ទង់ក្រពើ). How can that be? Well maybe if any of you readers have any thoughts about this you would like to share them with me – such insight and comments are certainly welcome. In my interviews, no one used the name “crocodile banner” when discussing banners or my photographs of banners with me in interviews. OK, that isn’t entirely true. Some informal conversations I had with people who spoke English would mention “crocodile banners” to me but in my Khmer-translated interviews this was not the case. After much consternation and discussion with others, there are several possibilities as to why this is the case: the first is that I was overwhelming interviewing monks and achar whose in-depth knowledge and differs from the regular population and who would use terms that might be seen by them as more correct; second, it could be that interviewees were trying to use the “higher” or more “Buddhist” terms for the funeral banner in the presence of a barang interviewer; and the third is that the terms differ in different areas and perhaps the name “crocodile banner” is more commonly used in other parts of Cambodia. What I do know about crocodile banners is this – they are the same as the tung aphithoam, the white funeral banners that are always hung outside of a home or wat where a funeral ceremony is taking place. And they have some great stories that identify their “origins.” True to the Buddhist/“folk” (sorry – I totally hate that word but am lacking a better one at this time, unsurprisingly) there are 2 different crocodile stories that explain the origin of the crocodile banner – the first is uniquely Khmer and the other I have heard before and thought it came from Burma or India (yes more research needed here). Very short synopses follow:

The first is the story of the shape-shifting crocodile who studied with a famous monk. The monk once traveled to help heal a sick princess but traveling home with the crocodile on the Mekong, who tried to protect his master by swallowing him but unfortunately this only managed to kill the monk.  Devastated the crocodile blamed the princess for his misfortune and went back to swallow her. The princess’s maidens reported on this unfortunate event to the king whose soldiers tracked the crocodile down and killed him, only to slit open the crocodile’s stomach to find the princess dead. Imagine that! So they saved the crocodile’s skin and hung it at her funeral to honor her in death.

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This story is fabulously illustrated in a series of murals at Wat Sarsar Muy Roy near Kratie. I have heard variations of this story as well that include the crocodile falling in love with the princess and another that has the whole story happening on the West Baray.

The second is a story of a crocodile who wanted to be ordained as a novice monk to learn from the Buddha. But the Buddha insisted that animals could not be ordained, so the crocodile insisted that when he died his skin would be hung at the wat to honor the Buddha and his teachings.

Stories abound about the different banner types and why they are hung that I am giving you a sampling here. The goal of my research was to document whatever I could about Cambodian banners and to make comparisons between these and the banners in northern Thailand and Laos, a task I am still trying to wrap my exhausted brain around.

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One response to “Guest Post: Cambodian Banners

  1. I bursted out in laughter when I came across this part: “Wait a second, is this lady crazy? She didn’t even mention the famous crocodile banners (tung krapeu or ទង់ក្រពើ). ”
    I think you are right on. Tung krapeu is probably just the layman’s term for the white funeral flag.