Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Traditional monk ordination ceremony bous neak within the Angkor World Heritage Site (Photo by G. Lloyd, 2008)

Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Angkor

Angkor in Cambodia is a World Heritage Site (inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992) renowned for its archaeological and architectural significance. It contains artistic masterpieces of Khmer sculpture and design and is known for its regional influence of Khmer art. The tangible heritage aspects of Angkor have received global recognition and have been the focus of remarkable international conservation and restoration efforts in recent decades. Angkor, however, is also the site of lesser-known, yet unique, forms of intangible heritage, many of which have links to the Angkorian and pre-Angkorian periods. Over the past four years I have researched the intangible heritage of Angkor and potential mechanisms for its safeguarding. Many of the forms of intangible cultural heritage researched are intricately associated with the daily activities of people who live around the monuments of Angkor. These activities are related to the belief system of local Khmer and are often deeply intermingled with Buddhist and animistic values as well as familial and agricultural knowledge.

The rural Angkor landscape is a very spiritual place with many local shrines and Buddhist monasteries. These religious features are often located within, or near, Angkorian temples. Some of the shrines are dedicated to a belief in animistic and ancestral spirits that guard the Angkorian monuments and reside in features across the landscape.

Cambodians frequently give offerings at these shrines and rely on the spirits to ensure the safety and well-being of their families and livelihood. When illness or misadventure occurs, animistic spirits are consulted through a myriad of mechanisms. One such means of communicating with spirits is called bowl and is often practiced by women in conjunction with other traditional healing modes. Bowl is used to divine the spiritual cause of an illness. The type of bowl can depend on the equipment used however, it typically involves the use of rice, incense, and candles. The diviner will call upon the spirits and ask them individually if they are causing the illness. An affirmative answer is determined based on a change being seen in the equipment being used such as the movement of rice. The spirit is then asked what is needed to appease them and remedy the illness. Suitable offerings are then presented.

One of the most important spirits at Angkor is known as Neak Ta Reach which resides within the Vishnu statue in the west entrance gallery at Angkor Wat. This royal spirit, like other spirits, is thought to influence the health and well-being of local communities. An annual ceremony is held within Angkor Wat on the third day of a new moon in the Cambodian month of Miek to pay homage to and seek advice from the spirit. Within this ceremony, spirit mediums, known as rup memot, communicate with the guardian spirits often mimicking their personalities.

The belief in spirits is just one aspect of the intangible heritage of Angkor. Others include forms of ancient traditional healing, life-stage ceremonies that were performed during the Angkorian period, oral histories of local villages connecting them to ancestors who lived in the area centuries earlier, traditional Buddhist practices and inherited agricultural and artistic knowledge.

The enduring intangible links between the Cambodian people and Angkor are often sadly overlooked by tourists who are unaware of the significance of religious features and traditional livelihoods. Recent research and work conducted on intangible heritage at Angkor is striving to demonstrate that the outstanding universal value of Angkor is derived from both its tangible monuments and its intangible cultural heritage. Angkor is certainly not just a site of World Heritage monuments, it is also a landscape comprised of local communities and their unique beliefs and livelihoods that are inseparable from the monuments themselves and provide meaning and spirituality to Angkor.