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The Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Cambodia

Updated on December 30, 2017
aesta1 profile image

Mary has lived in Cambodia, a few months each year since 2002, working on education projects.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony is celebrated not just in Cambodia but also in Thailand. It is said that it was also celebrated in Myanmar when the monarchy still reigned and it originated as a pagan ritual just before the planting season. Today, it is both a Buddhist and Brahmin tradition.

On this day, people in both Cambodia and Thailand gather around their king and together they implore the gods for blessing and await what the gods have in store for the crop year. How do they get to know what the gods ordained for the coming year?

Well, for the local folks in these countries, the oxens have something to do with this.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony Prediction
The Royal Ploughing Ceremony Prediction | Source

Cambodia's Royal Plowing Ceremony

In Cambodia, the Bon Chroat Preah Nongkoal or the Royal Ploughing Ceremony is celebrated in Phnom Penh, its capital city. Every year, around May, just as the planting season is about to start, Cambodians from different provinces come to Phnom Penh and gather in front of the National Museum, next to the Royal Palace.

They gather as early as dawn and wait for the ceremony. Among the local folks, the belief that the royal oxens are god's instruments in communicating to them the fate of the year's harvest is still faithfully adhered to.

The Start of the Ceremony

On the day of the celebration, Cambodians watch the Royal Procession but even more closely what the Royal oxens would go for. The Royal Ploughing Ceremony shows the destiny of Cambodia for the next year ahead and jiggering the results of the oxen's choices is not just done.

The ceremony starts with a procession from the Royal Palace to Meru, the park in front of the Nationl Museum. The lead in this procession are the day's appointed King and Queen and the members of the court in all their splendid costumes. The year we were there, the appointed representatives of the King are Prince Norodom Chakravuth and Princess Norodom Chansita.

The Brahmin priests are in full attendance directing the ceremony. They are also the official interpreters of the preference of the royal oxen's and its implications to Cambodia's future. King Norodom Sihamoni presides over the ceremony.

The King Presides in the Ceremony

Royal Ploughing Ceremony
Royal Ploughing Ceremony | Source

Highlight of the Ploughing Ceremony

The highlight of the Ploughing Ceremony is when 3 pairs of royal oxens with golden saddles on their backs and horns sheathed in red silk go around the Meru park with the King of the Day doing the motion of plowing. Behind him and the Queen, the Brahmin priests sow seeds.

Then, these royal oxens are relieved of their harnesses and led to seven golden trays containing rice, water, corn, fresh greens, sesame, fresh cut grass and rice wine. And depending on what the oxens eat, the court Brahmins, remnants of Cambodia's Brahmanism beliefs in the past, make the prediction for the crop year. If the oxens eat corn, then the farmers plant more corn as they think corn will be bountiful. If the oxens ignore the water, there would be no floods.

If the oxens eat rice, everyone is happy as rice is the crop most farmers plant and it is at the center of every Cambodian meal. Unhappily, when the oxens decide for rice wine, people are upset as there will be thieves and robbers as well as chaos in the country.

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Pictures

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The Procession in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony
The Procession in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony
The Procession in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony | Source

The Interpretation of the Royal Oxens Preference

When we were there, the first royal oxen went for the corn and almost finished what was on the tray. The second royal oxen went for the beans but almost to the end, moved to the grass and ate some. So, based on the royal oxen's choices, the Cambodians believed that there will be good harvest of corn especially and then, of beans. But because one of the oxens ate a bit of grass, the fear is that their animals such as cattle will have some diseases. But this fear among many farmers in Cambodia is offset offset because many of them have their animals vaccinated. Those who have not will now take the necessary precautions.

The oxens during another ceremony ate beans and corn as well. What concerns many Cambodians is that this is the second year the royal oxens have taken a pass on the rice. Rice is a very important crop for Cambodia now that they have started to export their rice produce. Another question that also came up was the flooding last year which the royal oxens failed to predict. The palace astrologer was quick to say that the flood waters came from the neighbouring countries so faith in the royal oxens is once more restored.

Come to Phnom Penh this year and be the first to know what the royal oxens will go for. There is no bias here and jiggering the results of the oxens' choices is not done at all. Just impossible with thousands of people attending the event and looking anxiously at the oxens.

A Video of the Royal Ploughing Ceremony - Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Farm strategy and the Royal Ploughing Outcomes

The farmers await eagerly the oxens' choices as they still have strong belief and faith in this ceremony. In fact, many Cambodians still consult traditional beliefs when deciding marriage and other important events. So, depending on what the oxens eat, the farmers decide their farm strategy.

The Brahmins are the official authority to interpret the oxen's preference during the Ploughing Ceremony. This practice goes back to when Brahmanism was the religion of the Khmer empire. The Brahmins interpret for the people the meaning of what the oxen's did, what they ate first and what they ignored.

Cambodians strongly believe the ensuing predictions. We still have to hear one Cambodian denying this.

Understand the Royal Ploughing Ceremony Better

To understand the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, read on the History of Buddhism in Cambodia. Focus in particular on the rise of Theravada Buddhism starting from the reign of the great king of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (1181-c. 1220) and much later after the collapse of the Angkor Empire. It will help you understand how this unique Cambodian Buddhism developed different from what is practiced in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Tips in Attending the Royal Ploughing Ceremony

It is exceptionally hot at this time of the year here in Cambodia. We just passed by the park where the Royal Ploughing Ceremony is and the heat is almost unbearable. So, here are some useful tips: Use your hat to protect yourself from the sun.

  1. Come early so you are on the right perch especially if you want to take pictures.
  2. For those who don't want the sun, you can go and have breakfast at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) and have a good view of the ceremony from the back porch.
  3. Bring a towel or wipes to keep you cool and take care of perspiration. You'll need this, I assure you.
  4. Take good care of your camera in the crowd.
  5. Respect the people who are kneeling for the King and praying
  6. Bring a stool to sit on unless you are one of the dignitaries where you can sit in the temporary stage.
  7. Be prepared to stay there long if you want to watch the whole event.
  8. Watch the television after to get the interpretation of the Brahmins.

Which of these Cambodian festivals have you attended?

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Time your visit for the Ploughing Ceremony

This may sound superstitious to you but for the locals, this is one event they attend religiously. Their attendance, they believe, will help their crops for the year. They wait from dawn for this ceremony and disregarding the full sun, they watch the oxens in anticipation of what they would eat. Celebrating with them is an act of solidarity with these people.

© 2010 Mary Norton

You are welcome to leave some comments - Or share your experience of Cambodia

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    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 4 years ago

      What a beautiful celebration.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      How long has it been going for?

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      This looks like an amazing celebration.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @TonyPayne: Thank you so much for the blessing.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

      Never heard of this before, sounds like a great event to witness. I love your lenses on Cambodia, they help enlighten us to traditions that we would probably otherwise never learn about. Blessed.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      @anonymous: Thank you...they do have lots of ceremonies and rituals.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Cambodia is a land of customs and traditions, this is an interesting ceremony -well presented.

    • Wedding Mom profile image

      Wedding Mom 6 years ago

      What an interesting lens about an interesting ceremony in Cambodia, nicely done.