Tug-of-War in Asia
Cooperative projects for safeguarding common living heritage

Living Heritage Series

Tugging Rituals and Games

A Common Element, Diverse Approaches

Chapter 2

Teanh Prot: Tug-of-War in Cambodia

Siyonn Sophearith
Official, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia
Lecturer, Royal University of Fine Arts, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia

For Cambodians, like many peoples in Asia, rice is indispensable and firmly attached to socio-religious life of the people. Besides being the principle daily staple, rice—either husked or unhusked, cooked or uncooked—is a necessary ritual material in every religious ceremony. Interestingly, rice is considered to be female in gender. By nurturing an individual person in the form of cooked rice, she is considered Preah Me (August Mother). In addition, rice is venerated in the form of a goddess called Neang Propei.1 She is worshipped for good harvest and prosperity. Neang Propei is no doubt a local adoption/adaptation of the Indian God of Wealth and Prosperity, Vaishravana. Such complex socio-religious aspects involved with rice demonstrate how important rice was and is in everyday life of rice-farming communities, concerning how to obtain enough rice for each year. Besides various techniques and tools that were created, rituals and games are also performed to reassure sufficiency of rice. For Cambodian rice-farming communities, those rituals and games are associated with animistic beliefs or are animistic oriented. Examples of these include Loeng Neak Ta, Da Lean, and Chlong Chet.2
When the time comes, each community, led by the village elders, performs these ritual ceremonies accordingly. Roughly speaking, the Loeng Neak Ta ceremony is a communal ceremony performed to propitiate Neak Ta or to bring villagers good health and prosperity—that is, enough rain for rice cultivation and good crops. Neak Ta is, in short, an indigenous god of the earth, symbolizing the village and villagers’ lands. He can be represented in various forms in a small hut, a broken statue, a rock, termite hill, etc.
Da Lean is a harvest ritual and is performed after the harvest. Sometimes a ritual of making mountains of rice (poun phnom srov) is also performed. The rice for making the mountain will be brought to the local wat (Buddhist monastery); making rice mountains symbolizes an abundance of rice in the coming year. In this ceremony is an additional ceremony called hau prolung srov (calling the souls of rice). In Cambodian belief, an individual Khmer person is believed to have nineteen souls. These souls are fragile and can escape from the body easily. When a soul escapes from the body, the person becomes sick. It is, therefore, important to keep the entire complement of souls in the body. A person with complete souls is healthy. Thus, when some souls are believed to have escaped the body, a ritual is performed to call back the escaped souls. Due to its close contact with the people, rice is also believed to have souls. Therefore, before cultivating seed rice, which is used for growing, a ritual to call the souls of rice is undergone with a similar purpose—that is, to make the rice healthy. Once the seed rice is healthy, it produces good crops.
Chlong Chet, is performed shortly after the New Year (mid-April) to mark the start of rice cultivating season. The ceremony marks the end of the previous year of both the lunar year and the rice cultivation year. Chet is the lunar month in which the New Year is celebrated. In terms of the annual cultivation cycle, it is the passage from the old rice-cultivation cycle year to the new one. As the term Chlong Chet signifies, it literally means “passing from the month of Chet.” The villagers believe that dangers such as snakebites would befall them if they dared to start working on their rice fields prior to the ceremony.
To mark specifically the end of this rice cultivation year, specific ritual games are played to bring good health, prosperity, and good harvest to the rice-cultivating community. One such game is teanh prot (pulling the rope), the main focus of this paper.
Although teanh prot is played along with other traditional games such as bos angkonh (throwing angkonh, a kind of nut), chol chhoung (throwing a wrapped scarf) and lak kanseng (hiding a handkerchief), teanh prot proves to be one of the most important ritual games played nation-wide. Every Cambodian has played or at least seen the game. Its popularity and prevalence in Cambodia indicate that its centuries-old cultural background is deeply and firmly rooted in Cambodian agrarian society.