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"Calling the Souls"

Notes from a program of Reyum Institute
An Exhibition by Ang Choulean and Ashley Thompson
Opening August 25, 2004

   This exhibition and accompanying publications explore pralung, a Khmer term often translated as "soul" or "vital spirit". Pralung are believed to animate human beings as well as certain objects, plants, and animals. As the pralung are fragile and can easily be lured away or lost from the person or thing to whom they belong, many types of rites are performed to call them back. These generally involve a recitation or performance of the poem known as the "Hau Pralung", or the "Calling of the Souls", one of the earliest extant literary-ritual works in Khmer.
   Though themselves invisible, pralung are represented in a wide variety of ways, figuring in numerous ritual celebrations from birth and death rites to Buddhist ordination. The opening section of the exhibition considers these representations, with a photographic essay, based on extensive fieldwork throughout Cambodia, accompanied by explanatory texts in Khmer, English and French.
   A catalogue by Dr. Ang Choulean entitled Brah Ling, accompanies the exhibition. In October, Reyum will publish a book by Ashley Thompson entitled Calling the Souls: A Cambodian Ritual Text. This book includes the 17th-century Khmer therapeutic poem, annotated English and French translations of the poem, and an extensive introductory essay in English and French.
From the Cambodia Daily, August 21-22, 2004 In Search of the Spirits by Michelle Vachon and Kim Chan.
   An exhibition, opening with this week at the Reyum Institute, illustrates rituals based on "what is the most profound in the Khmer soul," said anthropology expert Ang Choulean. Cambodians believe that a person's body is animated by 19 vital spirits that may flee in difficult moments such as illness or accident.
Those "pralung" are called back during "hau pralung" ceremonies so that the person can be whole again.
Numerous people in Southeast Asia share this belief in pralung, which differs from the Christian notion of the soul, said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist who teaches historical anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts' Department of Archeology. But Cambodians have developed their own particular interpretation and rituals, he said. The concept of pralung is so deeply rooted in the country's culture that it has become part of daily language, said Ashley Thompson, a specialist in Cambodian cultural history who lived in Cambodia from 1994 to 2001.
To describe a person who has lost conscience, people will say that "he has lost his pralung," she said ."People tell me all the time that my 6- month-old baby 'has pralung,' meaning that she is healthy."
Thompson added: "A very common expression for dreaming is I saw my pralung go out and do [such and such a thing],' which refers to the unconscious. But if you ask people what is a pralung, they will say they don't know.
"It is an abstract entity, like the unconscious. By definition, the pralungs are undefinable, like the soul in Western culture."
The exhibition consists of photos taken during hau pralung ceremonies on various occasions such as birth, a child's illness, puberty, a boy's Buddhist ordination, wedding, and cremation.
They were taken as part of a research on Cambodian traditions conducted by Ang Choulean and his team of the former department of culture and research at Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor temples. Their initial goal was to document those rituals in Angkor Archeological Park's villages.
The exhibition catalogue written by Ang Choulean in French, English and Khmer explains the rituals with photo illustrations showing the passing of the popil, or ceremonial leaf-shaped object, as well as banana and sugar cane offerings, the making of rice balls, and other traditional elements of hau pralung.
A person who has lost some of his pralung oscillates between health and sickness, Ang Choulean writes in the catalogue.
In popular belief, this condition may occur "when spirits of the forest lure some of the pralung out of the body and into the forest by conjuring up false and seductive images of their domain which is, in reality, wild and harsh."

[...missing] of a family and how busy family members are, he said. In the case of sickness, it will vary according to the gravity of the illness, said Sak Kosal. Hau pralung are performed by achar or lay pagoda officiates, and they tend to specialize, with some doing mostly weddings and others funerals, he said.
Hau pralung ceremonies continue to be performed for different occasions throughout Cambodia, although some of them such as the "Entering the Shade" ceremony at a girl's puberty are rarely practiced, he said.
About 65 percent of the population has kept the tradition, especially in remote areas and villages, said Sak Kosal.
With the spread of scientific knowledge, more people turn to medicine rather than hau pralung when they are sick.
The "Calling the Souls" or "Hau Pralung" exhibition will open with lectures by Ang Choulean and Thompson in Khmer on Wednesday at 4 pm and in English on Thursday at 5:30 pm. The exhibition and book publication are supported by The Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation and by The Friends of Khmer Culture.

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