In some Cham villages in Cambodia, the air has seemed milder for several days with the sweet-scented promise of delicacies to come. A pleasant smell of frying escapes from homes between Udong and Battambang. It announces the post-harvest season, the time for a treat for the palates. The cakes especially prepared for Mawlid celebrations will soon be ready so the saints can be celebrated. In Arabic, Mawlid traditionally refers to the celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad. In Cambodia like elsewhere, it is the time for lavish festivities on 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar – which has usually fallen around April-May for the last few years. But as in the rest of the Muslim world, this commemoration has extended to saints, men with remarkable lives. It is believed they have exceptional powers and visiting their tombs brings happiness and prosperity to the home.
Homage to Imam San
One such man is Imam San. Once harvest is finished, those who claim to be his devotees travel to Udong, to the lands he was offered by King Ang Duong. There, they honour with a superb Mawlid the 19th century saint, whose strength, morality and countless wonderful powers are the tale of many stories. Imam San opened a new religious path for a small faithful group of Muslims on Khmer soil, in the middle of stupas. In the villages, cakes that were cooked with devotion are meticulously packed in baskets or delicately placed on trays women will carry on their heads. Unless they are brought in “kits” for the pieces to be assembled into a little masterpiece, the “Kah Lasai”. These compositions adorned with cakes somewhat bring to mind the Phkars Ben of the Khmer day of the dead or, in a more remote way, Xmas trees… Each of these Kah Lasai decorated with cakes and multiple ornaments dazzles with colours, lustre and splendour. They are dedicated to the saint celebrated on that day and probably through him to the dead under the enchanted watch of the living. While men sing about the life of the Prophet with their best voice, women start working as soon as they arrive. They hang the sweet and firm decorations to chromatic metal sticks. Then, they add colourful wrapped candies, brand new bank notes, garlands and flowers – all fixed on a carefully decorated base.
A symbolic composition
Each family endeavours to create at least one Kah Lasai. The smallest ones are prepared in honour of newly-borns, who will then officially receive their names. The biggest ones are intended for the 15-year-old youth in celebration of their recent coming of age. Most families usually decorate only one Kah Lasai for financial reasons… or because its symbolism has been forgotten. But the greedy ones should be warned that Mawlid cakes are primarily intended to satisfy not the palate but rather the ritual. Their arrangement must not leave anything to chance and evoke by turns the treasures of the ancestral kingdom and the human anatomy in this very esoteric celebration of birth. The starting point is a hard-boiled egg, the original matrix, to which a “cartwheel” cake is added to commemorate the day of the so-called “crossing” or childbirth. Next are small “ears” or “noses” and indispensable “bird nests” as they represent the blood vessels. Those are the fundamentals that constitute the base of these Kah Lasai symbolising birth itself.
Then, the composition will be completed according to the recipient of the offering. The older ones will be treated to complex Naga patterns – representing “the animal that is burning inside us at the beginning of the adult age and preventing us from sleeping so much” –, a “Prasat” – through the representation of an ancient palace – or (human) ribs supposed to evoke female beauty, the complement to the Naga’s male energy. Although the hidden meaning – often found in Shia Islam or Sufism – of these not-so-naive sweets becomes lost with the death of each elder, the act is replicated exactly from one year to the next, in echo to the Mawlid for Prophet Muhammad in whose honour the same sweets are offered.
The Prophet’s first birthday
“Prophet Muhammad would not stop crying for his first birthday. Nobody knew what to do to appease his cries. Nothing worked, neither sweets, nor fruit or anything precious. The place was filled with delicacies and treasures, when an old woman who had only one breast came up to him. Child Muhammad refused to suck the breast she offered to him and instead turned to the breastless side. And while he sucked emptiness, a new breast grew. Only then did his tears stop at last,” one of the religious elders of the Imam San’s community relates to explain the origins of these sweet offerings. Child Muhammad is spoiled. In the Muslim Andalusia of yore, candles were burned all night in his honour. Dances fill the streets of Egypt in the days of Mawlid, while in Indonesia, the cakes are mounted on enormous bases that change according to one’s original “caste”. In Cambodia, the cakes are the pride of the little Imam San’s community because many neighbouring Cham villages prefer to settle for a simple communal meal and a shorter prayer to celebrate the Prophet.
“To celebrate or not to celebrate the Mawlid”
Kilometers away, far from Ta San and his faithful Cham, the Jvea in Kampot respect a similar ritual. Those who similarly preach traditionalism also prepare rich and scrumptious compositions, while the so-called Orthodox ones lean towards more minimalism. As for the Wahhabites , they refrain from any kind of ceremony, reminding that the Prophet rejected any personality cult or denouncing an “associationism”* regarded as risky in the case of the Mawlids of local saints. The debate has taken such a magnitude from one province to another that communities soon started to play on this distinction that is both ritual and social. However, far from the discourses and the ideals, while some will be climbing Imam San’s hill to worship him though he is not their guide, everybody’s cakes will be gathered together to be shared. Representatives of local authorities and Cambodian neighbours will also be offered their annual little basket of delicacies, as if social and religious boundaries faded away before a language spoken by all: a sweet tongue.
This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.
Originally published: Issue 3 – October 17, 2008
Montreal, October 18, 2013, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
*Here, “associationism” refers to the association of Allah, the only God, with other deities. Associationism is regarded as one of the most serious sins in Islam.