Chams Clichés (6) – Yiey Yah, High Priestess of Possession ceremonies

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March 2006, Phum Phal (Kandal, Cambodia). Yiey Yah, possessed by Neang Champa So. © Emiko Stock.

March 2006, Phum Phal (Kandal, Cambodia).Yiey Yah, possessed by Neang Champa So. © Emiko Stock.

With all her delicate care, Yiey Yah places a narrow candle on her bay si with her long thin hands. The offering is made of a young banana tree trunk section and decorated with bright colours. It is now in its final shape following a long morning of preparations for the upcoming ceremony. The small-frame woman straightens her krama on her silver hair and hurries between the houses while cautiously carrying the precious gift to be placed as soon as possible in the specially built shelter. In the fading coolness of dawn, she grumbles, “We are getting late this morning. At this rate, we are going to have to leave the offerings in the paddy field in the middle of the night!” The graceful 80-year-old grandmother regularly performs in possession ceremonies, which are intended to express gratitude for the recovery of a sick person.

“People often invite me because I enjoy taking care of them [possession ceremonies] and I know how to prepare the offerings. Also, they are so much fun,” she exclaims. The widespread belief that Islam does not sit well with ritual practices guided by pragmatism more than dogma could make it quite a surprise to discover that the Cham have possession ceremonies, which have probably never been as popular as today. Even more astonishing is the incongruous bay si featured in these occasions repeatedly held throughout the year. The offering is usually not an element in ceremonies calling for Cham spirits, while it is typical in Khmer possession and other rituals.

So how could the bay si prepared by small Cham hands end up in the middle of a rite meant to give thanks for the recovery of… a Cham? 

Yiey Yah does not really have any answer. But with her beautiful white hand, she points to the rest of the people who have gathered. Most of the families of this tiny Cham village in the province of Kandal have come to greet over twenty Cham psychics who are progressively arriving from various, and sometimes remote, villages. The orchestra is already in place and comprises the traditional instruments of the Khmer arak (possession), as the musicians themselves are not Cham at all. Finally, the man of the day, 46-year-old San Van, comes out of his home. Gravely ill for three years, he is the one who organised the ceremony and he invites the psychics to join the dance, the orchestra to transport them with their music, and his extended family to reap the benefits of such occasion. “I do not really know what happened, but I was never feeling good. I always felt a little weak, then quite unwell. We had tried everything but nothing worked. So, we asked a family psychic – who was very reputed – to come and he managed to find the origin of the problem.”

The kru diagnosed that San Van was ill because he unconsciously fought the presence in his body of an ancestral – or even royal – spirit. Something no less than ordinary finally… But that the Cham body of this future psychic shelter a Khmer spirit is much more original! 
San Van’s profile is similar to those of the more than twenty psychics invited on that day, including Yiey Yah herself. All of them are Cham but they coexist daily with a Khmer spirit living inside them. The revelation is often brutal, but the healing can be swift. Once the diagnosis is established, a cure is suggested. The sick person must promise to the spirit within a celebration worthy of its rank, in gratitude for the future recovery.

In San Van’s case, the spirit seemed to agree since the rice grower immediately started recovering his strength. He then hurriedly collected the minimum amount of money for such an affair, some 150 dollars. Despite his family’s limited resources, the expense was considered essential to their future prosperity. “It would not have even occurred to me not to keep my promise. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for me to keep working. For example, on the day planned to buy a cow, I would be unable to get up or if I managed to buy two cows, one of them would die on our return home. Or, in the worst scenario… I cannot even imagine what could have happened to me!” 

Yiey Yah bursts into her ringing laughter, “In any case, we do it [the possession ceremony] only after we are healed… This gives us a guarantee!”

The expert she is reviews with great attention the layout of these offerings which few Cham are used to – the bay si, the clay figures representing the family affected by the illness, the chicken stretched into a cross shape – a regular feature of these exorcism rites –, the small white cotton strings which will be tied on the wrists of the guests so they will leave under protection. Blinking in the incense smoke, she specifies, “If you cannot prepare the ceremony correctly, the spirit will come and insult us. My mother also used to get into insufferable moods if nothing was ready,” without really knowing if it was the spirit or her mother – also a psychic – who was then screaming.  

“It is a duty to pay homage to the master of the place, the master of the earth and waters.” This principle usually governs Khmer ceremonies, which may be performed for the Neak Ta – the genies of the ground of a village –, the victims of unnatural death lurking near the house, or to the Kron Pali, the naga supporting the earth.

San Van has a rather clear idea of who the ancient “masters of the place” are and thus justifies his coming into possession, “We originally came from a village a bit further down, closer to the road. But we all got scattered during the war. In 1979, we were still too scared to go back there. So, we preferred to settle down a little further, in this place, since our village was empty and deserted. There was never any Cham before here, only Khmer. But as all of them had also either died or left, we decided to set up our homes here. The Khmer Neak Ta must still be here. That’s why we had to perform a Khmer arak.”

Her supple wrist follows the fast-paced rhythm of the music, while the spirit of Yiey Yah returns to her body. It is Neang So Champa, the “young white girl from Champa”. According to the possessed one, the spirit has nothing of a Cham one, in spite of its name. Like all the other psychics present that day, Yiey Yah is never invited to participate to Cham possession ceremonies. It is only on days like this that Neang So Champa manifests itself, without its story being really known – as is often the case for most spirits which people know almost nothing of. The very origin of these characters – whether Cham or Khmer – often remains unclear and is only illuminated by the ritual’s details.

While San Van and his little family bring the ceremony to an end under laughters and splashes of purifying water, Yiey Yah makes sure that in the distance, on the edges of the village and its dry paddy fields, the clay figures be abandoned to guarantee that spirits with evil intentions do not come back. As for the mystery of their origins and whether they were Khmer or not, Yiey Yah quips in a joking reference to Khmer Buddhism, “Maybe we used to be Khmer in a previous life!”

This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.

Originally published: Issue 6 – January 19, 2008

Ithaca, March 21, 2014, Emiko Stock.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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