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Lord Keo and the Cow God (a Cambodian folktale)

Hi everyone, today I'm posting my favorite folktale from Cambodia. The story was provided by Goombaking of AsiaFinest (thx bro!), and the illustrations was given to me by my friend (an Indonesian artist), Li Julian. It's quite a long story, so brace yourself! The post was taken word-for-word from Frank Smith's Khmer textbook (Kamlang Phiasaa by Frank Smith, 2006,

The tales unfolds as follows: there was a peasant couple, and the wife had a dream. In this dream, a holy man in white gave her three rings, which she soon lost. The man told her that the rings represented three types of BON . Intrigued and puzzled by her dream, the woman sent her husband to a fortune teller. He told the husband that the dream meant his wife was pregnant with a child who would have great spiritual power or BON BARAMI . The fortune teller also warned her to avoid eating unripe mangoes at all costs (it’s very common for magical powers to be dependent on the avoidance of a taboo of some kind; for instance, if KRU KHMER walk under a woman’s skirt hanging on a clothesline, they lose their powers). Mangos also happen to be a food that Khmer pregnant women are commonly thought to crave (the Khmer version of “pickles and ice cream,” or something like that). So of course, the woman got a craving for them. When her husband was off working the fields, she shimmied up a mango tree to try to pick one. While high up in the tree, she reached out for a lone fruit on a far branch. The branch she was perched on broke and she fell to her death. As the woman hit the ground, her belly burst open and out came a baby - Preah Kaew- and his older brother, a calf, who was born able to talk: ‑­Preah Ko. The father returned and was of course distraught at the scene. But the villagers reacted in a worse way. They were convinced that the death of a pregnant woman (bad enough to begin with, if you’ll recall!) out of whose belly came an animal could not be a good omen, and they chased the man and his children out of the village. The father foraged for them the best that he could.

Meanwhile, after moving on to another village, while talking with some village boys tending cows, the now young lad Preah Kaew is taunted for being poor and having no food to eat. At this, Preah Ko moos and from his mouth comes forth silver and gold dishes with all sorts of delicious food on them, so his brother could eat in style. When he was done eating, Preah Ko swallowed the dishes again. The cowherd boys run and tell their parents about the cow who had coughed up and then swallowed the gold and silver plates. The villagers formed a posse to cut open ‑­Preah Ko's belly and take the riches for themselves. At that point in the story, we’re introduced to yet another of ‑­Preah Ko's powers. He commands his younger brother to grab hold of this tail, and takes to the sky flying to escape.

Eventually ‑­Preah Ko and ‑­Preah Kaew‘s father dies in the forest of starvation, for Preah Ko explains that he was not allowed to provide magical food for their father, only for ‑­Preah Kaew. After ‑­Preah Kaew grows into a handsome young man, one day he stumbles upon the king’s daughters bathing in a pond, and falls in love with the youngest, Neang Poev. ‑­Preah Kaew complains to his brother that there’s no way he could court a princess in his ragged and destitute state. ‑­ Preah Ko once again opens his mouth, and this time produces an entire palace for ‑­Preah Kaew to live in, and splendid, regal clothes for the younger brother. A bit of flirting ensues between ‑­Neang Poev and Preah Kaew, which is seen by her older sisters. Jealous, they report her “scandalous” behavior to her father the king. He is furious, and orders Neang Poev executed (in some versions of the story, he simply banishes her to the forest). The royal guard drags her out of the palace and beheads her.

Luckily for all involved, Indra (Preah Ehn) takes pity on the princess and magically restores her head back to her neck and breathes life back into her body. After wandering in the forest for a while she is seen by Preah Ko, who gives her the same kind of fabulous royal clothes he gave his younger brother. Then he performs a marriage ceremony for the two. Now, here’s where the historical part of the legend comes in. It seems that the king of Siam has designs on Khmer land. So he challenges the king of Cambodian to a cockfight. If the Khmers lose, they must cede land to the Thais. The Thais put up their fiercest rooster and the Khmers theirs, but alas, the Thai bird is victorious. Before giving up Khmer soil, the Khmer king asks for a rematch, which the Siamese king agrees to. The Khmer king then scours the kingdom for a suitable fighting cock with which to beat the Thai champion. Preah Ko hears of this and agrees to help. He transforms himself into a rooster and easily whups the Thai rooster. Of course, the Thai king then wants a rematch himself, but this time with elephants. Once again, Preah Ko uses his magic and this time changes into an elephant, and trounces the Siamese pachyderm.

All’s not well that ends well, though, and the Siamese get suspicious. Their royal fortune teller discovers the existence of Preah Ko preah kaev in particular Preah Ko, who has within him all the mystical, scientific, artistic, military and literary knowledge that the Khmers learned from the Indians. The Thai king then hatches a plot with his ministers and advisors to abduct Preah Ko for his own uses. Now you can start to see the large-scale metaphors in this tale, right? Preah Ko —or more accurately, the magic contained within him, which is in fact the third type of BON spoken of by the fortune teller who Preah Ko Preah Kaew‘s father consulted when his wife first related her dream to him—symbolizes all of the high knowledge that the powerful Khmer kingdom learned from Indian sources and put to use in their rise to ascendancy in the region. The Siamese desire to usurp the Khmers as the premier mandala in the region is
symbolized in this story by the their desire to acquire Preah Ko. This reflects the actual Thai desire to acquire all of the high knowledge of the Khmers, something they did with the sacking of Angkor in 1431, when they carted off most of the learned religious figures, artists, dancers, diviners, etc. to Ayutthya. After that, the Thais did in fact rise to a position of dominance in the region, rising well above the Khmers in almost every way, a state of affairs that continues to this day.

So here’s how all of this historical reality is played out in the story: the Thais decide to challenge the Khmers to an oxen fight next, knowing for sure that Preah Ko will be the Khmer combatant. But the Thais don’t put an ox of their own into the battle. They instead build a mechanical or robot ox, emboldened by their fortune teller’s prediction that Preah Ko will soon meet with misfortune. Sure enough, the mechanical ox is too much for our hero, and rather than face defeat and capture by the Siamese (the match is being held on Thai soil), he yells for Preah Kaew and Neang Poev to grab onto his tail, and off they go. Unfortunately, as the trio is flying over Cambodian, Neang Poev loses her grip on Preah Ko‘s tail, and falls to her death. Indra shows up again, this time not to bring her back to life but rather to turn her into a mountain, which is supposed to be in the province of Kompot . Preah Kaew is of course distraught over the loss of his wife, but with the Thai army in hot pursuit, the two brothers must continue running—er, flying. The Thais pursue the duo all the way to the Khmer fortress of Longvek, which was for a time the Khmer capital (in real life). At that time, according to the legend, Longvek was surrounded by a thick grove of bamboo, which served as its major defense. Soldiers attempting to penetrate the bamboo forest, presumably, would have to move quite slowly, and would easily be picked off by Khmer soldiers guarding the actual fortress.

The Siamese general got a brilliant idea, however. Instead of shooting cannonballs at the fortress, he had his men load their cannons with silver coins, and fired those into the dense bamboo cover. The Siamese army then retreated back to Siam. The residents of the city then rushed out into the forest and hastily chopped down all the bamboo in their rush to gather up the coins. You guessed it, once the bamboo was gone, the Thai army returned, easily overran the fortress and captured Preah Ko Preah Kaew. Once again, this event echoes an actual historical occurence, as the Thais really did overrun Longvek, in a significant battle in 1594. The larger significance of the way they manage to capture the fortress—and our two heroes—is an implicit accusation that the people of Longvek were not good Buddhists and only thought of and acted on their desire for impermanent riches. This lack of “right thought” and “right behavior” leads to the loss of the Khmers’ most precious resource—the knowledge contained in Preah Ko—which of course ultimately means their right and ability to dominate the region. This point is not lost on tellers of the oral version of the story, who invariably point out this “moral” when they get to the bamboo-cutting episode. The story sometimes ends there, but in many tellings it continues. In some versions, including a verse version published in the 1950s, copied from palm leaf manuscripts, Preah Ko Preah Kaew are first held prisoner by the Siamese but soon escape and return to Cambodian. The Siamese army pursues them again, and this time they seek refuge among a herd of water buffalo. Preah Ko transforms both himself and his brother into krabey and of course the Thai soldiers cannot tell them apart from the real krabey. Time for another ingenious Thai trick, of course. The Thais use a prout, a kind of rope made out of leather—in this case, water buffalo leather—to create a magical boundary or seymea around the herd. The ordinary water buffalo have no problem with walking under (in some versions, over) the leather rope to get away from the soldiers, but Preah Kaew and Preah Ko can’t pass under or over the rope, especially Preah Ko. If he did, he would lose his powers.

Such taboos are common for those with magical powers in Khmer belief, as mentioned in Chapter Three. For instance, kru khmae, traditional ritual specialists, are not allowed to walk under speu `trees, women’s clothing hanging on a line, and various other things, lest they lose all their magic (saabaselb). The Siamese were thus able to capture the pair. They took them back to Siam, where they imprisoned them in a fortress with seven successive sets of walls, under constant guard. And from that time until the present day, the legend holds, Preah Ko Preah Kaew are under control of the Thais. That is what has enabled the Thais to prosper while Cambodian continues a steady decline. Various other details are told in some oral versions of the story. One postscript is that Preah Ko Preah Kaew turn themselves to stone when they realize they can’t escape from the Siamese, which supposedly limits the enemies’ access to at least some of Preah Ko's powers. Related to this, some Khmers—although admittedly, it’s not a large number—believe that it’s possible for a Khmer to free the two magical brothers even today, if s/he can manage to enter the place where they’re being held in Thailand, and splash some soy sauce—some say vinegar—on the brothers! It’s easy to see the place that the tale continues to play in Khmer feelings of loss and anger over their current social and political place vis-à-vis the Thais, especially in light of the way history has played out with the Thai rise in power going hand-in-hand with the Khmer fall. Preah Ko also continues to loom large in the Khmer imagination, as reports come in from time to time—and they’re duly covered by the newspapers—of rural people
claiming to have seen Preah Ko. Some people even claim to own a cow or ox who is inhabited by Preah Ko’s spirit and can perform healing of the sick and other acts.

Denith: Preah Ko is also known as the Keeper of Khmer culture for some reasons: the loss of Preah Ko results in today similarity of Khmer and Thai culture. Actually, Preah ko is a statue containing Khmer records on religions, traditions, cultures, knowledge, study, history... King Chan Reachea managed to keep all of these records in Preah Ko in order to secure it from being lost. But...


denith said...

Thanks Bhaskara for this... very great. The story is resemble to the one in the student book, so this is acceptable. :D

Keep the good work up.

Jiwa Matahari said...

You are most welcome, Nikkie Nid (are we going to call each other by our AF nick now? Heehee). Credit goes to Gommbaking who post this story in AF, the original source Frank Smith, and my friend Li Julian who provided the illustration. Auh kuhn!

Frank said...

Cute illustrations...but you really should indicate in the post that it's taken word-for-word from my Khmer textbook, and provide the title, etc. (Kamlang Phiasaa by Frank Smith, 2006, Thanks.

Jiwa Matahari said...

Ok, Mr.Smith sir, already done. No hard feelings? Thank you for the kind words, Li Julian is one of most famous illustrators in Indonesia and a close friend of mine. Thank you for visiting and also for the comment, we hope for more of your advise and contribution in the future.

Adipati Julian Sutisnawinata said...

Hi Jiwa Matahari!
You never ceased to amaze me, fe people took interest on these subjects, regardless the fact you gather the story, translation, and illustrations from other people, I think it's still amazing!
Keep up the noble work!