Monday, December 19, 2005



When he visited the area in 1999, Chigas writes that villagers were willing to take him to the bodhi tree where Tum is presumed to have been killed.

The version of Tum Teav he translated is the text written by Venerable Botumthera Som in 1915. It consists of 1,044 four-line stanzas, each line containing seven syllables and an intricate verse pattern—there are not only last-syllable rhymes but also last syllables rhyming with fourth syllables in the middle of lines. Chigas did not attempt to translate the text in verse.

The authorship of this written version has led to heated debate among Cambodians over the years. Some have contended that Botumthera Som plagiarized the text of Cambodian poet and court official Santhor Mok who died in 1908.

Others have pointed out that Botumthera Som grew up in Krampau village in Prey Veng province, an area that bordered Tbong Khmum district in the mid-1800s. He was Wat Krampau's head monk when he completed his text on palm leaves in 1915 or, as he indicates in stanza 16, in the year 2,458 of the Buddhist era.

Unlike some traditional stories in Khmer literature, Tum Teav does not feature perfect heroes with magical powers. They are people with human failings whose conduct Cambodians still discuss today.

In a series of interviews conducted by Chigas, writer Pak Vannarirak blamed Teav for falling in love with a monk. "During that time, our culture was very strict," she said. "For men and women to meet and fall in love in the house was unacceptable."

But Tum is as guilty as she is, added novelist Va Sam Arth: "As a monk, he should not even think about women, never mind singing to her," he said. "He makes another mistake when he disrobes by himself without proper consent."

They all agreed that Tum and Teav’s true love for each other and the courage they displayed in declaring it excuses their conduct, but condemned Teav’s mother for imposing on her daughter a marriage she did not want. Some also questioned the validity of executing "seven generations of relatives" for the killing of Tum, while others approved of the King's judgment.

When Cambodia Daily assignment editor Van Roeun handed me the book, he told me, "If you read ‘Tum Teav,’ you will understand Cambodians." The work brings to life the country’s customs and the social rules that Cambodians were and, in some cases are, still expected to follow.

Arranged marriages continue to take place and so does the abuse of power, such as the governor in the story ordering "to buy or confiscate all the materials needed for the wedding."

Some traditions have vanished in modern times—Teav being "in the shade," a period during which she was to stay home and prepare for marriage and motherhood; Tum chewing tobacco in between songs; and court officials traveling the country in search of beautiful young women to be the king’s concubines.

Chigas' book is a departure for DC-Cam from its usual line of work, focusing on research and writing on the Khmer Rouge genocide. But the story helps put today's customs and systems of justice in the context of Cambodia's traditions, explained the DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang.

Chigas, who is married to a Cambodian woman, has been involved in Cambodian studies for a decade. He was associate director of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University in America, and now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. This book is based on his PhD thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


Post a Comment

<< Home