Saturday, December 17, 2005

TRADITIONAL TRAGEDY

THE CAMBODIA DAILY
Issue number 405
Saturday and Sunday, December 17-18, 2005

Passion Lives On as the Story of 'Tum Teav' is Passed Through Generations
By Michelle Vachon

The names of Tum and Teav, had their love not led to tragedy, would have faded into oblivion centuries ago.

But their story ended with Tum being murdered and Teav killing herself in despair, and more than 350 years later, there are few Cambodians who have not heard of them.

For decades, storytellers sang their tale from village to village, accompanied by music from a chapei, or long-necked guitar. In the early 1900s, Tum Teav became a Khmer novel in verse, which was later adapted for lakhaon yike, or musical theater. It has also been made into films, and in 2000, recorded onto a CD of long songs based on the lyrics written for lakhaon yike by Pech Tum Kravel, a famous Tum performer in the 1960s, who was a leading figure in the arts in the 1980s and a poet. The novel has also been on the school syllabus since 1958.

And yet, proof that Tum and Teav actually existed remains elusive, writes George Chigas in his book "Tum Teav," which was recently published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, and which includes his English translation of the Khmer novel and research on the work.

But for many Cambodians, there is no doubt that Tum and Teav once fell in love and died because of it.

The story takes place in the village of Tbong Khmum in Kompong Chain province's Tbong Khmum district, during the reign of King Reamea Thipadei, who occupied the throne in the mid-17th century.

Tum, a novice monk who sang beautifully, was invited by Teav’s mother to their house. Unable to enter the room in which he was singing because, being unmarried, she could not do so unasked, Teav peeked in from the door.

But one look at each other was enough. Tum's "stomach fluttered. He fell in love and anguish arose, tightening his chest," the text recounts. "Instead of turning away, Tum tried to capture Teav’s heart by singing."

Teav responded by having her chaperon and servant Nor give Tum tobacco leaves and areca seeds wrapped in a phahom, a small scarf made of fine fabric.
Tum returned to his pagoda with one thought in mind: To disrobe as soon as possible and return to Teav.

The head monk refused to let him leave that quickly. As he explained to Tum’s mother, "I’ve calculated the numbers and seen that he would be met by death. Tum's fortune predicts bad luck. He must be prevented from disrobing until the end of the year."

This was months away, and Tum could not wait. "How much longer do I have to endure this torment? I might as well be dead," he told his friend Pech. He disrobed without authorization but still received the head monk’s blessing before leaving.

Tum then hurried to Teav's home and, with the complicity of Nor, the couple was able to speak of their love while Teav’s mother was away. Upon her return, Teav’s mother invited Tum to stay the night, unknowingly making it possible for the lovers to lie together.

But it would be some time before Tum and Teav could make their love known.
Teav’s mother, who was arranging a wedding between Teav and the district governor's son, only changed her mind when royal court officials chose Teav as a concubine for the King. When she and Teav were presented at the court, Teav was astonished to see Tum there.

Now a singer at the royal court, Turn risked King Reamea Thipadei's wrath and sang to him of their love and commitment. After confirming this with Teav, the King had them marry without delay.

Furious that her daughter had chosen a poor singer for a husband rather than the rich governor's son, Teav’s mother connived with the district governor to trick Teav into returning home to marry his son.

Turn ended up being killed on the district governor's order, and a message from the King was found in his pocket ordering a stop to the wedding. Teav and Nor killed themselves out of sorrow.

Upon hearing that the governor had disobeyed him and killed Tum, the King asked his advisors to recommend punishment. Thee governor and Teav’s mother, along with their families, were thrown in boiling water.

As for the guests at the wedding organized by the district governor, "they could not refuse for fear of his power," an advisor told the King. "For the crimes of all those people, I say to arrange for their inclusion as hereditary slaves," which was done, according to the story.

Whether or not those events actually took place, Chigas writes that Etienne Aymonier, a French protectorate officer, spoke of how much residents of Tbong Khmum district resented being called descendants of hereditary slaves in the 1880s.

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