The bright and gilded miniature houses on pillars caught my attention, once we came to live in Cambodia. I was quite bemused to see these little temple like structures, in front of houses, shops, office buildings, hotels and so on. These beautiful, ornate structures fascinated me for days and made me curious. Initially I thought these must be the places of worship of the Cambodians, miniature pagodas. Similar shrines of worship I have seen in Ho Chi Minh City too. The deity would be Bo Dai ( Laughing Buddha ) or Quan Am, a female deity. As you enter a house or a restaurant or a shop in Saigon, you get to see small shrines placed on the floor, decorated with flowers and fruits and incense sticks and what not! When we made Phnom Penh our new home a year ago, (with a heavy heart leaving the beautiful Saigon behind ) I wanted to keep one such little house on pedestal in our house too, as it looked so charming … I was in dire need of a place to keep our many number of Hindu gods and this looked so regal. But soon I came to know that these are the Khmer Spirit Houses and immediately my desire to buy one died!
Cambodian spirit houses of different sizes, colours
The spirit houses are houses for the spirits, living spaces for the dead ancestors. Khmer people are Buddhists and they believe in life after death and this is one way of appeasing the departed souls.The spirits are given an abode to live outside, so that they would not invade the homes of those who’re alive. Rich or poor is not a matter of concern, they keep one in the courtyards of houses, in front of shops or other buildings . Offerings are kept in the spirit houses in the form of incense sticks, fruits, flowers, water and so on ( again it has puzzled me that I haven’t seen a bird pecking on to the fruits kept for the spirits! ) Even the economically backward Khmer families, having a shabby house in a dilapidated condition, are not stingy when it comes to a well adorned spirit house in their courtyard. My regard for them soared! Each spirit house is unique. Whenever I see a spirit house I feel, I haven’t seen a similar one before. Am sure, following the genocide that has taken place here restless and wandering souls might be aplenty! They indeed need living spaces!
Ah! What a beautiful abode for the spirits!
A gilded spirit house against rustic simplicity
Spirit houses for sale
For the spirits of the mountains-On the misty mountains of Mondolkiri
And that was just the beginning. I was drawn more and more towards the customs and traditions of this people, their culture; a land which was culturally and economically rich at one point of time in history and which has close ties to the culture and traditions of my own land, India. I was feeling a bit ashamed that before coming here I hardly knew anything about the rise and fall of a great empire, the ancient Khmer empire.