Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Kings of Fire and Water

Among the Austronesian-speaking Jarai and Rhade people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam and Cambodia exist the famed Kings of Fire and Water.

The following excerpt gives some information on these regents whom Frazier classifies as "departmental kings of nature."


The first mention of these mysterious shamans in any European account was in the 1666 account by Father Giovanni Marini of his travels through Tonkin and Laos.Writing of leaders in Tonkin, he observes that "one counts five princes who are sovereigns and if one wants to include certain people who live in the more remote and wild mountains and who follow two small Roys called the Roy of Water and Roy of Fire, then there would be seven."

Later Marini explains that "the sixth and seventh [sovereigns] are found in the Rumoi, where the savages live, and some of them obey the two little Roys of Fire and Water as I have noted above." 11 It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additional information about the King of Fire and the King of Water began to appear in European works.Early French visitors in Cambodia became intrigued with stories about the two shamans, so they began inquiring about them.After visiting the ruins of Angkor Wat in 1850 (ten years before Henri Mouhot, who often is credited with "discovering" them), Father C. E. Bouillevaux traveled into northeastern Cambodia, reaching the country of the "Penongs" (a Cambodian term for the mountain people) in September 1851. There he was told that farther north among the Charai (Jarai) there was a man called the King of Fire and Water who did not have any real authority but who nonetheless commanded considerable respect because he was the keeper of a! sword and other objects to which the Jarai attached "une importance superstitieuse." Bouillevaux's informants added that the kings of Cambodia and Cochinchina sent gifts to the King of Fire and Water every three years. 12

Subsequent accounts by French scholars made it clear that there was not one shaman but two, and some associated the sacred saber of the King of Fire with the Prah Khan, the fabled sword possessed by Khmer royalty.In an 1883 publication, Etienne Aymonier reports that according to Norodom, the Cambodian monarch at the time, the Prah Khan was made for King Prah Ket Mealea (who is considered to be a legendary ruler). Norodom added that if it should rust it would be a bad omen for the kingdom. Aymonier also was told that the hilt of the Prah Khan was in the hands of the Sdach Phloeung (King of Fire) and the sheath was held by the Sdach Toeuk (King of Water). The blade of the Prah Khan, however, was in the care of the Baku, the strange Brahmin priests who maintained a Hindu cult in the royal palace and served as guardians of the royal treasure. 13

In his 1888 work, J. Moura reported that the King of Fire had a sacred saber and the King of Water possessed a sacred liana that had been cut centuries before but had remained alive and green.He mentions that the Cambodians and Cham believed that the talismans once belonged to the Khmer and Cham rulers.Expressing the view that these highland figures were "good peasants" without any real political authority who lived by their labor and the gifts of followers, Moura concedes that nonetheless their supernatural powers were unquestioningly acknowledged by the people.

Their reputations, he notes, were widespread throughout southern Indochina.On the occasion of marriages and rituals honoring the spirits, the people would summon the King of Fire.A special place was prepared for him, white cloth was placed on the ground, and his path was strewn with ribbons of cloth. The faithful would press behind him, holding the train of his loincloth and shouting with joy. When the Kings of Fire and Water appeared in public, everyone must bow, for if this homage was not rendered, terrible storms would ensue.

The Jarai, he writes, feared above all the powerful talismans, which also were known throughout the region. Illustrating the fame of the sacred saber, Moura notes that the kings of Siam and Cambodia as well as Pu Kombo, the well-known Cambodian rebel at the time, all had attempted to gain possession of this weapon because it would have enhanced their prestige and guaranteed them success in battle.The spirit in the saber did not permit this, and the Jarai retained ownership of the famous talisman, which they kept wrapped in exquisite silk further protected by cotton cloth. 14

Moura was the first Westerner to give any details about tributary relationships between the Kings of Fire and Water and the Khmer rulers.He writes that until Norodom ascended the throne in 1859, the Khmer sovereigns sent annual gifts consisting of a richly harnessed young male elephant, some brass wire, glassware, iron, cotton cloth, and elegant silk cloth to wrap the sacred saber.These gifts were taken upriver to the governor of Kratie, who was responsible for transmitting them to the highland kings.Moura was unable during his visit to the Cambodian province nearest the highlands to locate anyone who had been in the land of the King of Fire and the King of Water.

The Cambodians expressed fear of the dreaded "forest fever" in the highlands and claimed that there were no routes or means of transport or any authority to whom one might turn in case of trouble.

The Kings of Fire and Water reciprocated by sending "their august Khmer brother" a large loaf of wax bearing the thumbprint of the King of Fire and two large calabashes, one filled with rice and the other with sesame seeds.Sometimes they also sent ivory and rhinoceros horns. Upon arrival in the Khmer capital, these presents were put in the care of the Baku, and Moura notes that when he visited the royal treasure, it still contained one of the rhinoceros horns sent by the Kings of Fire and Water. The wax was used to make candles for ceremonies at the palace.During times of distress such as epidemics, floods, or war, some of the sesame, the rice, or both was cast on the ground to appease the evil spirits.

The relationship between the Cambodian kings and the highland shamans appears to have included a military alliance, with the Kings of Fire and Water responsible for guarding the northeastern approaches to the Khmer kingdom.Moura reports that when King Ang Duong ( 1841 or 1845 to 1859) was warring with the Vietnamese, the Kings of Fire and Water sent him nine elephants to aid in his struggle.They were driven by Jarai mahouts to the capital at Oudong, and there was a celebration to welcome them.When they set out, laden with gifts, for the return journey to the highlands, some of the mahouts fell victim to smallpox and died. The following dry season, the King of Fire sent a request to the Khmer king to have the mahouts' bodies returned to the highlands.

Unfortunately, their remains could not be found, so Ang Duong arranged to have special gifts sent to the King of Fire as compensation.Moura adds that in 1859 Norodom ceased sending the traditional gifts to the Kings of Fire and Water, and only a few years before Moura's arrival in Cambodia some Jarai notables approached the governor of Kratie to inquire why gifts were no longer being sent. Norodom did not respond, so the Jarai returned to the highlands.This event marked the end of these tributary relations.

Pétrus Ky's mention of the court of Hue's sovereignty over the King of Fire and the King of Water is a reference to tributary relations established between the two, probably during the reign of Vo Vuong ( 1738-65). The first recorded exchange of tributary gifts took place in 1751. In the Official Biographies of Dai Nam found in the royal archives at Hue it states that in the thirteenth year of Vo Vuong's rule, Thuy Xá and Hóa Xá (the King of Water and the King of Fire, respectively) sent an emissary bearing tribute. 15 The two upland leaders were rewarded by the emperor, and until the Tay Son Revolt became intense in 1773, tribute was sent regularly. ------------------

Kingdom in the Morning Mist: Mayraena in the Highlands of Vietnam. By Gerald Cannon Hickey - author. Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press. Place of Publication: Philadelphia. Publication Year: 1988. Page Number: 69 - 72.

Paul Kekai Manansala