CSDS-IRASEC Academic Seminar 2016-2017

Neak ta (land guardian spirits) in Cambodia

Neak ta (land guardian spirits) in Cambodia.
Reflections on the ideas of humanity and nature from the Khmer perspective


Alumni Meeting Room, 12th Floor,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


Anne Yvonne Guillou (Cnrs, Irasec) will go on with the lecture series of the academic seminar with a session about the ideas of humanity and nature from the Khmer perspective.

As a key element of the Khmer popular religious system, cults to neak ta (`anak tā) have deeply influenced over time the way Hindouism in its various expressions and then Buddhism has been interpreted and practiced in ancient, modern and contemporary Cambodia. Khmer neak ta are usually refered to as land guardian spirits. In fact they are far more complex beings than this simple translation suggests. Neak ta’s ontology makes pointless any analysis in terms of polarized categories such as human/non human; the dead/the living; spirit/body; material/immaterial; visible/invisible. Drawing on ten years of ethnographic field work in Cambodia (particularly in the Western provinces of Pursat, Battambang, and Oddar Meanchey), this paper will present case studies of neak ta in their daily interactions with Khmer villagers. It will argue that neak ta are less “spirits” than energies associated to (or merged into) mythic-historic figures, particular events, specific trees, stones and other natural elements.

The talk will discuss two corpuses of anthropological litterature. The first one is Paul Mus’ pioneer study (1933) of what he called the “true Asian religion, that of the land” and the second is made of recent publications debating on Southeast Asian animism in the light of Descola’s work.


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