Cambodia is celebrating the Water Festival, one of the three most important holidays in the country (besides Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben) this Sunday. On the Nov 10 festival, while exciting boat races are in store during the day, by night you will see people launching small, handmade floats, known as pratip in the river. Different government ministries create their own larger illuminated pratip. Where does this tradition come from? Taing Rinith investigates the history and meaning behind illuminated floats
Around 7pm on Nov 23, 2018, tens of thousands of people, mostly from the countryside, gathered on the Riverside in Phnom Penh. Just like the previous years, they had congregated on the capital to watch the boat race, which is held annually to celebrate the Water Festival, as well as to cheer for boats from their hometowns. Although the last laps of the races were already finished a few hours ago, the people were still there, in the gentle breeze from the great Mekong River, waiting for the most exciting event of the evening, ‘Bandaet Pratip’.
Slowly, decorated boats illuminated with neon lights in various colours, patterns, shapes and sizes, took to the water. Known as ‘pratip’, every float represents the perspective, achievements and goals of the government body that created the float. For example, the pratip from the Ministry of Defence comprises the image of Hanuman, the monkey god in Hinduism and an important character in the Ramayana, carrying the logo and bearing the name of the ministry while standing on two, intertwined mythical Nagas. According to a commentator from TVK, which broadcasts the event ‘live’ every year, the design reflects the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to protect the country and the nation “from all kinds of invasion and insecurity”.
Pratips floating on the Tonle Sap Lake for hours and the fireworks that brighten up the sky with colourful effects create a stunning night view, which can only be seen once a year. To many foreign travellers, not coming to see it while they are in Cambodia during the festival season will be a great loss.
However, most travelling websites and blogs which have been publishing about the Water Festival, do not say much about ‘Bandaet Pratip’. They usually just describe it as “the most appealing” to tourists and “dating back to Angkorian period”. That is probably because not much has been recorded about it.
Origin and Meaning
Just a week before the Water Festival 2018, a group of 11 men are building 14 pratips on the body of water that surrounds Chroy Changvar peninsula. They receive the designs from the governments around two weeks earlier, and now are almost finished with the projects.
Yet, many people cannot wait until the festival kicks off and thus have come to the site to catch a first glimpse at the beautiful floats, which will be showcased during their favourite festival.
Among them is Dr Chen Chanratana, a Cambodian historian and the head of Khmer Heritage Foundation, who since his childhood has admired and considered pratip a “very special national identity”.
Chenratana says Bandaet Pratip was held to pay respect to the Goddess of Earth and the Goddess of Water.
Meanwhile he agrees that the tradition dates back to the Angkorian Empire (802-1431), particularly in the reign of King Jayavaraman VII, who celebrated the first Water Festival to honour his naval force’s victory over his Cham rivals.
“A Cambodian’s life is strongly connected to earth and water, and almost all festivals in Cambodia are connected to those goddesses,” Chenratana says. “The use of light on pratip could have resulted from the intention of the King to create a magnificent view for his people to enjoy.”
However, Dr Michel Tranet, the country’s prominent historian and anthropologist dismissed Chenratana’s statement, arguing that there is no evidence or document suggesting that the pratips, in the form of illuminated boats which are used today, were used in the Water Festivals of ancient times.
The original pratip, Dr Tranet claims, is a small lotus-shaped float with a candle in the centre, which ordinary people float on the river at the beginning of the harvesting season. Dr Tranet adds this kind of pratip is a form that really dates back to the Angkorian Empire, based on recorded documents by some foreign historians, and led to the creation of today’s illuminated boat. He also believes that their purpose remains the same, simply to pray for a good crop yield and luck.
“Based on my analysis, the big pratip, as we see today, may have been displayed for the first time during the Water Festival just when King Ponhea Yat moved the capital from Angkor to Chaktomok, which is today a part of Phnom Penh, in 1431,” Tranet says.
“The pratip which represents a government institution is even more modern, probably from the French protectorate period, when the French administration departmentalised the country’s government.”
Meanwhile, the ‘Collection of Khmer Legends’ published in 1974 by the Royal Academy of Cambodia, relates the small lotus-shaped pratip to a Buddhist legend about one of the lives of the five Buddhas. In the tale, the five Buddha are five men born from a pair of white crows, from whom they were separated when they were still eggs due to a storm. Soon after the loss, two crows die of a broken heart and incarnated in Indra, the King of Gods, and who later told their five sons to pay respect to them by floating the immolated objects on the water. Although this is a strange story, it implies that pratip is an influence of Buddhism. Some other records say that Bandaet Pratip is held in dedication to Buddha himself.
Influence on Regional Cultures?
While Cambodia is preparing for the Water Festival, which falls on Nov 10 this year, the Thai people are getting ready for the Loy Krathong festival, also one of the biggest holidays in Thailand, on Nov 11.
During Loy Krathong festival, the Thai people launch ‘krathong’, a small container-vessel very similar to the small pratip made by Cambodians, on a river, canal or pond while making a wish and praying to Goddess of Water, the Hindu Goddess Ganga, Phra Mae Khongkha. government offices, corporations, and other organisations launch large decorated krathongs. There are competitions for the best of these large krathongs. A beauty contest is also a regular feature and fireworks have become common in recent years.
Although there are many written accounts about the history and meaning of Loy Krathong in Thailand, both Chen Chanratana and Dr Tranet speculate that this festival is an adaptation of Cambodia’s Water Festival.
“The country of Siam, which is today Thailand, was just created in the 12th Century, and its culture is strongly influenced by Cambodian culture,” Chanratana says. “Loy Krathong is obviously an adaptation of Bandaet Pratip.”
“The two festivals are very similar, so are pratip and Krathong,” Tranet says. “Maybe in the past, both nations celebrated the only one festival but as time went by; they have modified it and come up with their own form.”