The magic carver

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There’s so much magic and mystery in Cambodian culture and traditions. And even in its arts. And though most of the beliefs are based on myths, legends and stories told by the ancestors, people respect and honour them sincerely. Eileen McCormick narrates how she met a ‘magic carver’, who wants to remain anonymous, and how his carvings signify different interpretations.

Inscribed on many temples around Cambodia are masterful carvings such as the Apsara – the celestial maiden – which represents ideal beauty. Other carvings have an interesting mix of Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous elements that mirrors the Cambodian culture. Most Cambodians who have lived for decades firmly believe in myths and legends. These stories – mostly unproven and unsupported but deeply respected – have been interwoven with traditions and cultures, eventually creating a unique fabric of belief that made its way to modern-day Cambodia, to its modern-day people.

While many of us wish we could take part of the carvings on the temple walls back with us for souvenir or for deeper reasons, we also know it would be impossible, impractical and yes, illegal.

However, giving your home that real Khmer vibe through traditional wood carvings isn’t utterly unachievable. The skill of carving is not strange to Cambodians, especially to those whose ancestors were also into carving and have passed the passion to the next generation. This means that it is not impossible to find beautiful carvings of the Buddha, of Apsara or of any other Cambodian element that may complement to your personal spaces. But with the emergence of modern innovations, handmade carvings may have just become unconventional.

Last September, I was on the looking out for authentic Cambodian art. It was my Hubby’s birthday and he is someone who likes rare finds, and I thought that picking up a painting or something at the Russian Market was not going to cut it.

In full disclosure, I am far from being an art connoisseur. I have more of a knack of attracting things that seem to be vibrational aligned. I’m not sure how many people believe in that sort of thing, but I have found some really great finds in strange places such as handmade jewelry, paintings, instruments, etc, that have all spoken to me in some ways.

Most of the time, these magical or cultural artifacts that give me a mysterious vibe come from the remote areas of the country. So, imagine my surprise when the answer to my birthday present hunt was discovered through a Facebook Live video. Not only did the artist showed me the perfect gift through the video, he was also just around the corner, not too far from Toul Sleng Museum.

I immediately contacted the artist for a meet-up. We met at his workshop. When I first arrived, I checked out the place and saw some atypical elements that are not commonly present in the homes of the Khmer people I know.

Instead of the usual Khmer spirit house that is often placed outside homes, the workshop had a specially-made spirit house instead – one that seemed more fitting to his long lineage of carving. I was also curious to see various objects that I guessed were the work of his creative hands; but nowhere could I see his materials (wood, stone, bone, etc.) that would be used for my order.

He also had an elaborate altar placed inside his shop, with very detailed carvings honouring various land spirits and his ancestors.

Certain ceremonies are needed before the carver embarks on carving sacred images like these. Say Tola

Behind a glass case was a new twist on something I have only seen a couple of times before: dead twin fetus carved out of metal wrapped with some strings. In the past, I had seen just one fetus carving.

In case you’re wondering as I was, wearing dead fetus around the neck is meant to give strength and protection to warriors. Historically in Cambodia, warriors (ma’taop in Khmer) had to rip the unborn child out of his wife.

While I was gawking at the symbolic dead fetus behind the glass case, my subject walked in. He requested to remain anonymous, so I opted to call him the “magic carver”. He was a bit surprised that his customer is a foreigner. I told him I saw his video on Facebook, making him laugh. I might have been one of the few non-Cambodians to find his shop as he was a bit shy to speak to me at first. We eventually settled down and he started to relax.

He shared that he got his skill in carving from his father, who learned it from scratch. The magic carver said his family was poor for most of his childhood, and his father would go to check the trash bin for scraps. With his father’s determination to save his family from poverty, he pushed himself to learn the art of carving.

In the beginning he was just using basic daily stuff such as a liquid container or pieces of coconut husks. Over time, he was soon able to carve Buddha statue on wooden pieces.

A mystical bone carving to be worn by warriors. Photo: Say Tola

“My father is the biggest inspiration for me. I want to continue his legacy and work. However, what I am doing and selling is quite different from his art. Even the material I use is different,” the magic carver shared.

Normally, he emphasised, customers bring their own materials to him for carving as most people believe that every specific material would fit to their own spirit. Different kinds of materials also bring different kinds of significance – luck, protection or a foresight to something negative.

“When I started I did not know how to identify the material I was given; but over time, I now can tell the difference from buffalo horn, elephant tooth and ivory, and other expensive wood that they want me to carve on. Most of my customers are rich and powerful so they can afford these materials.”

“I think it’s important to note that not all the power can come from materials alone but certain ceremony is needed. It requires offering the spirit some food before I carve the piece the customer wants. After the carving, I also do some chants by using some Pali words that I have learned from my Guru to let the carving piece protect its owner. Sometimes, I receive messages through my dreams on what the carving piece wants and will let the owner know as well to keep the power strong.”

A close-up of the delicate hands of the ‘magic carver’. Say Tola

He further shared that even the name of his shop – Preah Mea Neak – also came to him through a dream.

“Yes, I had a dream since I was really young. I dreamed of seeing the mother of Naga. I felt like she is the one who keeps protecting me since then. So now, I have her statue and I keep honouring her every day,” he said. Preah Mea Neak means “Mother of Naga” in English.

As I was paying for my Hubby’s gift, I joked about getting my money back if the carving’s magic doesn’t work. He simply replied, “if you honour your ancestors and abide by what the carving wants, there will always be protection. But if you act defiantly, not only will you not be protected, but punishment from the spirits can be very harsh”.

My Hubby and I will surely remember his words.

The carver got his skills from his father who learned it from scratch. Photo: Say Tola


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