Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Religion and fun mingle on Cambodian New Year

In Cambodian tradition, future spouses meet only at a Buddhist temple, and everyone goes to the temple on New Year’s, which will be observed Saturday through Monday.

Put those two facts together and the holiday is part-celebration, part-matchmaking opportunity, said a laughing Sovan Tun, vice president of the board of directors at Vatt Buddhikarama Cambodian Buddhist temple in Silver Spring, which will throw a New Year’s party this weekend, free and open to the public.

Each day of the New Year’s holiday has a different name in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, but the focus is similar — music, food, dancing and games, bookended by prayer, almsgiving and the purification of the body and soul.‘‘It’s a time of celebration,” he said.

The holiday’s date is not based on the calendar, but the harvest season, which ends this time of year. As a result, farmers do not have to tend the fields and can enjoy themselves, Tun said.The Year of the Boar officially begins 12:48 p.m. Saturday with the arrival of the New Year’s deity, Mahothera Devi, based on the Khmer astrology’s seven signs of the zodiac for the week.

Prayer services are held in the morning and evening, Tun said, during which worshippers pay respects to Buddhism’s ‘‘Triple Gem:” Buddha, the supreme teacher; Dharma, Buddha’s teaching; and Sangha, the Buddhist monks. The monks then present worshippers with the five precepts followers of Buddhism must adhere to — abstention from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and intoxicants such as drugs and alcohol.

During the morning services, the monks also will go around the temple asking for food, a modified version of a tradition in Cambodia in which monks go from house-to-house for meals.The temple is anticipating ‘‘a few thousand people” during the holiday, Tun said, with the largest crowd expected Sunday afternoon for hours of live music, dancing and folk games.

On Monday, worshippers will build small mounds of sand to represent Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods, and sprinkle holy water on Buddha statues. Both are considered signs of good luck.

‘‘It’ll be a busy three days,” Tun said.Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, Burma and Thailand, also celebrate New Year’s this time of year. Like Cambodia, its neighbors time the celebrations to coincide with the end of the harvest and practice a ‘‘southern” strain of Buddhism, in contrast to the ‘‘northern” strain of Buddhism used in China and Korea, Tun said.

The differences in the celebrations are most noticeable in the music and games, said Vong Ros, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, an outreach group in Lowell, Mass., which has the second-largest Cambodian population in the United States next to Long Beach, Calif.

In a pinch, a Buddhist can go to any temple to celebrate the new year, just as a Catholic could go to any Catholic church for Easter Mass, Ros said. But because the holiday is more of a celebration than religious observance, he said, Buddhists will go to temples affiliated with their homeland and culture if possible. ‘‘Ethnically in the Southeast Asian community, there is more celebrating with their own community,” he said.

If you goThe Cambodian New Year will be celebrated Saturday through Monday at Vatt Buddhikarama Cambodian Buddhist temple, 13800 New Hampshire Ave. in Silver Spring.Services begin 9:30 a.m. each morning. Music, dancing and games will run 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.The events each day are free and open to the public. For more information, visit or call the temple at 301-622-6544.

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