Mani MekhalaMani Mekhala thumbnailSocial context
Court meaning

Mani Mekhala court dance tells a story of gods and goddesses, appropriate for a ritual intended to secure the prosperity of the realm. The Royal Court, representing the King, maintained a dance troupe to carry out sacred responsibilities. An agricultural society depends upon rain for its prosperity. The Mani Mekhala dance calls upon the gods to produce rain. As recently as the 1970s, the Cambodian Royal Court dancers performed this dance in temples, pagodas, and other sacred places to ensure rain. In the court version, Mani Mekhala is Goddess of the Waters and Ream Eysaur, the Storm Spirit. Their encounter produces lightning and thunder and rain. Mani Mekhala rules the ocean and derives her power from the magic crystal, which eventually releases water in the form of rain.

Folk meaning

Instead of gods and goddesses, the folk myth of Mekhala recounts the eternal contest between a ghost and a witch, also on the theme of lightning and thunder. Once upon a time, there was a ghost named Ream Eysaur and a witch named Mekhala. Both had served a magical and powerful hermit to learn magic spells. Both were bright and talented and worked hard to please their teacher, who also loved his pupils equally. After he taught them all subjects, he wanted to test them to find who was smarter, saying, "Whichever of you can bring me the first glassful of morning dew, I will make that dew into a keo monorea (magic crystal ball) and with the possession of that ball, the owner can have everything he or she wishes."

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Male-female roles

Early agricultural communities associated female with fertility of the soil. Mekhala's fertility derives from her power over life-giving waters. Mekhala is woman as guardian of the hearth, provider of fertility, and passive but persistent victor. Ream Eysaur's magic ax takes on a male role as destroyer of life, a doer and initiator, complementing the female role.

Social ideals

Mekhala portrays Cambodian ideals of behavior; she is calm, passive, fearless, undemanding, modest. Ream Eysaur shows undesirable Cambodian characteristics; he is greedy, treacherous, violent, and vengeful.

Sexual interpretation

Curt Sachs classified fertility dances as rain charms. In one example, women use a scooping motion to get water, which Sachs associates with "the conception of religious fertility powers in the chaste maiden." Ream Eysaur, the demon, pursues Mani Mekhala, the chaste maiden. Mekhala can be interpreted as a courtship dance which ends in sexual union, another kind of fertility. The male is exhausted and the female continues on her way.

Discussion questions

? What are some other examples of complex human rituals for controlling destiny?

? What does woman represent? Man?

? What is the purpose of an artistic performance?

Sources, further reading

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