KATHEN, Festival Of Monk Robes
By: Moul Jetr. Picture by : Chhin Veth. ( October, 2001 Volume 1 No.5 )

This month sees one of Cambodia's most colorful and joyous festivals. Called Kathena in Pali, or Kathen in Khmer, it is also one of the most important traditional festivals, not only for its religious significance, but because it raises money from communities in the name of local pagodas which will go to building and repairing schools, hospitals and other worthy causes throughout the year. During Kathen, saffron robes, or Jivara, are offered to Buddhist monks in pagodas across the kingdom. The period lasts from the first day of the waxing moon of the Khmer lunar month of Asoch (11th month) and the full moon of Kattik (12th month). Each pagoda's Kathen is celebrated over one day and two nights within a 29 day period from the first day after the full moon of the 11th to 12th months of Cambodia's lunar calendar (usually between the middle of October to November of the solar calendar). According to Buddhist tradition, monks are sequestered in their pagodas for three months during wet season. To mark the end of this period, they are presented with new robes. Each of all of Cambodia's 3,731 pagodas, home to 50,873 monks, can receive only one Kathena festival a year but followers may participate in as many as they wish.
Whoever is organizing a Kathen begins by decorating the gates of where he is holding his event with flowers and ornamental plants. Traditional pinpeat music is played and an orator uses a PA to tell passersby of the merit of Kathen to attract contributions; usually of money. A procession usually forms as gifts come flowing in, until the gifts are eventually taken to a common area and prayers are offered before the celebrations continue with entertainment and dancing. The next morning, participants dress in their best clothes and head to the to the pagoda, led by a chhai-yam band _ an essential part of the festival. Chhai-yam drums are shaped like long necked vases with python skins stretched across the bottom and will make up slightly more than half the band, which consists of up to seven players. A tror (a Khmer violin with two strings played with a bow), chhob-chha (a kind of cymbal) and kong-meung (a kind of small gong) complete the band, and it will lead worshippers as they walk around the pagoda three times. The procession enters the pagoda, where the monks are seated and waiting, and the offerings and gifts are placed before them.

The people then pray to Lord Buddha and receive the Buddhist precepts. A monk measures the robes offered to verify if they are in accordance with the rules. The Achar (a layman serving the temple) offers the presents to the monks, who recite the stanzas of benediction before a meal is offered to the people. The event draws to a close late at night, and as most of the people thread their way out, the hypnotic beat of the chhai-yam drums still reverberates in the air. Kathen always falls 15 days after Pchum Ben (the Festival of the Dead) and is a period for families to come together and donate gifts and money to pagodas. Mr Chuch Phoeun, an expert in Khmer culture and tradition at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said it was believed that the tradition of Kathen was created by Buddha himself, for since the time of Buddha this time of year would mean all monk's robes or triple Jivaras (the outer robe of Buddhist monks) would be worn out and dirty after long pilgrimages along muddy roads during the rainy season. Most monks make do with just one Jivara for this period, in preparation for receiving new robes at Kathen. Buddhist followers also bring gifts necessary to the monk's daily lives, such as wooden bowls, plates, mats, mosquito nets and umbrellas.
"Though Kathena is a religious ritual, it is actually a solidarity festival for people from all walks of life since great contributions come from many people, either from the relatives and friends of the organizers or from passersby," said Mr Son Arun, an attorney at law in Daun Penh Precinct, Phnom Penh who is organizing a Kathen ceremony this year with his friend, Mr. Ok Y, 60, for Chakrei-ting Pagoda, Prey Tnang commune, Kampot district, Kampot province. Venerable Ya Long, Second Assistant to Chief Monk of Samrong Andet Pagoda, just north of Pochentong Airport said that both lay Buddhists and monks are believed to receive spiritual merits in the exchange. "When the rainy season ends, Cambodians bring the monks Triple Jivaras: loin-cloth (Sbang), Jivara (outer robe) and Sangkhea-dei (a multi-layered cloth used by monks to keep warm during colder weather)," he said. "People can see the fruits of their good deeds in the present but they also believe this act will bring them merit for their next life."