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The Khmer Deflowering Rite

Questioner: I never imagined that Tantric Buddhist and Yogic traditions existed in Cambodia and Thailand. Normally when we hear the words Tantra and Yoga we are made to think of places like India, Nepal and Tibet. Was the emphasis and approach the same among the Khmer and the Thai? Could you offer a few artifacts to whet our imagination?

Troy Harris: In Ancient Khmer society, Tantric priests ritually deflowered pre-pubescent girls between the ages of seven and eleven. The priests themselves represented Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and unclassifiable schools. Such rituals occurred on astrologically auspicious nights. The sanctified vigils were conducted inside of a deflowering chamber erected from perishable materials by the parents of the virgin girl. A jungle site was preferred. Music and feast preceded the event.

Then when everything was quiet, dark and mysterious, the appointed priest entered the chamber and passed the night alone with the girl. But whether he used his finger or some other instrument, nobody ever knew, or asked. But the bodily fluids that flowed in the process were believed to be extremely precious. They were therefore carefully collected in a vessel together with wine and rubbed the morning after on the foreheads of the now deflowered girl’s family and friends. Some even tasted it.

Now although these priests were proffered lavish gifts in performance of their sacred tantric duties, etiquette restricted their performing the ritual only one time in a lunar year. (1)

Q: Do other cultures have similar attitudes?

TH: Well, first it strikes me as somewhat bizarre the direction in which this conversation has turned. But in any case, in India it is said that the girl’s hymen is generally torn in early girlhood by the mother’s forefinger in the daily course of washing the vulva with water.(2) But the important point to keep in mind is that virginity itself does not seem to have been particularly valued in Hindu society. I believe it was the same with the early Khmer and Thai as well. Quite to the contrary, in India they believed that a virgin could never attain Enlightenment. And according to the Baudhayana Smarta Sutra the corpse of an unwed maiden cannot be cremated until a formal marriage is performed?after death. This seems to have led to the extraordinary practice of post-mortem defloration.(3) This shows that virginity, per se, did not necessarily depend on the girl’s hymenal intactness, but rather on whether or not a male had accessed her.(4)

Q: But how does this tie in with the practice of ritual defloration by a priest?

TH: In a broad perspective, there seems to have been a near universal belief that men were prone to harm in contacts with virgins, especially regarding initiatory intercourse. First of all, hymenal blood was held to be both extremely potent and contaminating. On the other hand, a woman untouched by the “male rod,” as one writer put it, was liable at the time of defloration to flash forth a devastating aura that could ruin both a man and his family.(5) Thus arose the need for ritual defloration, ostensibly to safely unleash the bridled passion.

Q: But why was it done by priests?

TH: Due to the absorbent nature of their calling, priests and holy men were regarded as immune to the dangerous powers that were released at the time of initiatory intercourse. But there were other reasons too. In fact, much of the interest in deflowering virgins focused on these very believed-to-be-released potencies themselves, which certain tantric practitioners used for magical purposes. Deflowering virgins, then, became a prime occasion for alchemically transmuting the girl’s psychic discharge into a force for the tantric practitioner’s own liberation. In this way, girls were handed over to priests as religious offerings in the spirit of dana or dakshina (a gift to a holy person). The Calicut kings are said to have “paid” such priests to deflower their newly wed wives. Where priests were unable to meet demands, temples installed small stone linga set in stone saddles upon which virgin were instructed to sit.(6)



(1) See Chou Ta-Kuan (Zho Daguan), The Customs of Cambodia (1992), 18-19. Chou Ta-Kuan was a native of China assigned to duty with a Chinese embassy in Cambodia between 1296-1297. His report survives as the only known eyewitness account of Khmer society near the height of its Angkorian splendor.

(2) C. Chakraberty, The Cultural History of the Hindus (1945), 325.

(3) A.S. Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization (1956).

(4) Eloquently put, ‘No pre-eminence was attached to virginity as distinguished from chastity in the scale of virtues.’ P.S.S. Aiyer, Evolution of Hindu Moral Ideas (1935), 66, as cited in Benjamin Walker, Hindu World (1968) 2:571.

(5) Walker, 2:571-72.

(6) Ibid., 2:432. 



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