The Cambodian teanh prot (“pulling the rope”), which is generally rendered in English as “tug-of-war,” is one of the most important ritual games played nationwide during certain times of year, especially around the three-day New Year holiday in mid-April. Although the game can be played at any time for entertainment, it is ritually played in the afternoon on the last day of the New Year and/or in the afternoon of chlong chet, a rice-associated ceremony observed shortly after the New Year. The event takes place in an open space of the village or Buddhist monastery.
To play the game, normally two teams—one male and one female—compete against each other by pulling the rope. At the end of the game, the winning team runs over to the losing team and winners bump their buttocks against the bodies of the losing team.
Historically, the game has shown a strong connection with a Hindu myth about churning the ocean of milk. The myth tells about efforts of gods and demons in churning the ocean to retrieve lost or hidden treasures, particularly the amrita, the elixir of immortality. A surviving folktale of the game clearly indicates this connection. Furthermore, such a connection is no doubt due to the popularity of the churning myth in ancient Cambodia. In fact, the myth was notably even more popular in Cambodia than in India, the country of its origin. Moreover, some artistic representations of ancient carvings show not only the churning but also the “tugging” between the gods and the demons. In addition, Cambodians today simply associate carvings of the churning with teanh prot.
The strong connection of the game with the Hindu myth does not imply the origin of game from the myth itself. Many non-Indianized agrarian communities—for instance, those in Barangay Hapao, Ifugao Province, Philippines and some ethnic communities in Vietnam and Laos—also ritually play the game. However, it strongly indicates that on the one hand, the game could have derived from a common ritual game of rice cultivation communities from time immemorial and spread throughout East and South-East Asia. On the other hand, the popularity of the Hindu churning myth in ancient Cambodia was because Cambodians were able to engage and masterly integrate Indian myth into their local socio-religious needs.
Integrating the churning myth into the teanh prot was obviously done to embrace religious significance of the myth with an existing game to better serve the local needs, which were to create perfect social order, time, and prosperity for the coming New Year. Wendy O’Flaherty observes that “the churning of the ocean is the classic image of creation by means of chaos […].” It should be noted here that the three-day celebration of the New Year is considered a chaotic and timeless period; in other words, the period does not have the order or time of the previous year or of the coming year—it is a void, a betwixt and between. Rituals and ritual games are required to create a perfect social order and time. For instance, making sand-mountains symbolizes a re-creation of a new social order, perfect time, and even a new universe. Similarly, the teanh prot is ritually enacted for those religious purposes.
Furthermore, a perfect rain (not too much and not too little) is needed so that abundant crops will be obtained for the coming year. Certain sexual symbolic acts such as pulling of the rope between the male and female teams and touching the buttocks symbolize a calling for rain, productivity, and fecundity as they also do in many cultures.
Another symbolic act is the manner by which the rope used to be cut by a Buddhist priest at the end of the game. (Because of the costs involved in obtaing a rope from the market, this practice is no longer performed literally.) Ritually breaking or cutting the rope symbolizes the opening or beginning of new time cycles: the twelve lunar months of the year and, most importantly, a new rice cultivation season or cycle, which is traditionally prescribed to begin after the chlong chet ceremony. It is only after the chlong chet that villagers are traditionally “allowed” to start the rice cultivation processes.
In conclusion, the game is played to mark the opening of the new rice cultivation season and to ritually renew perfect social order and time, along with perfect rain and prosperity for the coming year.