|Tum Teav is a 16th century tragic love story set during feudal times when the ruling classes abused their power and trampled over the low class people. It is believed to be a true story which took place in Tbaung Kh’mum - a district in Kampong Cham province which is situated in eastern Cambodia. In that region, the story is better known as Teav Ek. It has been re-told throughout Cambodia for a few centuries and was even integrated into the national curriculum of Cambodian secondary schools in the 19th century. It bears some similarity to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
This story is controversial because its shocking outcome is said to bring bad luck and misfortune if told in a family home. I remember as a child, sitting and listening to my uncle telling the story when we were interrupted by my mother who insisted that we stop because she didn’t approve. We stopped but later finished the story while we went out for a walk.
The main characters in the story are:
The story begins when Tum, a very handsome young novice monk, set out with his friend Pich, another novice monk, to sell ‘taok’ (bamboo containers) for their pagoda which was situated in Prey Veng – a southeastern province of Cambodia. Their journey took them towards Tbaung Kh’mum, a wealthy district in the neighbouring province of Kampong Cham. Along the way, both monks also accepted invitations from villagers to perform for them in exchange for food and accommodation - Tum would sing religious songs and Pich would play flute to accompany him. Tum’s reputation as a brilliant singer spread fast and word reached Tbaung Kh’mum before they even arrived there.
Meanwhile, inTbaung Kh’mum, Teav, the beautiful daughter of Yeay Phann (a rich widow) was undergoing ‘chaul Mlubb’ (‘in the shade’) – a practice that strictly confined adolescent girls in the house for one to three months(depending on how wealthy their families were) while they were being taught and groomed to become a good wife and to behave virtuously. One day, Neang No, Teav’s maid, told Teav about Tum, the handsome monk with a brilliant voice. Teav then begged her mother to invite the two monks to perform at their house. Yeay Phann who also wanted to hear Tum’s singing agreed to that request. When Teav heard Tum’s voice, despite the fact that she was not allowed to see a man, she peeped through the curtain, saw Tum and fell in love with him. She made no secret in displaying her face and feelings for Tum who reciprocated immediately. Afterwards, Teav asked Neang No to give her ‘pha-hum’ (body shawl) to Tum as a token of her love. Their love for each other secretly flourished with the help of Neang No who acted as an intermediary.
Once all the bamboo containers were sold, their mission was accomplished and it was time for Tum and Pich to return to the pagoda. Naturally, Tum did not want to leave but promised Teav that he would be back soon. He was deeply in love with Teav and during the journey, he decided that he could no longer concentrate on being a monk. He told Pich that he intended to ask the Abbot to disrobe him as soon as they arrived to the pagoda. Being a very good friend to Tum, Pich did not need much persuasion to make a decision to do the same.
When they arrived at the pagoda, Tum and Pich told the Abbot about their intention. The Abbot who was very wise realised that this was not the time for Tum to disrobe. However, he gave his consent to Pich but warned Tum: ‘stay as a monk until the end of the year. I foresee death in your numbers which means that your life is in great danger.’ Consumed by his love for Teav and a strong desire to be with her, Tum did not listen to the Abbot’s advice. When the Abbot did not pay attention, Tum sneaked out of the pagoda with a set of regular clothes under his arms into the forest. He knelt down next to a small mound and said a prayer asking God to disrobe him. After this makeshift disrobing ceremony, he changed into his regular clothes, and said goodbye to his orange robes which he hung on a nearby branch. He then rushed to meet Pich.
Tum and Pich returned to Tbaung Kh’mum. The villagers including Yeay Phann, Teav’s mother, welcomed them back with open arms. Once there, as soon as he saw Yeay Phann going out, not wasting a minute, Tum went to see Neang No and begged her to let him into Teav’s bedroom - while Neang No acted as guard for Yeay Phann’s eventual return. This happened quite regularly under Yeay Phann’s nose who naively treated Tum as her own son.
Tum and Pich made their living by performing together in Tbaung Kh’mum and the surrounding villages. Before long, their popularity and reputation were heard by the King, His Majesty Rea-Mea Thipadei. He sent for them to come and perform at the royal palace. The King was very impressed with Tum’s singing and asked him and Pich to live and work at the palace. He even gave them special titles - Tum became ‘Moeun Ek’ or something like ‘Sir Number One’, and Pich became ‘Moeun Pich’ or ‘Sir Pich’.
Meanwhile, in Tbaung Kh’mum, Teav finally finished her ‘chaul mlubb’ training period. One day, she and Neang No went out to collect water from a well. At the same time, Moeun Nguon who was the son of Orh-Choun, the very rich and powerful governor of the province happened to travel through the village and saw Teav. He was dumbstruck by her beauty. Deeply infatuated, he asked his father to go and ask Yeay Phann for Teav’s hand in marriage. Yeay Phann was absolutely delighted and quickly accepted the marriage offer for her daughter. Teav protested but to no avail. In that era, the proverb: ‘num min thom cheang neal’ or ‘a cake is never bigger than the mould’ (meaning a daughter has to do what her mother says) prevalently applied across Cambodia. As a consequence, Teav became engaged to Moeun Nguon. Tum was not aware of this arrangement as he was in the palace at the other end of the country. He missed Teav so terribly but was very afraid to ask the King for permission to go and see her as they were not married.
Meanwhile, the King really enjoyed listening to regular sessions of Tum’s beautiful singing. One day, perhaps thanks to the singing, the King felt like having a new concubine and ordered the palace officials to go out and search for the most beautiful girl in the country to be his royal concubine. They searched everywhere and found the stunningly beautiful Teav whom they thought would be good enough to be a royal concubine. Due to the King’s absolute power, Orh-Choun and Moeun Nguon did not dare to stand in the way of the King, so had no choice but to give in and broke off the engagement. However, Yeay Phann could not have been happier although she was very puzzled by Teav’s sad and subdued demeanour. Once again, Teav knew that she had no choice in the matter but to give in to the societal force and tradition.
The King was very pleased to see Teav. He sent for Tum to come and sing to welcome Teav. As soon as he saw Teav, Tum was very jealous and even angry. Teav sensed that and wanted to explain but could not because she was afraid of the King. The King urged Tum to start singing. Tum then began the song by describing Teav’s beauty which was very pleasing for the King; but then risked his life by going on to sing about their love which followed by scolding Teav for forgetting him, for choosing money and power over true love and so on. The King heard all that and even noticed Teav crying. He was furious and shouted at Tum: ‘How dare you sing such a song in front of me and even reproaching my prospective concubine? Tum bowed down to the King; asked the King to spare his life and Teav’s life; and admitted that Teav and he were lovers. The King then turned to Teav and asked her if this was true. Teav too risked her life by confirming it. Having realised that they truly loved each other, the King allowed them to get married and ordered that a wedding be organised there and then for them. This time, it was Yeay Phann who had no ‘say’ in the matter.
Yeay Phann was deeply disappointed and very upset that her daughter became an impoverished singer’s wife instead. Upon her return to Tbaung Kh’mum, she spoke to Orh-choun. Ignoring the fact that Teav was already married to Tum, they agreed to arrange a wedding between Moeun Nguon, Orh-choun’s son, and Teav as soon as they could. In order to bring Teav back home for the wedding, Yeay Phann sent a letter to Teav asking her to come home falsely claiming that she was gravely ill. As soon as she received the letter, Teav rushed to Tbaung Kh’mum to see her mother. Instead, as soon as she arrived, she was greeted by a wedding preparation and was forced to get ready for the ceremony. Teav was devastated and quickly wrote a letter to Tum explaining the situation. Then she asked Neang No to send the letter to Tum as soon as possible so he could come to rescue her. Luckily, the wedding would last seven days and there was hope that Tum could make it in time.
Upon receiving Teav’s letter, Tum went to report the incident to the King who was furious. He ordered that Tum should go quickly with a royal decree to stop the wedding. Tum and Pich rode their horses as fast as possible and managed to arrive to Tbaung Kh’mum when the wedding was still underway. After working his way through the crowd, Tum called out for Teav. When Teav did not come out as he requested because her mother had her under close guard, he was very angry and started to drink and sing and eventually got very drunk. Pich tried to stop him but to no avail. After a while, Tum pushed his way through the guards and wedding guests to go upstairs to Teav’s room. Once there, he focused on asking Teav to prove that she still loved him. He forgot about presenting the King’s letter to Yeay Phann and Orh-Choun to stop the wedding so he could have her back.
Not knowing that Tum had the King’s decree, Orh-choun who considered himself the most powerful man in the whole area, was enraged at Tum’s audacity for causing havoc at his son’s wedding. He ordered his men to grab Tum and take him away to be killed. Pich tried to help Tum but was badly beaten by Orh-Choun’s men. They then killed Tum and dumped his body near a ‘bo’ tree not very far from the Teav’s house. Pich who was hiding nearby witnessed the killing and quickly ran back to tell Neang No what had happened and where to find Tum’s body. Horrified, Neang No immediately told Teav about Tum’s death. Teav who, by now didn’t care about her mother and the wedding party, rushed downstairs and ran as fast as she could to the spot where Tum’s body lay. She cried uncontrollably over her husband’s body. Not being able to see any reason to continue living, she pulled the knife from Tum’s body and slashed her throat. She died on top of her husband’s body.
At the same time when Orh-Choun was handed the King’s decree by his servant who found it lying on the ground next to Tum’s body, Yeay Phann was informed about Teav’s suicide. This struck the two of them like a thunderbolt. Yeay Phann’s grief was indescribable; and Orh-Choun was terrified at the consequences of his pompous reckless action. If only they could turn the clock back, things would have been different …
Pich escaped and went back to the royal palace to report to the King. Not knowing about Tum’s neglecting to pass on his letter to Orh-Choun, the King was incensed. Never before had his royal decree been disregarded and ignored. The King felt that his authority and his absolute power had been tested to the limit. Driven by his profound anger, the King decided to go to Tbaung Kh’mum with his entourage and the royal army. Once there, the King was greeted by Orh-Choun who, although absolutely terrified, came to welcome the King bearing the most precious gifts available to plead guilty and beg for forgiveness. The Monarch ignored Orh-Choun’s supplications and proceeded to order his and Yeay Phann’s execution along with their immediate families. They were to be buried up to their necks in the ground and then have their heads raked off with a large iron harrow. Moreover, their relatives and the people who lived in the surrounding villages located within the sound of the gong radius of Tbaung Kh’mum, would be made slaves for the next seven generations. This latter action by the King was to restore his undisputed power and authority which, as far as he was concerned, had been undermined.